‘So tempting.’ Blandeford’s high-pitched voice held a wistful note. ‘But payment?’
‘The Mysterium always demanded the same: two hundred pounds in pure gold,’ replied the King. ‘Again a short message pushed into the hand once the deed was done. It would list the amount as well as the time and place for payment, usually a tavern or a busy church. Another note would stipulate where the money was to be left: in an empty tankard, under a platter or in some wall niche. Who could object? The Mysterium was the assassin, but so was the person who supplied the name.’
‘But the hirer could refuse payment.’ Ranulf spoke up, then pulled a face. ‘Though of course,’ he added, ‘he could be blackmailed. He’d already provided the name of his victim. The Mysterium would hold on to that and could denounce him anonymously. Suspicion would already be sharp about a rival’s involvement in his enemy’s murder. Such a denunciation supported by evidence, meagre though it might be, would be highly dangerous.’
‘And who would refuse to pay?’ Corbett declared. ‘Many of the rich and powerful would see even two hundred pounds in pure gold as well worth the price. The letter “M” carved on the victim’s brow would proclaim the deed to enhance the assassin’s reputation. I can follow Evesham’s logic. The Mysterium would have to be someone who could plumb the depths of the loathing of one person for another. He’d choose his victim very carefully. Yes, London seethes with hatred and rivalry. We clerks learn about such things. The Great Ones, as we know, hire gangs, rifflers and ribauds to confront their rivals with sword and dagger play in Cheapside. The Mysterium’s method is a better, more silent way. Of course, the person who has hired the Mysterium must ensure that he is nowhere near the scene of his victim’s death. Very, very clever. People might suspect, but there’d be no proof. So how did Evesham eventually trap the killer?’
‘Think, Corbett,’ Edward teased. ‘How would you?’
‘The basic premise,’ Corbett replied slowly, ‘is that the Mysterium knew about the affairs of the Great Ones. Yes, he could well be a clerk.’ He emphasised the points with his fingers.
: Evesham could pretend to nourish a deep grievance against some rival, but that would founder because the Mysterium would have to murder someone, and such a crime would have sent Evesham to the scaffold. Moreover, if the Mysterium was a chancery clerk, he would quickly suspect a trap and not rise to the bait.’ Corbett paused.
: he could watch other clerks in the chancery, but that would be very difficult and take too much time.’
From the darkness outside, an owl hooted, long and mournful, to be answered by the strident bark of a fox.
?’ Staunton asked.
,’ Corbett announced slowly: ‘I would watch. I’d ask myself who wanted a certain person dead. What was the chatter, the gossip? Now, undoubtedly that would be difficult. If you, my lord Staunton, were my enemy – though of course,’ he added drily, ‘you are not – people might suspect me of your murder, but suspicion is not proof. Moreover, my lord, a man like you, difficult though it is to accept, might have more than one enemy.’
Edward lowered his head. Ranulf put his face into his hands. Staunton merely smirked.
‘Trial and error,’ Corbett continued. ‘I’d search around and listen to all the information flowing into the chancery. Remember, the Mysterium would not be paid until the deed was done and the victim identified. Therefore I’d listen to the news about all the sudden mysterious deaths amongst the Great Ones and I’d narrow the possibilities. The most opportune is a man getting rid of a rival, or, even better, his wife. If the latter occurred, the husband would ensure that he was many miles distant from the incident. He’d be able to go on oath with a host of witnesses to claim he was far away and had no hand in the murder.’
Edward laughed softly. ‘You have it! A merchant, Adam Chauntoys: his wife Alice was attacked and killed in the street, the letter “M” carved on her brow. Master Chauntoys, who has now gone to his eternal reward, was, of course, absent. Witnesses could swear that he was with the Merchants of the Staple in Southampton. Rumours flew thick and fast that his wife had been entertaining young gallants while her husband was abroad. Some of these gallants were married or betrothed, so Alice had a list of enemies who would be only too eager to see her dead. Her husband, of course, acted the innocent cuckold whilst he planned his revenge.
‘Evesham reasoned that if Adam was the Mysterium’s accomplice, he would certainly not pay until he returned to London and viewed his wife’s corpse in the coroner’s court, so he decided to take a gamble.When Chauntoys arrived back from Southampton, Evesham kept him under very close scrutiny. He and his servant Ignacio Engleat asked for a comitatus of bailiffs to be ready at their beck and call, then they dogged Chauntoys’ footsteps at every twist and turn, following the
grieving widower as he journeyed around London. Four days after his return, Chauntoys broke from his usual horarium, the daily routine he’d set himself. Cloaked and cowled, he crossed London Bridge to Southwark, but not before visiting a goldsmith in Cheapside. Evesham believed the hunt was now on. Most of the bailiffs went secretly across the river by barge; Evesham, Engleat and the rest followed Chauntoys to a spacious tavern, the Liber Albus, near the Priory of St Mary Overy. Evesham had the tavern ringed and went in. Chauntoys sat at a small closet table. Someone else was also there: Boniface Ippegrave. You remember him, Corbett?’
‘A clerk in the Office of the Privy Seal. A lawyer, a bachelor of Gascon descent. Rumour had it that he was the Mysterium, but he was never brought to trial. He disappeared – yes?’
‘The same,’ Edward agreed. ‘Anyway, on that fateful day, Evesham decided to act. The rest of the bailiffs entered the tavern and arrested both men. Now, no business had taken place, but Chauntoys could not explain why he was carrying two hundred pounds in pure gold, nor could he explain the scrap of parchment with the date, time and place along with a message telling him to leave the “mystery” on the window ledge of the closet table he’d chosen. For his part Ippegrave, a chancery clerk, could not account for why he should appear at such a tavern armed with sword and dagger. He protested his innocence, declaring that the only reason he’d come to the Liber Albus was because Chauntoys had sent him a message demanding to see him there an hour after the Angelus, for a most urgent matter affecting the King and to the great profit of Ippegrave himself. Chauntoys denied sending any such message. He claimed it wasn’t in his hand, though to be true, London does have a thousand scribes for hire.’
‘So why was Chauntoys there?’
‘He claimed he’d come to meet a Flemish merchant over some negotiations for wool. Both he and Ippegrave were arrested and intended for Newgate. However, once they reached the city, Ippegrave, still protesting his innocence, slipped his guard and fled. The hue and cry were raised and he was pursued, but he raced through the streets and alleyways to take sanctuary in St Botulph’s Cripplegate.’
‘The same church . . .?’ Ranulf queried.
‘The same church you had to assault earlier today.’ The King shrugged. ‘Today, yesterday,’ he sighed, ‘all days seem to merge into one, but that’s just the passing of the years.’
‘Your memory,’ Staunton flattered, ‘is as sharp as ever.’
‘I wish to God it was,’ Edward snapped. ‘Yet when I visited the chancery and read the records in the archives of the Secret Seal, everything did come back as if it happened yesterday.’ He pulled himself up, leaning his elbows on the table.
‘You said you’d begin with the conclusion,’ Corbett queried. ‘How did Evesham discover the Mysterium’s method?’
‘Evesham was cunning,’ Edward replied ‘Chauntoys was later offered a pardon, and in return for this and a heavy fine, he confessed everything. He did not know the Mysterium, but he had hired the assassin to kill his wife. From him,’ Edward rapped the table, ‘and only from him, did Evesham learn the Mysterium’s subtle craft of murder: the messages, the great hoarding at St Paul’s and the method of payment.’
‘Nothing. Chauntoys was released under heavy bail, but that came much later. At the time, Ippegrave’s caskets in his lodgings at Cripplegate and the chancery were searched by a trusted clerk. More gold than he should have had was found, as well as scraps of manuscript, tags and bits of parchment bearing the names of former victims, a crude map showing where they had been found and references to the great hoarding board at St Paul’s.’ The King paused to drink. ‘Ippegrave, sheltering in St Botulph’s, was confronted with all this. He could not, or would not, explain the gold or the parchment scraps. He still protested his innocence. Evesham was hot against him. He wanted Ippegrave to be brought to trial. Ambitious and arrogant, he was determined that such a trial would be a public manifestation of his genius and skill.’
‘And you, your grace?’ Corbett voice was tinged with amusement. Edward hated public show unless it was to illustrate his own glory and magnificence.
‘True, true,’ the King agreed, ‘I was not too eager. I did not wish the scandal whilst I could use the information for my own secret purposes. Believe me, Corbett, I did. Chauntoys babbled like a bairn. Many powerful lords in London were told what I had uncovered. I bluffed, I embroidered my discoveries. These city princes were advised to show their gratitude for the Crown’s forbearance and mercy in many ways. Evesham had achieved a great victory. The capture of the Mysterium by a royal clerk only enhanced the power and influence of the Crown. But,’ Edward smiled, ‘that came much later, after Ippegrave’s disappearance. At the time, Evesham was determined that St Botulph’s be closely guarded. City bailiffs and men-at-arms from the Tower camped outside. Evesham and Engleat tried to persuade Ippegrave to make a full confession. So did you.’ The King turned abruptly to Staunton and Blandeford. ‘Were you not friends with Ippegrave?’
‘Your grace,’ Staunton blustered, ‘we never tried to hide that. We were as surprised as any by his capture, as were you, your grace, and Chancellor Burnell. Remember, sire, Evesham was intent on garnering all the glory. He would not even allow us into the church.’
‘True.’ The King darted a warning look at Corbett. ‘And that’s a further problem.’ He wiped his fingers on a napkin. ‘Boniface’s possessions were searched and he was confronted with the evidence but could provide no satisfactory explanation. If he’d gone on trial, he would certainly have been found guilty.’
‘But he disappeared?’ Corbett declared.
‘Yes, and that lies at the heart of this mystery,’ Edward replied. ‘St Botulph’s was closely guarded, every door, portal and window, but Boniface Ippegrave vanished from the face of the earth. London was scoured. Sheriffs, port-reeves and bailiffs alerted.’
‘He was beside himself with rage,’ the King murmured. ‘He was furious. He ordered his guards to search that church, every nook and cranny, every crevice, every aperture; nothing was left undisturbed. St Botulph’s has no crypt. Evesham went up the tower, even on to the roof, yet from that day to this, nothing.’ Edward paused and drank noisily from his goblet.
‘Evesham was so distraught,’ he continued, ‘I thought he would fall ill, some malignancy of the humours. Time passed, but not a trace of Ippegrave was found. I ordered the matter be let rest. As for Evesham, I wanted to reward him. The Mysterium had been revealed and the murders stopped. Now, Evesham was a widower; he had one son, John, who later became Parson of St Botulph’s.’ The King shrugged. ‘You know how it is. Many royal clerks acquire the right to appoint to a benefice. John Evesham wanted to become a priest, so naturally Lord Walter used his influence to secure the parish for him. However, twenty years ago, John was still a child and his father an eligible bachelor. Shortly after the Mysterium had been unmasked, Evesham married again, a rich heiress, a ward of the Crown, Clarice Pauntefroys, the daughter of a powerful merchant.’ Edward was now talking as if to himself. ‘My debt to Evesham was great, whilst he proved to be most skilled. He secured promotion, one chancery post after another. An expert in the Pleas of the Crown and the rights of the Exchequer, he became a justice both in Westminster and out in the shires. Two years ago he was appointed Chief Justice, but the canker was already there.’ Edward gestured at Corbett. ‘As you know, Sir Hugh, the Court of King’s Bench receives many indictments and denunciations. About two months ago we began to receive anonymous information from the so-called Land of Cockaigne maintaining that our Chief Justice was corrupt, hand in glove with gang leaders such as Waldene and the self-styled Hubert the Monk. Now, such denunciations are commonplace; what was most singular about these was not the reference to the topsy-turvy world of Cockaigne, a scholarly citation, but how detailed the accusations were.’
‘About what?’ Corbett asked.
‘Oh, not so much about isolated incidents.’ Staunton, at Edward’s request, took up the story. ‘The writer from the Land of Cockaigne claimed that Evesham was too cunning a fox to inculpate himself in writing, but mentioned his secret meetings with the gang leaders Waldene and Hubert the Monk. Apparently such meetings were allegedly held in the dead of night in Lord Walter’s mansion in Clothier Lane, a wealthy quarter of Cripplegate ward.’
‘And the purpose of these meetings?’
‘Lord Walter would receive a certain portion of all stolen goods. In return for this, when an indictment was presented against any of the gangs who did business with our Chief Justice, that indictment, for some obscure reason, would be rejected.’
‘As simple as that?’
‘Yes, Sir Hugh, as simple as that, but reflect.’ Staunton relished the opportunity to lecture this solemn-faced clerk. ‘An indictment can be rejected for many reasons before being forwarded to a jury: a mistake in law or in fact and that is the end of the matter. Lord Walter was, if anything, most skilled in the law and the beauty of its corruption, if you can call it that.’ He glanced hastily at the King. ‘The failed indictment has a brief reason for its rejection appended to it and that’s all.We examined the schedule of indictments and found list after list of rejections against notorious rifflers, all buried on points of law. Nothing could be done about them, but the writer from the Land of Cockaigne kept referring to other matters, especially those sinister, secret meetings late at night in Evesham’s mansion. A watch was kept. Four weeks ago, Blandeford and I observed two men slip through the dark and in by a postern gate. We surrounded the mansion, then forced an entrance. Lord Walter was found in his chancery chamber with Giles Waldene and Hubert the Monk. Both rifflers acted the innocent, but in Lord Walter’s personal coffer we found freshly minted coins stolen from the Royal Mint in the Tower. You may remember the robbery?’