‘And the fugitive?’
‘He protested his innocence.’ Brother Cuthbert spread his hands. ‘And then it happened. On the morning of the third day, I took some food in through the corpse door. Evesham followed. I walked under the rood screen into the sanctuary. The recess at the far end beyond the high altar was empty. In my terror I dropped the tray. Evesham was beside himself. He issued strict instructions that all doors remain guarded whilst he, Engleat, Sandewic and their retinues scoured my church. Every nook and cranny, each flagstone was scrutinised, every chair, hanging, statue, altar . . . nothing! Boniface had disappeared like candle smoke, no trace, no sign. Evesham became a man at war, furious against everyone and everything. He kept the church ringed, closely guarded. For two entire days and nights the search continued. On the third, Evesham, Engleat and their horde of ruffians turned on me. I was confined to my own house, threatened and questioned. They did the same to Adelicia, then they left. I tried to return to my own life, but I had some malady of the wits. Adelicia was beside herself with grief; I tried to comfort her.’
‘And you knew nothing of Boniface’s alleged crime?’
‘No, not at the time. I later learnt from Adelicia scraps of gossip, chatter and rumour about an assassin called the Mysterium. I asked her if she had ever suspected her brother; she only repeated what she’d already told me. How Boniface would often disappear for days on end. How he nursed some secret and at times seemed to have gold and silver well beyond his means. She suspected he was a gambler, but,’ he shrugged, ‘that is for her to say. You know she is also here?’
‘And the ring?’ Ranulf asked.
‘Ask Adelicia.’ Cuthbert didn’t bother to glance at Ranulf.
Corbett studied him closely. For some unknown reason the lay brother trusted him but not Ranulf, whom he dismissed as another royal clerk. But why was he talking so honestly and earnestly? That puzzled Corbett. Was Cuthbert hoping to fend him off with only some of the truth?
‘Ippegrave never said anything to you?’
Cuthbert smiled thinly, fingers playing with his lower lip.
‘I did not say that, Sir Hugh. I am speaking to you openly now. Evesham is dead; he can face God’s judgement. It is time; yes, it’s time,’ he repeated, eyes blinking furiously. ‘These matters must be settled, so listen. After Evesham left, I became ill, I couldn’t sleep. During the day I’d suddenly feel frightened, especially when I entered my own church. I grew full of nameless terrors and unreasoned fears. Adelicia, a poor spinster of the parish, was even more sorely oppressed. She begged me to search the church for any trace of the brother she truly loved. I dragged myself in. I couldn’t find anything until I remembered Boniface’s ink horn, and the Book of the Gospels that had been on the lectern. At the back of this are clear, empty pages of vellum where successive vicars and parsons have written various notes and jottings. I found something there.’
‘I think it was Ippegrave’s.’ Cuthbert paused. ‘I have told this to no one except Adelicia.’
‘A simple entry that read: “I stand in the centre, guiltless, and point to the four corners.”’
‘Is that all?’
‘That is all. A few months later I fell into a morbid sickness and visited the hospital at St Bartholomew’s. I could not return to St Botulph’s. I petitioned, I begged both my bishop and the lord abbot at Syon to allow me to retire, and so here I am.’
‘And you told Adelicia about the message?’ Ranulf asked.
‘I did, and for what it’s worth, you can ask her. A short while after I arrived here, she petitioned the bishop and abbot and followed suit.’
‘As for her reasons?’
‘Again, ask her.’
‘You know that Walter Evesham’s son eventually became Parson of St Botulph’s?’
‘Not immediately. There were two other parsons, old men. I believe Parson John has been at St Botulph’s for the last eight years. I heard rumours about the recent troubles there. Brothers visit the city markets; they bring back both produce and gossip.’ He peered at Corbett. ‘There was some trouble at St Botulph’s?’
Cuthbert sighed. ‘God knows, ever since Evesham’s arrival so many years ago – or should I say Boniface seeking sanctuary there – some curse seem to have settled on that church.’
‘Did Parson John ever come to visit you?’
‘Yes, yes, he did quite often. A strange man! He talked little about his father, but brought the gossip of the parish. A few times he spoke about Boniface, but I think he came here as an act of kindness. Of course recently he also visited his father, though you should ask Parson John about that. You know the rule of St Benedict, Sir Hugh?’
‘He gave good advice. If anyone comes and asks your opinion about another, tell them to ask that person.’
‘True, Brother, but I’m here to seek the truth, not opinion. Did others visit Evesham?’
‘Those two limbs of Satan, Staunton and Blandeford, haughty as hell, arrogant as Lucifer. They came here with their mandates and writs, sweeping down as if they were angels of the Lord when they are really minions of . . .’ He paused abruptly, ‘I do not know what was said. They ordered me out as if I was some witless pigeon. I’ve seen men treat a dog better.’
‘Evesham’s pretty young wife Clarice, she and her overbearing steward Richard Fink.’
‘What were they like?’
‘They didn’t treat me ill, they simply ignored me as if I didn’t exist. On such occasions I just left. Ogadon proved better company.’
‘And you and Evesham,’ asked Ranulf, ‘never discussed what had happened at St Botulph’s some twenty years ago?’
‘I’ve told you, clerk. Evesham may have had the measure of me; I certainly had his. My silence was punishment enough. I’d survived without him for twenty years. Why should I change?’
‘And on the day before he died,’ Corbett asked, ‘who visited him?’
Cuthbert screwed up his eyes. ‘In the morning Staunton and Blandeford. After nones, the Lady Clarice and her minion.’
‘What happened the night he died?’ demanded Ranulf.
‘Murdered, clerk; Lord Walter Evesham, former Chief Justice, was brutally murdered. Ah well, it was a normal day, ending with compline. I was alone here in my cell. I heard the bell ring and went up. It was dark; Ogadon was sleeping. I took the goblet of wine and a platter of food.’
‘You’ve a wineskin here?’
‘That’s for my guests.’
‘You locked yourself in that night?’
‘Of course. The shutters on the corpse chapel were closed, the door bolted. Evesham was moving around his cell. I bade him good night and adjourned to my own chamber. I drank the wine, ate the sweet bread and fell asleep. When I awoke, just before first light, I went along to Evesham’s cell. I peered through the grille.’ He paused as Corbett rose and walked to the battered door; the grille was high, its three bars about an inch apart.
‘The light is poor in here,’ Cuthbert continued. ‘I could see Evesham squatting at the table with his back to the door. I called out but there was no reply. I walked away, then returned. I banged on the door and shouted at him. It was still very dark, but I sensed something was wrong. I hurried as fast as I could up the stairs. The chapel was in darkness. I opened the shutters and unbolted the door. Ogadon was there.’ He paused, chest heaving. ‘Well, you know the rest. I hastily alerted Abbot Serlo . . .’
Corbett held up a hand. ‘How do you know the chapel had remained sealed and locked?’
‘Because I secured and fastened it. I had to open both shutters and doors the following morning. If you doubt me, asked Brother Odo the sacristan.’ Cuthbert answered Corbett’s puzzled look. ‘He and his entourage walk the abbey buildings every night, ensuring all doors and windows are secure. Odo loves doing that with his retinue of acolytes, keys all a-jangle. Anyway, Abbot Serlo came here and ordered the door to be broken down.’
Corbett walked into the passageway to inspect the door. Cuthbert followed and explained how the inside bar was clasped by a great wooden screw to the thick, heavy lintel. The bar had been loosened and split, but Corbett could see how it could be raised and lowered across the door to rest in the clasp on the other side; the same device was used in many tavern chambers.
‘Why are there bars on the inside and outside?’ Ranulf asked. ‘Was Evesham truly a prisoner?’
‘Oh no.’ Cuthbert shook his head. ‘During the day, that door hung open. Our great sinner, brought to repentance, could, and often did, wander Goose Meadow, though he kept close to the chapel as if he found it safe. At night he lowered the inside bar and insisted I do the same with the outside one.’
‘Was he frightened?’ Ranulf asked. ‘Did he dread the very thing that caught him out?’
‘I tell you, I do not know.’
Corbett asked to examine Cuthbert’s cell.The lay brother agreed and showed how a similar bar was fastened to the lintel of his door, a crude but effective device to secure the chamber from the inside. Corbett closed the door and brought the bar down. It fitted neatly into the wooden clasp on the other side.
‘It was the same in Evesham’s cell,’ Cuthbert offered, ‘and can be found in many chambers in this abbey.’
Corbett nodded, then unbarred the door and went out into the passageway, where baskets, long canes, a mattock, hoe and buckets were all neatly stacked. Cuthbert explained how he was responsible for the shrubbery along the curtain wall, as well as the small garden plot on the other side of the chapel. Corbett heard him out. Once again he asked for a list of Evesham’s visitors and what happened the day before he died. The lay brother replied, adding that he’d neither seen nor heard anything untoward. Corbett thanked him and went back up to the chapel, Cuthbert following.
‘I know what you are thinking.’ The lay brother hobbled closer.
‘In which case,’ Corbett smiled, ‘you’re a better man than I. So, Brother, what am I thinking?’
‘That I murdered Evesham; my heart was so hot against him.’
‘Oh no.’ Corbett patted him on the shoulder. ‘Evesham died most mysteriously, that is obvious, but I suspect that in this matter we must ignore the obvious.’
Corbett and Ranulf left the chapel, but not before they had examined the door bolts and the shutters over the windows. Everything seemed in order, no scrape, no mark or sign of violence. Corbett took a deep breath as they walked out and closed his eyes for a few heartbeats. The hunt had begun! He walked over to where Ogadon sprawled. The mastiff growled softly but now recognised there was no threat. Corbett crouched and stroked the animal’s silky head, smiling at those sad red-brown eyes.
‘Ogadon is placid now,’ Cuthbert came alongside him, ‘because he knows you. In the middle of the night, however, a stranger . . .’
Corbett rose and studied the ledge where the servitor would leave the wine cup and platter. He noticed the stains beneath and caught the piece of cord attached to the bell, which hung in its own housing. He pulled the cord; the bell clanged noisily.
‘We all have to die, yet so many are frightened of the corpse house,’ explained Cuthbert. ‘Hence the bell. They do not want to enter the chapel, but that assassin, God’s vengeance on Evesham, certainly did.’
: blind man’s bluff
Corbett half listened as he stared round. The light was stronger, and the great meadow stretching back to the abbey glistened in the sunlight. The bells of the church clanged abruptly, summoning the brothers for the day Mass. Corbett walked around the chapel; Cuthbert, trailing beside him, solemnly assured him that apart from the door and the two narrow windows, no other entrance existed. Corbett followed Ranulf into the dense line of trees, shrubs and bushes that screened the abbey grounds from the great curtain wall. He approached and examined this. It was built of sheer smooth stone at least four yards high. The top, Cuthbert reminded him, was covered with sharp fragments embedded in a barred ridge of cement. Corbett whispered to Ranulf, who nodded, smiled at Cuthbert and walked back towards the abbey. The lay brother, eyes narrowed, watched him go.
‘A true clerk,’ he murmured, ‘hauberked and mailed. A lusty fighter, eh, Sir Hugh? Ambitious too; you can smell that from him as you would incense from a monk.’
‘A good man,’ Corbett replied. ‘True, hot-blooded, but Ranulf has a soul as well as keen wits.’
‘Why has he left?’
‘To ask Father Abbot a few things, as well as to inform him that I intend to visit the Lady Adelicia.’
‘Adelicia, you must understand, doesn’t like royal clerks.’
‘Who does?’ Corbett grinned. ‘We’re a flock of very ambitious men, but if you could show me?’
Cuthbert led him past the chapel and up a slight rise into a thick fringe of trees and bushes. They followed a well-trodden path into a small glade, peaceful and green, with lush spring flowers already blooming. In the centre of this greenery stood a small, circular stone building of grey brick surmounted by a concave red-tiled roof. The building reminded Corbett of a dovecote. Its walls were about three yards high, and at the front, facing him, was a square window sealed with painted black shutters each perforated with eyelets; the door beside it was low and narrow. A short distance away stood a wooden table, a high-backed chair and a prie-dieu set before an ancient oak; enclosed high in the tree’s massive trunk was a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary holding her Child beneath an ivory crucifix. Corbett walked around. He glimpsed a small red-brick well with a rope and a leather bucket that could be lowered by hand. A pleasant, serene place, the glade conjured up images of fairy cottages in a mythical wind-swept greenwood.
‘Mistress Adelicia, you have a visitor,’ Cuthbert called.
‘I know, a royal clerk. How such men brighten our lives, eh? I will see him.’ The voice carried strong.