Authors: Pat McIntosh
, like Gil Cunningham, is a graduate of Glasgow University. Born and brought up in Lanarkshire, for many years the author lived and
worked in Glasgow and is now settled on the West Coast.
Titles in this series
(listed in order)
The Harper’s Quine
The Nicholas Feast
The Merchant’s Mark
St Mungo’s Robin
The Rough Collier
Constable & Robinson Ltd
3 The Lanchesters
162 Fulham Palace Road
London W6 9ER
First published in the UK by Constable,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd 2006
This paperback edition published by Robinson,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd 2008
Copyright © Pat McIntosh 2006, 2008
The right of Pat McIntosh to be identified as the author of this work has been identified by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any
form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in
Publication Data is available from the British Library
ISBN: 978-1-84529-060-3 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-1-84529-664-3 (pbk)
Printed and bound in the EU
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
best of sisters
Gil Cunningham still maintained, after it was over, that ordering up books from the Low Countries had been a good idea.
‘In spite of all that followed?’ asked his sister Kate tartly.
‘Oh yes,’ agreed Maister Augustine Morison, merchant-burgess of Glasgow and Gil’s companion in the venture. ‘Though if I’d been forewarned what it would get us
into, Gil, I’d maybe have thought twice that morning before I sent Andy out to look for you.’
‘Indeed, aye,’ said Kate, with a sardonic expression.
Gil grinned at that.
On the morning in question, his friend’s steward Andy Paterson had run him to ground in the sunny courtyard of the sprawling stone house called the White Castle, not five doors up from
Morison’s Yard, where the French master mason who owned the house was holding forth on a subject close to his heart.
‘It would take little to build on a fore-stair,’ he pronounced, waving a large hand at the narrow wall of the range that fronted the street. ‘It is but to break a window open a
little and bring the stairs down there. The door of that storeroom is not important, we may cut through from the next chamber and get access that way. What do you think, Gilbert?’
Gil Cunningham shook his head at his future father-in-law.
‘There’s a perfectly good newel stair in the tower,’ he pointed out.
Maistre Pierre’s black beard bristled. ‘It has no presence! Your lodging must have an approach with some dignity.’
‘I don’t need that sort of dignity,’ said Gil firmly, ‘and I think Alys would prefer your men to be out earning money elsewhere in the burgh. I think it’s an
excellent idea that we should lodge here, Pierre. As you say, we’ll have some privacy, Alys will be able to continue running your household, and I’ll be able to set up as notary in the
midst of the burgh. But we can very well go up and down a wheel stair. What accommodation is there?’
‘Two good chambers,’ said the mason, plunging towards the foot of the stair-tower, ‘one certainly big enough to set up a great bed, and a closet near as big as mine where you
may keep your books and papers. There is also a garderobe, though I would prefer that you did not use it,’ he admitted. ‘We have not yet found where it drops to.’
‘We can put a close-stool.’ Gil, about to follow, became aware of the small bow-legged man standing patiently by the mouth of the pend, picking scraps of straw off his blue knitted
cap. ‘Andy? Pierre, here’s Augie Morison’s man. How are you, Andy?’
‘It’s the barrel from the Low Countries, maisters,’ said Andy. He raised the cap to both men impartially, and clapped it back on his head. ‘It cam hame yestreen. My
maister sends to bid you come and see it broached, Maister Gil, if you will, and see what books are in it.’
‘Books?’ echoed the mason, swinging round sharply so that the furred hem of his red woollen gown swirled. ‘What books are these?’
‘It’s a joint venture,’ said Gil. ‘Augie ordered up a batch of print through Andrew Halyburton at Middelburgh.’
‘Augie Morison? I did not know you knew him. Of course, he is a Hamilton man by birth. But I thought only Thomas Webster sold books in the burgh. He’s the stationer, no? Maister
Morison is a book-lover, I grant you, but he deals chiefly in crocks.’
‘I’ve known him all my life. I was at school with his brother Con. We hatched this up between us to celebrate my getting my burgess ticket. Augie’s idea is that we’ll
each take what we want from the barrel, and sell the rest to Tom Webster at cost or thereabouts, if he’s willing. The market won’t support two booksellers in Glasgow, more’s the
‘So what has Maister Halyburton sent?’ wondered Maistre Pierre. ‘There is some good print coming out of the Low Countries just now, but it is not easy to come by.’
‘Shall we go and find out?’ suggested Gil. ‘The house will still be standing when we come back.’
‘An excellent idea.’
Maistre Pierre set off through the pend. Andy, falling in beside Gil as he passed him, said, ‘And how’s yerself, Maister Gil? When’s the wedding?’
‘Save us, we’ve only now signed the contract,’ said Gil. ‘It’s taken forever to draw up.’
‘Too many lawyers at it?’ said Andy knowingly. Gil laughed. ‘And how’s madam your mother? And Lady Kate?’
‘My mother’s well, thank you, and Kate’s as well as can be expected. I’d forgotten you knew her,’ said Gil.
‘Oh, I mind her well. I’d bring our Con out to Thinacre to visit you and your brothers, and she’d be hirpling about on her two sticks. A fechtie lass, and a bonnie wee face.
Does she still use the two sticks?’
‘It’s a pair of oxter-poles now,’ said Gil, more grimly than he intended.
‘So St Mungo never cam across, last nicht, then?’
‘Does the whole town know?’
‘I would say that, aye.’ Andy paused by the yett which opened on to Maister Morison’s Yard, where the mason waited impatiently. ‘It’s one thing,’ he said,
peering up at Gil, ‘a young lady joining the line of common pilgrims by day to ask for healing, nobody’d pay her any mind, but when the Chapter agrees to let her sleep on St
Mungo’s tomb, all her lone in that great kirk by night, it’s to be expected that the town would take an interest.’
‘She wasn’t her lone,’ said Gil. ‘Her woman was there, and I kept watch. And we hoped St Mungo would be present, but he never showed his favour.’
Andy threw him a sympathetic look, but leaned on one leaf of the great yett without further comment.
‘Come in, maisters, come in. Ye can wait in the house, and I’ll find my maister.’
The yard was quite different from the tidy courtyard of the mason’s house. Behind the yett was a long open space, with a shabby timber-framed domestic range to the left, several small
wooden buildings on the right, and a great barn-like structure at the far end from which there was shouting, and a desultory hammering. Barrels and boxes were stacked in lots and clusters,
identified by marks in paint or chalk or branded into the wood. Several racks of pottery sagged alarmingly just beside the yett, heaps of broken crocks lay here and there, and everywhere straw blew
about or lay in partly twisted ropes and pads. A cart-run of broken flagstones led the length of the yard, but the rest of the area was well-trampled earth.
Andy closed the yett and led them, picking his way, to the stone steps before the door midway along the house-range.
‘In here, maisters,’ he said hospitably, showing them into a chill, gloomy hall. ‘There’s plenty seats, you’ll can wait in comfort.’
As his feet sounded on the steps outside the mason broke an uncharacteristic silence.
‘I had not realized things were so bad,’ he said, staring round the cold chamber.
‘Nor I, till I came here to discuss this venture,’ admitted Gil. ‘I think trade is sound enough. He lacks the will to make things neat.’
‘Or clean,’ said Maistre Pierre with disapproval. ‘That must be a week’s ashes in the fireplace, and there is food caked on this bench. It looks bad – the business
must suffer. How long since his wife died?’
‘Two years, maybe.’
‘So long? More than time he –’
‘My mammy’s deid,’ said a very small voice, apparently from under their feet. The two men stared at one another, and Maistre Pierre looked about wildly. ‘She dee’d
two year since at Pace tide,’ continued the voice.
Gil stepped round the high-backed settle which faced the empty, cheerless fireplace, and bent to peer under its seat. In the murky space, he made out two squatting children, either of a size to
match the voice, with an array of broken crocks and a quantity of rags between them. They stared back at him, faces pale in the shadows.
‘It’s Augie’s bairns,’ he said.
‘Bairns?’ The mason came to look. ‘Well, well. What are you called, my poppets?’
‘Aren’t your poppets,’ said one in the same little voice. ‘We’re my da’s poppets.’
‘Then what are Maister Morison’s poppets called?’
Gil straightened up and put a hand over his mouth to hide a grin, just as hasty feet sounded at the house door and Morison himself hurried into the room.
In appearance, Gil had always thought, Augie Morison was a middling man – of medium height, middling thin, with middling brownish hair, his face and hands neither long nor round but
in-between. He had a smile of rare charm, but it was seldom seen these days, so that only his very blue eyes were at all remarkable, unless books were mentioned. Then the whole man took fire, the
blue eyes sparkled, the sparse hair stood on end as he discussed authors and titles, dealers and printers, copy-houses and sources of information, until most of his colleagues on the Burgh Council
found urgent business elsewhere.
‘Guid day, Maister Mason! Guid day, Gil!’ He flourished his round felt hat at them. ‘I’m sorry not to have been here to greet you. I was called to something in the
‘No trouble,’ said Maistre Pierre, standing up. ‘We have been attempting to make the acquaintance of your bairns here.’
‘The bairns? Are they here?’ Maister Morison came round the settle to peer under it. ‘Come out of that, the pair of you. Where’s Mall? Why are you not with
Reluctantly, the children emerged from the shadows, and were revealed as two little girls, aged perhaps six and four. The general air of neglect extended to them. Both wore bedraggled gowns of
good brocade, identical in size, so that the taller child’s thin bare calves showed between her sagging hem and her wood-soled shoes. She peeped at her father through the tangled curtains of
her long hair, while her sister scowled at the strangers. It was evident that neither the children nor their shifts had been washed that week.
‘Where’s Mall?’ their father asked again.
The smaller girl shrugged. ‘Gone to market,’ she said. ‘She didny want to drag us alang.’ She was clearly repeating Mall’s words.
‘Isn’t Ursel in the kitchen?’
‘Where is she?’
The child shrugged again.
‘Take your sister, Ysonde, and find Ursel. Tell her I said you were both to stay with her till Mall comes back.’
The child stared at her father in silence for a moment, then turned her head and looked at her sister, sighed, and taking her hand clopped off into the next room. After a moment they could be
heard negotiating a stair.