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Authors: Paul Doherty

Tags: #Historical Novel

The Gallows Murders (9 page)

BOOK: The Gallows Murders
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'Where were you all on the eighth of August, on the feast of St Dominic?' Agrippa asked quietly.

'In the Tower,' Sir Edward Kemble retorted quickly. 'My good doctor, the Tower gates were not opened until the twentieth of August. The same day a herald from the city claimed the contagion was dying and the infection had passed.'

'So you were not in the city?' Benjamin asked. 'Either on the day when the gold was supposed to be left, or on the eleventh, the feast of St Clare, when this spurious Edward V had two proclamations issued: one pinned to the door of Westminster Abbey, the other to that of St Mary Le Bow in Cheapside.'

'And nor was anyone else,' Vetch explained. ‘Nobody in the Tower garrison was allowed out until two days ago. God bless the King, but he cannot point the finger of accusation at us.'

I turned and glanced at Benjamin; I gathered from the troubled look in his eyes that we had entered a veritable maze of puzzles.

The blackmailing letter to the King might have been written and delivered by someone in the Tower,' he declared. 'Indeed, all the evidence points to that being the truth. Yet the gold was to be delivered and those two proclamations were posted when everyone was virtually incarcerated in the Tower' Benjamin shook his head then turned back to Kemble. 'But it is possible, Sir Edward, that this villainy is the work of two, rather than one person. One in the Tower and one outside.'

'But how would they correspond?' Vetch inquired.

Here I intervened. 'Surely there are secret passageways, postern-gates that are unmanned?'

'All were locked and sealed,' Spurge replied. 'As surveyor of the King's work, I did that personally. Every gate and door was barred, bolted and sealed by the constable. None of those seals were broken. Moreover,' Spurge added, 'you seem to imply that Undershaft's death is connected to this bizarre mystery. But why? And who could kill such a powerful man as Andrew? He certainly would not have gone like a lamb to the slaughter.'

Benjamin toyed with the fur lining of his robe. 'Perhaps the villain is not even in the Tower,' he remarked, then tapped the table. ‘You do know a second letter has been delivered? Left in the Abbot's stall at Westminster Abbey?'

'Dispatched from the Tower?' Spurge squeaked.

There is another problem,' Kemble pointed out, running one hand through his thinning hair. His face took on a smug look. 'Master Daunbey, like you my career depends on royal patronage, be it here or as keeper of the King's palace at Woodstock. Indeed, at Michaelmas I am to be relieved of this command to join an embassy to the Emperor in Bruges.' The fat little fool preened himself like a peacock.

‘What's your point?' Benjamin asked tartly.

The seals!' Sir Edward declared. The quality of vellum is excellent, the wax is the purest you can buy, those seals were no makeshift forgeries. They are the seals of King Edward V: both the signet and the Chancellor's. Now, as you know, they should have been destroyed some forty years ago. Even if they did survive, you know how delicate such seals are? They would be battered and chipped.'

‘I can't answer that, Sir Edward,' Benjamin replied. 'But, if it so concerns you, do you have any theories to explain it?'

Kemble shook his head. 'I don't know,' he murmured. 'God forgive me, Master Daunbey, but I don't. Forty years ago a young boy was imprisoned here. For a few weeks, Edward V was the rightful king, but then he and his younger brother disappeared. Now Edward has returned, almost as if he has been on some jaunt along the river and come back to find out what should have been his -' Kemble paused to choose his words carefully - 'has now been taken away.'

'Sir Edward?' I asked. 'How long have you been constable of the Tower?'

'It's two years since I left Woodstock in Oxfordshire.'

'And nothing untoward has ever happened? I mean, involving the long dead Princes?'


'And in the Tower, what rumours exist about their fate?' I smiled deprecatingly. ‘Every building, be it palace, fortress or church has its own history and legends. Fathers talk to sons ...'

There is nothing.' Vetch spoke up. 'Master Shallot, you tread on very thin ice: the two Princes were put here late in 1483. They were last seen with their bows shooting at the butts on the green below. This must have been in the spring of 1484. After that, all is silence. In the Tower there's no whisper or trace; it's as if these boys had never been born.'

'But if they disappeared?' I insisted. There must be legends about their possible fate?'

'Master Shallot, there are as many theories as there are hairs on your head.' Vetch began to tick the points off on his fingers. 'Some say their Uncle Richard murdered them. Others claim he sent his minions to smother them in their beds. A third theory alleges they died of some sickness, very similar to what has been raging lately in the city. Another claims one of the Princes died and one escaped. You may recall, Master Shallot, how during the present King's father's reign, two impostors came forward, each claiming to be one of the lost Princes. And...' He paused.

'And what?' Agrippa asked coolly.

Vetch got to his feet, the legs of the chair scraping behind him. He walked over to the door and pushed it shut. He turned the key in the lock and walked back to his seat.

‘Dr Agrippa,' he said in a loud whisper, 'don't play games with us. The common tongue says the Princes were dead before Richard was killed at Bosworth. However, a few point out that it's possible that after Henry Tudor returned from his victory at Bosworth Field, these two Princes were still alive.' He spread his hands.

'Let me finish for you, Master Vetch,' Agrippa intervened. There are those caitiffs and knaves who claim the Princes were alive and Henry Tudor did away with them.' Agrippa slipped the ring on and off his finger, turning it round so the precious stone caught the light and sparkled. (One of Agrippa's retainers told me that the magus had a demon trapped there, ready to do his bidding.) They say more,' Agrippa continued. 'How King Henry VII, of blessed memory, married the Princes' sister Elizabeth, mother of the present King, so why did he not search for his brothers-in-law?’

Vetch just pulled a face. ‘I cannot answer that. Perhaps His Majesty the King, or His Excellency Cardinal Wolsey, may have knowledge of such a search.'

'Let's return to these proclamations,' I said. ‘Master Spurge, do you have maps describing the Tower?' ‘Yes, I do.'

'And do they reveal anything?' 'Such as what?'
'Secret passageways, galleries?'

There are sewers,' Spurge replied, 'caverns built by the Romans which run under the royal menagerie.'

'I will need those maps,' Benjamin demanded, rising to his feet. 'But now we must go.'

We murmured our thanks, walked out of the chamber, along the gallery, down the stairs and out into the sun-filled green.

‘You perceive the mystery?' Agrippa's voice was half teasing.

Why doesn't the King just seize these three precious officials, put them on the rack and get the truth?' I asked him.

Agrippa laughed softly, rocking backwards and forwards on his heels. 'Oh, very good, Roger.' He seized my arm and pulled me closer. ‘You know our sweet Prince, Roger: he would condemn half of London to the scaffold. However, he needs the evidence, he needs a charge backed up by proof, however spurious that proof may be.' He indicated with his thumb. Those men have families and relatives. The more Henry crashes around, the greater the noise. He could kill all three. Extinguish the life of everyone in the Tower garrison as he would the wick of a candle. But the letters could well continue, and Henry's despotic actions would make people wonder. After all, when the proclamations were opened, those officials were innocently here, quietly locked away in the Tower. There's no more secure place in the kingdom than that!'

Benjamin, who had walked away to study the great ravens, now came back.

Where to now, my good Doctor?' he asked.

Agrippa peered up at the sun. ‘We are expected in Windsor by evening. Our barge will take us there. So, let's slake our thirsts, gentlemen, and join the Guild of Hangmen at the Gallows tavern.'

The prospect of a blackjack of ale, even amongst such macabre company, was a bright promise after such sinister tales. Nevertheless, as we walked back across the green and through narrow, winding lanes down to the Lion Gate, the Tower didn't seem so bright and sunny. Just before we turned a corner, I stopped and looked back at the summit of the great Norman keep. Some people claimed it had been built by the Conqueror, others by great Caesar who used human blood to mix in the mortar. Whatever, that keep was a witness to a great mystery. Forty years ago it had looked down upon two young boys playing archery on the green: one was the King of England, the other his younger brother; yet both had disappeared. Or had they? My mind became fanciful. Was it possible that some part of this Tower still housed a great Prince in hiding?

'Roger!' Benjamin called.

I was about to walk on when suddenly there was the most chilling howl. It made me start, curling the hair on the nape of my neck.

'In God's name, what was that?' I exclaimed.

'Henry's wolves,' Agrippa explained. 'A present from the Prince of Muscovy'

Now at that time I didn't know much about Muscovy or its icy, wild wastes. Nevertheless, ever since my days in Paris during the great famine, I have had a terror of wolves. The city had been cut off by snow and the wolves came down from the forests. One night they hunted me - I was sobbing and crying for mercy as usual - along the foul alleyways of Montmartre. Now their howling awoke old terrors in Old Shallot's soul. I needed no further urging but skipped along, sighing with relief as we crossed the moat and back into Petty Wales.

Apparently Benjamin and Agrippa had changed their minds. Instead of following the Tower wall around to the tavern, we took an alleyway leading into the city.

We'll first visit Andrew Undershaft's widow,' Benjamin explained. 'Perhaps she knew something the good constable did not!'

I recalled that blackened corpse I'd dragged from the cage in Smithfield and seized Benjamin's arm. He paused and looked kindly at me.

'Roger, what is it?'

'Master, did you believe all that?' I indicated back towards the Tower.

They are the King's loyal officers.'

'No, no, I am sure they are. Yet how could the Prince have survived forty years? Or, if he didn't, where did those seals come from?'

Benjamin shrugged. His thumb went to his lips. Whoever it is knows the King's mind and the nightmares which lurk there. The King has refused to hand over the first amount. I doubt if he will the second.'

He walked on, Agrippa and I trotting behind, struggling to keep up with his long-legged gait. Now and again he stopped to make inquiries. At last a beggar boy took us along a narrow, evil-smelling runnel which led into a surprisingly pleasant open green space. Across this stood the house of Andrew Undershaft.

'He must have hanged many men,' I remarked, pointing to the freshly painted plaster and glass-filled windows.

Benjamin stopped and stared at the tilers busy on the roof, removing damaged slate and replacing it with good. He looked over his shoulder at Agrippa.

Was Undershaft well paid?'

'Oh, yes, a goodly sum every week. At Michaelmas, midsummer, Christmas and Easter, he'd also be able to draw fresh provisions, fuel and new robes from the royal household.'

'He must have died a wealthy man,' I remarked as we went through the gate and up the pavement; on either side lay gardens filled with flowers of every kind and hue. Benjamin knocked on the door which was briskly opened by a maid in a white mobcap and grey smock. Benjamin explained who we were. The girl curtseyed as if we were the Great Cham of Tartary. She ushered us into a sweet-smelling passageway, the walls freshly painted, and into a cosy parlour overlooking the front garden. Benjamin and I sat in the window-seat, Agrippa lounged in a chair alongside as the maid hurried off to fetch her mistress.

I heard a child crying, probably from the garden beyond, and two boys playing at the top of the stairs, followed by footsteps and the hoarse whispering of the maid outside. The door was pushed open and Mistress Undershaft came into the room. I immediately rose, sweeping off my hat: she was the prettiest wench you ever did see. Her face was narrow and pointed, the skin ivory pale. Hair the colour of straw peeped out from just beneath her widow's veil. Her dress of black taffeta, mourning weeds, only enhanced her angel-like beauty. She moved delicately with small steps, those lustrous eyes blinking against the sunlight pouring through the window. She glanced at Benjamin, myself and, more than once, at Agrippa, who must have looked like some monstrous dressed spider which had crawled into her house.

'Do I know you, sirs?'

Benjamin made the introductions. The woman's hand went out but not far enough for Benjamin to grip. She smiled quickly, her fingers flying to her lips, then opened the small reticule which swung from the belt round her narrow waist: she brought out a pair of spectacles which she perched on the bridge of that lovely nose.

‘I am so sorry, sirs.' Her voice was sweet and low. 'My sight is poor but vanity makes me wear these as little as possible.'

Benjamin bowed from his waist. 'Madam, we have come to ask you certain questions about your late husband.'

The woman closed her eyes; she clasped her hands together as if in prayer.

That is difficult, sir,' she whispered. ‘I find it so hard.'

She opened her eyes, beautiful, clear pools of light, and Old Shallot saw it. Ever so fleeting! Ever so quick! A look, a cast of the eyes, perhaps a pucker of the mouth. Those little movements you glimpse out of the corner of your eye which tell you that all is not what it appears to be. Agrippa pushed across the chair he had been sitting on and helped her into it, softly murmuring his condolences. The woman looked up, peering over her spectacles at Benjamin, then her gaze slid quickly towards me. I caught it again: a spark of mischief, of hidden laughter. Always remember Shallot's old maxim: A charlatan may fool a wise man but he can never fool another charlatan.'

BOOK: The Gallows Murders
5.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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