Authors: Stephen Wheeler
y Stephen Wheeler
“Wheeler engages the reader’s interest from page one and doesn’t let go...A book which will appeal to historical novel fans...”
Eastern Daily Press
© Stephen Wheeler
Illustrations © Stephen Wheeler
Cover photograph © Philip Moore
First published in 2010 by
The Erskine Press, The White House, Eccles, Norwich, Norwich, NR16 2PB, UK
By the same author
THE SILENT AND THE DEAD
Brother Walter mysteries
led us through the kitchen and out into the back garden. It was a relief to get into the sunshine after the depressing bleakness of the interior. I was expecting him to take us to an outhouse of some kind but he stopped by the midden in the centre of which was a large filthy sheet that looked as though it had been thrown away. The smell and the swarm of flies were appalling and I had to cover my mouth and nose so as not to cough. Only then did I realise what was under the sheet.
‘You mean this is the body?’
He lifted the sheet just enough to show me the lower half of a child’s bare leg, the heel and calf clearly discernable and of a colour no child’s body should ever be. At the sight of it I felt a sudden surge of anger rise up in me which I had difficulty in suppressing.
Moy must have seen the disgust in my eyes and lowered his own. ‘I didn’t do it, Master Walter,’ he said quietly.
My mouth was dry. I swallowed hard, unable to speak. All I could do was nod not knowing whether or not I believed him.
is many years now since my dear friend and brother in Christ, Jocelin of Brackland, wrote his chronicle of Saint Edmund’s Abbey. Perceptive though his account was, it was never a complete history as I’m sure Jocelin himself would have been the first to admit. One glaring omission stands out although I cannot in my heart blame him for choosing not to record it since it caused him many wakeful nights of soul-searching, not least because of his own part in it. Perhaps for that reason he thought it better to say nothing than to speak falsely. Nevertheless, innocent people suffered and they too deserve to have their story told. For four decades I have remained silent on the matter, largely out of cowardice, for among those involved were some of the most powerful in the land and they will not thank me for stirring it up again. But now in my extreme old age I no longer fear for my own mortality which in any case will end soon, and when I come to my Maker I should like to do so with a quiet heart. And so it falls to me to fill the gaps that Jocelin so meticulously left vacant, a task for which I judge myself uniquely qualified, for I am Walter de Ixworth, for many years physician to the monks and people of Edmund’s town, and I do not have Jocelin’s scruples.
The first ripple of the wave that was about to engulf us arrived from an unexpected source. I was on my way to my brother’s shop when I encountered it. To get there I have to cross the market square which on this sunny May morning was thronging with pilgrims as usual. They come to venerate the holy martyr after whom the town was named and whose shrine stands behind the great altar of our abbey church. Most of what happens in the town is the concern of the abbey in one way or another and as such there is often friction between the two. So when I do manage to get out I try to keep my head down and hurry through the market as inconspicuously as I can, although there is no disguising my monk’s robes.
‘Come to get your blood money, brother?’
This from a foul old hag with an eye-patch who I knew from past encounters to be female, though from her dress and manner you would hardly guess it.
‘No Mother Han, I am not here to collect your dues. You know me: Master Walter, the physician. How is your eyesight these days? None too good by the sounds of things.’
‘Oh, not good at all, brother,’ she simpered. ‘I’m practically blind. Look!’ She stretched out her arms and started to stagger between the stalls bumping into objects as she went, though nothing that could cause her actual bodily harm, I noticed.
‘Let me see.’ I took her head in my hands reeling from the stench of onions on her breath. ‘I fear there is little I can do for you, daughter,’ I coughed. ‘Have you tried praying to Saint Jerome for relief? He was a doctor too, you know. Or better still, Saint Lucy of Syracuse. I’m sure a ha’penny in the abbey’s poor box will secure a good hearing.’
‘Oh, bless you brother, I have little money for cures. I’m just a poor blind widow-woman with a crippled husband at home.’
‘You can’t be a widow and have a husband, daughter.’
‘Can’t I?’ She pulled a face. ‘Well, a crippled father then.’
The young man on the neighbouring stall blew a mocking raspberry. ‘Prrff! Don’t believe a word she says, brother. She can see all right when she wants to. Spots a pilgrim with a fat purse well enough from the other side of the market place. Have you seen what the she’s selling today? Hairs from the goat that sat in Christ’s cradle. Last week it was angels’ tears. I ask you!’ He shook his head and laughed.
‘You mind your business,’ sneered the hag sticking her scaly tongue out at the man.
‘As I remember the story,’ I said stepping between them, ‘it was an ox-stall that the Holy Mother used for a crib, not a goat-stall.’
‘Yeah?’ sniffed the man. ‘Well she’s got a half-bald goat at home that says otherwise.’
At this the hag made a grab for the man and let out a stream of filthy language cursing him, his wife, his children, and calling into question his own legitimacy.
‘Mother Han, please mind your words!’ I said fending off her flailing arms. ‘And you sir, kindly desist. If you can’t keep civil tongues in your heads I may have to have you both removed until next market day; maybe even with a fine. Mother Han, you really cannot go around calling people – names - like that.’
‘Why not? It’s the truth. He is a bastard. Ask him who his father was. Go on. He don’t know.’ She sneered again at the young man.
‘Now, that really is enough!’ I insisted. ‘One more word Mother Han and I really will speak to the market reeve.’
‘Oh, it’s all right brother,’ said the man wiping a laughter tear from his eye. ‘She’s right, I am a bastard. In fact, I’m
bastard – en’t that right, ma?’
‘That’s right son,’ she cackled and the pair of them collapsed laughing in each other’s arms.
Before I could respond there came a crash of cymbals from another corner of the market and I found myself being swept in the press of the crowd towards the music. The source was not hard to find. A gaggle of onlookers had formed themselves into a circle in the middle of which was a troop of French
singers, musicians, dancers - all marvellously got up in brightly coloured clothes and dancing to a song the like of which I had never heard before and sung by a beautiful young woman. The song was all about the month of May - and love, of course - sung in French, the language of love. Not the French of the cold north but that of the sunny south, the
, much to my delight since I understand it. As I fished in my robe for a penny I thanked the lead player in his own language. His face immediately broke into a smile.
‘How do you know the beautiful tongue of the troubadour, brother?’ he asked, as I hoped he might. I told him that I had once been a student at the famous medical school at Montpellier. This impressed him even more and he started to lament his native land - the sun, the sea, the food.
‘Here everything is cold,’ he said with an exaggerated shiver. ‘The weather, the beer, the
. Especially the women, eh brother?’ and he gave me a lascivious wink.
‘So why are you here?’ I coughed quickly.
‘To entertain the King, of course.’
I snorted. ‘My dear friend, I fear you must be disappointed. The King is a very long way from here - in London being crowned.’
,’ he said with a serious frown. ‘He will be here tomorrow.’
‘I doubt that,’ I replied as kindly as I could. ‘King John has only just arrived from France. I’m sure he has far more important places to visit before he comes to Bury.’
‘Ah yes,’ he insisted. ‘Yesterday he was in Col-ches-ter,’ he pronounced the difficult word carefully. ‘Less than two days’ ride away. Believe me,
, he will be here tomorrow. I know, I have seen.’
My mouth dropped open. ‘You’ve seen him?’ I asked incredulously. ‘King John?’
‘Why yes, of course. We keep one day ahead of him. And tomorrow evening we will perform for him in the abbey
’ and with a backward flip he disappeared back among his compatriots.
This was news indeed. The King coming to Edmundsbury. Was it possible? It would certainly explain some of the odd goings-on in the abbey over the past few days and with Jocellus the Cellarer out before cock crow each morning buying the pick of the produce from the market. But why keep it a secret? Normally such matters are discussed openly in Chapter
, preparations made and much more beside. And why was he here?
Goodness gracious! I could not wait to tell my brother the news and I hurried out of the town through the Risby Gate.
My brother Joseph’s shop is a bit of a make-shift affair not much more than a lean-to against the outer wall of the town. He used to have a more substantial property in the Jewish quarter until a few years ago when all Jews were banished from the town’s precincts by order of the Abbot. He keeps talking of rebuilding more permanently but I think he secretly hopes that one day he will be allowed to return to his former premises within the walls.
and I are not really brothers at all; we just call ourselves that by virtue of having grown up together. That came about because my father, while still a young knight, had gone to fight in the wars in the Holy Land; but what he saw at the gates of Damascus so sickened him that instead of fighting he spent his time helping the sick and wounded of both sides. Among the other medics doing the same thing was Joseph’s father whose skills as a healer so impressed my father that he was invited to return with him to England and teach him all he knew. He came with his wife, a Damascene Jewess, and in time Joseph and I were both born here, Joseph first and me three years later.
In due course
as I went off to study medicine in the great schools of Europe Joseph had to be content with opening an apothecary shop here in Edmund’s town, for even had he gained formal medical training he could not have succeeded as a physician. People are happy to buy his herbs and potions but administering them is another matter. He is, after all, a Christ-denier twice over being both Jew and Arab, and therefore his prayers, so vital a component of the healing process, would naturally be ineffectual. Actually, I’m not sure he follows any faith anymore preferring instead the purity of logic and deduction. It has long been a sadness to me that I have never been able to convince him of the undoubted truth of Christ’s message, so until he sees the light I’m afraid he must suffer the consequences of his idolatry and put up with the inconvenience of living beyond the town limits. Still, he has managed to build for himself a formidable reputation as a herbalist and his shop provides me with a good many of my healing potions, the purchase of which was the chief purpose of my visit this day.
‘Greetings brother,’ I said, making the sign of the Cross as I entered. ‘God bless all in this house.’
‘Greetings indeed, brother,’ Joseph replied, ‘and thank you.’
The formalities out of the way, I flopped gratefully down onto the nearest pile of cushions which are always scattered about the place.
‘God in Heaven, Joseph, when are you going to get some decent sticks of furniture in here? I swear the abbey benches are more comfortable than these pillows.’ I threw several away from me in disgust. ‘And give me a drink before I wilt. It’s hotter than Hades out there.’
He clapped his hands together. ‘Is this how you honour your God, by blaspheming and cursing?’
‘Oh, don’t chastise me,’ I grimaced. ‘I’m hot and irritable. I’ll confess and do penance tomorrow. But listen, I have other hot news all the way from London.’
‘About King John’s visit tomorrow?’
My jaw dropped open - an unfortunate habit of mine which I have never been able to conquer. ‘God damn you Joseph for a necromancer! How the deuce did you know that? I’ve only just heard myself.’
He shook his head. ‘No necromancy. A party of French jugglers came into my shop this morning. They were full of the news.’
‘Ah yes,’ I nodded. ‘I met them in the market. Damn good music, and a damn lovely girl singing it, too.’
rses, blasphemy and now lechery,’ he sighed shaking his head. ‘I fear, my brother, you are rushing headlong into the arms of the Devil. Where now is your oath of chastity?’
‘You don’t believe in the Devil,’ I reminded him
. ‘And I can admire God’s handiwork without wishing to partake of it.’
grinned back at me and clapped his hands again. This time a lissom youth I had not seen before entered through the silk partition with some steaming beverage and sweetmeats on a tray. I cannot explain why but I took an instant dislike to the boy. He seemed shifty to me, his eyes deliberately avoiding mine as he placed the tray on the floor between us. Joseph was always changing his servants and perhaps this was the only type he could find out here beyond the town pale - another reason to bring him back inside as soon as possible. But it was none of my business who he chose to employ and so I kept my misgivings to myself. As you will see, I was later to regret my reticence.
‘Much as I am delighted to see you, my brother,
I do have a business to run. Was there some particular reason for your visit today?’