Historia’s serialisation of A Plague on your Business by Michael Jecks continues with the second and final part. This is an exclusive extract from By the Sword, the new HWA collection of short stories set in the medieval period.
The cook was a lugubrious, scrawny fellow, like a man whodid not enjoy his own food. He was stirring a heavy pottage when Berenger entered the kitchen, and lambasting the kitchen boy for spilling a quantity of gravy. Seeing Berenger, the cook snarled, “Get out of my kitchen! I have a meal to prepare, and only a little time to do it!”
“I am here to learn what happened to your master, Cook, and if you don’t want it cut from your mouth, you’ll keep a civil tongue.”
The man gaped, unused to being threatened in his own place of work, but as Berenger stood and gazed at him truculently, the aggression dribbled away like thin soup through a sieve. He told the kitchen boy to keep stirring his pot and walked to a stool by the table. He poured a cup of weak wine and sipped.
“My apologies, Master, I didn’t realise. I’m only a poor cook, when all is said and done. How can I help you?”
“Your master died after eating your food.”
“That wasn’t my fault!’”
“I am trying to find out what killed him. It may have been an accident. What did he eat that evening?”
It appeared that the merchant had eaten well that evening, it being not a fish day. There were pasties with beef and marrow, Norwegian pasties with cod’s livers, a white coney brewet, a roast, a blankmanger…
Berenger felt his mind whirl at the list. “Was there anything that he ate that his wife did not?”
“No. The Norwegian pasties were for Mistress, but they ate everything else.”
“Why were they only for her?”
“She likes them,” he shrugged. “Master had never eaten them before, so I made them.”
“How did you like your master?”
“Well. He was a good man,” the fellow said.
He aimed a kick at the kitchen boy. “Stir that pottage!”
“What of the rest of the house? Did all think him a good master?”
“Yes. This was a happy house. Although…”
The Cook twisted his head in the manner of a man talking of a woman, as though implying carnal knowledge.
It was enough to make Berenger want to punch him. He clenched his fist, but kept it at his side. “Well?” he demanded.
“She has a friend, a man called Peachi,” the Cook said, nodding knowledgeably.
“What do you know of him?”
“Little enough. I am sure he is a pleasant enough fellow,” the Cook leered. He gave a short sound like a snigger.
Berenger stepped forward, and would have punched him, but as he moved, there was a loud crash, and then a scream. He whirled about and ran along the passageway, out to the front door.
In the road there was a woman, perhaps mid-twenties, hurling abuse at the house. On seeing Berenger, she picked up a stone from the road and flung it with all her strength at him. He ducked aside and it struck the door-frame and rattled along the flags of the screens passage.
Berenger glanced at the house, and saw that she had thrown other stones. One had flown through the window of the hall, and he had no doubt the stone had struck a pot or bowls to make the noise he had heard.
“You killed him, you cow! You foul old hag! You murdered my man, didn’t you? Just because you couldn’t bear to share him, you decided to tear his heart from him! You ended his life as surely as if you’d used a sword or a dagger!”
There was much more in a similar vein, and she didn’t resist when Berenger took her hand and wrested a fresh stone from her grip. ‘Come, maid. Where do you live? You cannot stand in the roadway here.”
“Why not? She his murdered him! She must have done!” the woman said, and then her head fell into her hands and she began to sob.
He took her to the little tavern at the top of the road.
Berenger had visited this place many times with his wife, and it held fond memories. The tavernkeeper, John Barrow, was a great bull of a man, with a moustache that swept back to his ears and a constantly dark jaw where the beard threatened within a half hour of the barber’s visit. He had shoulders like a wrestler, and his arms were as thick as young oaks.
But now he was diminished. Two months ago he had been the father of four children. Now he had lost all and was widowed. He sat in the corner of the tavern and gazed blearily at Berenger.
Berenger served himself from a small barrel of red wine. Dropping coins on the counter, he picked up two cups which he took it back to the table where the girl was waiting. Setting the cups before her, he poured from the jug and sat.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I am Marianne Ashton.”
“Daughter of the physician?”
“What of it?”
“Nothing. I was merely wondering that you began your affair with a man who must have been one of your father’s wealthiest clients.”
“He was a kind, good man. I loved poor Richard. Gracious God! I loved him so!”
“How did you meet him?”
“At my father’s chamber, paying for his last blood-letting. He was often around when I was at home.”
Berenger could imagine why. Marianne had bright eyes of a greenish colour, and her skin was faultless, smooth and unblemished, with pink flaring at her cheeks. Her neck was as slender as a swan’s, her face regular, the mouth full and apparently prone to smiling, from the light creases at either side. She was a lovely woman, and it was all too easy to see that a man like Richard, who Berenger knew had a roving eye, would be entranced.
“But you knew he was married.”
She sniffed, and gulped wine, refilling her cup. “Of course I knew. But it was a dead marriage. They wed for advantage, but he wanted me for love,” she added, eyes watering. “She poisoned him. She killed him. She must pay for her treason.”
“Why would she kill him? Was he cruel? Did he beat her?”
“Richard would not have beaten a rabid dog! No, she killed him because she is jealous! She could not bear to think that he might be happy with another. She could not tolerate his choosing someone other than her.”***
Berenger walked her back to her house. Before they left, Berenger set the remaining wine in the jug before the tavern-keeper. The man looked grateful, but it was hard to tell. Berenger thought he might return and help the man drink the remaining wine in his cellar. Why not? He craved the oblivion of strong wine.
Her home was the apothecary’s shop, a sign declaring that the master here was used to dealing with the English. Any tradesman had to declare that, since the siege and the capture of the town by King Edward III.
Berenger rapped on the timbers of the door. The man who opened it was tall and lugubrious, with mournful eyes. He looked from Berenger to Marianne and back, and he seemed to shrivel at the sight. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“My name is Berenger Fripper, and I brought her home before she could be arrested for lobbing stones at another woman’s house.”
“Oh, Marianne, what now?” the man groaned.
“She killed him, father. You know that as well as I.”
“I know nothing of the sort. Friend, Master Fripper, I am glad you brought her home. You have my gratitude. And now…” he turned, beckoning his daughter in to join him.
“One moment, Physician. Why did you not go when Mistress Alice called you? She said her husband was unwell, but you did not go to him.”
“I was engaged with another client. I could not go. Have you not noticed that the pestilence is all about you? It is here in the air. Every breath you take out of doors will see you succumb the sooner, especially at night when it is most virulent. I could not think of going to him then. And I was with another client.”
“That is none of your business,” the man said. He held Berenger’s gaze as he slowly pulled the door closed. The sound of bolts sliding home came to Berenger.
“You, master, are lying,” he murmured.
Andrew Peachi was a slim, elegant man in his middle thirties, a man nearer to Alice’s age than her husband had been. Peachi was round-faced, but with a lively sparkle in his eyes that spoke of his adventurous nature. He smiled when Berenger entered his house.
“Master Fripper, I think? We have met before.”
“Yes, Master Peachi. At the house of Sir John de Sully. You were there with a fresh conquest.”
“I’ve known many men treat women as toys to be played with and then discarded. Beatrice of Sens was infatuated with you until her death. Was it because of you she died?”
Peachi’s smile fell away and he grew sorrowful. “That was a terrible thing. They say that she slipped while she was walking along the quayside.”
“They often say such things to save the poor and afflicted from being accused of self-murder,” Berenger said.
His words unsettled Peachi. “Some women cannot accept that they have become superseded. I fear that Beatrice was sweet, very sweet, but not very mature. She was little better than a child.”
“You took advantage of her and that led to her self-killing.”
“Oh, really!” He waved a hand airily. “She couldn’t understand when our relationship was over. It was clear enough that there was no more for us. She wanted to continue, but, what could I say? It was too late.”
“Because you had another woman lined up: Alice.”
“She has already told me that she was having an affair with you,” Berenger said.
A smile crossed Peachi’s face. Another conquest; another addition to his reputation.
Berenger nodded. “So you had a desire to see her husband removed.”
The smile fled from his face like quicksilver from a tilted bowl. “You cannot mean that.”
“You wanted her; you wanted the freedom to take her whenever you wanted; you wanted the risk of her husband removed. It must have been galling, taking on a married woman – not a young wench you could easily pursue, but a woman who was unfree and married. You must have seen her as a more inspiring challenge – but then – what? You decided you wanted her entirely for yourself? You could not bear to share her with another? A situation easily resolved with poison in her husband’s food. Much safer than stabbing him in the street, much safer than risking yourself. Did you bribe the cook?”
Peachi’s shook his head. “Challenge? Yes, she was a challenge, but less difficult than she might have been. Richard’s womanising was flagrant, and he rubbed her face in his conquests all too often. She was a willing partner, for a while. But she still loved him. She told me it was over. You think I killed him? I know nothing about poisons, and I know no one in the house apart from her! If someone killed her husband, it must have been she herself!”
“I will be sure to tell her that is what you believe.”
“Do so! You think I’d live with a woman who could murder her own husband?” the man sneered.
Berenger rose. “So you will not support her now?”
“You think me a fool? Everyone would be sure to comment on my relationship with her!”
Berenger nodded, and then his fist lashed out.
He caught Peachi below the rib-cage, and the fellow bent almost double as the air whooshed from him, and then Berenger hit the side of his head and the man collapsed. A kick to his cods left him gasping, clutching at his damaged privates, rolling on the stone floor.
“If I hear you’ve tried to pin cuckold’s horns on another man, I will castrate you,” he said, and left the room.
He returned to the tavern. John Barrow was still in his corner, but now there were three jugs on the floor about him, and he was weeping inconsolably.
Berenger poured him more wine and sat beside him with his own cup. It was growing dark outside, and in a few moments John passed out, his head against the wall, his mouth wide, snoring a rasping, dirge-like tune that rose and fell, rose and fell.
Berenger drank cup after cup, but his mind would not rest. He saw his wife and child: Marianne smiling and happy, laughing; naked in the candle light that brought a golden glow to her body; in the river, her sleeves rolled up as she beat the clothes clean in the river’s water; cooking, pushing the hair from her face as she perspired over the oven or brew pots… then pale and dead as he sewed the last stitches in her winding sheet.
Suddenly something struck him: a cook making little pasties… if they had been made for Allchard, it would have been easy to see who was guilty of the murder. But these were Alice Allchard’s favourite…
He stood and shivered. Leaving the tavern, he walked homewards and fell into his bed. Waking in the middle of the night, he threw his hand out, but it encountered only cold sheets. He sobbed then, until sleep took him once more. Never had he felt so alone.
The next morning, he woke, thrust his head into the trough before his house, and made his way back to the widow’s house. Alice was seated in her hall when he entered. “Mistress, your chef told me that he made pasties for you because your husband didn’t like them.”
“He did? He made the pasties because he knows they are my favourite dainties, but I had none. My husband had never tried them, but he found they were to his taste, and ate them all. I was happy he enjoyed them.”
Berenger nodded slowly. The cook had made the pasties for her, and her husband had eaten them. Were they poisoned?
The idea that had formed in his mind the previous night came back in full force. He asked for the cook to be brought to him.
The man was pale and sweat glistened on his brow. “Well?”
“Who told you to make those pasties?”
The man shiftily glanced at his mistress. “I—”
“Look at me! Who suggested them?”
“He had not tried them. You said they were dainties for Mistress Alice.”
“They were! He knew she loved them!”
“Yet he ate them all.”
“I … He must have discovered he liked them too.”
“A man who asks for a treat for his wife would hardly be so crass as to eat it himself and deprive her. Who told you to make them?”
It took little effort to have him confess after that, and soon Berenger was outside the physician’s house with John of Furnshill.
“I hope you are correct, Master Fripper.”
“If you don’t trust my judgement, go and tell Sir John that I have failed,” Berenger snapped and knocked.
There was a brief interval while both men stood waiting. When the door opened, Berenger was shocked to see the pale, drawn expression on the face of the maid. “What has happened?”
“The poor little chit! The poor thing!” the maid said.
They found Ashton in his parlour, cradling his daughter’s body. He looked up with raw eyes that flamed at the sight of Berenger. “This is your doing!”
“What has happened?” John of Furnshill demanded.
“She was distraught at poor Master Allchard’s death. So distressed…”
“No,” Berenger said. He walked to the table and sat.
“Why? What do you say?”
“This: your daughter planned to kill Mistress Alice. She learned of a tempting dainty that Alice would eat, and persuaded her brother, your son and the Allchards’ cook, to add something. I doubt he knew what it was, but afterwards he realised. As you did. Was it something missing from your stores?
“She took poison and your son unwittingly killed his master. Because his master suddenly learned that he liked this new dainty, and his wife, enjoying his pleasure, willingly allowed him to finish it. That was why your daughter yesterday accused Alice of murder, because Alice should have eaten them all herself. Instead, Marianne discovered that her plan had killed her lover. As you knew. That was why you chose not to visit the house to see Richard’s death throes.”
“I guessed. How could I have guessed? It never occurred to me that Marianne could have thought to do such a thing. And it was her lover whom she killed, not her rival. And now I have lost her!”
“She is little loss to you,” John said flatly as he stood again. “But justice has been served.”
“Surely there is no need to tell anyone? She died in her sleep, and it was an accident.”
Berenger answered: “She took her own life from despair after realising she had slain her lover. If her guilt is concealed, Alice will suffer. She is the only innocent in this sad affair. So no, Marianne’s guilt will not be concealed, nor will her self-murder.”
“You would threaten her soul? She is dead, Master Fripper! Show mercy!”
“I give you respect for your loss, but mercy for her? She murdered a man, meaning to kill another from jealousy and greed. My concern lies with the living.”
They walked out a little later, the pair of them silent. In the street they saw another collector’s cart laden with the dead, and the two averted their faces as it passed.
“I am grateful to you for your help,” John of Furnshill said.
“It is nothing.”
“What will you do now?”
Berenger considered the question. He thought of his house, now so empty; of Alice and her husband; of Marianne and her brother; and finally of the tavern – but he said nothing.
“Why did Sir John de Sully ask me to investigate?”
“Why do you think?”
“I can only think because he wanted Alice to be free of suspicion. Perhaps he knew her husband? Or, perhaps he knew her and did not want her to be maligned?”
“Sir John is not young. When he was a youth, he met a woman, and had a daughter. I doubt many men would wish to see their children accused of murder.”
Michael Jecks is the author of over 40 published novels, including the Templar and Medieval Murderers series. His latest is The Dead Don’t Wait (a Bloody Mary Mystery), which came out in paperback on 28 February, 2020.
Death at the table from The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: via Wikimedia
Cook and kitchen boy from Taccuino Sanitatis: via Wikimedia
Drinking red wine from Taccuino Sanitatis: via Wikimedia
Aesculapius from The Book of the Queen by Christine de Pizan: via Picryl
Labours of the month: April from a Book of Hours, Bibliothèque de Genève: e-codices via Flickr
Tender Embrace by Master of Guillebert de Mets: from the Walters Art Museum via Wikimedia
Part of a kitchen scene from Taccuino Sanitatis: via Wikimedia
Vilenie from Roman de la Rose: via Wikimedia
Envie from Roman de la Rose: via Wikimedia