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In which Crowner John is harangued by his wife
The last thing that Sir John de Wolfe needed this morning was another argument with his wife. He arrived back at his home in Martin's Lane at about the tenth hour, as the nearby cathedral bell was tolling for Terce, Sext and Nones. He left his great stallion Odin with the farrier opposite, then trudged across the narrow road and bent his black head to enter the front door. As he slumped on to the bench in the vestibule to pull off his dusty riding boots, a strident voice called out from the hall to his left: 'John! Is that you, John?'
Suppressing an urge to reply that it was the Archangel Gabriel come to whisk her up to heaven, de Wolfe yelled back that it was indeed himself and that he was hungry enough to eat a small horse, shoes and all. Before he could summon up the will to go in to meet Matilda, a large hound loped up the covered passage that led from the backyard to the vestibule and laid its slobbering mouth affectionately across his knees. As he fondled old Brutus's ears, Mary the housemaid appeared and, keeping a wary eye on the inner door to the hall, planted a drier pair of lips quickly on his cheek. 'She's in a funny mood today, Sir Crowner,' she whispered. Mary was a handsome, dark-haired woman of about twenty-five and John felt that he would probably not survive without her: Mary kept him fed and in clean garments, while his wife was seemingly oblivious of his basic needs. She spent most of her time in church.
'Matilda's always in a funny mood,' he growled, as the servant handed him a pair of soft house shoes.
'Her brother was here earlier this morning,' she murmured. 'They seemed to be hatching some plot, but I couldn't hear what they said.'
She threw his grey wolfskin cloak over her arm and moved towards the covered passage back to her domain in the yard. 'I'll beat the dust out of this. Do you need anything to eat now?'
The coroner shook his head. 'Just a jug of ale. I broke my fast in Crediton soon after dawn.'
He had ridden the day before to Rackenford, a village up towards Exmoor, to hold an inquest on a youth crushed by a collapsed wall. He had left there too late to get back to Exeter before the gates were closed at curfew and had had to spend the night in the hall of a manor near Crediton.
As she was about to vanish down the passage, Mary put her head round the corner for a last word. 'From what I heard, she's on again about you being away so much.'
De Wolfe groaned as he rose stiffly to his feet. Matilda was like a dog worrying at a bone, with her never-ending complaints about his frequent absences, even though it was she who, last September, had nagged him to take this damned job as Devon's county coroner. Now, he lifted the heavy iron latch on the inner door and went between the draught screens into the hall. His house was a tall, narrow building, one of three side by side in Martin's Lane, which led from Exeter's main street into the cathedral Close. Opposite was the farrier's forge and stable, which was between the pine end of an alehouse in the high street and St Martin's Church.
The gloomy hall into which he now stepped occupied most of the house, rising up to the smoke-darkened roof timbers. Two shuttered windows faced the street, with oiled linen screens across the inside, which let in a little light. Though most of the house was of wood, the back wall was of stone. De Wolfe had had that built a few years back, to allow a large hearth to be constructed, with a newfangled conical chimney to take the smoke outside. Before, the choking fumes from a hearth-pit in the middle of the floor had had to find their way out through the eaves. The other walls were hung with sombre tapestries to cover the rough planks, and just behind the screens, his chain-mail hauberk and round iron helmet were strung from iron hooks alongside his battered shield with its emblem of a snarling wolf's head in black on a white ground.
De Wolfe shut the door behind him and walked reluctantly towards the fire, past the heavy oaken table flanked by benches. His feet slapped against the cold flagstones, an innovation demanded by his wife, who considered the usual rushes over beaten earth fit only for peasants. Brutus had slunk in craftily with him and now made for the hearth. He lay down with his face on his paws before a heap of glowing logs. His nose was almost on a pair of embroidered shoes, whose owner was sitting on a settle on the further side of the fireplace.
'Out all night again, sir! I wonder what trollop suffered your favours this time?' Matilda's voice was vibrant, almost harsh, her thin-lipped mouth a slash across her square face. She sat bolt upright, her small eyes glaring at him from above the furrowed half-circles of lax skin that hung below the lower lids. Her sparse fair hair had been tortured into tight ringlets with hot tongs wielded by her French maid Lucille, and was further confined by a cap of silvered mesh squeezed over her head. She wore a long gown of blue wool over her stocky figure, covered by a surcoat of the same colour with a rabbit-fur collar against the draughts of early April.
Her husband ignored the taunt until he had sat down in a cowled monk's chair set on the opposite side of the hearth. 'As it happens, Matilda, I spent the night wrapped in my cloak, on the floor of de Warren's hall in Crediton. And for sleeping companions, I had Gwyn, Thomas and half a dozen of de Warren's servants. At least there was a good fire there and a decent meal before we left.'
Not put off her stride by his measured response, Matilda continued her attack. 'You've been out of this house and my bed three nights this week, John. And last month, you were away for days on end, carousing about the north of the county, claiming that you were chasing pirates.'
'Your own brother was with me then, with twenty of his men-at-arms, so I had little chance of carousing.'
She ignored this, and ranted on in full spate. 'I might as well have stayed a spinster as bother to get married to you. I hardly saw you for the first thirteen years after we were wed.'
His sigh of resignation was interrupted by Mary, who bustled in with a stoneware jug of ale and a pint pot, which she set on the edge of the hearth. While her back was turned to her mistress, she winked at him, bobbed her head and hurried out.
'I seem to have heard all this before, wife,' de Wolfe answered mildly, pouring himself some ale.
'And you'll hear it again, until you see some sense,' retorted Matilda. 'I've been talking to Richard and we agree that something must be done.'
He took a deep draught of the sour ale and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. 'You're the one who wanted me to become coroner – and you've complained ever since.'
His wife's mouth clamped shut like a vice and she glared at him across the width of the great hearth. 'I wanted you to become a coroner, not the coroner!' she grated. 'Your precious friend the Chief Justiciar proclaimed that three knights in every county were to be appointed – not just one!'
De Wolfe shrugged. 'We couldn't find three in Devon. You know as well as I do that Robert Fitzrogo was also appointed, but within a fortnight the damned fool had fallen from his horse and been killed. Since then, I've been stuck with the whole job, except when I was laid up with my broken leg.'
'And that showed you weren't indispensable,' she flashed triumphantly. 'For six weeks, the county got on quite well without you. You use all this traipsing about as an excuse for visiting aleshops and bawdy-houses. Well, this drinking and wenching will have to stop. Richard and I have decided upon it.'
It was de Wolfe's turn to sit bolt upright – in sheer indignation. 'You and your bloody brother have decided, have you? I presume it's too much to ask what you and our dear sheriff have arranged for me?'
Matilda leaned forward, her prominent jaw jutting pugnaciously at him. 'We've found another candidate for coroner – not making the full three, but certainly two are better than a solitary one. It will help keep you at home at nights.'
De Wolfe scowled at her over the brim of his pot. 'You've found a new coroner? I thought that was the job of the King's justices – not a provincial sheriff and his sister!'
His sarcasm was lost on Matilda, who now had the bit firmly between her teeth. 'Don't you want to know who we found?' she demanded.
John grunted, staring suspiciously at her over his ale.
'Theobald Fitz-Ivo!' she cried triumphantly.
His eyes widened in scornful astonishment. 'Ha! Not that drunken old fart from Frithelstock? He couldn't investigate a penny lost in a privy!'
His wife bridled at his scornful response. 'Beggars can't be choosers – you need help and he lives in just the right place, near Torrington. He could cover the north of the county and leave the rest to you. God knows, that's more than enough for one man, all of Dartmoor and the south and east.'
De Wolfe jumped up and paced back and forth in front of the hearth, waving his ale mug. 'He must be well over fifty, fat and unfit. The man's useless, he drinks like a fish. His manor, small though it is, depends entirely on his bailiff.'
'He must be doing well enough – a coroner has to have at least twenty pounds a year to be eligible and he's proved more than that to Richard. And Richard should know – he has to collect the taxes.'
If de Wolfe had not been so incensed about Fitz-Ivo, he might have taken the opportunity to suggest that not all the taxes the sheriff collected from the county ever reached the royal treasure chest in Winchester. 'Theobald is a lazy, incompetent fool, who is almost too fat to get astride a horse, let alone travel the county like I do. And where's he going to get a clerk who can read and write well enough to keep the coroner's rolls, eh?'
Matilda shrugged her thick shoulders. 'You can ask Richard. He's coming to dinner to talk about it.'
De Wolfe groaned again. After a day away, an uncomfortable night sleeping on a floor and ten miles on horseback since dawn, the last thing he needed was the company of his odious brother-in-law at the midday meal. He sat down again and supped his ale silently, thinking what a disaster it had been for his late father, Simon, to insist on his marrying into the de Revelle family. It may have prodded him up one rung on the ladder of Devon county aristocracy and into a richer family than his own, but at what price?
That had been sixteen years ago, though John had managed to stay away from home for most of that time, in the French and Irish wars and later at the Third Crusade. But since coming home two years ago, soon after King Richard had been captured in Austria, he had found no excuse for chasing off to war. He had settled uneasily to his role as a gentleman of leisure, his income assured by his investment in a wool export business with Hugh de Relaga, one of Exeter's most prominent burgesses, and by a share in the profit from the manors of his own family in the south of the county.
When the ambitious Matilda had suggested to her brother last autumn that her husband should be nominated as one of the new coroners, de Wolfe had been lukewarm about the idea. But Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Justiciar of England, had welcomed him to the post with open arms – as had the Lionheart when he was told of it in Normandy. De Wolfe had been a staunch member of the King's bodyguard in the Holy Land, where Hubert Walter had been left in military charge after Richard had sailed away on his disastrous voyage home. John had been with the King, and always blamed himself for his failure to prevent the capture of his monarch near Vienna – a débâcle that had plunged England into years of debt after she had raised a hundred and fifty thousand marks for his ransom.
As de Wolfe sat gloomily before the fire, staring into the flames while replaying these events in his mind, his wife regarded him steadily through cold eyes. She, too, regretted her marriage, wishing more strongly every day that she had entered a nunnery. As the disappointments of life mounted with every passing year, she found increasing solace in worshipping God. She had discovered early in her marriage that she disliked almost every aspect of her wifely duties, from going to the market to the expected humiliation in bed. Yet she still had the urge for social advancement, drilled into her by her mother, who had single-mindedly schemed towards the best matches for her three children. She had managed to marry her son Richard off to Lady Eleanor de Clavelle, who was distantly related to the great Mortimer dynasty, and was satisfied, too, with the deal she had struck with Simon de Wolfe for his son to marry Matilda, even though John was six years younger.
The de Wolfes had two manors near the coast, at Stoke-in-Teignhead and Holcombe, and both Matilda and her late mother had hoped that the warrior John might rise high in the service of the King. That ambition peaked with the Lionheart's capture when John returned home, exhausted and disillusioned. At forty it was not easy to find a war to fight, so he had been persuaded to accept the coroner's appointment – especially as his beloved king and Hubert Walter were keen for him to take it.
Now Matilda looked at this long dark man, brooding at her fireside – and wondered if she had ever really known him. Unusually tall and spare, he was slightly stooped, and gave most men the impression that he was hovering over them. His long black hair, which curled down on to his neck, framed a somewhat morose, saturnine face with bushy jet eyebrows and a great hooked nose. He had no beard or moustache, but always had a dark stubble between his weekly shaves. He dressed in nothing but black or grey, which, with his great crow's head, had long earned him the nickname 'Black John' in the armies.
Now, he was hunched over the fire, his mind somewhere on the battlefields of Palestine or Ireland, and Matilda found it hard to believe that she had ever loved him. Maybe the transient affection she had felt for him sixteen years ago had been a hysterical self-deception whipped up by her mother's persuasive tongue. Within a month he had left her for the French campaigns and in the succeeding thirteen years he had been at home for little more than twelve months. Their love-life had been a disaster and thankfully, as far as she was concerned, their infrequent and embarrassing couplings had not resulted in children. Yet he was a passionate man, as his rather full lips suggested, and Matilda was well aware of his healthy sexual appetite, which he satisfied with a succession of mistresses, of whom the latest was that Welsh whore down at the Bush Inn.
Almost as if reading her thoughts, her husband suddenly rose to his feet. 'I have to go to my chamber at the castle,' he said gruffly. 'There may have been deaths reported since I left yesterday.' He felt an overwhelming desire to get out into the air again, away from her glowering presence.
'Are you sure that it's to Rougement you're going?' she sneered. 'Not down to that alehouse in Idle Lane?'
Her accurate deduction so nettled him that he altered his plans just to confound her. 'I said the castle and that's where I'll be. I'll even call on that scheming brother of yours and bring him back to our table.'
Feeling self-righteous, even though he had deprived himself of a visit to Nesta, his mistress, he stalked out, taking a short mantle and street shoes from the vestibule before he stepped into the street. A moment later, he rapped on the outside of the window shutters as a defiant signal that he was turning left towards the high street, rather than right for the Bush Inn.
There was indeed news of a fresh death to be investigated when de Wolfe reached his office. This miserable chamber was at the top of the tall gatehouse of Exeter's castle, called Rougemont from the red stone of which William the Bastard had built it soon after the Conquest. The castle was on the high ground at the northern corner of the city, in an angle of the walls originally built by the Romans. John laboured up the steep, twisting stairs of the gatehouse and pushed through the sacking that hung as a feeble draught-excluder over the doorway at the top. He was confronted by a giant of a man waving a slab of cheese in one hand and a jug of rough cider in the other.
'We've got a new corpse to look at, Crowner,' he announced. 'An odd one, too.'
John lowered himself on to a bench behind a trestle table, virtually the only furniture in the bare room apart from a couple of three-legged milking stools. He looked up at his henchman, a huge man with wild red hair and a great drooping moustache to match. What could be seen of his face through the gingery foliage was roughened and red, with a glowing bulbous nose and a massive lantern jaw. The hands that held the cheese and pot were the size of hams, yet his forbidding appearance was lightened by a pair of twinkling blue eyes.
'What's so odd about it, Gwyn?' demanded his master.
'A dead tinner – beheaded in his own stream-working.'
Excerpted from The Tinner's Corpse by Bernard Knight. Copyright © 2001 Bernard Knight. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
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Posted August 17, 2010
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