Gil Cunningham had hoped that the first time he set foot in the brothel on the Drygate it would also be his last, but by the time all was settled he felt quite at home within its artfully painted chambers.
The bawdy house, along with the neighbouring property and two more in Strathblane, are all part of a deal offered to Gil and his wife Alys by the forceful Dame Isabella. Her proposal also involves Gil's young ward, and matters are further confused by an outbreak of counterfeit coins in Glasgow, which Gil has been ordered to investigate.
Then Dame Isabella is found dead in strange circumstances, and the more Gil pursues the cause of her death, the more false coins he finds. And then the bawd-mistress, the enigmatic Madam Xanthe, gets involved and rumours circulate that the Devil is abroad in Strathblane. By the time Gil and Alys have untangled matters, some very surprising - and sinister - thing have come to light...
Praise for Pat McIntosh's Gil Cunnigham series:
'McIntosh's characterisations and period detail are first rate' - Publishers Weekly, starred review
'The next Cunningham adventure is to be welcomed' - Historical Novels Review
''Will do for Glasgow in the fifteenth century what Ellis Peters and her Brother Cadfael did for Shrewsbury in the twelfth' - Mystery Readers Journal
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Gil Cunningham had hoped that the first time he set foot in the whorehouse on the Drygate would also be the last;
but by the time all was settled he felt quite at home within its artful painted chambers.
The first inkling he had of the matter came one day in late April, in the form of a loud knocking at the door of his father-in-law’s house as family and servants were eating their midday meal in the hall. Conversation at the long board ceased and heads turned towards the sound; Gil and Alys exchanged a surprised glance, Alys’s aged French duenna Catherine paused in her absorption of sops-inwine.
The wolfhound Socrates was already on his feet, the hackles standing up on his narrow back. A stranger, Gil concluded.
‘Who calls at the dinner-hour?’ wondered Maistre Pierre, pushing back his great chair. He rose with caution,
muttering darkly about his knees, but his young journeyman Luke was before him, opening the big planked door to reveal a serving-man in unfamiliar blue-grey livery bowing on the doorstep, felt bonnet in hand.
‘My mistress, Dame Isabella Torrance, seeks Maister Gil Cunningham,’ he said. ‘Is this where he dwells?’
‘Isabella Torrance?’ Gil repeated in some surprise, going forward as Luke turned to relay the message. ‘She’s still alive, then?’
‘She’s at the gate, maister,’ said the man.
Gil looked down at his wife as she joined him in the doorway. ‘Godmother to my sister Tib,’ he explained.
‘Dwells over by Stirling, I think. I wonder if it’s about Tib’s marriage?’
‘Stirling?’ repeated Alys. ‘Whatever is she doing in Glasgow?’
The servant shrugged his shoulders.
‘Likely she’ll tell you hersel,’ he offered. ‘Will I bid her come in?’
‘Aye, bid her enter,’ said Maistre Pierre from the head of the table. ‘We are still at meat, man, ask her if she will join us.’
‘She doesny eat in the middle of the day,’ the man said,
shaking his head regretfully.
There was a commotion in the pend which led out to the street, and a number of people emerged into the courtyard,
headed by a short, stout, loud individual with a stick.
Their guest had not waited to be invited in. Alys exclaimed briefly and hurried down the steps past Gil to offer a welcome.
Her curtsy was spurned with a brief nod, her arm was ignored, and the small dark figure ploughed across the yard to the foot of the steps where it stopped, scowling up at Gil with eyes like jet rosary beads.
Dame Isabella was probably five feet high and the same around, though this girth also engrossed a vast furred brocade gown which hung open over several layers of different,
equally expensive, black fabrics. Beneath a black silk Flemish hood with extravagantly long foreparts, finely pleated linen framed her small padded face, heightening its colour unbecomingly; she had a dab of a nose, separated by a dark wispy moustache from a mouthful of very large, improbably white teeth. She seemed to have brought her entire household visiting; at her back were four sturdy grooms, including the man who had come to the door, and two waiting-women.
‘So you’re Gelis Muirhead’s laddie, are you?’ she said in deep, disparaging tones. ‘Aye, you’ve a look of her, though you’re more like your faither.’ This was clearly not a compliment.
‘At least you’ve more sense than get yoursel slain the way he did. And both your brothers, was it?’
‘Dame Isabella,’ Gil said, very politely, and bowed.
‘Welcome to my house. Will you enter, madame?’
offered Maistre Pierre over Gil’s shoulder.
‘Aye, I’ll come in. You’re the good-father I take it. I hope ye’ve a seat for me. I want a word wi young Gilbert, afore that gowk Sempill gets involved. Here, you fools, get me up these steps.’
‘Sempill? John Sempill of Muirend?’ Gil repeated, but the servants who surrounded Dame Isabella had begun the considerable task of hoisting her up the fore-stair,
which she endured with much shouting and brandishing of her stick. In his ear his father-in-law said,
‘What does she want with Sempill? Why should he come here?’
‘No idea,’ said Gil, stepping back to allow the nearest manservant elbowroom. ‘When did we see him last?’ He counted on his fingers. ‘It must have been August last year.
It’s been the gallowglass – Euan Campbell – who brought me the money for the boy’s keep at both the quarter-days since then.’ He met Maistre Pierre’s eye. ‘If it’s about the boy, it’s likely no good.’
‘So I think,’ agreed the mason. They both turned to look inside the hall, where Maistre Pierre’s foster-child, small John McIan, bastard son of John Sempill’s runaway wife and her lover the harper, was perched on his nurse’s knee at the long table addressing a large crust of bread.
‘Sempill still needs an heir, surely?’ said Maistre Pierre doubtfully. ‘That was why he acknowledged John. What is he about now?’
‘We’ll find out soon enough,’ said Gil.
‘Parcel of fools!’ announced Dame Isabella. Achieving the topmost step, she paused long enough to adjust her grasp on her stick and surged forward, shaking off her gasping servants and ignoring Maistre Pierre’s courtesies as she had ignored Alys’s. Behind her, Alys slipped up the fore-stair and into the hall, with a brief touch on Gil’s hand as she went.
‘You’re at meat, are you?’ continued their guest, staring at the household arranged round the long board. Small John waved his crust and shouted something unintelligible.
‘I hope you’ve all had your bowels open at stool the day. It’s no good to eat on a full bowel.’
‘Will you not join us, madame?’ Alys offered, gesturing at the head of the table. ‘There is good broth, and fresh oatcakes and cheese—’
‘No.’ The black beads considered her. ‘I suppose you’re the French wife. Christ aid us, you’ve a nose on you like a papingo’s. I see he’s no bairned you yet. Has he bedded you? Is your bowels regular? You’ll no take if your bowel’s full, it unbalances the humours.’
Alys stared at the old woman, amazement outweighing her natural courtesy. Gil moved to intervene, but Catherine had already risen and now forestalled him.
‘Vraiment, madame,’ she said in her elegant French, ‘you do right to concern yourself with such matters. It is important to keep the humours of the body balanced, but I find the young are often careless of their internal economy.’
‘And who are you?’ demanded Dame Isabella in the same language. ‘You speak French uncommonly well,
even if you have not kept your teeth as I have.’
Over the two black-draped heads Alys caught Gil’s eye,
her expression carefully neutral. Catherine closed her toothless mouth on whatever reply came first, and Gil said hastily,
‘This is Madame Catherine Calvin, who keeps my wife company. Will you sit in by the hearth, madam, while they clear the board?’
‘Aye, and watch all,’ said Dame Isabella, ‘so I can tell Gelis Muirhead what kind of household you’re wedded into. No, I’ll ha no refreshment. It’s no my hour for it.’
‘Lady Cunningham was with us for a week at Yule,’
observed Catherine. ‘She is a most cultured lady, and speaks excellent French.’
Dame Isabella ignored this shaft, and seated herself nearest the hearth, staring about her. The household, taking the hint, began the process of dismantling the long table, stacking up platters and bowls and sweeping the cloth into a bundle to be shaken into the courtyard. By the time board and trestles were in place against the wall,
Dame Isabella’s entourage had been dismissed to the kitchen, save for a man with a huge leather satchel and one waiting-woman who studied Maistre Pierre with intent dark eyes, and the two old ladies were deep in a conversation involving the humours, the elements, and the zodiac. Gil, standing awkwardly by, was aware of his wife conferring with her father, and of the mason’s two journeymen leaving the house, but his mind was occupied with possible reasons for this sudden visitation.
He had met Dame Isabella once or twice as a boy, and felt she had not improved. She had been a member of Margaret of Denmark’s household alongside his mother,
which was presumably why she had been invited to stand godmother to his youngest sister. Lady Cunningham had mentioned her occasionally over the years; he vaguely recalled that she had been wedded at least twice since the death of her royal mistress, though to judge by her black garb and the pleated linen barbe pinned below her chin she was currently a widow. Small wonder, he thought.
As Tib’s godmother, it would be appropriate for her to do something for the girl before her approaching marriage,
whether it embraced coin or a gift of land or jewels, and as Tib’s nearest male relative he could expect to be consulted in the transaction. But she had mentioned John Sempill’s involvement. There was no connection between Sempill and Tib that he knew of.
‘Maistre le notaire awaits your convenience, madame,’ said Catherine by the hearth. ‘We should not keep him waiting,
‘He’s got little enough to do,’ pronounced Dame Isabella, but she turned to stare at Gil. ‘Like my servants,
the useless troop. Come here, Gilbert. Is that the brat?’ She nodded towards small John, who was just being led towards the kitchen stair by his quiet nurse.
‘That’s John Sempill’s heir,’ agreed Gil, repressing anger.
‘Does this concern the boy? My good-father should be present if so.’
‘Why? What’s it to do wi him?’
‘The boy is in my care,’ said Maistre Pierre, coming forward from the door. Dame Isabella glared at him, grunted,
and gestured at the bench opposite her.
‘You may as well sit down and all, then, and listen.’
Catherine rose at this point with a murmured farewell,
which was ignored, and Alys moved quietly towards one of the far windows, where she had left her needlework.
‘Now, Gilbert. You’ll ken I’ve two goddaughters, your sister Isobel and a lassie Magdalen Boyd, who’s some kin of yours so Gelis your mother tells me.’
‘Boyd.’ Gil sat down obediently beside his father-in-law,
searching his memory of the kindred. ‘Aye, she is. Third or fourth cousin, I’d say. There was a brother too, name of – name of – was it Alexander? They were about penniless,
‘That was their faither’s doing,’ she said dismissively.
‘Any road, Magdalen has wedded John Sempill for her second husband.’ She looked with satisfaction at his astonished face. ‘Aye, a good match, for the both of them,
and I was right glad to support it.’
‘I’d not wed my worst enemy’s daughter to John Sempill,’ said Gil. Beside him Maistre Pierre rumbled agreement.
‘He’s done better than you have, mewed up here in a town wi a barren foreigner. Maidie has no trouble wi him.
But the point is, she’s in a likely way.’ Sweet St Giles, when were they wedded, Gil wondered grimly, not looking at Alys. ‘So she’s no wanting another man’s get to be Sempill’s heir, no when she’s in a way to provide him wi one. Sempill’s in full agreement, so they’re proposing that he’ll no recognize the brat as his heir any longer, and in consideration they’re offering it a bit land here in Glasgow where it’s handy.’
Gil stared at her, preserving his expression as best he might. After a moment Maistre Pierre said,
‘But does the man Sempill have anything left to offer? I thought he was hard pressed.’
‘He was,’ Gil said. ‘He was in Glasgow to deal with that when his wife – his first wife,’ he corrected himself, ‘was killed, and left her son motherless. That was why he took the boy for his heir, so old Canon Murray would leave him his fortune, though I think the old man still lives.’ He eyed Dame Isabella, hoping his dislike did not show. ‘I take it his circumstances have changed with the new marriage?’
She gave a bark of laughter.
‘Aye, they’ve changed, and for the better. So will you accept the offer?’
‘We can’t say,’ said Gil without pausing to consult with Maistre Pierre, ‘until we know what the offer might be.’
‘That’s a pity,’ said Dame Isabella, ‘for once that’s dealt wi I’ve a couple of plots to dispose of and all. There’s one of them out Carluke way, been in my family for years, and one in Strathblane, they bring in much the same rent, and we’ll can see about which goes to Maidie and which to your sister Isobel.’
‘It would surely be more convenient,’ said Maistre Pierre reasonably, ‘that the Lanarkshire property go to the Lanarkshire lassie, unless your other goddaughter dwells there also. No, she must be in Renfrewshire,’ he corrected himself.
‘We’ll can see,’ Dame Isabella repeated. Gil sat still, wondering how his mother had ever liked this woman enough to invite her to be Tib’s godmother. The bargain was clear enough: if he agreed to Sempill’s proposal for young John McIan and accepted the offered property in exchange for the boy’s present status as Sempill’s heir, Tib would get the land close to where she would be settled; if not, it was likely she would find herself in possession of a patch of Strathblane, a full day’s ride from her new home, with the attendant difficulties of administering the rent and overseeing the tenants.
‘We need to know more, madam,’ he said as politely as he could, ‘and we’ll need time to consider. As the boy’s tutor and foster-father we should take it all in advisement—’
‘You’ve an hour to think on it,’ she retorted. ‘We’re to meet at your uncle the Canon’s house. He made a right todo about having no time, this was the only moment in the week he could spare us, as if he didny dwell and work in the burgh, so you’d best no be late.’
It was hardly worth trying to explain, Gil thought, that the Official of Glasgow, the senior judge of the diocese,
had a caseload that would tax an elephant and regularly worked all the hours he was not sleeping. Sempill had been fortunate to find a moment when Canon Cunningham could see them. As for the papers he himself had to complete for the next day’s taking of sasines in Rottenrow,
that would clearly have to wait until later.
‘Will we convoy you up the road?’ he suggested.
‘No, you’ll no. If you need to consult, you’ll consult, for I want a decision the day, else the whole goes to Maidie.’
She turned her head. ‘Here, Attie scatterwit, where are ye? And you, you worthless frivol. Call the men, and send out to see if Sproat’s waited like I bade him. Time I was on the road.’
When Maistre Pierre returned from seeing their unwelcome guest to the street he found Gil discussing the interview with Alys.
‘Mon Dieu!’ he said, shutting the house door and leaning on it. ‘Quelle horreur de femme! Ma mie, your nose does not in the least resemble a parrot’s, it is the image of that of your sainted mother.’
Gil had already reassured his wife on this point, though she did not seem to be concerned; now he said in Scots,
‘Christ never such another bought That ever I saw. I’ve aye thought it was little wonder Margaret of Denmark died young, given her household. So do we accept?’
‘It depends what the offer is,’ said his father-in-law.
‘I would be glad for John to be clear of Sempill,’ Alys observed, ‘but should we not consult his father?’
‘McIan? Do we know where McIan is?’ Gil wondered.
‘They were to be in Stirling, and then they are coming here, so Ealasaidh sent me the other day.’
‘We’ll not get a reply from Stirling within an hour.’
‘No, I fear not,’ said Maistre Pierre. ‘But if we are both to go up the road, there is another matter to see to.’ He crossed to the hearth and reached up onto the carved hood of the chimney-breast. ‘We may take this counterfeit silver to the Sheriff while we are there.’
‘More false coin,’ said Andrew Otterburn glumly.
‘It looks like it,’ said Gil.
The present depute Provost of Glasgow was a lanky Borderer in his forties with a long gloomy face. Gil suspected his mother must have been a Chisholm, to judge by the deep, close set of his eyes, but had never quite liked to ask. The man had a difficult task; Sir Thomas Stewart,
Provost of Glasgow for eight or ten years, had demitted office at Yule and Archbishop Robert Blacader had installed Maister Otterburn to take care of his burgh until the election of a new provost at the Town Meeting in the autumn. Sir Thomas had been accepted and respected, and his successor did not meet with unanimous approval. It did not help that Glasgow and the surrounding area was plagued by an outbreak of false coin, of which the first specimens had come to light in the burgh coffers themselves less than a month after Otterburn was put in post.
Now, discovered in the Provost’s lodgings in the Castle,
he scrutinized the handful of coins Maistre Pierre offered him as if they were personal bad tidings.
‘Aye,’ he said at length. ‘I’d say they were out of the same workshop. See, these are all the same plack wi James Third on it, and that’s the silver threepenny piece wi four mullets on the back. I’ve had two o these brought me from the bawdy-house. The madam wasny best pleased, I can tell you.’ He turned the coin to the light,
then bit it reflectively and shook his head. ‘My lord’s right keen to learn the source of these, but I’ve not found yet where they come fro’, though it seems there are more entering through Dumbarton out of the Isles. How did you come by these, maister?’
‘The placks came back from the market yesterday,’ said Maistre Pierre. ‘The maidservant who brought them thought they came from more than one trader. The silver piece I had from Daniel Hutchison, in a bag of coin.’
‘Hutchison,’ Otterburn repeated. ‘Oh, aye, he’s putting a new wing to his house, is that right? Over in the Gorbals.
Outside the burgh, strictly,’ he added, spinning one of the placks. It twirled once or twice and fell over.
‘But the coin has come into the burgh,’ Gil pointed out.
‘Oh, I’m not arguing.’
‘You say they come from the Isles?’ Maistre Pierre said.
‘Who should make false coin in the Isles? Is there any source of metal?’
‘None that I ken,’ admitted Otterburn. ‘I’d not say the coin was being struck out yonder, just that it comes back in from there.’
‘So someone is taking it there,’ Gil said thoughtfully.
‘Where from, and why?’
‘Good questions.’ Otterburn spun the plack again. ‘As to where from, likely the same place as these came from,
which my lord would like fine to ken as I say, but why’s another matter.’
‘To alter the balance of wealth out there?’ suggested Maistre Pierre. ‘Is there any suddenly rich?’
‘The Islesmen set less store by coin than we do,’ said Gil.
‘It’s a world of barter and payment in kind, wi little call for money within factions. I suppose if one kinship was buying the friendship of another, or buying in gallowglasses
– hired fighting men, like the Campbell brothers,
from Ireland or another part of the Isles – they might need coin. Is there any word of that kind of thing?’
‘When is there no?’ said Otterburn, making a long face.
‘The King didny settle matters out there, for all he took John of the Isles prisoner last year. Indeed, matters are worse, for they’re all at each other’s throats now to determine who has his place. Word is the King’s Grace is planning to go out again this spring.’ He stacked the coins neatly, considering them. ‘Would this come within your writ, Maister Cunningham? As Blacader’s quaestor? I’m thinking it’s about time we did something about it, other than wringing our hands and passing resolutions in the burgh council.’
‘It would,’ Gil said cautiously, ‘if my lord so instructed me. If you were to suggest to him that I look into it, I’d be glad to—’
‘It’s as good as done, man,’ said Otterburn. He hitched up the shoulders of his fur-lined gown, swept the coins off the table-carpet into his hand and moved to the cabinet beside the tall window. ‘Walter can scribe me a note of where these came from and I’ll put them wi the others, and then he can write to my lord. The day’s despatch has yet to go. And when that’s done and we’ve had my lord’s agreement,’ he added, ‘I’ll let you hear all I ken of the things. It’s no a lot, I confess.’
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The last person Gil Cunningham expects to be calling on him, especially during his noon meal, is Dame Isabella Torrance. The next unexpected thing to happen to him is his sister's godmother threatening to leave his sister-who is soon to be married-with nothing unless he does what she wants. It seems her other goddaughter wants to have the only heir to an estate to which Gil fosters the man's bastard son. When all come together for the 'official offer' to be made, Magdalen Boyd, the Dame's other goddaughter, offers two parcels of land to secure the young boy's future in exchange for his no longer being her husband, John Simpill's, heir. As Gil looks the paperwork over, he discovers one of the parcels has tenants that are less than desirable. Also, questions arise about the Dame's other lands and if she has rights to them. When Dame Isabella Torrance is murdered, in a very interesting way, Gil and his wife Alys begin investigating the possible motives. Gil is also investigating counterfeit coins that are pouring into his area. When the two investigations collide, they learn there is more to both than meets the eye! Intriguing characters and a captivating storyline will keep you engrossed in this book to the very end. Reviewed by Ashley Wintters for Suspense Magazine
I have read others in the series; this one is just as wonderful. It is not a simple read, but is worth the effort. A linguistics buff will enjoy play on words, Scottish slang of that era, and words that crossed eras and times. The culture of the time comes alive as you think you know whats next, only to find life was never simple. And maybe some mysteries remain. I could read it again.