Historical Novels Review Knight brings medieval Exeter to life with gritty realism, smells and all, but with an underlying sympathy and humour
The Tinner's Corpse (A Crowner John Mystery Series)by Bernard Knight
When Crowner John is summoned to the bleak Devonshire moors to investigate the murder of a tin miner, he has little idea how difficult this new investigation will prove to be. The victim is a trusted and well-loved overman of Devon's most powerful and successful mine owner, Walter Knapman. There seems to be only one possible motive - to sabotage Walter's business.
When Crowner John is summoned to the bleak Devonshire moors to investigate the murder of a tin miner, he has little idea how difficult this new investigation will prove to be. The victim is a trusted and well-loved overman of Devon's most powerful and successful mine owner, Walter Knapman. There seems to be only one possible motive - to sabotage Walter's business. But the tinners have their own laws, and they are none too pleased at Crowner John's interference. Especially as their main experience of officials has been with Sheriff Richard de Revelle, whose notoriously high taxes keep them in a permanent state of fury and near rebellion. And then Walter disappears. Stephen Acland, Walter's business rival wastes no time in comforting Walter's beautiful wife Joan, who appears remarkably unmoved by her husband's disappearance. Meanwhile, Walter's brother is going frantic with worry ... or could it be guilt? A decapitated body, a missing tinner, a disgruntled band of miners and a mad Saxon, intent on the destruction of all things Norman. How on earth can Crowner John sort all this out when his wife hates him, his mistress has spurned him for a younger man, and his clerk is in the grip of a suicidal depression? Only Gwyn, Crowner John's indispensable right-hand man seems to be of any help at all, until he is arrested for murder and put on trial for his life.
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Chapter One: 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 new-fangled 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 debacle 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."
De Wolfe's black eyebrows rose, almost meeting the fringe that hung over his forehead. "A tinner? That's unusual. That lot usually look after their own affairs."
"The bailiff from Chagford, Justin Green, rode in early this morning," said Gwyn, banging his cider pot down on the table. "He's over in the keep now, getting some food, if you want to talk to him."
"Give me some of that cider first. Arguing with my wife has given me a thirst."
The big Cornishman lumbered to a small alcove built into the thickness of the wall, took down another pottery mug and wiped the dust from it with a grubby rag. He poured into it a murky stream of rough cider until it slopped over the brim. In the same alcove was a loaf of bread and some more hard cheese, wrapped in a slightly less soiled cloth. Gwyn slid his dagger from his belt, cut two hunks of bread and divided the cheese into three, offering some to his master.
"Better keep some for that little turd when he arrives," he grumbled, referring to their clerk, the third member of the coroner's team.
"Where is he? He's usually here by this time."
"Gone down to the cathedral scriptorium, to cadge some ink. He complained that it was too expensive to buy, given all the work he has to do."
De Wolfe stretched out his long legs under the table, then shivered in the dank air of the spartan chamber as Gwyn settled himself on a window-sill. A pair of unshuttered slits looked down on the city, letting both light and a cold draught into the room. The sheriff had grudgingly provided the worst accommodation he could find for his brother-in-law, to emphasise his opposition to the new post of coroner.
"Tell me about this Chagford business," he ordered, biting into the rough horse-bread.
"The overman of a gang of stream-workers was found dead yesterday morning when the men arrived. His body was lying under the washing trough, but he had no head."
"Was it nearby?"
"Not a sign of it, not within the workings."
De Wolfe scowled he often did so, as an aid to thought. "Were they sure it was the overman, if he had no face?"
Gwyn pulled at the ends of his bushy red moustache, which hung down to his collar-bones. "No doubt about it. The men recognised his clothes, and he had a finger missing from his left hand, so the bailiff says. He never returned home to his wife the previous night nor has he been seen since."
The coroner pondered this. "Who does the working belong to?"
"Walter Knapman of Chagford. He has at least a dozen stream-works on the east side of the moor."
"Did they leave the body there?"
"His men hauled it from the trough, it seems. But they had the sense to leave it at the workings in a hut."
John swallowed his bread and cheese and finished off his cider before rising to his feet. "We'll have to go there today. I've got the sheriff coming to eat at the house first, but we'll leave in the early afternoon." He walked to the doorway and bent his head under the lintel. "Find that bailiff and that scrawny clerk of ours and be at the West Gate well before the Vespers bell. We'll be away from home again tonight, which'll give my dear wife something more to whine about."
At the bottom of the twisting stairs he left the gatehouse through the guard-room, saluted respectfully by the two men-at-arms. Sir John de Wolfe was popular with soldiers, who knew of his exploits in many foreign campaigns and his faithful service to the King in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade.
He walked into the inner ward and crossed to the keep, a square two-storeyed building near the northern wall. As he trudged across the refuse-strewn dried mud, the bare stone box of the court-house was on his left, and the tiny garrison chapel of St Mary on his right, but he registered none of these familiar sights as he thought about the prospect of Theobald as a fellow coroner and the fuss Matilda would make when she knew he was off again today on his travels.
As his gaunt black figure absently navigated the inner ward, people stepped out of his way, either from respect or caution, depending on whether they knew him or not. The yard bustled with activity, with soldiers crossing from their billets in lean-to huts around the walls and the women and children of the garrison filling much of the space that was not occupied by horses, ox-carts or porters pushing trolleys piled with equipment. On the other side of the enclosure, a dozen men in chain-mail hauberks and round helmets were being drilled by Gabriel, the sergeant-at-arms, an activity that produced much shouting, swearing and clattering of shields.
De Wolfe reached the wooden steps that led up to the door of the keep, placed high above the undercroft for purposes of defence. Most of the first floor was occupied by the hall, another hive of activity as clerks, officials, servants, burgesses, merchants and soldiers strode, sauntered, gossiped, conspired, worked, ate and slept in it. Some were there to petition the sheriff but were kept at bay by a man-at-arms outside the door of his chamber, which lay behind the hall. The coroner went straight to the door, nodded curtly at the guard, opened it and marched in.
Sir Richard de Revelle, the King's representative in the county of Devon, looked up from his parchments in annoyance, which did not lessen when he saw his sister's husband. "I'm very busy, John, very busy indeed."
De Wolfe leaned on the edge of the document-strewn table and glared down at the sheriff. "Too busy to come and eat with us, I hope."
De Revelle smote his forehead with a beringed hand and had the grace to look slightly apologetic. "I'd forgotten Matilda's invitation, John. Of course, I must come though I'll have to finish here first."
His clerk hovered at his side, with a sheaf of parchments covered in columns of figures. "The accounting date is almost due, and I have to be off to Winchester next week with the county farm. As usual, the damned tax collectors are behind with their returns."
The "farm" was the total amount of tax that the King's Treasury decided was due from each county. The sheriff was responsible for delivering this in coin every six months. If he could screw more from the inhabitants of Devon than was demanded, he was permitted to keep the excess. It was a goal that de Revelle kept constantly at heart.
"I'll go and have a few words with the Chagford bailiff while you finish your business, Richard. Then we'll walk down to Martin's Lane, so that you and your dear sister can bend my ear over one of Mary's good meals."
De Revelle looked up sourly at his brother-in-law's sarcastic tone, but made no reply. He was a trim, dandified man, of average height compared to John. He had light brown wavy hair, a pointed beard and a small moustache above a pink, pursed mouth set in a rather weak, narrow face. He
dressed in the height of fashion, favouring bright greens and golds for his tunic and mantle, and shoes with ridiculously long pointed toes the newest mode from Paris.
His eyes followed the coroner across the chamber and he breathed a sigh of relief when the door slammed behind him. Since de Revelle's secret disgrace over his involvement in the abortive rebellion a few months ago, he had not dared to cross his brother-in-law too openly, but he detested him more than ever. His own indiscretion had given de Wolfe a hold over him.
John muttered to the guard outside the door, who pointed across the crowded hall to a man sitting alone at a table, eating from a bowl of stew and tearing pieces from a small loaf. The coroner walked over to him and sat heavily on the bench alongside him. "Are you Justin Green, the bailiff from Chagford?"
The man began to scramble to his feet, but de Wolfe waved him down. "Finish your food. You must have left the moor early today?"
"At first light, sir though it's well under three hours to Exeter if you've got a decent horse." He recognised de Wolfe as someone in authority and hazarded a guess. "Are you the King's coroner, sir, the one I was seeking?"
"I am indeed, so tell me about this death. We must ride back to your town in a few hours to make full enquiries."
The bailiff was a small, dark man, his face pitted with old cow-pox scars. He hurriedly spooned the last of his broth before answering. "Nasty it was, sir. I've known Henry of Tunnaford since we were boys we're about of an age. To see him with no head was a shock, I tell you." The memory seemed not have spoiled his appetite, as he crammed the last of the bread into his mouth.
"Was it cut off cleanly? And were there other injuries?" demanded de Wolfe.
"No, very ragged it was, just a torn stump of neck. But no other wounds that was enough!"
"When was he last seen?"
"The night before. The gangers left him to tidy up, that was the usual thing. A good overman he was, and the men liked him. As long as they did a fair day's work, he was easy on 'em, not like some bastards."
John regarded the man: he seemed a sound enough fellow. A bailiff was a person of some standing in a community: he was one of the main servants of a manorial lord, working under the steward, who was the most senior of the lord's staff. He supervised the reeves, the headmen of each village, and often presided at the manor court if the lord was absent. If anyone knew what was going on in a manor, village or town, the bailiff would.
"So who did this?" asked de Wolfe bluntly.
The bailiff shook his head sadly. "For once I can't say. I know most of the feuds and jealousies that go on in Chagford, but there's nothing I can put a finger on here. Henry lived quietly out of town, in a croft at Tunnaford, a mile or so away. He had a good wife and a grown son, who is a smith in Gidleigh. No reason for anyone to kill the poor devil. The whole town is shocked at his death."
"And the man's head has gone missing altogether?"
"Vanished like magic. If I wasn't a sensible, God-fearing fellow, I'd be tempted to think of witchcraft here."
They talked for a few more minutes, but it was obvious that the bailiff had no idea as to the motive for, or the perpetrator of, this gruesome crime. De Wolfe left him to get some more ale from the castle steward, with orders to be at the West Gate before Vespers tolled that afternoon. It was too late for an excursion down to the Bush Inn, so he went back to his chamber to wait until it was time to collect the sheriff. As he climbed the stairs in the gatehouse, he heard yelling from above, the deep bass voice of Gwyn roaring in counterpoint to a terrified squealing from another. As he pushed through the hessian screen, he saw his Cornish bodyguard holding a small figure upside down by the ankles, shaking him like a rag doll.
"Holy Mother of God, what's going on?" yelled de Wolfe. "Put him down!"
Gwyn stopped and grinned sheepishly at the coroner. "Little bastard knocked over my drinking jar spilled the lot!" he explained.
John motioned abruptly with his hand, and his officer reluctantly lowered his victim to the floor. The little man hauled himself indignantly to his feet and began to brush down his threadbare tunic, a long black garment of vaguely clerical appearance. "It was an accident. My writing bag caught the pot. You shouldn't have left it on the edge of the window-sill!" he protested, in a tremulous high-pitched squeak.
De Wolfe held up his hands in exasperation. "Just forget it and be quiet. You two should be court fools in caps and bells, not responsible servants of the law."
His two assistants were always squabbling it was mainly Gwyn's fault, as the big man could never resist teasing their little clerk, who unfailingly rose to the bait. Thomas de Peyne was an unfrocked priest, employed by de Wolfe after having been ejected from his post at Winchester, accused of molesting one of the girls he was teaching at the cathedral school. He was a small wraith of a man, lame in one leg and with a slight hunchback, due to suffering from phthisis as a child. His thin, almost chinless face was sallow and adorned with a large pointed nose. The lank brown hair still sported a shaved tonsure on the crown, though he had been stripped of Holy Orders more than two years earlier. Thomas desperately craved a return to the priestly life and did all he could to pretend that he was still one of the brethren. Like his master, he wore black or grey clothes and even lodged in a canon's house in the cathedral Close, where he had managed to scrounge himself a mattress in a corner of the servants" quarters.
For all his dubious history and his unprepossessing appearance, Thomas was a highly intelligent and well-educated young man, with a gift for reading and writing. As well as his proficiency in recording all the coroner's business on parchment rolls, he had proved himself invaluable as a spy. His indefatigable curiosity made him an excellent gatherer of gossip, especially among the large ecclesiastical population of Exeter, while Gwyn ferreted out rumours in the city inns and alehouses.
As Gwyn went back to sit on his favourite window-ledge with a refilled jar of cider, Thomas's ruffled dignity was restored and he groped in the shabby cloth bag that hung from his shoulder. He pulled out three rolls and laid them on the table in front of John de Wolfe. "These are the last three inquest transcripts, Crowner. I have two more to do the ink ran out, but I have more now so I'll finish them later today."
De Wolfe reached for them. "We'll be riding out again this afternoon, Thomas, so get your bottom in shape for that winded nag you call a horse."
The clerk groaned at the prospect. He was no horseman and sat side-saddle like a woman on his old pony, to the constant derision of the Cornishman. "How far this time, Crowner? Not the north coast, please."
The previous month, they had made repeated journeys to the most distant part of the county and Thomas was still aching from the days he had suffered in the saddle.
"Only a couple of hours, pansy," cut in Gwyn caustically. "Just to Chagford this time."
The clerk was a Hampshire man and still unfamiliar with much of Devon. "Where's that?" he demanded suspiciously.
"It's one of the three Stannary towns, on this side of Dartmoor," explained de Wolfe. "All the tin from that district of the moor goes there for coinage."
"But we're going there to view a headless corpse, Thomas," added Gwyn, with ghoulish relish. He knew that, even after six months' experience, the ex-priest was still upset by macabre sights. At the distant sound of bells coming from the cathedral, the coroner threw down Thomas's rolls and made for the stairway. "I've got to eat with the sheriff, so whatever Mary cooks today will taste like ashes in my mouth," he said. "Be at the West Gate before Vespers toll. Put a blanket behind your saddles. I doubt we'll be back tonight."
The three sat eating at one end of the long table in de Wolfe's sombre hall. He was at the head, with his wife and her brother on either side. Old Simon, the yard servant, had banked up the fire with logs and Mary bustled in and out with dishes and jugs. Brutus lay under the table at John's feet, waiting hopefully for any scraps his master might drop down to him.
After some stilted conversation, they got down to the serious business of eating and the champing of jaws and slurping of wine were the only sounds for a quarter of an hour. Matilda, with her usual remarkable appetite, and the two men did justice to Mary's hare stew and boiled chicken, with onions and cabbage. Instead of the usual trenchers of thick bread, the food was served on platters made of pewter, a snobbish fad of Matilda's. She never missed a chance to ape the manners of the courtly classes. De Wolfe, who would not have cared if he had to eat his food off his horse's back, refilled the pottery cups from a stone jar of red Poitou wine. They had a few wine glasses carefully stored in a chest, but he had vetoed their use today, not wishing to risk them merely for a midday meal with his brother-in-law.
After the meat, Mary brought in a mazer of bread, cut into chunks, with a large slab of hard cheese; there was no fruit at this early part of the year, the remains of last season's apples having withered away. Courteously, Richard de Revelle used his own dagger to cut some slices of cheese for his sister, which she ate directly from the scrubbed oak boards of the table, washing them down liberally with wine.
"I've got to go a-travelling soon," growled de Wolfe, "so let's get down to your business here, Richard."
The sheriff sipped his wine delicately before answering. "It's quite simple, John. I'm two coroners short of the royal instructions."
De Wolfe interrupted him abruptly. "What d'you mean, you're short of two coroners? It's nothing to do with you. They were instituted by the King's Council partly to keep an eye on you sheriffs! Some of you damn well need watching, too."
De Revelle reddened, still smarting at the state of probation he had been under since his fall from grace. "Well, if you must split hairs, John, so be it though why we need coroners at all is beyond my understanding. Until last year we had managed without them quite nicely for centuries." He never missed an opportunity to needle de Wolfe about his contempt for the new law officers. "Since Fitzrogo died, you have had the whole county to deal with though during the two months you were laid up with that broken leg, Devonshire managed quite well without even one crowner."
"Get to the point, Richard," snapped John, who had tired of de Revelle's endless sarcasm about his post. "You want that useless sot Theobald Fitz-Ivo to be appointed."
De Revelle ran his fingers down the point of his little beard, a mannerism he affected just as Thomas incessantly crossed himself or Gwyn scratched vigorously at his crotch. "I wish to make him coroner for the northern part of the county."
De Wolfe bristled again, though he knew his brother-in-law was being deliberately provocative. "You can't make him anything. This is a royal appointment, requiring the King's approval."
"In theory, John, in theory. I doubt if our Richard, busy in France on his jousting and his campaigns, can spare a thought for a triviality such as a coronership. However, I think the Shire Court, through me, will be recommending the appointment to the Chief Justiciar when I am in Winchester next week. No doubt he will ratify my suggestion."
"Not if I tell Hubert that I object," snapped de Wolfe. "This Fitz-Ivo is a drunken fool, he'll be a disaster in the job"
John's contempt for Fitz-Ivo, the lord of a small manor just outside Torrington, a village in the north-west of the county, sprang from a short acquaintance with him in the Irish campaign of '82. In the endless battles and skirmishes between the Norman invaders and the Irish tribes, many knights had tried to carve out land and loot for themselves, including de Wolfe and Fitz-Ivo. The latter, mainly because of his gross eating and drinking, proved a hopeless fighter, sometimes too drunk to stay on his horse, and left for home within a few months of arriving in Wexford. He had inherited the manor of Frithelstock from his father and, with the help of an able steward, managed to survive, if not actually thrive. A widower with no surviving children, his needs were small but, like Matilda, Theobald had an illogical urge to be numbered amongst the county notables. Becoming a coroner was one route to this social elevation and he had been petitioning de Revelle since he had heard of the vacancies. De Wolfe suspected that Fitz-Ivo thought the job was a soft option, as indeed it might be if it was not pursued with the grim dedication that de Wolfe applied to his royal appointment.
The sheriff gazed at his brother-in-law with a patronising, almost pitying expression. "Professional jealousy, John? D'you think you are the only one who can trot around the county and mouth a few words over a corpse at an inquest?"
"There's far more to it than that, Richard," began de Wolfe, ready to lecture the sheriff on the wide duties he had to perform.
But Matilda, silent until now, beat him to it. She glared across the table at him."That's enough, John," she snapped. "The bare fact remains that this county, one of the biggest in England, is supposed to have three coroners. It has only one, who can't possibly cover such a huge area any longer. You know your leg is not as good since you broke it, you're not getting any younger, and I'm tired of you being away most of the time, then coming back to treat our home as if it was a common lodging-house." She threw a piece of cheese rind on to the table with an air of finality and sat back to glower at her husband.
De Wolfe knew he was beaten and, if the truth were known, he secretly agreed that the huge distances across Devonshire were becoming impossible to cope with. Last month, the trips he had made to the north had taken up days of hard riding, while other cases around Exeter had been neglected.
"Very well, but when things go wrong, remember what I've said. I agree that at least one other crowner is needed but Fitz-Ivo, for God's sake! The man is an incompetent fool as well as a drunkard."
Eventually, while they finished the remaining wine, de Wolfe grudgingly accepted that Fitz-Ivo's name would be put forward at Winchester. If Hubert Walter had no objections, then he would give the man the benefit of the doubt and let him tackle the cases in the northern part of Devon. "But if he makes a mess of it, I'll ride to Winchester or London myself to see that he's ejected," warned John. Though far from arrogant, de Wolfe hated the thought of a job being done less well than he could do it himself. "And where's he going to get an officer and clerk to summon juries and record on his rolls?" he barked, as a last rearguard objection, when de Revelle was swinging his elegant green cloak around his shoulders, ready to leave Martin's Lane.
"He says that his steward and bailiff will assist him," answered the sheriff. 'The steward can read and write, certainly."
"He means that they will have to do all the work, I suppose," grunted the coroner. "And who will run the manor for him? The folk in Frithelstock will be starving by this time next year, as I doubt that Fitz-Ivo will shift himself to organise anything. Mark my words, this is a big mistake."
After the door had closed behind the sheriff, de Wolfe returned slowly to the hall and sat by the fire with a quart pot of ale to chase down the wine.
He waited for the inevitable crowing of success from his wife, who had plumped herself down at the other side of the hearth.
"I'm glad you saw sense, John. We thought it was best for you, especially since your leg hampers your movements."
"It does nothing of the sort, woman!" he snarled, sensitive about his alleged disability. "I get a few twinges in the damned thing, but that's to be expected. It's no more than a couple of months since the bone was mended. Anyone would think I'm a cripple, the way you go on about it."
Matilda ignored his protests. She was still preening herself over her success in defeating his resistance to her plans. "Now you'll be able to spend more time here. We can entertain a little, have some influential people in to dine now and again.' She frowned as she recollected her last attempt at throwing a feast. On the eve of Christ Mass, a few months ago, her husband had been dragged out, not unwillingly, from the middle of her party to examine a cathedral canon, who was hanging by the neck in his own privy.
At the awful prospect of being more frequently incarcerated with Matilda, de Wolfe threw down the rest of his ale and stood up. "The southern half of Devonshire is still a big place, wife, so don't expect too much of me. I'm off now to Chagford on the moor, and I'll not be back tonight."
As he marched out to the vestibule, he muttered under his breath, "And not tomorrow night either, if I can think of a good excuse."
Copyright (c) Bernard Knight, 2001
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