Read 14 - The Burgundian's Tale Online

Authors: Kate Sedley

Tags: #tpl, #rt

14 - The Burgundian's Tale (9 page)

The Duke stirred in his chair and slewed round to look at her.

‘My dearest sister, calm yourself. Roger is right to ask such questions. As you say, he knows nothing of Fulk Quantrell. Therefore, he has to find out. And how can he find out if he doesn’t ask the people who knew the lad best? Just answer him. Tell him the truth.’

I nodded agreement, smiling blandly; but, personally, I considered the Duchess had already revealed more than she would have wanted me to know. Her furious defence of the dead man suggested that he was far less perfect a character than she would have me believe. She, too, had been under his spell, and had deliberately ignored the flaws in his nature. And if what Lionel Broderer and his mother had said of Fulk were true, then he could have been a very unpleasant and ruthless young man. On the other hand, the Broderers were undoubtedly biased against the favourite.

The Duchess pouted, looking mutinous, and I could see what she had been like as a girl: pretty, used to getting her own way, petted by her older brothers and finding a close, kindred spirit in the brother next to her in age, George of Clarence; the pair of them both handsome, both conscious of their own importance and their place in the scheme of things. Both spoiled. But, also like the late duke, Margaret of York could just as suddenly dispel the impression of conceit and arrogance with a self-deprecatory laugh. Or, as now, with a smile.

‘Forgive me, Master Chapman! Of course you need to ask questions about Fulk’s true character. So, yes, he had faults, but then, who doesn’t? He would have been unbearable had he been too perfect. But in general he was a good boy, a loving son to his mother, kind and in tune with the world around him.’

I considered this. ‘You don’t think then that he could have brought any pressure to bear on his aunt to persuade her to alter her will in his favour?’

The Duchess grew indignant again, even more so than before. ‘What sort of pressure are you suggesting?’

‘Could he have played on her love for her sister? Mistress St Clair must have been deeply shocked and distressed by news of that sister’s death. She might even have felt guilty that she hadn’t accompanied you and Mistress Quantrell to Burgundy after her first husband’s death.’

The Duchess’s anger evaporated. ‘No, no!’ she said gently. ‘However upset Judith may have been by Fulk’s tidings, she would never have let anyone force her into something she didn’t want to do. Judith has always been very strong-willed. When I left for Burgundy, twelve years ago, I did my best – and so did Veronica – to persuade her to accompany us. We told her that with Edmund Broderer dead, she had nothing to keep her in England. (There were no children of the marriage.) She resolutely refused. She said she couldn’t go back to being a seamstress after being mistress of her own establishment.’

‘An understandable point of view,’ Duke Richard murmured, still staring into the heart of the fire where the flames, blue and red and orange, licked the bark of the pine logs, filling the room with a thick and heady scent. He leaned forward, throwing two more logs from the pile at the side of the hearth on to the blaze.

‘You should have summoned a lackey to do that,’ the Duchess reproved him sharply. ‘Understandable? Perhaps, but Veronica said that during the six years she and Fulk lived with Judith and her husband, her sister never ceased to complain about the smallness of the house – don’t forget that the twins had been used to living in palaces – the smell from the river and the dampness and chill in winter. I expected her to be as eager as Veronica to accompany me to Burgundy.’

Duke Richard regarded the Duchess thoughtfully, but said nothing. It was left to me to point out that there was all the difference in the world between being dissatisfied with one’s lot and exchanging independence for a life of service.

‘Veronica didn’t think so,’ was the indignant rejoinder.

‘But she hadn’t been independent,’ the Duke demurred, once again entering the fray. ‘After a very brief marriage, she had lived for six years on her sister’s and brother-in-law’s bounty. She had simply exchanged one form of servitude for another.’

‘I’m sure you do Judith an injustice, Dickon! She would never treat her sister like a servant.’ The Duchess was outraged.

Her brother smiled and again refrained from stating the obvious; that being the poor – or poorer – relation in an affluent household like the Broderers’ was almost bound to entail some form of subservience.

‘Did Mistress St Clair offer you any particular reason for declining your request?’ I asked, choosing my words with care. It was plain that even after twelve years, Judith’s refusal still rankled with her former mistress, who had been used for most of her life to commanding loyalty amongst those she regarded as ‘her’ people.

The Duchess grimaced petulantly. ‘Oh, the usual high-flown nonsense about owing it to her late husband to carry on his work. Although it seems now that this young cousin of his was perfectly capable of doing so without Judith’s assistance.’

At this, Duke Richard suddenly forced himself up and out of his chair, as if he had taken about as much as he could stand.

‘My dear,’ he said, and his voice was tight with suppressed irritation, ‘you’re being unreasonable.’ He forced a smile. ‘You talk as if Mistress St Clair had no duty to anyone but yourself.’ He went over to his sister’s chair and took one of her hands in both of his, raising it to his lips. ‘Now, it’s late and we are all tired. It’s been a very long day. You must be exhausted after all your exertions. You were the brightest star of every event and everyone loved you. But you must get some sleep so that you can dazzle us all again tomorrow.’

I had never thought of the Duke as an accomplished courtier, but he certainly knew how to handle the Duchess, who was positively purring like a cat that had been given a dish of cream. I guessed she had always been susceptible to flattery, and the mature woman was no different from the girl. It made me wonder how accurate her assessment of Fulk Quantrell’s character really was. Had he truly been the charming and affectionate boy she had portrayed in speaking of him to me? Or did he simply understand how to ingratiate himself with a lonely, childless woman, the victim of a loveless marriage?

The Duke opened the door and shouted for a page, who was instructed to see me safely out of the castle. The Duchess again graciously proffered her hand for me to kiss, but said acidly that she trusted I would have discovered the identity of the murderer of her dearest Fulk before her return to Burgundy in seven days’ time. (Her tone implied a doubt and a mistrust of my abilities that annoyed me.) Duke Richard, on the other hand, much to my astonishment and also to that of his sister, embraced me like a friend.

‘Take care, Roger,’ he said. ‘Loyalty such as yours is a difficult commodity to come by nowadays.’

My mind was still reeling from this unlooked-for demonstration of royal affection when the last of a series of doors and gates clanged shut behind me and I found myself out in the London streets, making my way back to the Voyager.

I walked to Thames Street, then climbed St Peter’s Hill into Old Fish Street. It was dark by now. The evening’s revelries seemed to have finished and there were very few people about. A three-quarter moon lent a ghostly radiance to the still, grey scene, and the only creature moving, apart from myself, was a scrawny black cat, sitting in the lee of St Mary Magdalen Church, and unconcernedly tidying its whiskers. A couple of drunken revellers passed me as I turned into Cordwainer Street and made my way north towards Budge Row. From there it was merely a few strides left into Soper Lane, then right by the Broderer workshop into Needlers Lane, and I was almost home.

As I passed the Church of St Benet Sherehog, I could see the opening into Bucklersbury only yards ahead of me. I began to whistle in my usual tuneless fashion under my breath …

Someone jumped me from behind, coming out of the church porch with all the speed and ferocity of an arrow just released from the bow. I went down like a felled tree, stretching my length on the ground, where I was pinned by my assailant sitting astride my back, his bony little knees gripping my upper arms. A head was lowered next to mine and a blast of garlic-laden breath hit the side of my face.

‘Mind your own business, chapman, if you know what’s good for you,’ hissed a voice in my ear. A very Welsh voice. ‘This is just the first warning. So go back to Bristol, there’s a good boy!’

Then, just as suddenly as he had arrived, my attacker had gone, his footsteps echoing hollowly in the empty street as he ran towards Soper Lane.

Six

I
lay where I had fallen for perhaps a minute. I had been winded and needed to recover my breath.

Except for a sore cheek, where I had scraped my face along the ground, and some scratches to my hands, I wasn’t really hurt. But my pride was deeply wounded. My head had been so full of my meeting with the Duke and Dowager Duchess that I had grown careless, ignoring my own first rule of survival: always be on your guard – which isn’t to say that I had never been ambushed before, but, generally speaking, on those occasions I had been unlucky. Tonight, however, I hadn’t even considered the possibility that I could be in danger or that I might have been followed from Baynard’s Castle. Yet I should have done. Somewhere in London lurked the murderer of Fulk Quantrell, and I was doing my best to uncover his – or her – identity.

As I heaved myself into a sitting position and probed cautiously for any bodily damage that might so far have escaped my notice, I went briefly through the people who knew of my presence and, above all, my purpose in the capital. I could forget all members of the royal family along with Timothy Plummer, Reynold Makepeace and Bertram Serifaber. That left Lionel Broderer and his mother, Judith St Clair’s housekeeper and Judith St Clair herself, who had been told of my visit by the Dowager Duchess. So, possibly, Godfrey St Clair was also aware of my existence.

But the voice that had hissed its warning in my ear had been male and Welsh. Not that the last fact meant very much. The lilting cadences of my near neighbours across the Bristol Channel are some of the easiest to fake, and I hadn’t been in any condition to listen to it carefully …

‘Master Chapman! Are you all right? Mother and I saw what happened. I tried to intercept the man who attacked you, but he was running too fast, and he had his hood pulled right over his head, hiding his face.’

It was Lionel Broderer, kneeling beside me in the dust. His face was nothing but a blur as the moon disappeared behind a cloud, but I recognized the voice with its harsh timbre, and his compact figure. ‘Here! Let me help you to your feet.’

I should have been grateful for his assistance, but I was feeling too much of a fool to appreciate his sympathy. I shook off his supporting hand.

‘I’m well enough,’ I answered brusquely. ‘A bruise or two. Nothing more.’

He proceeded to make matters worse. ‘You shouldn’t be walking abroad in the streets at night without a cudgel.’

I restrained the impulse to shout at him, but it was an effort. ‘I was summoned by His Grace of Gloucester to Baynard’s Castle and I felt a cudgel would have been out of place. In any case, I doubt if it would have helped me much. I was surprised.’

He nodded understandingly. I could cheerfully have hit him. ‘Yes. Mother and I had just returned from West Cheap, where members of the Mercers’ Guild were doing a re-enactment of the Lady Margaret’s marriage to Charles of Burgundy, twelve years ago at Damme. We came back down Soper Lane, and just as we rounded the corner, we saw you jumped on by this man who came out of St Benet Sherehog’s porch.’

‘How did you know it was me?’

Lionel chuckled. ‘How many other men of your height and girth are there in this part of London?’

By this time Mistress Broderer had joined us. ‘Is he all right, Lal?’ she enquired.

‘A trifle winded, that’s all,’ I snapped. ‘Nothing so wrong with me that I can’t answer for myself.’

I was immediately ashamed that I had allowed my bad temper to get the better of me, but while Lionel looked affronted, his mother merely laughed.

‘Feeling sore, are you? In more ways than one? Well, I suppose that’s only to be expected.’ Her sympathy was tinged with a mockery that she couldn’t quite conceal. ‘Come back to the house with us and have some wine.’

I thanked her, but refused. ‘I’m so near the Voyager now that I’ll go on. I need my bed.’ And I thanked both of them again, over-profusely, to compensate for my previous rudeness.

But my refusal was not entirely due either to tiredness or to embarrassment at what had happened. I suddenly found myself wondering if Lionel Broderer could have been my assailant. He had been close at hand.

I was still considering the idea while I stripped and rolled between the blankets, nestling into Reynold Makepeace’s goose-feather mattress. (I had gone straight to my chamber, avoiding the ale room, where a crowd of indefatigable merrymakers continued to drink the Dowager Duchess of Burgundy’s health.) I tried to recall the voice which had whispered in my ear and to match it with Lionel’s, but the difference seemed too great for probability. And yet … And yet I couldn’t have sworn that they weren’t one and the same. Welsh tones are usually soft and soothing. This voice had been neither of those things, just low and sibilant.

I repeated the words over to myself: ‘Mind your own business, chapman, if you know what’s good for you. This is just the first warning. So go back to Bristol, there’s a good boy!’ Boy. Boyo. A Welsh term of address as I well knew from hearing it so often along the Bristol Backs.

I could feel sleep beginning to engulf me, and decided that the problem would have to wait until the morning. I groped for the reassuring feel of my knife beneath my pillow and felt for my cudgel, which I had placed alongside me on the bed. Only then did I close my eyes and allow my mind to drift.

After nine years I had at last trained myself to sleep through the night and not wake in the small hours for the service of matins and lauds, as I had had to do when a novice at Glastonbury. (It had been a habit greatly deplored by Adela.) And that particular night, worn out by the previous day’s events, I had slept even more soundly than usual – with the result that, when I eventually awoke, the sun was filtering through the shutters and people were clattering busily about the inn. For my part, I was feeling fighting fit again.

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