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Extract from Servant of Death

Copyright Sarah Hawkswood 2015

The acting under-sheriff began by asking about the events after Vespers.

Elias regarded Bradecote with a look of composure. 'Let us not creep towards what you seek. It was I who found the corpse, my lord, so it is what you want to know about. I admit that it fair took me aback for a moment or so, and then I came out into the cloister, where Abbot William was leading the brothers to Compline, and told what I'd found.'

'What exactly were you doing in the workshop, Master Elias? Your men had gone into the town, yes?'

The master mason was quite prepared for the question, and answered promptly enough.

'Aye, my lord. I gave them an hour or so off, but it has always been my way to check the workshop. I am a good master, any will say that, but I demand high standards from my masons, in the craft and in how they leave the workshop each night. Good job I did look too, because it wasn't left as I would want, not by a long way.'

'In what way did it fail?' Bradecote shot a quick glance at Catchpoll.

'Well, the floor hadn't been swept properly, nor the bench cleaned. I don't accept dust all about the workshop. Untidiness in the little things leads to untidiness with chisel and mallet, and that is both wasteful of time and stone, and dangerous to limb and eye. What was worse, there was even a mallet left out on the bench, not in the rack, and the men know how I expect all the tools accounted for. Mind you, I gave Arnulf the back of my hand when he returned. He was the apprentice given the tidying task last night, and his mind was on what was to come, not what was to be done. You can understand why I don’t give them time off, regular.'

The Sheriff's men tried not to appear too interested in this information, and Catchpoll said nonchalantly, 'I would not have thought you were a master who was often disobeyed, Master Elias.'

The master mason puffed himself up importantly, and thrust his chin forward in an effort to emphasise his unassailable authority. 'No indeed. My men rarely act foolish.' He added fairly, 'Unless of course they've taken drink, and we all know that when the drink is in, the sense goes out.' His expression became very serious. 'I let them off of an occasional evening, because they are not permitted to drink ale when working, just small beer. Chisels are sharp, ladders are tall, and dying too easy. I have seen it often enough over the years, the waste of a good man through a moment of thoughtlessness.'

'So it was unusual for the apprentice to leave things out of place?' Bradecote interrupted what could become a list of the dangers facing masons. He could see what Catchpoll was trying to ascertain.

Master Elias furrowed his brow. 'Most unusual.'

Hugh Bradecote made a mental note to visit the masons' workshop, and cast about in a new direction.

'You are a craftsman of some note, Master Elias. Abbot William told me you had come here with recommendations from Ely, Oxford and Abingdon. In your wide travels, had you come into contact with Eudo the Clerk before?'

The master mason shook his head. He had been expecting to be asked about the man, and it posed no problem, although he would be glad enough to set the conversation in another direction.

'I have worked in many places, but I have no cause to speak with the brethren, other than those obedientaries concerned with the fabric of their buildings, and of course the head of the house.' He spoke no less than the truth, and he had not actually been asked if he had merely seen Eudo before.

'You have not been to Romsey? The two nuns are from there.'

'I have not. I prefer not to work in a house of women.' He grimaced. 'My father, who was a master mason before me, did so once, and complained ever after. Trouble, they are. They change their minds, see, enough to drive a sane man mad. You get half way through a design and then they think of something they want changing, as though you could add to stone as well as take away.'

Catchpoll nodded in fellow feeling.

Bradecote returned to more pertinent matters. 'How was it that you decided, yesterday evening, to give the men time in the town when you admit that you do so only rarely?'

'It had been a hot day, my lord, both in the confines of the workshop and up on the north transept. The heat takes it out of the men, and frays tempers, which leads to mistakes, and you cannot afford that up top, or with expensive stone. That it happened to be the evening of a death is but chance, aye, and mischance for me if it leads to you suspecting me of wrong-doing.' The master mason sounded suitably aggrieved at the possible doubting of his honesty.

'Could you tell us exactly what happened, and what you found, as you did to the lord abbot.' It was an instruction rather than a question. Bradecote was not going to follow up the last answer by assuring the man that he was not suspected.

'Aye, my lord. It was simple enough. I was in the workshop, after supper, between Vespers and Compline, checking things over and considering a new design. There was a natural fault in the latest block and I would rather use it than discard the stone.' His voice warmed briefly with the enthusiasm of a man who loves his work. 'There's great satisfaction to be had, getting the best from a piece, especially when nature brings out a problem to be overcome.'

'Indeed. But to continue?'

'Well, eventually I came up with a solution and, since it had to be close to Compline, I left the workshop. I had thought to take my place early in the nave. As I reached the crossing I turned first to the altar, as you would, and saw the cowled penitent before it. I would have passed on without disturbing him if it had not been for the fly?'

'The fly?' Catchpoll looked puzzled.

'Aye, a fly was buzzing round his head, and even a man at prayer won't suffer a fly on his pate without even a twitch. It was just odd, that's all, not natural. Then I got this feeling something wasn't right. I couldn't say what, just not right, so I drew closer, and that's when I saw his head had been stove in. Terrible it was, enough to turn a man’s stomach.'

'But not yours,’ Bradecote noted.

'Well, I’ll not say I didn’t feel my gorge rise, my lord, for I did, but . . .look, I’ve been a mason all my adult life, apprentice to master, and it is a craft with its dangers. I’ve seen what a man looks like after falling from eighty feet, or more, and often enough not to want to gawp. Still, this was nasty . . . '

 The master mason shook his head, more in disapproval than shock, thought Catchpoll.

'What did you make of the burnt documents, Master Elias?' Bradecote had not finished. He made the question sound casual.

 'Didn't make anything at all, my lord,' responded Elias, looking blankly at him. 'I was just concerned at having found a dead man in the church. Aye, and one who could not have taken his own life. The man who did it could have been close by, so I had no wish to linger. That would be a foolish thing, even though I would say I was a man who could take care of himself. I headed straight out as the Compline bell rang.'

'Did you see or hear anyone else in the church while you were there?'

This was easier. 'No, my lord. But it's not likely I would have heard anyone while I was in the workshop.' He paused. 'There now, I almost forgot. There was someone, someone in St Eadburga's Chapel when I came in. I couldn't say who, but I could hear whispering, like one at prayer. Perhaps that was that Clerk, before he was killed.' He smiled at Bradecote as if expecting recognition for his feat of memory.

The acting under-sheriff did not smile, but nodded an acknowledgment. 'Is there anything else you think might be useful?' Bradecote had no expectation of a reply and was surprised at the master mason's answer.

'Well, nothing directly so, my lord, but I was thinking that if you wanted to know more about the dead man you might try asking Brother Remigius, the sub-prior here. He used to be at Winchester, see, and yesterday, while I was speaking with him, the lord bishop’s clerk approached and spoke to him. What he said was none of my concern, and I did not pry, but I tell you true, Brother Remigius looked about as happy as a man who's had a fox in his coop.'

'Thank you, Master Elias, for your help. You may return to your labours.'

The big man stood up from the bench, looked from Catchpoll to Bradecote and made for the door. As he reached it, Bradecote halted him with a final question, thrown as an afterthought.

'Your work must involve much calculation and planning. I take it you are a lettered man?'

Elias smiled proudly. 'That I am, my lord. Taught to read by the brothers in St Edmondsbury when I was a lad. My mother, God rest her, thought I would take the cowl,' he chuckled, 'but I was more interested in the building than the life of contemplation. Not for me, the tonsure.' He left, looking cheerful.

'What do you think then, Catchpoll? Would a man like that seek to avoid a possible threat, or would he have been intrigued enough to see if any of the vellum was readable?'

Catchpoll sneered. 'He wasn't afraid of anyone else being present, not him. I don't see him being perturbed at the thought, just alert. Not the ‘simple’ soul he would have us believe, is Master Elias, and observant too. His work means he looks carefully. If anything was still to be seen, he would have seen it.'

'Or been the one to set it aflame.'

'Oh, aye. The person who ”discovers” the victim must be the killer, my lord?' Catchpoll shrugged. 'It is certainly common enough, but you have to watch what is common.'

'Perhaps, though, he could be one without the other.' Bradecote ignored the implied criticism.

Catchpoll was dismissive. 'If he read what was there, but was not the killer, it would be a strange coincidence if it turned out to be something he would wish to destroy.'

Bradecote agreed. He realised, with no little surprise, that he was suddenly becoming unnaturally suspicious, and, Heaven help him, like the serjeant.

'He could still be our man. We know of no motive, but he was in the right place, and is easily strong enough to have dragged the body.'

'So do we ferret around in the masons' workshop or work through the list of unaccounted for brethren, my lord?'

The younger man ran his long fingers through his dark hair, and sighed. 'I have no doubt everything is now as it should be there, and nothing of significance will remain, but yes, we ferret, Catchpoll. And we pray for a sign.' He pulled a wry face.

'Not a sign,' muttered Catchpoll, under his breath. 'Priests wants signs. I wants evidence.'

Copyright Sarah Hawkswood 2015