Authors: C J Sansom
Tags: #Historical, #Deckare
by Macmillan an imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd Pan Macmillan,
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Copyright © C.J. Sansom
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he high chandeliers
in the Great Hall of Lincoln's Inn were ablaze with candles, for it was late afternoon when the play began. Most members of Lincoln's Inn were present, the barristers in their robes and their wives in their best costumes. After an hour standing watching, my back was starting to ache, and I envied the few elderly and infirm members who had brought stools.
The performance of a play at Lincoln's Inn, traditionally held in March, had been cancelled earlier in the month because of heavy snow; late in the month now, it was still unseasonably cold, the breath of actors and audience visible, wafting up like smoke to the high roof' beams. The play that year was a new Interlude,
The Trial of Treasure,
handed moral fable with the gorgeously robed actors portraying the vices and virtues of mankind. As the
actor playing Virtue, resplen
dent in pale robes and a long, white, false beard, lectured Dissimulation on his deceitful ways — appropriately, perhaps, to an audience of lawyers — my attention wandered. I cast my eyes over the shadowed faces of the audience. Treasurer Rowland, a thin
faced, acerbic old man, was eyeing the actors as though wondering whether it might have been better hiring a troupe with less expensive costumes even if this play required no elaborate scenery. Across from me I saw my old enemy Stephen Bealknap, his greedy pale blue eyes studying his fellow lawyers. Those eyes were never still, would never meet yours, and as he saw me looking at him his gaze slid away. He was perhaps the crookedest lawyer I had ever come across; it still smarted that eighteen months before I had been forced to abandon a case against him through the ruthless machinations of his patron, Richard Rich. It struck me that he looked tired, ill.
Some distance away my friend Roger Elliard, to whose house I was invited to a dinner afterwards, held his wife's hand. A new scene had begun; Lust had made a pact of fellowship with Inclination To Evil. Embracing him, Lust was suddenly seized with pain and crouched on his knees.
Out alas, what sudden passion is this,
I am so taken that I cannot stand,
the cramp, the cramp has touched me,
I shall die without remedy now out of hand.
The actor, struck down by divine judgement, stretched out a trembling hand to the audience. I saw Bealknap look at him with a sort of puzzled contempt; Roger, though, turned suddenly away. I knew why; I would talk to him later.
At last the play ended; the players bowed, the audience clapped, and we got our cold limbs into motion an
d stepped out into Gate
house Court. The sun was just setting, illuminating the redbrick buildings and the melting snow in the courtyard with an umber light. People walked away to the gate, or if they lived at Lincoln's Inn stepped homewards, wrapping their coats around them. I waited in the doorway for the Elliards, nodd
ing to acquaintances. The audi
ence were the only ones abroad, for it was a Saturday out of law term, Palm Sunday Eve. I looked across to the Elliards' lodgings. All the windows were lit and servants could be seen within, bustling with trays. Dorothy's dinners were well known around the Inn, and even at the end of Lent, with red meat forbidden, I knew that she would have large tabling and good belly cheer for the group they had invited.
Despite the cold I felt relaxed, more peaceful than I had for a long time. In just over a week it would be Easter Sunday, and also the twenty
fifth of March, the official start of the New Year of
Sometimes in recent years I had wondered at this time what grim events the coming year might bring. But I reflected that now I had only good and interesting work, and times with good friends, to look forward to. That morning while dressing I had paused to study my face in the steel mirror in my bedroom; something I seldom did, for the sight of my humped back still distressed me. I saw streaks of grey in my hair, deepening lines on my face. Yet I thought perhaps they gave me something of a distinguished look; and I had passed forty the previous year, I could no longer expect to look young.
That afternoon, before the performance, I had walked down to the Thames, for I had heard the ice was breaking up at last after the long, bitter winter. I stood at Temple Stairs and looked down at the river. True enough, huge chunks of ice tumbled against each other with great crashes and creaks amid roiling grey waters. I walked back through soft, melting snow, thinking that perhaps spring was coming at last.
Standing in the doorway of the Hall, I shivered suddenly despite my heavy fur
lined coat, for though the air was definitely warmer today it was still chill and I had never put back the flesh I lost in my bad fever eighteen months before. I jumped slightly as someone clapped me on the shoulder. It was Roger, his slim form swathed in a heavy coat. Beside him his wife Dorothy, her plump cheeks red with cold, smiled at me. Her brown hair was gathered under a round French hood set with pearls.
'You were in a brown study, Matthew,' Roger said. 'Reflecting on the high moral sentiments of the play?'
'High as a house but heavy as a horse,' Dorothy said.
'That they were,' I agreed. 'Who chose it?'
'The Treasurer.' Roger looked to where Rowland was talking to an ancient judge, nodding his head gravely. Roger lowered his voice. 'He wanted something that wasn't politically contentious. Wise in these days. But an Italian comedy would have been better.'
We walked across the courtyard together. I noticed the snow on the Gatehouse Court fountain, which had been frozen this last three months, was almost gone, revealing patches of grey ice. Soon perhaps the fountain would be working again, its gentle plashing sounding across the court. A few coins were exposed on the ice; even with the fountain frozen people still threw money in with a prayer for victory in a case or luck in an affair of the heart; for though they might deny it, lawyers were as superstitious as other men.
, an old man called Elias who had been with the family for years, greeted us at the door and took me upstairs to wash my hands. Then I went into the parlour, where fat candles cast a warm buttery light on the chairs and cushions. A dozen guests, all barristers and their wives, already sat or lounged, served with wine by Elias and a boy. A roaring fire warmed the room, bringing sweet smells from the scented herbs on the wooden floor, its light glinting on the silverware on the clotlvcovered table. The walls were decorated with framed portraits in the new fashion, mostly of biblical characters. Above the large fireplace stood one of the best pieces of furniture in Lincoln's Inn, Roger's pride and joy. It was a large, carved wooden frieze of intricate design, the branches of trees in full leaf interlaced with flowers and fruits, the heads of animals peering through, deer and boar and even a unicorn. Roger stood beside it, talking to Ambrose Loder from my chambers. His slim form was animated, his fine hands waving as he made some point to the plump barrister, who stood immobile, a sceptical look on his red face.
Dorothy stood beside him, wearing an expression of good-natured amusement, her colourful clothes a contrast to the black robes of the two lawyers. She wore a green damask dress with gold piping down the front, and a high collar open at the throat; it suited her well. Seeing me, she excused herself and came across.
I had known Dorothy near twenty years. She was the daughter of a serjeant in my first chambers. We had both been in our early twenties then and I had at once been attracted to Dorothy's elegance, wit and kind nature — a rare combination. She seemed to like my company too, never seemed to mind my bent back, and we became good friends. After a while I dared to think of trying to turn friendship into something more. I had given no signs of my real feelings, though, and therefore had only myself to blame when I learned that Roger, my friend and colleague, had already proposed marriage and been accepted. He later said — and I believed him — that he had not realized my feelings for Dorothy. She had guessed, though, and tried to sweeten the pill by saying she had had a difficult choice to make. I had found that hard to believe, for Roger was handsome as well as clever, with a quicksilver, energetic grace to his movements.
Dorothy was, like me, past forty now; though apart from little wrinkles visible around her eyes she looked a good deal younger. I bent and kissed her on her full cheeks.
'A merry Palm Sunday to you, Dorothy.'
'And to you, Matthew.' She squeezed my hand. 'How is your health?'
'Good these days.' My back had often given me trouble, but these last months I had been conscientious in the exercises my physician friend Guy had prescribed, and had felt much better.
'You look well.'
'And you look younger each New Year, Dorothy. May this one bring peace and prosperity.'