As night sets in, Chaucer's weary pilgrims find themselves in a Kent copse, rumored to be haunted. Huddling around the fire, they persuade the Clerk of Oxford to tell a ghostly tale of love and death that will further chill their blood...
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February 01, 2009
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Excerpt from A Haunt of Murder by P. C. Doherty
The Clerk's Tale
Ravenscroft Castle stood on a small crag, a brooding, rocky presence not far from Blackwater River outside the town of Maldon in Essex. Ravenscroft had been built in an age when God and his saints slept, when Stephen and Mathilda waged relentless civil war. It was built for both defence and attack with a square donjon, or keep, soaring up to the sky, defended by a lofty curtain wall and rounded towers. A massive yawning barbican defended the gate which could only be approached over the drawbridge across a broad, stinking moat. Nevertheless, in the year of Our Lord 1381, Beatrice Arrowner, just past her seventeenth birthday, had no thoughts of war or strife. It was May Day, when all the townspeople of Maldon honoured the Blessed Virgin Mary, God's pure candle who brought forth the light of the world.
Maypoles had been set up on various greens. Troubadours and troupes of travelling actors had arrived, and stalls and booths had been erected on the common land. Oxen, pig, hare and pheasant were being roasted over spits turned by sweaty, grimy-faced little boys who had been paid a penny to make sure the flesh didn't char and to baste the succulent meat with herbs drenched in oil. Indeed, Maldon was full of the mouth-watering smell of roasting meat. The townspeople had put on their best raiment and, even though it was a work day tomorrow, ale and beer were being freely drunk and in the evening the wild dancing would begin. Beatrice, however, had decided to ignore all this. She had left her uncle and aunt, the owners of the Golden Tabard tavern which stood on the outskirts of Maldon, and gone up the dusty trackway to Ravenscroft. For Beatrice this was a splendid day; the sky seemed bluer, the grass greener, the bluebells more magnificent and the air rich with the sweet smells of early summer.
Beatrice had raided the oak chests, taken flour and baked bread and pastries which were now in her wicker basket protected from the flies and heat by a damp linen cloth. Today she would have her own celebration. The Constable of the castle, Sir John Grasse, his wife Anne, Father Aylred the chaplain and Theobald Vavasour the physician were to join her and her beloved, the clerk Ralph Mortimer, for a meal on the castle green. Ralph's boon companion Adam and his wife Marisa had also been invited.
Beatrice tossed back her long, dark hair - 'black as the night' was how Ralph described it. Really she should wear a wimple or veil; Catherine, her aunt, was always lecturing her to do so but Beatrice defied her. Ralph wrote poems about her hair, and about her white skin and sea-grey eyes. Beatrice was in love. Ralph was dearer to her than life itself. Others wondered why, especially the bully-boys and swaggerers who thronged the taproom of the Golden Tabard. They would eye Ralph from head to toe and mutter under their breath about dusty, bare-arsed clerks but Ralph didn't mind. He was sweet-tempered in looks, sweet-tempered by nature; he had close-cropped, dark hair and rather short-sighted, green eyes. Beatrice had met him at a May Fair two years ago. Aunt Catherine and Uncle Robert, her official guardians since she was a child, had disapproved at first but Ralph had charmed them. He was courtly in his ways, always paying for whatever he ate and, now and again, bringing them small gifts - a beeswax candle or a jar of honey from the castle beehives.
Beatrice suddenly started. She'd reached the castle drawbridge without even noticing it. The guard on duty was sleeping in the shadows, helmet off, spear resting against the wall. And why shouldn't he? True, the peasants in the shires had been threatening revolt and sedition but this was May Day and Sir John Grasse, an old soldier, was a kindly man, no real stickler for discipline. He knew when to bark and when to hold his peace. The Constable preferred to leave all military matters to Beardsmore, his burly sergeant-at-arms. And yet where was he? Still grieving for poor Phoebe? Who had murdered that unfortunate young woman?
Beatrice put such dark thoughts away and clattered across the drawbridge, her pattens beating a rhythm on its wooden boards. She went through the darkened gatehouse and up the winding path which led to the green before the great keep. Above her, the ravens which gave the castle its name swooped and dived against the blue sky. Somewhere on the grass near the moat a pheasant shrieked; finches, who'd built their nests in the walls, warbled and squabbled, filling the late morning with their chatter. A packman passed her, his sumpter pony laden with goods, probably a traveller who had paid to sleep in the castle and would no doubt visit the fair before taking the dusty road north to other Essex towns.
Beatrice turned a corner and paused. The others were already gathered on the green. Lady Anne had laid out a blue broadcloth, with cushions and bolsters arranged as seats. A trestle table had been set up, pewter jugs and cups glinted in the sunlight. Traunchers and platters of bread, cold meat and sliced fruit were covered by white cloths against the marauding flies, attracted by the mounds of manure and ordure piled against the castle walls. Beatrice wrinkled her nose. The smell was not so sweet now. The moat was dank, its water brackish; as Ralph said, you could often smell Ravenscroft before you saw it.
Beatrice hid in the shadows and stared across. These were all her friends: Sir John Grasse, red, jowly face, clean-shaven, his white hair thinning, popping blue eyes and thick, sensuous lips. He had fought with the Black Prince's retinue in France. His wife Anne sat beside him, one arm resting on the back of his chair. She was dressed in a honey-coloured smock, a rather ridiculous, over-blown white wimple around her greying hair. A sharp-featured, keen-eyed woman, slightly younger than her husband, Lady Anne could be a martinet; the garrison was more frightened of her than they were of Sir John. Beside her was Father Aylred in his brown Franciscan robe, head bald as a pigeon's egg - but, as he confessed, he made up for that with a luxurious black beard which fell down to his chest. He was a kindly man and a good priest. Next, Theobald Vavasour, leech and physician, whose grey matted hair reached to below his ears, framing a dusty, tired face. Whatever the weather, Theobald always complained of the cold; even now he wore his patched red cloak lined with ermine, of which he was so proud. He was a true scholar and even possessed a set of eye-glasses so he could examine his patients more closely. He was kindly enough; he distilled perfumes for her from wild flowers. Marisa, her friend, was always borrowing them. She and Adam had also arrived and sat with their backs to her. Adam was blond-haired, tall, thin as a beanpole with light-blue eyes, sharp-faced but ever ready to smile or burst into laughter. His wife Marisa, the Mouse as he nicknamed her, was dressed in her usual grey, her auburn hair carefully hidden by a white starched coif. Ralph always maintained that Marisa reminded him of a nun rather than a young woman in love.
The wine pitcher was being passed round and Sir John had obviously already drunk deeply. Ralph came out on to the steps leading from the keep. Instinctively he stared across.
'Beatrice!' he called. 'Don't hide in the shadows like a ghost!'
She lifted the hem of her sarcenet gown and hastened across the grass. Everyone rose to greet her. Lady Anne, who had always had a special liking for her, grasped her by the shoulders and kissed her on each cheek. Sir John lifted his cup.
'Nothing like a beautiful woman,' he bellowed, 'on a beautiful May Day!'
Theobald winked, Father Aylred sketched a blessing in her direction. Ralph, his fingers and face smudged with ink, linked his arm through hers, plucked the basket from her fingers and placed it on the table.
'I thought you were never coming,' he whispered.
'I had to help in the tavern,' Beatrice hissed back. 'Aunt Catherine is very busy.'
They all sat on cushions, Beatrice next to Adam. Marisa leaned across, her pretty face wreathed in smiles.
'Your last May Day as a maid,' she murmured, smiling at the play of words.
Beatrice blushed. On midsummer's day, 24 June, she and Ralph would exchange vows at the chapel door and be blessed by Father Aylred. Sir John had already declared he would provide a special chamber in Midnight Tower, laughing off Father Aylred's stories that it was haunted. 'They'll be too busy to care!' he roared, not sparing anyone's blushes, including those of his wife. 'A feather mattress, a large four-poster bed, a jug of rich claret and two cups. What more would two lovers need?'
Sir John raised his hand and bellowed at the servants waiting in the shadow of the wall, 'Come on, you lazy varlets! Let's eat, drink and bless this merry May Day!'
'You've drunk enough for all of us,' Lady Anne snapped.
Sir John just made a rude sound with his lips. The servants filled platters with bread, pastries, chicken legs, succulent sausages, a small portion of shallots, white bread, a dab of butter and took them to each of the diners, with a napkin and small bowl of water in which to wash their fingers. Wine, ale and beer were poured.
It was not yet noon so Beatrice drank only sweet milk, promising Sir John that she would drink when she was ready. Father Aylred said the blessing, they all chanted the 'Ave Maria' in honour of the Blessed Virgin and the meal began. Beatrice found she was hungry and, between mouthfuls, told Marisa the gossip from the taproom. Ralph seemed lost in thought.
'Have you been working?' Beatrice asked him.
'Of course he has,' Adam laughed.
'But not on castle business.' Sir John waved an admonitory finger. 'He's after Brythnoth's treasure.'
'Brythnoth's treasure!' Father Aylred exclaimed.
'Oh, Ralph, you're not still pursuing that?' Adam scoffed.
'Tell us about it,' said Father Aylred. 'I've heard the story before but, like a song, only in snatches.'
Ralph would have refused but Lady Anne insisted. 'Come on, Ralph.'
'It's only a fable.' Ralph pinched Beatrice quickly on the thigh. 'But, centuries ago the pagan Danes landed a raiding force at the mouth of Blackwater River. Brythnoth was a great earl, he marched an army down to meet them. The battle was a fierce one. In fact, there's a poem written about it, copied by the chroniclers. Anyway, Brythnoth refused to leave the field, and he and his men died where they stood. On a silver chain round his neck Brythnoth wore a beautiful jewelled cross. It was made out of pure gold, and it was studded with a costly diamond. Brythnoth knew he was going to die. As his men locked their shields for the final charge, he took the cross off and gave it to one of his squires. Now this young man, whose name was Cerdic, was to take the cross to Brythnoth's wife. He left the battlefield and hurried inland.'
'But he stopped here?' asked Sir John.
'Yes, Sir John, Cerdic stopped here.'
'But Ravenscroft wasn't built then,' Lady Anne declared.
'No, it wasn't,' Ralph agreed, 'but Brythnoth had built a stockade in which he and his men had camped the night before the battle. Cerdic was troubled. Here he was, leaving the battlefield where his master was about to die. People might say that he had taken the cross and played the traitor to Brythnoth. So he buried it, somewhere in the grounds of this castle, and hurried back to the battlefield. When Brythnoth saw him he became enraged. "You have disobeyed my command!" he thundered. "But blood will out and the ravens will feast! I shall die here and so shall ye but your spirit will guard that cross until it is hallowed again."'
'What does that mean?' Marisa asked.
'Until the cross is found,' Ralph explained, 'and re-blessed.'
Father Aylred looked solemn. 'And Brythnoth and Cerdic died?'
'Oh yes, back to back in the press of the fight. They say the Blackwater ran with blood for days afterwards.'
'And the cross?' Theobald asked eagerly.
Ralph shrugged. 'No one knows. Except ...' he paused for effect, 'after the battle the Danes, who knew about this great treasure, searched for Brythnoth's corpse. They found him lying beneath Cerdic. The young squire was still alive and the Danish chief demanded to know where the cross was. Cerdic smiled. "On an altar to your God and mine." That's all he said before he, too, died.'
'What did he mean?' Father Aylred asked.
Ralph laughed. 'If I knew that, Father, I'd find the treasure.'
'So you look among the manuscripts for clues,' said Father Aylred.
'The tale appears in many forms, handed down from one chronicler to another,' Ralph explained. 'It is recorded that even those who built this castle searched for the cross. The legends have multiplied.' He glanced sideways at Beatrice. 'One, which first appeared in the reign of the King's great-grandfather, says that only lovers will find Brythnoth's cross.'
'In which case you are well qualified,' Father Aylred laughed. 'Ralph, Beatrice, I look forward to your wedding day.' A cloud crossed the sun and the Franciscan shivered. 'I wonder if Cerdic can hear us now?'
'Quite possibly,' said Lady Anne. 'According to local lore, this castle is truly haunted.'
'Is it?' Marisa asked excitedly.
'Yes, and not only by Cerdic,' declared Adam, eager to show his knowledge. He sipped from his pewter cup. 'There are other ghosts here as well.'
'Oh, go on, tell us,' Beatrice urged, though she noticed how troubled Father Aylred had become.
'Ravenscroft was first built during a time of terror and devastation in Essex,' Adam recounted. 'The castle was owned by a robber baron, Sir Geoffrey de Mandeville, a true spawn of Satan, a fiend in human flesh. Sir Geoffrey ravaged to his heart's content. He brought back prisoners to be tortured by his master executioner, a man called Black Malkyn. Malkyn liked nothing better than to see his prisoners suffer excruciating pain. He used the thumb screw, the rack, the pulley, the bed of nails.' Adam lowered his voice. 'Sometimes he would fill the dungeons with flesh-eating rats.'
'Oh, stop it!' Marisa cried.
'But it's true,' Sir John said. 'Sir Geoffrey was a devil incarnate. He built our Midnight Tower.' He pointed across to the great ragstone tower built into the curtain wall.
'I must admit,' declared Father Aylred, 'I do not like the place, it's cold and dank.' He lowered his head and mumbled something.
Beatrice was sure she heard the word exorcise.
'Oh, it's cheery enough,' Sir John scoffed. 'You just have a fanciful imagination, Father. Anyway, Sir Geoffrey used to go out raiding,' he winked at his wife, 'searching for soft virginal flesh to satisfy his lusts, gold and silver to fill his treasury.'
'I'd take your ears if you did that!' Lady Anne retorted.
Sir John patted his wife affectionately on the knee. 'Sir Geoffrey had a wife, the Lady Johanna, a beautiful young woman. A ray of light in the gathering darkness around Mandeville. She was repelled by her husband, so the legends say. Isn't that right, Ralph?'
The clerk nodded.
'Lady Johanna fell in love with a young squire. When Sir Geoffrey was away, they'd meet in her chamber in the Midnight Tower.' Sir John glanced at Father Aylred. 'Well, just to console themselves. One day Sir Geoffrey came back and surprised the lovers. Lady Johanna was immured for life in a dungeon beneath the tower. The young squire was handed over to Black Malkyn. For days that limb of Hell tortured the young man in a room next to Lady Johanna's cell. She had to sit and listen to his shrieks and screams.' Sir John sat back and drank his wine.
'Oh, finish the story!' said Lady Anne impatiently.
Sir John needed no more encouragement. 'Well, one night the screams ceased,' he said ominously. 'Lady Johanna, who had been left for days without water or food, was now given some meat and a cup of wine. The dish was pushed through a small slit in the wall. She had to eat it, drink the wine and hand it back. This went on for months. The food and wine were always delivered when the bells of the castle sounded midnight.'
'Oh, I think I know what you're going to say.' Marisa put her fingers to her mouth and drew closer to Adam.
'One night the meat and wine stopped being served. Lady Johanna looked through the narrow slit in her cell. She pleaded with her husband to set her free. "Oh no," that evil man replied. "Tonight at midnight I will brick up this wall totally. There will be no more food or wine."'
'Be careful how you tell this part,' Lady Anne warned.
'Well, Lady Johanna asked why, so that scion of Satan told her the truth. The meat she had eaten was the salted flesh of her lover whom Black Malkyn had torn to pieces, and the wine cup she had been using was fashioned from the skull of her dead lover.'
'Oh, no!' Beatrice exclaimed. 'Sir John, that is a hideous story!'
Sir John drank from his cup and smacked his lips. 'Well, that's why they call it the Midnight Tower. On the anniversary of Lady Johanna's death, you can hear her dying screams and cries of horror as her brain turned mad before her body failed her.'
'Is the cell still there?' Marisa asked.
'It could be.' Sir John's eyes widened. 'There are storerooms in that part now, passageways and galleries. No one has ever looked, so no one knows what might be hidden there.'
'That's enough,' Lady Anne declared. 'You'll frighten us all. This is May Day!'
The conversation turned to other events. Father Aylred expressed his concern at the discontent in Maldon and the outlying villages where the peasants fumed and seethed with anger at the impositions laid on them by the great lords who held their wages down and kept them shackled to the soil. 'They are only poor earthworms,' Father Aylred said. 'And similar discontent is apparently spreading like fire among the stubble in other shires. There is talk of a great revolt, of a peasant army, more than the leaves in autumn, gathering and marching on London.'
'If that happens,' said Sir John stoutly, tapping the hilt of his dagger, 'Ravenscroft will drop its portcullis and raise the drawbridge.' He glanced round. 'We are all the King's men here. If the black banner of rebellion is unfurled, we will do our best to defend the King's rights.'
'But they are poor men and women,' Father Aylred protested. 'Their children grow thin, their bellies sag with hunger.'
'I know, I know.' Sir John was a kindly man and Beatrice could see he was deeply worried. 'I've done the best I can. I've given grain from the storerooms and I've warned the tax collector not to shear their sheep so close.'
'Well, thank God that person's not at our feast!' Lady Anne snapped.
They all murmured in agreement. A week earlier Goodman Winthrop, a tax collector from London, had arrived at the castle: a lanky, balding, snivel-nosed individual dressed in a grey fustian robe and high-heeled leather riding boots. Goodman Winthrop was a lawyer sent by the Exchequer to collect the poll tax in Ravenscroft, Maldon and the outlying areas. A sour, dour man who seemed to take delight in the task assigned to him, he had arrived accompanied by a clerk and four royal archers. He had demanded the protection of Ravenscroft Castle; Sir John had reluctantly agreed, on one condition, that Goodman Winthrop should not begin his tax collecting until after May Day. Sir John had provided him and his escort with chambers near the barbican overlooking the moat. 'Maybe the smell will drive him out' he commented. 'A more miserable caitiff I've never met.'
Fortunately, Goodman had kept to himself.
'He had the cheek to try and invite himself to our celebrations,' Sir John growled now. 'I told him to go and join those on the green. I am sure the good people of Maldon will give him a welcome he'll never forget!'
'He's also very interested in the legend,'Adam remarked. 'Last Sunday, just after we had gathered for vespers in the chapel, he took me aside. Full of the stories about Brythnoth's cross, he was. I told you about it, Ralph. He had even searched among the manuscripts at the Inns of Court for references to it.'
Ralph, his face flushed with wine, snorted with laughter and tapped the side of his nose. 'Goodman Winthrop should be busy about his taxes. I'm much nearer the treasure than anyone will ever be.'
Lady Anne leaned across. 'Ralph, do you really think you could find it?'
Ralph was embarrassed. 'I'm just playing with words,' he stammered. 'Master Winthrop's long nose could be used for better purposes,' he continued quickly, eager to divert attention. 'I mean the murder of poor Phoebe.'
His words created an immediate silence.
'Poor Phoebe,' Father Aylred echoed.
Sir John pursed his lips and nodded solemnly. 'A terrible murder. The guard who found her corpse is still being sick, says he cannot forget. Beardsmore's taken up with rage and sorrow.'
Everyone sat in silence. Three days earlier Phoebe, a maid from the castle, a buxom, bright-eyed lass, had left to return to her parents in their wattle-daubed cottage on the main trackway out of Maldon. When she did not arrive home, her father came to the castle the following morning to look for her. Beardsmore, the sergeant-at-arms, had taken charge; he was beside himself with worry. He had been on guard the previous night and had not seen Phoebe leave. He was sure his sweetheart was still in the castle. Still, a search had been organised and, within the hour, Phoebe's body had been found in Devil's Spinney, a copse of ancient oaks, only a short distance from the castle. Phoebe's throat had been cut from ear to ear and it was apparent, so Theobald Vavasour said, that she had been attacked and cruelly beaten before she was killed.
'Who could do that to a poor girl?' Father Aylred asked.
'I ...' Beatrice stared across at an old mangonel which lay on its side on the far side of the green.
'Go on, Beatrice,' Ralph urged. 'Tell Sir John.'
'When I left on Monday,' she said, 'I thought I saw someone near Devil's Spinney. All I glimpsed was a cowl and cloak, it could have been anyone.'
'The roads are full of wolf's-heads and outlaws,' Sir John commented. 'Landless men who prey upon the weak.'
Ralph shook his head. 'The trackway from the castle is fairly busy. Whoever killed Phoebe would have had to lure her into the spinney first, and no stranger could have done that.'
'You're saying that Phoebe must have gone to the spinney of her own free will to meet someone - the person Beatrice saw - who later killed her?'
'Perhaps,' Ralph replied.
'It's all very unsettling.' Father Aylred was pale-faced and anxious. 'Phoebe's murder, Beardsmore vowing vengeance and that cesspool of discontent, the Pot of Thyme.' He was referring to a tavern in Maldon, a well-known meeting place for malcontents.
'It's seething over the disappearance of Fulk the miller's son.'
'What happened to him?'
'No one knows. They say he came to Ravenscroft and hasn't been seen since.'
'Oh, enough of all this.' Lady Anne got to her feet. 'Tax collectors, witches, ghosts, murders! Now, I've made something special.'
'Oh good!' Ralph rubbed his stomach; Lady Anne's spiced cheese dish was famous.
'And for afterwards,' she said, 'some oriels. You all like elderberry, don't you?'
They all did and Sir John, eager to keep everyone happy, said he would serve some of his Rhenish wine which was kept cool in the castle cellars.
Adam brought out his flute and Ralph sang a song to the Virgin Mary, 'Maria Dulcis Mater', in a lusty voice, a fine complement to Adam's playing. The afternoon drew on. Each of the guests had to sing a song or recite a poem. The sun began to set. Wheeled braziers were lit and brought out, and pitch torches fired and lashed to poles driven into the ground. Their flames spluttered and danced in the night air.
'We shall feast and we shall feast,' Sir John declared, 'until we have feasted enough. Then Lady Anne here will serve some marchpane.'
'Time for a pause, I think,' said Theobald. 'A brisk walk, clear the dishes and the tables, then some marchpane. Afterwards we can sit here and really frighten ourselves with ghost stories.'
'Come on.' Lady Anne beckoned to Marisa and Beatrice. 'Help me carry these pots to the kitchens. The scullery maids can wash them.'
Ralph pinched the back of Beatrice's hand. 'I'll go for a walk along the parapet.' He pointed to the deserted sentry walk high on the wall. 'The night air is always invigorating.'
Beatrice and Marisa helped Lady Anne to collect the cups, empty bowls and jugs and take them into the chamber at the base of the keep. Scullions had prepared small vats full of hot water so the dishes could be soaked and washed. Beatrice chatted to Marisa for a while and then went back to the green. It was deserted now. The guests had dispersed to the latrines, or to wash or simply to walk off the effects of their feasting. Beatrice stood and stared at the large blue cloth, the great torches on either side, their flames casting strange shadows. She repressed a chill of fear. No more celebrations now. No merriment. It looked a ghostly place. She glanced across at Midnight Tower and wondered what horrors lurked there. She noticed that the parapet walk was dark; the torch which should have been lashed there must have fallen and gone out.
'I'll go up,' she decided. 'It will be nice to walk with Ralph and take the cool of the night.'
She hurried up the steps. At the top the wind whipped her hair. She stared out over the moat towards Devil's Spinney where the great oak trees loomed like petrified monsters against the night sky. What secrets did they hold? she wondered. Why had little Phoebe gone there? She peered ahead of her. Ralph should be here. She hurried along, remembering not to look to her left or right. Ralph had taught her that. 'Never look down and you'll never be dizzy,' he had advised. The door to Midnight Tower was open. She glimpsed a shape then something hit the ground in front of her, ringing like a fairy bell.
Was someone throwing coins at her? Beatrice bent down to pick it up. She heard a sound, a footstep and, as she raised her head, a terrible blow to her temples sent her flying through the night air to crash on to the cobbles below.