Blood On The Stone
Elizabeth had not long gone up to bed, declaring that she had “aboused and bolled enough for one night” – more than enough, Luke thought – when there came a thunderous knock at the door.
“Sorry to disturb, sirs”. A great dark overcoat made Robshaw’s outline in the candlelight even more bearlike than usual.
“What is it, Robshaw?”
“A body, sir. Night Watch found it, a short while ago, on the doorstep of that there new tavern, where we was earlier”.
“Have you seen it?”
“Not yet – one of the proctors knocked me up and I came straight here. ‘Tis said he’s been stabbed”. Luke felt twist of dread: the political atmosphere already contained enough tension, as their supper conversation had affirmed. An act of violence, as MPs and their hangers-on converged on the city, smelt of trouble.
“You did right. Very well, let’s go”.
The grey of the once-distinguished temples seemed to have drained through the face, washing out the vitality, as Luke peered down at the still, beaky face and splayed figure of the man who had introduced himself to them earlier as William Harbord, MP. Steady luminescence from the clear night sky mingled with the guttering light of Robshaw’s lantern as he held it above the body.
“There’s the wound”, the deputy pointed out unnecessarily, as the two light sources refracted in the congealed surface of a pool of blood emanating from Harbord’s abdomen.
“Where’s the weapon?” One of the University proctors, who had stood guard over the scene, piped up in reply.
“Can’t be found, sir”.
“Well, hasn’t been found, anyway”, Luke corrected him. “We’ll have to take a proper look in daylight”.
“I’ll need to clean up this here step, sirs”. Unsworth had pulled on coat and boots over his vest and canions, against the chill, and was now shifting agitatedly from foot to foot, a grimace of dismay etched on his features. The innkeeper had been held back from the murder scene by the watchmen, who looked a question in Luke’s direction. He nodded.
“May as well move it now, we can’t learn anything else here for the moment. Robshaw, put the body in my parlour”. The ‘parlour’ was in fact a wide stone landing at the head of a staircase down to a small cellar, behind Sandys’ office at the back of the Guildhall, a little further up Fish Street. Robshaw jingled his bunch of keys at the men to fetch the low cart they used to scoop up the dead and the dead-drunk alike from the city streets.
Turning to the innkeeper, Luke asked curtly: “So he was lodging, as well as drinking, in your unlicensed premises?” Unsworth’s voice and manner assumed their default attitude of obsequious wheedling.
“That he was, Master Sandys sir, though he was ever such a proper gentleman, sir”.
“That’s beside the point, Unsworth, as well you know. You told the Night Watch that you heard and saw nothing of this… incident? No altercation, no raised voices?” Unsworth made as if to say something, then glumly shook his head. “Very well. I shall want to talk to you further tomorrow. Make sure you’re here, or if you must go out, don’t go far”.
“Yessir”, he nodded, relieved.
Luke held open the door at the back of the Guildhall, off the stable yard. Harbord’s corpse was manhandled in, and through to the chamber at the back of his office, lain on a trestle table and covered with a length of muslin. Then he bade his deputy goodnight, locked up, and walked slowly back along Fish Street, towards the river. Unsworth was, sure enough, swabbing the threshold of The Unicorn and Jacob’s Well, too preoccupied to notice him passing by on the other side. The imposing limestone of Christ Church formed an apparently impenetrable barrier. Surely the King would be safe here? Though, on second thoughts, men still talked of the nine-pound shell fired by the New Model Army, during the siege of Oxford in the time of His Majesty’s father, Charles I, which had thudded against the wall of the college dining hall.
The great wooden doors, long since bolted for the night, were just a stone’s throw from the murder scene. He would have to interview the college porters to find out if they had seen anything amiss. That would mean approaching the Dean of the college, Bishop Fell, for permission to speak to them. Fell was an old friend, but would doubtless want something in return. Luke sighed: they’d already been braced for a busy week – and now there was this.
Turning homewards, Luke reached the junction of Blue Boar Street. He could take the short cut to the back end of Magpie Lane – but, on second thoughts, decided to go the long way round. With time now to plumb his memory, he recalled seeing Harbord’s name mentioned in one of the newsletters, or ‘mercuries’, that carried reports of parliamentary proceedings. Jane occasionally sent them to him from London. The Member for Thetford had been a great agitator of the ‘Popish Plot’, telling the House of Commons that “I profess I never go to bed, but I expect the next morning to hear of the King’s being killed”. Well, in a few short hours, news of his own death would be bruited abroad on the streets of Oxford.
As he passed The Mitre, a large coaching inn on the High Street, a faint light was snuffed out somewhere inside. Someone must have been tidying up, and was now retiring to bed. Luke’s pulse quickened as he realised it might be her – Cate Napper, the landlord’s daughter, and the person in Oxford whom he was most anxious to protect. He turned to walk on, though more slowly now, delaying his return. As he trod the moonlit pavement, he stepped in his mind’s eye into the bright future he imagined with Cate. Her faith seldom intruded into the vision, but now it loomed large as a potential hazard – for the Nappers were devotees of the old religion.
Luke turned up the collar of his coat as a chill breeze blew in from the east, and wrenched his attention back to the present. Harbord was not short of friends or allies, and their chief preoccupation seemed to be – as Ed put it – persecuting Catholics. Wouldn’t they immediately blame the MP’s murder on ‘Papists’? How would they react, if they found out about the Catholic family who ran one of the city’s most frequented drinking establishments? Was there any way they could know what Luke himself knew – that Romish rites and sacraments were secretly administered in The Mitre’s generously proportioned vaults? He shook his head impatiently. No point vexing himself with conjecture. On the morrow, he would have to begin taking practical steps to solve the murder – hopefully before it had time to ratchet up the political tension still further. Home now, he turned the key, let himself in, lit a candle, and quietly climbed the stairs to bed.