8-page murder mystery By alison Carter
The new bridge was a remarkable feat of engineering – and it was a clever and calculating mind which had engineered the murder of the Don found beneath it . . .
It was barely past dawn on Saturday, October 7, 1749, a misty Cambridge morning, with that pale light that seems to flood over the fens and soak the ancient buildings of the city.
Anne Mason trotted out of the Old Hall, glad to leave behind the odours of yesterday’s formal dinner.
She walked around the cloister and through the narrow passage to cross the wonderful new bridge. She had to get to the Porters’ Lodge to fetch a delivery of new milk, and what a pleasure it was to step over the Mathematical Bridge and feel its new timbers beneath her hurrying feet.
Her simple figure, dressed in the dull green of a maid’s customary dress, with a practical kerchief about her neck and tucked into her bodice, blended with the hues of the bridge.
In the silence Anne heard only a distant duck, and the faint slap of water against the steep side of the River Cam.
But then she heard a heavier sound, the thud of wood on stone. She leaned against the side of the bridge and peered down to the dark waters.
The edge of a punt peeped out into her field of vision, and she frowned. That clumsy vessel was still there, then, clogging up the handsome scene – the new bridge, the grassy bank, the shining waters.
A slight current pulled the punt out a little from under the bridge, and a pair of shoes came into view, forming a neat V with their soft black leather toes facing away from each other.
If this is an undergraduate, Anne thought, he’s fallen asleep drunk in the punt overnight and will get a drubbing from the next Fellow to cross from one half of Queens’ College to the other.
Wearing light dinner pumps, and in this autumn chill! Then Anne saw breeches slide into view, and noticed that the legs were not those of a young, virile man, but bent and thin.
She hurried over to the other side of the bridge and stared down as the face of Dr Gregorius looked back at her, eyes open but with not a spark of life in them.
A pool of dark liquid was soaking into the rough wood of the punt below his grizzled neck and chest. The doctor was most certainly dead.
Friday, October 6, 1749
“It’s a handsome thing, Mrs Essex, and that’s a fact.”
Anne put her basket on the ground and stood beside her friend. The two of them gazed upon the bridge, its lovely arch, the long, straight, smooth wooden beams that made up its structure. It was early and none of the lazy undergraduates were yet up and doing.
“It’s a masterpiece, Anne,” Mrs Essex said. “My husband is an architect with no equal. You know, of course, that although it appears curved, there is not one curved piece of timber in the whole thing?”
Anne looked afresh, and sure enough, the Mathematical Bridge was made of entirely straight pieces.
“It needs no fixings at all.” Mrs Essex – Elizabeth, as Anne sometimes dared to call her – was smiling happily. “You might lift the whole thing complete and set it down here in the quad, and it would be just as strong and stable as before.
“So my husband says. He talks of arcs, and radials, and tangents – or some such. I think the word, the thing that keeps it up, is commission.”
“Compression, perhaps?” Anne suggested.
“Compression! Just so,” Elizabeth said brightly. “For myself, I wish I understood one jot of it, but I do not, except that I am proud as a peacock of my James.”
“Well, it is quite a thing,” Anne said.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see Cook appearing around the back of the college buildings, and his movements, even at this distance, told her that it would be a busy day.
“But I can’t stand here all day and admire,” she said. “It’s the Formal Dinner this afternoon, and all hands are on deck.”
“James is invited to that dinner,” Elizabeth said, “and I am allowed into college today not just to view his work, but also to find out for him what he must wear, having no academic gown.”
“They’re sticklers at High Table, Mrs Essex, so get along to the porters, who will tell you exactly what’s required.”
It was soon after the beginning of term, and the scene was Queens’ College, Cambridge. Anne had been lady’s maid at the President’s Lodgings for two years, and hard work she had of it.
The colleges, she observed, seemed so serene to anyone popping their head through a wicket gate and taking a sneaky look at a great court or college garden, but they were packed full of dons and professors, and above all they were packed with pimply undergraduates who got in the way.
The President’s Lodgings were the location of a hundred grand gatherings a year, beyond all those dinners in the Great Hall.
Anne’s mistress, Lady Sedgwick (wife of the president), needed sewing doing at every moment, endless items fetched from the town, and even advice on food and drink.
Everyone knew that Anne Mason was a clever girl, for a maid, who could set her hand to anything.
Today was not a private dinner in the lodgings. Today was a great, tiresome feast in the Hall at which she must add her labours to those of the usual army of serving men and women. There were never enough servants.
Picking up her basket, Anne took one last look at the new bridge. It would make life easier, that was certain – a quicker way to get over the Cam and from one part of college to the other.
It was so handsome! Anne felt sure that it would be there for centuries, perhaps even another three hundred years (which was the age of Queens’ College), and be a sight to see for thousands of folk to come.
“Thank you, Anne,” Mrs Essex said. “I will enquire at the lodge.” She set off to climb the slope of the bridge.
“You’ll want to go this a-way,” Anne said gently, pointing behind her.
Mrs Essex blinked and laughed.
“Yes, of course. You know how distracted I can be, Anne, and that I have no sense of direction. My husband despairs of me! He, a man who designs these marvellous structures, and me, his wife, a silly thing!”
A punt bumped against the bank below the bridge.
“Not silly, Mrs Essex,” Anne said, smiling.
“Please call me Elizabeth,” the lady replied. Anne looked at the punt. “I must speak to the Clerk of Works about these boats. They have begun to moor again in this section of the river.”
“Certainly they are ugly,” Elizabeth said.
“Farmers and tradesmen use them to carry all manner of cargo north and south, to and from the fens. If they need to stop, they ought to tie up outside the city, or at least pollute the air of some other college. They stink of unprocessed wool or of eel buckets!”
Elizabeth screwed up her nose.
“I must go,” she said, and turned and trotted away, her lawn petticoat a flash of bright pink against the sober colours of the college.
“Are you Mrs Sedgwick’s maid?”
Anne turned to see Dr Gregorius behind her, his scowling face dark with stubble. He was a miserable, selfish old don who lodged in some of the best rooms in Queens’. “Yes, sir.” She curtseyed. The doctor was a fool not to know who she was – she was about college all day, every day, and indispensable to all.
“Where’s Doctor Sedgwick?” he demanded crossly.
The old man had no grace about him, no pleases or thank yous.
“I cannot say, sir, where the president is just now. I saw him at breakfast with Mrs Sedgwick, but that was an hour ago.”
Dr Gregorius grunted. Anne noticed a great smear of egg on his necktie and screwed up her nose. Sometimes, in times of sickness among the college staff, she had to make an attempt to clean Dr Gregorius’s rooms, and they were dreadful.
What a waste of good chambers it was, too, to have them inhabited by a don who taught little and produced no scholarship at all, so they said.
Even the servants knew that Dr Gregorius abused his position in the college through his idleness, and that the other dons would dearly love to eject him, but that it could not be done without statute. A bad don was very difficult to dislodge.
“Fetch that boy – what’s his name?” the doctor said. “The idiot who can’t brush a horse to save his life.”
“Ben Atkins, Doctor. Groomsman.”
“He doesn’t deserve the title,” the doctor said. “Fetch him. I need to find Sedgwick and talk to him soon about the riff-raff they are allowing to sit at High Table now. Atkins will know where the president is, since he prepares his carriage.”
“I believe Ben Atkins is out of college, sir, visiting his –”
“Visiting! Visiting, just as full term begins! Who do these servants think they are?”
“His mother has the gout very badly, and so –”
“What do I care about the mother or the boy?” the don shouted. “I need assistance, and this college is gone to the dogs!” He glared down at Anne, and she turned away at the reek of his breath.
“This builder, this Essex cur who pegs together bits of oak – I hear he is to dine at our High Table, just for using his saw and his hammer!” Dr Gregorius shook his head in disgust.
Anne looked at the Mathematical Bridge and smiled. It was so much more than saw and hammer. She knew no mathematics, but Mrs Essex had told her something of the skill that went into it, the lack of nails, the perfect balance of weight and wood. Dr Gregorius knew nothing.
He was limping off now, gouty himself, grumbling.
Anne disliked Dr Gregorius with a nagging intensity, not because he had done her any harm, but because of the way he treated Ben.
Ben Atkins – fair-haired, smiling Ben who had barely looked at Anne although she could never take her eyes from him. Ben, who was her senior by half a decade and handsome as the sun. The mere thought of him made the hand that held her basket tremble.
The doctor had beaten Ben more than once – a coward’s beating with a thin cane in a corner of the stable yard before Ben could see it coming. Anne had seen the marks, and heard Ben’s short, agonised cry one day over a wall.
Cook, his teeth set in anger, had told Anne in an unguarded moment what had happened, how Ben had prepared a mare for one of the younger fellows who went off out to see his sweetheart. He had forgotten that Dr Gregorius needed a horse.
It had been a slip, Cook said, and for it Ben had received a bloody stripe on his neck and a scar that would never fully fade.
Anne watched the old fool leave the court. What a mean-spirited, Godless beast he was!
She had to hurry now and make a start on a list of tasks that was an arm long. Sometimes it was not a blessing that she could read, because people gave her lists!
It was a long, exhausting day. Dinner was at the customary hour of four in the afternoon, and what plucking and rolling, buttering and slicing there was before that!
High Table was to be full to bursting, and everything had to be just so. Anne emerged along a dark passageway beside the bakehouse and almost bumped into Tom Godwin.
“Why, Miss Anne!” he said, smiling his twinkling smile and taking the bucket of pig slops from her. “This is too heavy for you.”
“Now, that’s nonsense, Mr Godwin,” Anne said. “I go to the pigs daily, with or without you.” He grinned. “But I like to help; it’s more fun being amongst the bustle of the servants than among the pale philosophers up there!”
Tom Godwin was an undergraduate in his second year of study. Very unusually he was of ordinary stock, the son of a bookbinder who had shown such promise at school that the schoolmaster, a member himself of Queens’ College, had recommended a scholarship.
Tom was cheeky and fun, a friend to many and a welcome change from the serious faces of the sons of the gentry. Anne suspected that his studies were not his highest concern, but she liked him all the more for that.
“Give me that pail,” Anne said. She knew that it wasn’t quite proper to chatter with the undergraduates, but Tom was barely one of them.
“Shan’t,” he said. “Not until you tell me who is to be at this grand dinner.”
“And why do you want to know?”
He tapped the full bucket against the stone wall.
“Well, I admire this architect fellow, and I’d like to hear what he says.”
“Well, Mr James Essex will indeed be there.”
“Then I shall listen at the door and hear what manifest pearls fall from his lips.”
“Will you be a builder when you have taken your degree?” Anne asked. He looked a little crestfallen. “My father wants much more for me,” he said. “I must choose a profession, be the first of the Cambridgeshire Godwins to do so, and make a mint of money as a lawyer or some such.”
“I am sure you can do that,” Anne said.
“But have I the time?” Tom asked, and grinned again. “I have too many other interests.”
Anne, though she had no fancy for him herself, could see why he was beloved of the town girls and admired by the callow students.
Rumour had it that Tom Godwin had known war, which gave him a certain romance that was rare in this city of cossetted scholars.
Before being given his scholarship, Tom was supposed to have been briefly in a regiment, and to have helped put down the Jacobite Rising in Scotland – all before he was nineteen!
Sometimes he made modest reference to this, and Anne had seen the girls outside the Eagle and Child tavern blush and simper, and students gasp.
The dinner went well. Cook smiled and sighed with relief as the cake went out. He gave Anne a slice of apple tart and said she could go as soon as she’d scraped the grease from a great copper roasting pan.
She washed her hands with soap until they were raw, trying to rid them of the scent of beef dripping, and wandered across the bridge and towards the lovely old chapel.
It was seven at night, and Evensong was over, so it was a good moment to sneak in and sit in the pews, gazing up at the roof and enjoying the peace.
Anne loved the silence, but when she realised her head was drooping, she gathered her skirts and slipped back out of the chapel. It was a dark night, cloud-covered, but she recognised the voices of Mr Dutton and Professor Walsh.
“The thing is still primitive,” the younger man, Dutton, said softly. “It’s barely been improved since the days of the First George.”
“You talk nonsense, as ever, Dutton,” the professor said in his cracked voice. “Thirty yards is quite unnecessary.” Dutton chuckled. “We shall see, Francis, we shall see,” he said.
“But is the thing safe from Bill’s critical eye?” the professor asked.
“He’ll never know,” Dutton said. “I’ve seen to that.”
Anne frowned. These two
Fellows of the college, as far as she knew, undertook no scientific studies. Mr Dutton was trying for a post in the Greats department, and Walsh was his superior. Anne had no idea what their plan might involve, and why it was unsuitable for the eyes or ears of the president.
Anne dragged her aching feet back to the room she shared with one of the chambermaids, washed, crawled on to the pallet and was asleep before her body hit the horse hair mattress. Saturday, October 7, 1749
Anne ran to the Porters’ Lodge and cried murder.
It was soon apparent that the academics were going to be of no use whatever in discovering how Dr Gregorius had ended up lifeless in an empty punt with his life’s blood soaking into its timbers. They rushed about and made no progress.
The Clerk of Works, a sensible man with a great deal of muscle, summoned two porters and they lifted the cold body of the doctor and prepared to bear it into the chapel for decency’s sake, but not before almost every member of college had viewed the gory scene.
“Shot with a Brown Bess,” a voice behind Anne said.
She had been charged by the clerk with tracking down the owner of the punt, and she was already dreading entering the nastier inns of the city. She spun round to see Tom Godwin behind her.
“I beg your pardon,” she said. “A brown what?”
“Brown Bess. A standard musket. I saw the bullet hole when they got him out, poor old fellow.” Anne stared. “Goodness,” she said, “I never heard of anyone shot in a college before.”
“It’s a bad day,” he agreed. “Do they think it was the owner of the punt that killed him? They shouldn’t have let some passing merchant moor up there, that’s what I say.”
“Do you think the murderer was in the punt with the doctor?” Anne asked. Tom shrugged. “It is not likely. Such proximity would have meant more . . .”
He hesitated, clearly wishing to spare the delicate feelings of a female, but Anne’s eager expression made him carry on.
“More, er, gore, Anne. No, whoever had that Brown Bess was . . .” he scanned the sides of the river “. . . on one side or the other, at a window, perhaps, for that sort of wound. The river is narrow enough that a musket’s span of accuracy would allow it.” Anne nodded. “Poor man,” she said. “Come, now,” Tom said, “you didn’t like him any more than I did, any more than anyone here did. He was a miserable creature.” Anne sighed. “We should not speak ill.” “I suppose not. I can’t say we were bosom friends, the doctor and I, but I’d not have killed him, even if I had a Brown Bess about me.”
Tom looked pale, and Anne could see that the event had shaken him. Perhaps he had the added trouble of memories of war, memories that he didn’t care to revisit.
The president, in his full gown and wig, strode up. Anne curtseyed and Tom bowed.
“Are you Godwin, the scholarship man?” the president asked. Tom nodded respectfully. “The porters are saying that you can tell it was a gun that got him.”
“Yes, sir. A musket, at my guess.”
“Good Lord! How did such a weapon get into my college?” Sir William looked about him, the black folds of his gown moving in the October breeze. “Smith, come here.”
The most senior of the porters bustled over.
“Sir,” he said, touching his soft, three-cornered hat.
“If a weapon – a gun, by thunder – has got into Queens’, I want to know how. The Fellows will be appalled – in a place of study and of peace!”
Smith, the porter, bristled. The porters saw themselves as keepers of all that was important in college life, and as utterly eff icient. They suffered no fools gladly.
“I think you will f ind, sir, that my men have not ever been lax in –”
“Then how did the thing get inside?” the president interrupted. “A common soldier’s weapon, if this man’s opinion is accurate.”
Anne was edging away, but then she stopped.
“Begging your pardon, Sir William,” she said.
The president, a very tall man, looked about him for a moment before noticing Anne. “What is it, girl?” “Might not the weapon have come into college via the river itself?”
Several nearby voices fell silent, and Smith nodded emphatically, pleased that the dedication of his men was not in question. The president blinked. “Ah, yes, that’s true, of course.” He scanned the scene. “Is that man Atkins here? Get him to find the owner of that filthy punt.”
“Mr Atkins is yet away, Sir William,” Anne said carefully, “visiting his ailing mother. He’s been gone some days on leave of absence. But I have already been tasked by the Clerk of Works with searching the taverns.”
“What are you waiting for?” Sir William almost shouted. “I want this terrible incident cleared up.”
Tom gave Anne a twinkling look of sympathy, and she hurried to the Great Gate to leave college. On her way, she noticed Walsh and Dutton standing in the court, looking up at a tall mullioned window and whispering.
That window surely belonged to the rooms of Dr Gregorius. She had to assume that, now he was dead, his colleagues had realised that the best set of rooms in college had become available.
In Queens’ Lane, Elizabeth Essex hurried up behind Anne and fell into step with her.
“James has told me all about it!” she said. “He was back in the college this morning, talking over the maintenance of his bridge with the clerk, and he came out to the court when you raised the alarm!”
The Essex family lived a stone’s throw from Queens’ College, and so heard its news daily.
“What can have happened?” Elizabeth said. “It’s terrible.”
“This musket may have come in with the punt,” Anne said. “I am to find the man who owns the punt and have him brought here. I will begin at the Eagle and Child, being the closest and most likely inn.” Elizabeth gaped. “But he might be a dangerous fellow, Anne!”
“I hadn’t thought of it, but you may be right.”
“I will provide support, and call for an off icer if anything happens,” Mrs Essex said eagerly. She turned on her heel and headed swiftly right down Trumpington Street.
“Mrs Essex,” Anne called, and the lady turned, smiling. “The Eagle is this way.”
“Oh, yes, of course, how foolish of me. I never know where I am going.”
As they walked, Elizabeth chattered on about Dr Gregorius, her mind wandering through many possibilities.
“You do not suppose that he simply, well, died of natural causes? The gentleman was
aged, and did not have the most healthy habits, Anne.”
Anne smiled to herself. Mrs Essex was a sweet lady, but her mind was not among the sharpest that Cambridge offered. Sometimes Anne wondered what passed between this wife and her brilliant husband over their dinner table.
“That might have been a likely cause,” Anne said gently, “were it not for the great hole in the doctor’s head, and the copious blood upon the punt.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” Mrs Essex giggled.
They reached the Eagle, and Anne went in and enquired after the punt’s owner while Mrs Essex waited outside.
“We don’t get hardly any puntsmen in here,” the landlord said, sniffing. “They keep to the fens.”
“What about Davy Winslow?” a fat woman, no doubt his wife, said. “He only comes in a few times a year, and he’s been known to bring a flat boat through the shallows around here, carrying cargoes up to Waterbeach or beyond.” The landlord laughed. “Winslow! He’d have had trouble shooting one of them college men yesterday.” “Why is that?” Anne asked. The landlord pointed to a bundle in a corner of the inn.
“Davy,” he shouted. “Young woman to see you.”
The bundle shifted, and a red, shiny face peeped out. Two rheumy eyes blinked once, closed again, and the bundle let out a great shaking snore.
“Oh, Rob,” the landlady said to her husband. “You let him stay the night.” The landlord turned to Anne. “Sorry, missy, but Davy Winslow’s been entirely on his back and drowned in strong ale since yesterday noon or thereabouts. Poor Davy, he has a hard life and his visit to the city is his yearly treat. And I can promise you he’s no money for bread, let alone a musket. The other fellas bought him his ale.”
Anne traipsed back to Queens’ and related her findings to the clerk. He appeared to have taken over the matter now that the president had been called away to London.
“Well, I knew you’d get the tale right, Anne,” he said glumly. “I don’t think we’ll discover who did this deed, and it’s bad having folks gossip about the college, so it will have to be allowed to rest, I think, and sink below the attention of prying eyes.
“But,” Anne said, “I am sure there are ways to look into it, questions to ask.”
“It was done in the dark, Anne, after the formal dinner. The doctor was at table right until the end, laying into the port wine, and so nobody saw the murder, or we’d know.”
“Still, a murderer leaves a trace; I’m sure that’s true. May I think on it?” The clerk shrugged. “Sir William is busy now, and abroad in London; I truly think he’d like to forget this, Anne. But if you think you can uncover things, you carry on.” He smiled. “I’d have thought you had enough work to do.”
Anne left the clerk. She chose not to mention that her usual daily work was all toil and drudgery, whereas murder offered something more lively altogether.
She had jobs to do that day for Lady Sedgwick – hems to turn up and lace to soak – until at least six in the evening, but after that she slipped back into chapel.
Servants were permitted to sit in the back rows of pews, behind the choir stalls, except for important services, and in Anne’s experience the chapel was an excellent place to hear the loose talk of the college.
The love affairs of the choral scholars were much discussed between the Introit and the Psalm. She had observed that the tenors got themselves into far more romantic trouble than the basses, which Anne felt was a subject for later study.
She knelt to pray as the dean sang the chants, and then sat up and looked about her. The rows of oak pews were arranged in a rising rake up the chapel sides, and Anne saw below her the unmistakable fair hair of Ben Atkins bent over a hymnal. Her heart leaped in her breast. So he was returned from his mother and father’s home!
Anne sat, watching the candlelight reflect off his hair and daydreaming. She ought, of course, to have been absorbing every word of the sermon, and she did keep her finger in her Bible at the lesson, which was Mark 4:22: “For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.”
But Ben was so near, and she felt such an ache in her heart, that it was diff icult to listen to the dean, and hard to keep the lesson in mind.
At last Evensong was over. For the first time, as the people rose to leave, Anne noticed Mr Dutton among them. He nodded to Anne as she hovered in the porch, waiting to see if Ben would notice her.
Then Professor Walsh appeared, rubbing his eyes after a chapel nap, and Anne was certain that he avoided the eye of his student, Mr Dutton.
The dean emerged and engaged them both in conversation about the Michaelmas services, and they looked uncomfortable and ready to leave.
“Mr Atkins!” Anne said, feigning surprise as Ben came out of the chapel porch. “I did not know you were here! Giving up a prayer for your mother? I hope she is recovered.” He blushed. “Oh, she is so much better,” he said. “I came back only this last hour, and since the stable lads have seen to the horses so well in my absence, and the service was just beginning, I thought I’d f ind a little peace.”
“We have been so noisy today, of course,” Anne said, “with the terrible matter of Doctor Gregorius.”
Ben looked puzzled, and Anne found that he had not heard about the murder. She described the facts thus far – the punt, the body, the weapon, the lack of any idea of who had done it.
“A musket?” Ben’s face turned pale, and Anne’s heart took another tumble. She wondered if Ben were somehow involved in this murder. If not, why was he pale?
He glanced over at the two dons. Anne could see that they were in fact straining to hear what she and Ben were saying, as the dean murmured on about choir practices and flowers.
“Yes, a musket. What’s called a Brown Bess,” Anne said. “Ben, what is it?”
The dean had scuttled away to his ecclesiastical planning, and Ben glanced at Walsh and Dutton.
“Nothing at all,” Ben said. “What a terrible day for the college. Now I must get back to my work.”
He fled, and Anne was left flabbergasted. Either these three men, all so different, were something to do with the death of the doctor, or something else nefarious was afoot.
Anne couldn’t sleep that night. She tossed and turned and annoyed her bedfellow, the chambermaid. The brief exchange she had heard between the professor and Mr Dutton, in the dark before the murder, kept returning to her – words about distance, and about hiding something from the president . . .
In the morning, a Sunday, she badly fumbled the dressing of her mistress’s hair and dropped a pot of powder. In the end Lady Sedgwick sent her away in irritation to buy more powder. Anne set off for the town along Silver Street and met Elizabeth Essex, eager for news.
“There is something afoot, Mrs Essex,” Anne said, hesitating, desperate not to mention Ben if it could be avoided. “It is something to do with that gun, for I heard two Fellows talking about something before the dreadful murder, which I feel almost certain was the weapon itself.”
“Two wicked men?” Elizabeth asked, her face a picture of fascinated curiosity. “Two brigands of the town?”
“No, Mrs Essex, two Fellows of the college.” “Oh. Who?” Anne hesitated. It was usually unwise to voice suspicions about one’s betters.
“Well, I heard Professor Walsh and young Mr Dutton, who –”
“Oh, Frederick Dutton!” Elizabeth relaxed. “You know, I might have married him, but he’s a dullard. All that Latin and Greek! I chose my James and it was the choice of a sensible woman, whatever they say about my lack of brain.
“Look, Anne, there he is, over there!” She was waving her gloved hand. “Why don’t we ask him about the Brown Bess? He’s sure to tell me, because I was his sweetheart for ever such a long –”
“Elizabeth!” Anne seized the lady’s arm. “You must not!”
But Mrs Essex was over the street already, narrowly missing being mown down
by a cart and horse. She had taken Frederick Dutton by the wrist and was talking intently to him. Anne crossed after her.
“Freddie,” she was saying. “If you have been playing with guns, then we must learn about it. Of course I know you could no more murder that old man than drive a knife into your own heart, but Anne here must and will know all the facts of the case, mustn’t you, Anne?”
Anne stood, wide-eyed, waiting to see what the young scholar would say. There was a pause.
“Oh, heavens, Lizzie,” he said, his face fallen, “what a muddle. It’s a relief to talk.”
Mrs Essex touched his wig and then his shoulder, as though patting a small dog. “Freddie, just tell us.”
“We had a bet, the professor and I. It was tomfoolery, knowing that the president will not allow arms into college. Jacob – Jacob Walsh, you know, the man who knows Heroditus so well?” Elizabeth nodded and smiled. “Jacob and I got into a dispute. He claimed that the modern musket is an improvement, that it can reach its target at more than thirty yards with accuracy. It’s all nonsense, but he says that wars are won so much more easily because of this advance, and he would not be silenced, so I laid a guinea on it.”
“And then you had to fetch a musket, for proof?” Anne asked.
He blinked at her, no doubt astonished to be questioned by a servant, but carried on.
“We had one brought in, paid a servant well. It is in college, in a blanket chest that’s never used; the servant said he’d put it in there.” He looked anxious. “At least, it was. It ought to be checked, now that this thing has happened. I’ve talked with the professor. We both acknowledge that we are ashamed of our bet and our secret, but when neither of us confessed at the scene of the murder, well, it became impossible to do so later.”
Mrs Essex gave him a look of sympathy.
“You are quite right to speak now,” she said, and then turned to Anne. “There, Anne dear, we have found an answer to the source of the musket.”
Anne gathered every ounce of her courage.
“Sir, how do we know that you, or Professor Walsh, or both of you together, did not take that musket and kill Doctor Gregorius yourselves?” Dutton’s face blanched. “I, kill a man? We didn’t even know where one might store the thing. I’d never laid eyes on a gun in my life!” He seemed to recollect himself. “You are Anne, who attends Lady Sedgwick?” he said. “I do not think you may make accusations.
“Anyway, we did not see the gun, not after we gave it to a servant for locking in the chest. That was days before the murder. We meant to use the gun only once, to settle the bet, and then have it removed.”
He ran a hand through the stiff whiteness of his wig, distracted.
“We couldn’t know that someone would come and take it.”
“Now,” Mrs Essex said, enthusiastic in her new role as detective, “which servant was this?” She looked from Anne to Dutton, and back again.
But Anne already knew, and a weight settled on her heart.
“The man who grooms the horses,” Dutton said in a sullen voice. “Benjamin.”
Anne dreaded her next encounter with Ben Atkins. It was only now, knowing that he might be a murderer, she realised that she was in love with him.
If he was the only man to have known about the gun, and if he had stored it away to serve the stupid wager between the dons, then it seemed perfectly possible that he had killed Dr Gregorius.
She walked to the office of the Clerk of Works with a heavy heart. The clerk agreed to have the four large blanket boxes in the linen store checked. There was no musket in any. The murderer had used it and (most probably) cast it into the Cam afterwards, so that it could never be traced.
Anne thought of those beatings, and of Ben’s expression whenever Dr Gregorius crossed his path.
“Yes, I helped them,” Ben said in a dull voice. They were alone in the stable. “Fools, both of them. They paid me to fetch them a musket. I rode to the garrison yonder.” He waved a hand to the west. “I put it in the blanket chest – Dutton thought that was a good hiding place.
“I laid it in the chest that’s never used, and I swear, Anne, that I never went there again nor saw it again. I knew they would conduct some experiment, but thankfully I travelled a few days later to my mother’s house – you know that – and that was the end of it.”
Anne put her hands over her face, then looked at him.
“But at any time between the storing of the musket and your departure, you could have taken the gun again, used it, thrown it away. That is what will be said.”
“I didn’t. I am no killer, Anne!” His expression was all urgent appeal, and she longed to hold him, and to be sure that he was telling the truth.
“He beat you, Ben,” Anne said softly, and she heard his gasp, in the muffled quiet of the stable.
He closed his eyes, his face contorted in agony.
“Yes, and I hated him – a callous, cruel man who cared for no-one.”
He opened his eyes again, large and blue, and even now Anne would have given anything for him to kiss her, there among the trusty horses and the sweet hay.
“But I cannot kill. It isn’t in me, Anne.”
She nodded, and left him, vowing that she would find the truth, and that this man, whom she loved, would not hang at Caxton Gibbet.
Ben’s salvation came from an unexpected quarter. Work took over for Anne, as Sunday ended and Monday began.
Lady Sedgwick had a bad cold, and there were poultices to prepare and broths to strain. Anne scurried from President’s Lodgings to kitchens and back.
Later, she went to the laundry to find a housemaid who would press some sheets for her in a hurry, and was taken aback to see a pile of used tablecloths stir in a corner.
“Who is that?” she said sternly, and after a minute a small figure emerged.
It was a little girl, no more then six, in petticoats and a mob cap. She had the round face and dark eyes of Cook.
“Oh, Dorcas!” Cook had entered hurriedly behind Anne, who turned round and saw that he looked really shamefaced. “This my daughter,” he said. The child ran up and wrapped her plump arms around her father’s leg.
“My wife is near her confinement, and poorly with it. I have no friend or relative to leave this one with, and she gets into everything. Don’t you, sweeting?” He bent to embrace the child. “So I have let Dorcas sleep in the laundry, Anne. She’s been such a good girl, hiding away and playing.”
Anne patted the child’s head and smiled.
“Well, Dorcas, and what have you been amusing yourself with among the shirts and the lye?”
The child leaped away from her father and held up her little hands. She closed one eye, arranged her arms as if firing a weapon, and shouted, “Bang!”
Cook and Anne stared at her, then Anne approached her carefully, getting down on one knee.
“Is that you with a gun, dear?” she asked.
The little girl nodded enthusiastically.
“I couldn’t lift it out, but I practised for when I could!”
The child ran over to the row of blanket chests along the wall, swiftly pursued by Anne. The little girl clambered over the near three chests to reach the one at the back, a dusty old thing that looked like it had been made in the time of Queen Bess and hardly used.
“In here!” the child said, and heaved open the heavy lid. Her father came forward lest the lid trap her arms. Dorcas looked down into the chest.
“All gone,” she said forlornly. “No gun. No bang.”
Cook confirmed that Dorcas had been sleeping in the laundry since before Ben Atkins left for his mother’s home.
Dorcas was certain that her precious gun had been in the chest until what she called “two sleeps since”, and Cook swore that his daughter had a good grasp of time.
So it had to be very recently that the gun had been taken, and certainly since Ben had left, many days ago.
“Then it is almost impossible
that Ben took the gun to kill Dr Gregorius!” Anne said joyfully.
Dorcas would have regretted the loss of her toy before. She had been checking that chest at least daily.
Anne kissed Dorcas many times and gave her barley sugar. Cook was less than cheerful about his daughter having a musket for a toy, but he agreed with Anne about the timing, and Anne ran off to find Ben.
“I knew you could not have done such a thing,” she said.
“I am glad to hear it,” Ben said, “for your opinion is of importance to me.” Suddenly his arms were around her, and shortly afterwards he kissed her, and all was right, Anne felt, with the world.
“But,” Ben said a while later, “you still do not know who killed Gregorius.”
“Perhaps nobody cares,” Anne said, happy in his arms.
“Perhaps they ought to,” he said, and Anne knew that he was the right man to love, because he was virtuous.
“The gun was taken, and very lately,” she said, thinking, “by someone stealthy, who avoided the gaze of Dorcas.”
They walked out on to Silver Street and leaned over the north side of the bridge, looking towards the Mathematical Bridge. Ben put his arm around her.
“Tell me,” she said, “why you took not a whit of notice of me from the day you came to Queens’ College.” He smiled. “Don’t you know that when a man falls in love, a shy man like me, he can’t bear to look, in case he never gets his heart’s desire, and because he’s afraid and awkward.”
Anne kissed him right there on Silver Street, as the ladies and gentlemen passed by. A minute later, she pushed him away.
“We must stand our suspects up and knock them down,” she said firmly. “Like ninepins?” Anne nodded. “First – and I take no pleasure in standing him up there – is the builder of that bridge. He was in the college that evening and had cause to dislike the doctor.” “Mr Essex? His motive?” “Doctor Gregorius showed open disdain for men he thought beneath him. I myself heard him say that Mr Essex should not be asked to dine at High Table.”
“But he’s a clever man. Mr Essex, I mean.”
“And as such might find a way to commit a murder.” “Surely not.” “We must knock him down, Ben. That’s the plan.”
“You’re a girl with a fine mind, Anne,” he said, putting his arms around her waist.
“For a lady’s maid, you mean?”
“For anything. Give me a kiss.”
“Wait.” She was thinking again, and as she gazed along the river at the Mathematical Bridge, and the ancient buildings of Queens’, she knew there was something she was missing.
“Well, we must speak to the builder of the bridge,” she said.
“Dare we? A maid and a groomsman, approach the engineer?”
“I know his wife. I dare.”
They walked to the Essex house on Malting Lane. Ben’s work in the stables waited; Anne’s mistress would fly into a rage when she returned. But Anne had the bit between her teeth.
On the way they met Tom Godwin who (Anne knew) ought to be about his business, too, studying.
“Can I be of assistance?” he asked, nodding at Ben. He wore an untidy yellow frock coat and his stockings were grubby. Anne felt that Tom was something of a misfit in a seat of learning.
“Mr Godwin,” Anne said, “should you not be at lectures?”
“I know it, Miss Anne,” Tom said, “but I’m better moving about, a-doing of things.”
“Well, we are a-knocking down the ninepins,” Anne said.
Tom cocked his head on one side, and that infectious grin was back. “Ninepins?” “I will tell you anon,” Anne said, “but now we have to go.”
Elizabeth was out visiting a sick friend, and to begin with James Essex saw no reason to converse with two servants, and young ones at that.
“The Clerk of Works at the college,” Ben explained respectfully, “has given up on finding the murderer of Doctor Gregorius, and so we think it incumbent upon us to try, sir.” Mr Essex shrugged. “I had no liking for the old man,” he said. He led them into a parlour and bade them sit.
James Essex was a sharp, intelligent man with what Anne spotted was probably a quick temper. He might possibly, she thought, kill a man in anger.
“I admire the university well enough,” he said, “and many of the men who work inside the colleges. I dare say that these topics they study – Philosophy, the Classics – are as important as engineering.”
The expression on his face did not match his words.
“But there are men there who think themselves far superior, and Gregorius is – was – one of those men.”
Anne swallowed hard, and gathered all her courage to ask him for an alibi.
“We hope to establish,” she said, “for the benefit of our employer, the college, where each . . . where each person was who, that evening, might have been able to –”
She was interrupted, and was glad of the interruption, as the figure of Elizabeth Essex burst into the room. Her husband stood to greet her.
“These two are asking where I was on Friday night last, Lizzie,” he said, smiling. Elizabeth smiled at Anne. “Friday night? Well, you came back from the dinner at the college with far too much brandy inside you, and snored most lustily all the night!”
Mr Essex coloured and looked irritated, but his wife carried on regardless.
“Now, Anne, how goes the investigation into the murder of that poor old man? I have been meaning to come to find you, because I have such an idea!”
They all looked at her doubtfully, but she nodded vigorously.
“Why should the punt not have come into the college containing the body of Dr Gregorius?”
She was lit up with the cleverness of her notion.
“Then the doctor might have been cruelly murdered anywhere along the river by some rogue wanting his timepiece, or his –”
“Except that you and I saw the punt, quite empty, that very morning,” Anne said gently. Elizabeth looked crestfallen. “There now,” she said, “you are right, as always. Why can I not figure these things as you can?”
Her husband drew an arm around her.
“You are a woman of many good parts,” he said, “and I love you.”
She smiled her pretty dimpled smile, and then Anne and Ben took their leave.
“I will just call upon the kitchen,” Anne said, and they ducked around the side of the house.
The maid-of-all-work was picking weevils from a pot of flour, and happy enough to stop and talk to fellow servants.
“Oh, the master fair makes the house shake,”
she said, “when he sleeps. My mistress has the patience of an angel. And I well recall the night of the dinner at Queens’, for he came home before dark and was slumbering by nine, making the china rattle all over the house!”
Ben and Anne hurried back to their work.
“Mr Essex didn’t kill the doctor,” Anne said. Ben shook his head. “Both the lady and the maid are artless, guileless creatures.”
“In addition, why would such a man bite the hand that feeds him? He built their bridge and their lodgings; why risk it all in a moment of violence?”
Ben and Anne stopped again on the Silver Street bridge, and looked along the river.
“It is straight here,” Anne mused, “and calm. Further up, the wind whistles across the meadows, and boats struggle to stay straight.”
“It is the high walls of the college that provide the shelter just here,” Ben said as he kissed his lover’s neck and snaked an arm around her waist. But Anne shook him off, and leaned over the bridge.
“A punt can only moor with its long side to the bank?”
“Of course. It is more than twenty feet long, Anne.” She nodded. “When I am at liberty, I want to visit the High Table.” “You cannot!” Ben said. “I mean, I want to stand at the little door at the side, where the Fellows parade in, and see the lie of the land. There is also a Bible text that will not cease echoing in my mind, Ben.” “A text?” “It’s from Mark, and I think it was the lesson when . . .” She bit her lip. “There is more to know, and I have too much going around my brain. You had better kiss me to clear it, Ben!”
After dinner that evening Anne made her way to the low door that led to the High Table.
It stood less than f ive feet from the near end of the long carved table, and she could see portraits of past presidents through a chink.
Then, as night fell, she called again at the Essex house.
“Forgive my presumption,” she said to James Essex, as his wife looked on, fascinated, “but can you tell me anything of the talk that night, especially from Doctor Gregorius?”
Mr Essex pondered.
“The rest took very little notice of him. He grumbled and complained. The impression I received was that the other Fellows of the college had long ago ceased paying him attention.”
“But can you recall what he said?”
“He was angry at a student’s laziness. He said that he would be going to Sir William and demanding that the lad be thrown out of the college.” “Which student?” “I can’t recall a name. No, wait – there was no name! One of the men turned impatiently to him and asked for one, and when the old man struggled to recall it his colleague turned away.”
“But you think that the doctor was going to have an undergraduate rusticated?”
“It happens,” Ben put in. “They do no work and are sent home with their tail between their legs, and in the end they live off their intended fortune.”
“Most do so,” Anne said quietly. “My thanks, Mr Essex.”
Anne had not seen Tom Godwin for some time when they met on the Mathematical Bridge two days later.
“Hello, Anne,” he said, smiling his usual cheery smile.
“Have you been to lectures, Mr Godwin?” she asked. “I have not seen you about college.”
“There are times when I must knuckle down, as they say. Off for the milk again?”
“Yes,” Anne said. “No more punts have moored since that day, I notice.” He nodded. “We want no more Fellows meeting a violent end,” he said, moving to pass her, but Anne pointed towards the older side of the college, and he stopped.
“If I shot a man from that window,” she said, “and he stood in a punt, then would he not fall on to the bank?”
There was a stillness in the air as Tom Godwin stopped breathing.
“And if,” Anne continued, “I shot a man from the other side, say from a window there . . .” Her arm moved through 180 degrees. “Would he not fall in the water?”
“You’re a marksman now, Anne, as well as a lady’s maid?”
“I know a musket shot can strike a frail body with force, and I keep recalling how the old man lay quite straight in the punt, in an attitude of having fallen there.” She saw that Tom gripped the edge of the bridge, and she turned again.
“But if I were to stand there, on the Silver Street bridge, I might, in the darkness – if I could make out the man in the punt – shoot him. And he might fall headlong and lie along the punt.
“Doctor Gregorius, for instance, was angry at the punts mooring here. He was a busybody, and I dare say that he stepped into a punt to find out who had tied it up there without permission. He was going to his rooms in the dark after too much wine.”
“Why should anyone want to shoot the old fool?” Tom asked lightly.
“Some had cause, Tom.” Anne turned to face him. “I kept hearing the words of a lesson, Tom, going round in my head. It was about listening at doors, and secrets.
“Then you made a comment about listening for pearls of wisdom from the High Table, and I began to think, Tom.”
“Never a wise thing, in a servant,” he said coldly.
“The other students look down on you, Tom.”
“Curse them! They gave me this scholarship, and it is a millstone around my neck! I must study while I’d rather be active, but my mother and my father hang the whole future of the family upon me. I feel myself to be in a trap.”
He glanced up at Anne, knowing he had said too much, and it was at that moment that Ben joined them, and stood quietly beside his love.
“You heard through the door of the hall that Doctor Gregorius had lost patience with you. He was in charge of your studies.”
“He was no man to talk of idleness,” Tom said through gritted teeth.
“Did you realise that you might be expelled from the college?” Anne asked softly.
Tom raised his head. His eyes burned.
“How could I bear that disgrace? If he’d taken my name to Sedgwick, and I’d been rusticated, what then?
“God knows, I hate the place, but I’d hate the disappointment of my father so much more! I listened, and I learned that I was perilously close to expulsion, but if I could stop him, then . . .” “You killed him?” “I knew the child, Dorcas, was hiding in the laundry and I chatted with her – it was a welcome distraction in my mood. I knew the musket was in that chest because she prattled about it. I opened the chest, waited until the day of the dinner and took the gun.” “Where is it now?” Tom pointed down to the dark waters of the Cam.
There was silence. Ben and Anne looked at one another.
“It’s a hanging,” Ben said softly.
Tom’s head jerked up to face them, his eyes full of supplication.
“My mother!” he said, his voice strangled.
Ben let out a long breath, and looked at Anne. “What if he flees, Anne?” Anne said nothing, and Ben continued.
“I will not say that a life should ever be held cheap, and taking the life of that old man was a crime that will never be washed away. But what if we sent Tom away now, let him run? Do we want to see him hanged?”
“They would follow him, Ben, as soon as a fellow student found his room empty, or missed him at a seminar.”
“I have to be in Professor Walsh’s rooms in one hour,” Tom whispered.
“What,” Ben said, “if none of the horses were saddled just now? If the groomsman had chosen today to brush them all and polish all the tack, all at once?”
Tom was looking from one to the other eagerly, his hand trembling on the pale wood of the bridge. “Can it be so?” he asked. Ben looked at Anne, and she nodded. Tom Godwin gave them one last look of gratitude, turned, and ran in the direction of the side gate of the college.
“What have we done?” Anne asked.
“Shown mercy,” her lover replied. “And now, you will go to her Ladyship, and I to my horses, the Cam will keep flowing, and the day will go on.”