I had never seen Master John Wyclif so afflicted. He was rarely found at such a loss when in disputation with other masters. He told me later, when I had returned them to him, that it was as onerous to plunder a bachelor scholar's books as it would be to steal another man's wife. I had, at the time, no way to assess the accuracy of that opinion, for I had no wife and few books.
But I had come to Oxford on that October day, Monday, the twentieth, in the year of our Lord 1365, to see what progress I might make to remedy my solitary estate. I left my horse at the stable behind the Stag and Hounds and went straightaway to Robert Caxton's shop, where the stationer's comely daughter, Kate, helped attract business from the bachelor scholars, masters, clerks, and lawyers who infest Oxford like fleas on a hound.
My pretended reason to visit Caxton's shop was to purchase a gathering of parchment and a fresh pot of ink. I needed these to conclude my record of the deaths of Alan the beadle and of Henry atte Bridge. Alan's corpse was found, three days before Good Friday, near to St Andrew's Chapel, to the east of Bampton. And Henry, who it was who slew Alan, was found in a wood to the north of the town. As bailiff of Bampton Castle it was my business to sort out these murders, which I did, but not before I was attacked on the road returning from Witney and twice clubbed about the head in nocturnal churchyards. Had I known such assaults lay in my future, I might have rejected Lord Gilbert Talbot's offer to serve as his bailiff at Bampton Castle and remained but Hugh the surgeon, of Oxford High Street.
Kate promised to prepare a fresh pot of ink, which I might have next day, and when she quit the shop to continue her duties in the workroom I spoke to her father. Robert Caxton surely knew the effect Kate had upon young men. He displayed no surprise when I asked leave to court his daughter.
I had feared raised eyebrows at best, and perhaps a refusal. I am but a surgeon and a bailiff. Surgeons own little prestige in Oxford, full of physicians as it is, and few honest men wish to see a daughter wed to a bailiff. There were surely sons of wealthy Oxford burghers, and young masters of the law, set on a path to wealth, who had eyes for the comely Kate. But Caxton nodded agreement when I requested his permission to pay court to his daughter. Perhaps my earlier service to mend his wounded back helped my suit.
I left the stationer's shop with both joy and apprehension. The joy you will understand, or would had you seen Kate and spent time in her presence. I was apprehensive because next day I must begin a thing for which I had no training and in which I had little experience. While at Balliol College I was too much absorbed in my set books to concern myself with the proper way to impress a lass, and none of those volumes dealt with the subject. Certainly the study of logic avoided the topic. Since then my duties as surgeon and bailiff allowed small opportunity to practice discourse with a maiden. And there are few females of my age and station in Bampton.
I made my way from Caxton's shop on Holywell Street to Catte Street and thence to the gate of Canterbury Hall, on Schidyard Street. As I walked I composed speeches in my mind with which I might impress Kate Caxton. I had forgotten most of these inventions by next day. This was just as well.
Master John Wyclif, former Master of Balliol College and my teacher there, was newly appointed Warden of Canterbury Hall. Several months earlier, frustrated at my inability to discover who had slain Alan the beadle and Henry atte Bridge, I had called upon Master John to lament my ignorance and seek his wisdom. He provided encouragement, and an empty chamber in the Hall where I might stay the night, safe from the snores and vermin at the Stag and Hounds.
When I left him those months earlier he enjoined me to call when I was next in Oxford and tell him of the resolution of these mysteries. At the time of his request I was not sure there ever would be a resolution to the business.
But there was, and so I sought Master John to tell him of it, and seek again his charity and an empty cell for the night. The porter recognized me, and sent me to Master John's chamber. I expected to find him bent over a book, as was his usual posture when I called. But not so. He opened the door to my knock, recognized me, and blurted, "Master Hugh… they've stolen my books."
The greeting startled me. I peered over the scholar's shoulder as if I expected to see the miscreants and the plundered volumes. I saw Master John's table, and a cupboard where his books were kept. Both were bare. He turned to follow my gaze.
"Gone," he whispered."All of them."
"Who?" I asked stupidly. Had Master John known that, he would have set after the thieves and recovered the books. Or sent the sheriff to do so.
"I know not," Wyclif replied."I went to my supper three days past. When I returned the books were gone… even the volume I left open on my table."
Master John is not a wealthy man. He has the living of Fillingham, and the prebend of Aust, but these provide a thin subsistence for an Oxford master of arts at work on a degree in theology. The loss of books accumulated in a life of study would be a blow to any scholar, rich or poor.
"The porter saw no stranger enter or leave the Hall while we supped," Wyclif continued."I went next day to the sheriff, but Sir John has other matters to mind."
"Aye. Roger de Cottesford is replaced. The new high sheriff is Sir John Trillowe."
"He offered no aid?"
"He sent a sergeant 'round to the stationers in the town, to see did any man come to them with books he offered to sell. Two I borrowed from Nicholas de Redyng. He will grieve to learn they are lost."
"And the stationers… they have been offered no books?"
"None of mine missing. And Sir John has no interest, I think, in pursuing my loss further."
The colleges have always wished to rule themselves, free of interference from the town and its government. No doubt the sheriff was minded to allow Canterbury Hall the freedom to apprehend its own thief, without his aid or interference.
"My books? Twenty… and the two borrowed."
I performed some mental arithmetic. Master John read my thoughts.
"The books I borrowed from Master Nicholas… one was Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, worth near thirty shillings. One of mine was of paper, a cheap-set book, but the others were of parchment and well bound."
"Your loss is great, then. Twenty pounds or more."
"Aye," Wyclif sighed."Four were of my own devising. Some might say they were worth little. But the others… Aristotle, Grossteste, Boethius, all gone."
Master John sighed again, and gazed about his chamber as if the stolen books were but misplaced, and with closer inspection of dark corners might yet be discovered.
"I am pleased to see you," Master John continued."I had thought to send for you."
"Aye. I have hope that you will seek my stolen books and see them returned to me."
"Me? Surely the sheriff…"
"Sir John is not interested in any crime for which the solution will not bring him a handsome fine. Rumor is he paid King Edward sixty pounds for the office. He will be about recouping his investment, not seeking stolen books.
"And you are skilled at solving mysteries," Wyclif continued."You found who 'twas in Lord Gilbert's cesspit, and unless I mistake me, you know by now who killed your beadle and the fellow found slain in the forest. Well, do you not?"
"Aye. It was as I thought. Henry atte Bridge, found dead in the wood, slew Alan the beadle. Alan had followed him during the night as Henry took a haunch of venison poached from Lord Gilbert's forest, to the curate at St Andrew's Chapel."
"Venison? To a priest?"
"Aye… a long story."
"I have nothing but time, and no books with which to fill it. Tell me."
So I told Master John of the scandal of the betrayed confessional of the priest at St Andrew's Chapel. And of the blackmail he plotted with Henry atte Bridge – and Henry's brother, Thomas – of those who confessed to poaching, adultery, and cheating at their business.
"I came to Oxford this day to buy more ink and parchment so I may write of these felonies while details remain fresh in my memory."
"And what stationer receives your custom?"
"Robert Caxton. It was you who sent me first to Caxton's shop. You knew I would find more there than books, ink, and parchment."
"I did? Yes, I remember now telling you of the new stationer, come from Cambridge with his daughter… ah, that is your meaning. I am slow of wit these days. I think of nothing but my books."
"You did not guess I might be interested in the stationer's daughter?"
"Nay," Wyclif grimaced."I surprise myself for my lack of perception. You are a young man with two good eyes. The stationer's daughter…"
"Kate," I said.
"Aye, Kate is a winsome lass."
"She is. And this day I have gained her father's permission to seek her as my wife." Master John's doleful expression brightened. The corners of his mouth and eyes lifted into a grin."I congratulate you, Hugh."
"Do not be too quick to do so. I must woo and win her, and I fear for my ability."
"I have no competency in such matters. You are on your own. 'Tis your competency solving puzzles I seek."
"But I am already employed."
Master John's countenance fell."I had not considered that," he admitted."Lord Gilbert requires your service… and pays well for it, I imagine."
"Aye. I am well able to afford a wife."
"But could not the town spare you for a week or two, until my books are found? Surely a surgeon… never mind. You see how little I heed other men's troubles when I meet my own."
"All men think first of themselves. Why should you be different?" I asked.
"Why? Because my misplaced esteem tells me I must. Do you not wish the same, Hugh? To be unlike the commons? They scratch when and where they itch and belch when and where they will and the letters on a page are as foreign to them as Malta."
"But… I remember a lecture…"
"… when you spoke of all men being the same when standing before God. No gentlemen, no villeins, all sinners."
"Hah; run through by my own pike. 'Tis true. I recite the same sermon each year, but though we be all sinners, and all equally in need of God's grace, all sins are not, on earth, equal, as they may be in God's eyes. Else all punishments would be the same, regardless of the crime."
"And what would be a fitting penalty for one who stole twenty books?"
Wyclif scowled again."Twenty-two," he muttered."My thoughts change daily," he continued.
"When I first discovered the offense I raged about the Hall threatening the thief with a noose."
Master John smiled grimly."I have thought much on that. Was the thief a poor man needing to keep his children from starvation, I might ask no penalty at all, so long as my books be returned. But if the miscreant be another scholar, with means to purchase his own books, I would see him fined heavily and driven from Oxford, and never permitted to study here again, or teach, be he a master.
"Both holy and secular wisdom," Wyclif mused, "teach that we must not do to another what we find objectionable when done to us. No man should hold a place at Oxford who denies both God and Aristotle."
"You think an Oxford man has done this?" Wyclif chewed upon a fingernail, then spoke."Who else would want my books, or know their worth?"
"That, it seems to me, is the crux of the matter," I replied."Some scholar wished to add to his library, or needed money, and saw your books as a way to raise funds."
As it happened, there was a third reason a man might wish to rob Master John of his books, but that explanation for the theft did not occur to me until later.
"I am lost," Wyclif sighed."I am a master with no books, and I see no way to retrieve them."
I felt guilty that, for all his aid given to me, I could offer no assistance to the scholar. I could but commiserate, cluck my tongue, and sit in his presence with a long face.
The autumn sun set behind the old Oxford Castle keep while we talked. Wyclif was about to speak again when a small bell sounded from across the courtyard.
"Supper," he explained, and invited me to follow him to the refectory.
Scholars at Canterbury Hall are fed well, but simply. For this supper there were loaves of maslin – wheat and barley – cheese, a pease pottage flavored with bits of pork, and tankards of watered ale. I wondered at the pork, for some of the scholars were Benedictines. Students peered up from under lowered brows as we entered. They all knew of the theft, and, I considered later, suspected each other of complicity in the deed.
A watery autumn sun struggled to rise above the forest and water meadow east of Oxford when I awoke next morning. Wyclif bid me farewell with stooped shoulders and eyes dark from lack of sleep. I wished the scholar well, and expressed my prayer that his books be speedily recovered. Master John believes in prayer, but my promise to petition our Lord Christ on his behalf seemed to bring him small comfort. I think he would rather have my time and effort than my prayers. Or would have both. Prayers may be offered cheaply. They require small effort from men, and much from God. The Lord Christ has told us we may ask of Him what we will, but I suspect He would be pleased to see men set to their work, and call upon Him only when tasks be beyond them.
I thought on this as I walked through the awakening lanes of Oxford to Holywell Street and Robert Caxton's shop. Was it really my duty to Lord Gilbert which prevented me from seeking Wyclif's stolen books, or was I too slothful to do aught but pray for their return? I did not like the answer which came to me.
As I approached the stationer's shop I saw a tall young man standing before it, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The fellow was no scholar. He wore a deep red cotehardie, cut short to show a good leg. His chauces were parti-colored, grey and black, and his cap ended in a long yellow liripipe coiled stylishly about his head. The color of his cap surprised me. All who visit London know that the whores of that city are required by law to wear yellow caps so respectable maidens and wives be left unmolested on the street. He was shod in fine leather, and the pointed toes of his shoes curled up in ungainly fashion.
The fellow seemed impatient; while I watched he strode purposefully past Caxton's shop, then reversed his steps and walked past in the opposite direction, toward my approach. I drew closer to the shop, so that at each turn I could see his face more clearly. His countenance and beard were dark, as were his eyes. The beard was neatly trimmed, and his eyes peered at my approach from above an impressive nose – although, unlike mine, his nose pointed straight out at the world, whereas mine turns to the dexter side. He seemed about my own age – twenty-five years or so. He was broad of shoulder and yet slender, but good living was beginning to produce a paunch.
I slowed my pace as I approached the shuttered shop. Caxton would open his business soon, and I assumed this dandy needed parchment, ink, or a book, although he did not seem the type to be much interested in words on a page.
I stood in the street, keeping the impatient coxcomb company, until Robert Caxton opened his shop door and pushed up his shutters to begin business for the day. The stationer looked from me to his other customer and I thought his eyes widened. I bowed to the other client and motioned him to precede me into the shop. He was there before me.
The morning sun was low in the southeast, and did not penetrate far into the shop. But dark as the place was, I could see that Kate was not within. He of the red cotehardie saw the same, and spoke before I could.
"Is Mistress Kate at leisure?" he asked.
Caxton glanced at me, then answered, "Near so. Preparing a pot of ink in the workroom. Be done shortly."
"I'll wait," the fellow said with a smile."'Tis a pleasant morning. And if Kate has no other concerns, I'd have her walk with me along the water meadow."
He might as well have swatted me over my skull with a ridge pole. My jaw went slack and I fear both Caxton and this unknown suitor got a fine view of my tonsils.
Robert Caxton was not so discomfited that he forgot his manners. He introduced me to Sir Simon Trillowe. A knight. And of some relation to the new sheriff of Oxford, I guessed.
When he learned that I was but a surgeon and bailiff to Lord Gilbert Talbot, Sir Simon nodded briefly and turned away, his actions speaking what polite words could not: I was beneath his rank and unworthy of his consideration.
"We heard naught of you for many months, Master Hugh," Caxton remarked.
This was true. I had neglected pursuit of Kate Caxton while about Lord Gilbert's business in Bampton. And, to be true, I feared Kate might dismiss my suit should I press it. A man cannot be disappointed in love who does not seek it.
"No doubt a bailiff has much to occupy his time," the stationer continued.
Sir Simon doubtless thought that I was but a customer, not that I was in competition with him for the fair Kate. He would learn that soon enough.
The door to Caxton's workroom was open. Kate surely heard this exchange, which was a good thing. It gave her opportunity to compose herself. A moment later she entered the shop, carrying my pot of promised ink, and bestowed a tranquil smile upon both me and Sir Simon. I smiled in return, Trillowe did not. Perhaps he had guessed already that it was not ink I most wished to take from Caxton's shop.
"Mistress Kate," Sir Simon stepped toward her as she passed through the door."'Tis a pleasant autumn morn… there will be few more before winter. Perhaps we might walk the path along the Cherwell… if your father can spare you for the morning."
With these words Trillowe turned to the stationer. Caxton shrugged a reply.
"Good." Sir Simon offered his arm and, with a brief smile and raised brows in my direction, Kate set the pot of ink on her father's table and took Trillowe's arm. They departed the shop wordlessly.
Caxton apparently thought some explanation in order."You didn't call through the summer. Kate thought you'd no interest. I told her last night you'd asked to pay court. But Sir Simon's been by a dozen times since Lammas Day… others, too."
"Aye. My Kate does draw lads to the shop. None has asked me might they pay court, though. But for you."
"Not Sir Simon?"
"Nay. Second son of the sheriff, and a knight. He'll not ask leave of one like me to do aught." "And Kate returns his interest?"
Caxton shrugged."She's walked out with him three times now. A knight, mind you. And son of the sheriff. Can't blame a lass for that."
"No," I agreed.
"Can't think how his father'd be pleased, though. A stationer's daughter! A scandal in Oxford Castle when word gets out, as it surely has, by now," Caxton mused.
"Aye. What lands his father may hold will pass to his brother. The sheriff will want Sir Simon seeking a wife with lands of her own."
I hoped that was so. But if a second or third son acts to displease his father, it is difficult to correct him. How can a man disinherit a son who is due to receive little or nothing anyway? So if a son courting Kate Caxton displeased the sheriff of Oxford, such offense might escape retribution. This thought did not bring me joy.
Excerpted from A TRAIL OF INK: The Third Chronicle of Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon © Copyright 2011 by Mel Starr. Reprinted with permission by Monarch Books. All rights reserved.