THE White Rose was one of those old, rambling country inns, the like of which may be found in any English village of suitable antiquity. Warped and battered, comprised of odd angles and uneven dimensions, yet possessing a certain rustic charm for all its wear and tear. The damp had been creeping in for years, making doors stick in their frames and curling the floorboards. In the first floor hallway, a bottle placed on its side against the east wall would roll all the way to the other end. Downstairs in the common room the ceiling sagged like an inverted parasol, and gave the impression that the building was slowly collapsing in on itself.
Work had ceased for the day, and here the common folk of Munley village were gathered for a mug of ale, a story, and perhaps a song or two, in a nightly ritual that had continued unbroken for centuries. With the refreshments served and the patrons having assumed their usual positions about the common room, a lively debate was now in progress—its purpose to determine the shape of the evening’s entertainment.
‘Just as long as there ain’t no dancin’!’ growled Old Carter, who sat smoking a long-stemmed pipe by the hearth. ‘So ye can put that fiddle away now. I don’t think me knees could take it.’
‘I say we let the doctor choose,’ said Thomas Green, a heavy-set man with a face like an overripe tomato. ‘It ain’t often he graces us with his company. Maybe he has a song or a tale of his own he’d like to share? What songs do they sing down in London, Dr Marlowe?’
‘None suitable for such worthy company as this, I’m afraid!’ Dr William Marlowe, a bespectacled, slightly-built gentleman of twenty-four years was an infrequent visitor to the White Rose, but after much persuasion had agreed to join his elderly manservant Eric for a watery pint. ‘And I was always a terrible singer—somewhere between an alto and a rusted hinge. Not much good with tales either, but I am always happy to hear one. So let us have a story, if all are agreed? I understand my Eric is a veritable encyclopaedia of Yorkshire folklore.’
‘Well, that were me father, if the truth be known,’ Eric said, dipping his head modestly so that his bushy eyebrows shielded his gaze. ‘I only parrot what he told me when I was a wee lad—as far as the tellin’ goes he was the master.’
‘A story, then,’ said Green. ‘What about the Witch o’ Redmere? That’s a good ’un.’
‘We had the Pendle Witches last night,’ said Carter. ‘Can’t have witches two nights in a row. We’ll start attracting them.’
‘The Lambton Worm?’
‘I don’t know it, other than the name,’ said Eric. ‘If ye want it ye’ll have to tell it yerself.’
‘Jack-in-Irons? The Green Man o’ Coxton Wood?’
‘How about the tale o’ Mad Edmund?’ suggested Wilkinson, one of the younger lads. ‘We haven’t had him for a while.’
A sudden silence followed the youth’s request, and there was much shaking of grizzled heads.
‘I don’t think anybody wants to hear that one, lad,’ Eric said, darkly.
‘I do.’ William was intrigued. ‘Mad Edmund… this is a local legend, yes? I keep hearing the name. Isn’t he the fellow who is supposed to haunt Munley Priory?’
‘A legend… would that he were!’ The old man crossed himself. ‘Nay, sir. Mad Edmund’s as real as you or I.’
‘I find that difficult to believe.’
‘You believe what you want, lad, but there’s seven, eight newly-filled graves in the cemetery that say he’s real,’ Carter said, removing his pipe, ‘as well as countless others over the years. Besides, I seen him. Nine foot tall he was, wearin’ a great dark cape and hood. And his eyes… they shone like two lumps o’ burnin’ coal. Rooted me to the spot, they did—made me go all woozy. It were Him. Mad Edmund, son o’ the Devil. I’m tellin’ ye, I’d be dead now if me boy hadn’t come out wi’ that lantern and scared him off.’
‘With respect, Mr Carter, your cataracts give me small confidence in your integrity as a witness,’ the doctor quipped.
This drew a few chuckles from the younger men. Carter scowled.
‘Ah, ye can laugh. But you explain eight villagers all droppin’ dead in a row. That ain’t right. There’s some devilry at work—you mark my words.’
There was general agreement at this, and even the doctor had to admit to himself that it was a little out of the ordinary. Eight villagers had died in their sleep in the space of two months, without showing any prior signs of illness. William suspected that the recent winter chill was to blame—ever a danger to the very young and elderly, which most of the victims were—and in all cases had offered a verdict of Natural Causes to be recorded on the parish register. Evidently, some in the village disagreed.
‘Aye,’ said Eric. ‘Jack Cotton and Billy Brand dead in their beds, not a week apart. Now I spoke with Jack the day before he died, and he was sound as an oak. Don’t make sense.’
‘That’s right,’ Carter said, pointing his pipe stem at the doctor for emphasis. ‘And what about Cate Willoughby and Maggie Hayes? They were both plump and rosy-cheeked last time I saw ’em. Beggin’ yer pardon, Sam.’ He nodded to Margaret’s widower, who lifted his tankard.
‘Then the Patterson twins, bless their poor wee souls,’ supplied Thomas Green. ‘Not four months old! Bloody tragedy, that was.’
‘Little Molly Fletcher,’ said someone else.
‘And the old Captain,’ Eric completed the list. ‘Found face down in a plate o’ beef stew. What a way to go.’
‘The Captain was eighty-four,’ William pointed out. ‘It’s a miracle he lasted as long as he did.’
‘Well, that’s what salt does to a man,’ said Carter. ‘All them years o’ standin’ on a ship’s deck with the sea sprayin’ in his face. Salt’s a preservative, see. Hardens ye up like an old leather boot. Me, I heap me breakfast with it ’til it’s crunchy.’
William could not argue with this logic.
‘But the point is, lad, even you’ve got to admit there’s somethin’ peculiar afoot. Eight dead in as many weeks? That’s a lot for a village wi’ less than a hundred heads.’
‘It is a lot, I will concede,’ said the doctor. ‘But one must bear in mind that we have just come out of a very cold winter. In my professional opinion, Jack Frost is a far more likely culprit than your Mad Edmund.’
‘Balderdash,’ said Carter. ‘I’ve lived through seventy-two winters, some so cold the flames’d freeze solid in yer stove, and I never seen this many go. Now I know ye’ve not been here long, so I’ll forgive yer ignorance, but I’d watch me back if I were you. Yer right in the hornet’s nest.’
‘Don’t say that,’ Eric said with a stern look at his friend. ‘Ye’ll frighten him, and for what? I worked in Lord Munley’s garden for forty years, and nowt happened to me.’
‘Aye, well, you were one o’ the lucky ones. What about the Earl’s nephew, eh? Went stark ravin’ mad, and murdered that woman down in London. Butchered her, so they say. Now ye can’t tell me that weren’t Mad Edmund’s taint, rearin’ it’s ugly head.’
‘I heard it had something to do wi’ witchcraft,’ said Green. ‘Black magic, and the like?’
‘Well I heard the girl was carryin’ his child,’ said Wilkinson. ‘That was why he cut her up: to get rid o’ the thing.’
There was a collective gasp of horror.
‘Don’t you let Lord Munley hear you talkin’ like that,’ Eric warned the youth, ‘or ye’ll find yerself livin’ in a ditch! The family’s had its fair share o’ tragedy, no doubt, what with the Countess dyin’ so young and the business with the nephew—though I always said that lad was no good. But His Lordship is a lovely, generous man, and I’ll not hear any words against him, whatever his kinsmen might’ve done.’
‘Hear hear!’ said the others. Mugs were raised.
‘Oh I’ve nothin’ bad to say about His Lordship, even if he is a Scotchman,’ said Carter. ‘He’s been good to me and mine. But some o’ the things that’ve gone on in that house over the centuries…’ He fixed his eyes on the doctor. ‘I could tell ye stories, boy, if I only had the time, that’d make ye scared to set foot in the place. There’s a curse all right. Ain’t no two ways about it.’
The rest of the company murmured in accordance.
‘Well let’s have it, then,’ William said, accepting the old man’s challenge. ‘Give me the story of Mad Edmund. If there is indeed a curse upon my employer’s family, I think I have a right to know. There was certainly no mention of it in my contract.’
‘That ain’t for me to tell. Go on, Eric, give him what he wants. The lad’s got a point: he has a right to know.’ Carter puffed on his tobacco, a shrewd look in his eyes as he peered at the doctor through the smoke.
‘Well… all right then, so long as there’s no objections.’ Eric glanced about the common room hopefully, but none were forthcoming. ‘Aye… well, this is the story as it were told to me by me father—at this very fireside, no less. Ye’ll not find it in no history book—the family made sure o’ that, and I’d be surprised if the full tale were known up at Munley Hall. But us simple folk who herd the sheep and till the fields ain’t never forgotten, though it be well-nigh seven hundred years since Mad Edmund de Castor were driven from Munley Priory, and the priory itself be all fallen into ruin.’
‘The De Castors were an old Norman family who crossed the Channel with William the Conqueror in 1066. The first Earl of Munley fought alongside the king at the Battle of Hastings, and was after granted this lonely stretch of North Yorkshire as a reward for loyal service and valour on the field. A soldier most of his life, the Earl married late, and he and his young bride would try for many years to conceive an heir. A string of miscarriages and stillborns caused husband and wife to lose heart, until at last the Countess managed to carry a child to term.
‘Yet the birth was a difficult one, and for many days she languished; bleeding, and wracked by terrible pains. The Earl, fearing that he might lose both wife and child, locked himself in his private chapel and prayed to God to spare their lives. And when God did not answer his prayers, it is said that in his madness and desperation he turned to the Devil. And the Devil answered.
‘Exactly what was bargained that night can only be guessed. For the mother and child indeed survived the birth, yet the infant—a son whom they named Edmund—came forth a twisted, misshapen thing; more beast than man. The Devil’s progeny. It should have been put to death there and then, but whether out of love, pity, or perhaps as a condition of the Earl’s monstrous pact, the babe was spared.
‘No revelry or fanfare marked the coming of the Earl’s firstborn son, and the mood at his court was grim and funereal. Young Edmund was hidden for shame, and it is also said that when the priest came to christen the newborn child the holy water turned to steam on its malformed brow.
‘It was at this time that the Earl pledged all the land north of the river to the Church, whilst donating a vast sum towards the construction of a grand monastery. Thus Munley Priory was founded—perhaps as an attempt to curry favour with a God he had forsaken, yet also to provide a haven for his ill-begotten offspring, upon whom, it was whispered, the father could scarce bear to look. For no sooner was the last stone set in mortar than the infant Edmund was spirited away in the night and placed into the care of the monks.
‘Some years later the Earl begat a second son, and while the Countess suffered no such hardship during the birth, the child was born with a club foot and a withered arm. The De Castor blood, it seemed, was forever tainted. But young Stephen de Castor was otherwise hale, and in time was able to overcome his lameness, learning to ride a horse and wield a broadsword in his good hand as well as any Norman knight.
‘In Munley Priory, under the care and tutelage of the monks, Edmund also grew. Yet it would be misleading to say that he “became a man”, for that he surely never was. It is true that few men without the priory could ever claim to have set eyes upon Edmund de Castor, yet there were whispers of a monstrous, ape-like thing which the monks kept chained in a tower and fed on raw meat. Those journeying near Munley Priory in the twilight hours reported doleful, guttural howls—as of some caged beast—that pierced the stillness and made the blood run cold.
‘Every once in a while, it was said, the creature would break its chains and run loose, spreading fear and mayhem ere it could be trapped and dragged back to its tower by the monks. Sheep were found mauled, and even a few of the village dogs met their end, torn apart by some larger animal. Wolves in the forest were blamed, yet rumours of an evil in Munley Priory persisted. Careless talk, for the most part, and “Mad Edmund” became a bogle amongst the common folk—a thing to frighten wayward children, and the subject of fireside tales.
‘Decades passed, and Death—foiled so many years before—eventually returned to claim the Countess of Munley. Heartbroken, the ageing Earl recoiled at the idea of spending his remaining days as a widower, fading into dotage and obscurity. He longed for the glory of his youth and the din of battle, and so, taking up his broadsword—which had lain idle a full thirty years—he set off for the Holy Land with a few trusty men-at-arms for one final campaign.
‘In spite of his great age—or perhaps because of it—it is recorded that he fought with the ferocity of a grand old lion defending its pride. When at last he fell before the walls of Jerusalem, pierced by a Saracen lance and surrounded by many slaughtered foes, he was afterwards hailed as a mighty champion by Christian and Mohammedan alike.
‘When news of the Earl’s fall reached Munley there was great sorrow, for he was much loved by his people, yet there was also a gladness that the old warrior had met his end in battle, as per his final wish. Stephen de Castor now took his place as the Earl of Munley—a title which, by the laws of primogeniture, ought to have gone to Edmund. Yet it was not his father’s desire that his estranged firstborn should ever inherit, and Edmund had been declared unfit; excluded from the succession in favour of his younger brother. Whether Edmund’s addled brain was even able to comprehend this slight can never be known, but it is true that with the death of the old Earl, events in Munley took a sombre turn.
‘For in the months following Stephen’s ascension to the earldom a dreadful pestilence swept through the vale. Such outbreaks were not unknown in those days, yet this was a plague like no other—a silent killer which struck without warning, and left no mark upon its victims. Only the monks of Munley Priory seemed unaffected—proof, to some in the village, that this was no earthly sickness, but a terrible revenge somehow exacted by Edmund upon his rightful dominion.
‘As their numbers thinned, the people of Munley grew restless. Some took it upon themselves to cross the river and confront the monks, but found the doors locked against them. Others went to the Earl, demanding that he hold his wicked brother to account, only he would not hear of it, and sent them away. Stephen refused to believe that Edmund was responsible, and threatened to put any who spread these rumours in irons.
‘That is, until the death of his beloved wife.
‘The second Countess of Munley was a lady by the name of Catherine—a daughter of the royal line, and a renowned beauty of her day. Stephen worshipped her, and when one morning he awoke to find her pale and lifeless beside him he is said to have gone mad with grief; shutting himself away in his chapel for a week and admitting no visitors. Then on the seventh day, at midnight, he took up his sword and girt himself for war. Summoning his men, he bade them take up arms, and so they marched on Munley Priory.
‘What took place in the cloisters of Munley Priory that night will never be known, for those who survived spoke of it to none. The villagers who gathered on the banks of the river told of the sounds of violence and the clash of arms, and in the chaos it seems that many were slain on both sides. Whether by accident, or as a deliberate act by the Earl’s men to hide their crimes, a fire was lit which tore through the monastery, sending great columns of flame and smoke into the starlit sky.
‘As for the final meeting between the brothers, legend tells of two figures spied at the top of the crossing tower—a lumbering, hunchbacked creature attempting to scale the spire, and a smaller figure with a naked blade clambering after. In the brief struggle that ensued the hunchback was seen to pick up its attacker, lifting him high above its head before casting him down into the flames. Thus ended Stephen the Lame, the second Earl of Munley.
‘To the horror of all the creature threw back its head and let out an ear-shattering bellow; monstrous bat-wings sprouting from its shoulders as from a cocoon. The villagers watched in dread as the leathery wings flapped, each stroke like a peal of thunder, and carried the creature high into the air. It circled the stone spire twice and then sped away, disappearing into the night.
‘When the ashes had cooled, those bodies which could be retrieved were dumped in a vast pit somewhere north of the priory. There, it is believed, rests Stephen. The site has since been swallowed by the wood, although it is said that no tree will grow on the actual grave.
‘Munley Priory was never rebuilt, and its gutted shell stands to this day: a grim monument to evil times. Year by year it sinks further into ruin, as the trees and creepers steal through its halls and gnaw at its bones. For ever since the massacre no man would dare take timber from the southern side of the forest, fearing to work in the priory’s shadow, and thus the wood, even as it was whittled away, shifted southward to envelop the ruin. One day it will be surrounded completely, with only the crossing tower and its broken spire rising above the trees, until at last it too topples and falls.
‘The De Castor line has persisted, although many have said that it would have been better if it had not. For theirs is a black name among the noble houses of this land, and unions outside their cursé d bloodline have been few. They prefer to marry their own, each depleted strand of the family intertwining with the next; like a noxious plant that will not die.
‘Edmund’s Curse, too, lingers—a dark cloud stretching down the centuries. A violent sickness of the brain has forever plagued the De Castors, seeming to rear its head once in every generation, and the entire family history is a litany of madness, misfortune, and scandal.
‘As for what became of Edmund, no man rightly knows. Some say he never left the priory at all, and still walks the roofless corridors to this day. Even now, once in a blue moon, some unfortunate soul will disappear from Munley without leaving a trace, and folk will nod and mutter, “Mad Edmund’s got them.”
‘But whither he takes them, and to what vile purpose, none can say.’
TOBY Martin reined in his horse and surveyed the sleeping village—or rather, where the village would have been, had he actually been able to see it. He could just make out some rooftops, the church tower looming pale on his left, and a distant light in one of the farmhouses, far to the west. He didn’t know what time it was, but a faint lightening in the eastern sky told him that dawn could not be far off.
The young man should have been home in bed long before now. He had left the Foxthorpe Posting House at four o’clock the previous morning, and delivered his letters to Stenwick, Pottham, and Redmere all before noon. He gave the schoolmaster at Gunnsted his parcel of books at one o’clock, and after eating a hearty dinner at the Knave’s Head he had set out for Munley at two—his final stop before the long trek home. He ought to have made Foxthorpe a little after sundown, but on the old road that wound through Gunnsted Dale it had all gone wrong.
The first hint of trouble had come when he mounted his horse outside the tavern—a violent rumble from his midsection that suggested the meal might have been a little too hearty for his empty stomach. The constant jolting as he rode on had not helped matters, and halfway to Munley it became clear that he could go no further without his dinner forcibly ejecting itself, although Toby was not sure from which end the evacuation would take place. Seeking the shade of a massive oak tree on the side of the road, he had tied his horse to a low-hanging bough and rested against the bole, waiting for the rumblings to subside. He couldn’t actually remember closing his eyes, but the shock of opening them and seeing the moon winking maliciously through the oak branches was a horror he would not soon forget.
There were times—this being one of them—when Toby genuinely believed that he might be cursed. The former stable boy had begged and wheedled for years to be elevated to the illustrious position of Post Rider, and now, on his first day on the job, he had wasted no time in making a complete and utter tit of himself. Mr Burroughs would probably demote him—if not sack him outright!—and it hardly seemed worth returning to Foxthorpe at all. For a brief moment he had considered a life on the run, rather than face the embarrassment of slinking back to the Posting House a day late, but supposed it would only end with him being hanged for a horse thief.
So here he was, perched on the outskirts of Munley in the middle of the night, with still another twenty miles between him and his bed in Foxthorpe. And the worst part—which had only now occurred to him—was that he would have to wait for daylight to give the Earl his letter. Leaving it on the doorstep of Munley Hall was out of the question. The message it contained was ‘highly important,’ Mr Burroughs had said, ‘so see that you put it in the Earl’s hand yourself!’
Everyone had heard of the mad monk who supposedly haunted the ruins north of the village. No one outside of Munley itself put much stock in the old tales, but reports of unexplained deaths in the village had been coming over the hills for some weeks now, and Toby did not particularly fancy spending the rest of the night here out of doors. He rode on, hoping to see a light in one of the upstairs windows of the White Rose, but upon reaching the village square he found no such signs of life. He dismounted, leading his horse to the hitching post in front of the tavern, and wondered how angry the innkeeper would be if he started banging on the door. His other option was to curl up on the doorstep like a vagrant, which even with Mad Edmund running loose almost seemed preferable to disturbing a man’s sleep.
With the reins in one hand Toby felt about for the hitching post, but when the horse gave a sudden jerk of its head he lost his grip.
‘What’re ye doin’, Wilbur? Come here.’
But the animal was in no mood to comply. Snorting, Wilbur backed away.
‘Wilbur!’ he hissed. ‘Ye daft old nag, get over here!’
Even as he approached, the horse continued its retreat. He made a lunge for the reins, and to his surprise Wilbur reared on his hind legs and kicked out with his fore hooves, almost striking Toby in the face.
‘Wilbur! What the devil’s gotten into ye?’ Indeed it seemed that some malign spirit had possessed the horse. Toby had never known him to behave so—the tired old gelding who should have been sent to the knacker’s yard years ago had been snatched away in the dark and replaced with an unbroken stallion.
‘It’s all right old boy, ye’ll not come to no harm. Just settle yeself down. It’s me, yer friend Toby. Now stand still and let me lead ye.’
Wilbur however was having none of it, and as Toby started forward the horse, giving a final, almost apologetic whinny, turned and galloped away.
‘No! Wilbur, come back!’
He ran after for a few half-hearted steps, but the hoof beats were already far up the road. It was hopeless, and Toby was ready to burst into tears when he noticed something on the edge of his vision that drove all thought of retrieving the horse from his mind.
It looked to be a figure, watching him from the side of the road. He could barely make it out in the darkness, but there was a definite shape of a head and shoulders.
‘Hello?’ he called out, loud as he dared. ‘Is someone there?’
He rubbed at his eyes, but when he looked again the shape was gone.
‘Now I’m bloody seein’ things,’ he muttered. He felt strangely light-headed, as if he had stood up too quickly after sitting for a prolonged period. His legs were weak, and he doubled over with his hands on his thighs for fear that he should collapse. ‘Easy,’ he said to himself. He took a few deep breaths, and the feeling began to pass. ‘Just a pigment o’ yer imagination. No one’s there.’
But when he straightened he saw that this was not so.
They were on his left now, only a few yards away. It was a man—there was no mistaking it—wearing a long coat or cloak, with some kind of scarf or hood covering their head. The way they stood perfectly motionless was only slightly more unsettling than the fact that he had not heard their approach.
His own voice sounded far away, like it had come from someone else’s mouth, but the sound was quickly lost in a vortex as the dizziness overcame him. He was falling, but somehow did not strike the ground; instead he was lifted up, up, rushing toward the stars on a wave of terror, the twinkling lights all melding into one blinding luminescence.
THE eastern hills were rosy in the early dawn light, and overhead the sky retained a tinge of purple. Although it was not uncommon for much of Munley to be awake at cockcrow, on this particular morning in April the regular domestic and agricultural activities had been temporarily suspended in favour of an impromptu gathering in the village square.
An unfortunate young man, lying on his back in the dust, was the centre of attention. He was small in stature, with only the thread-like beginnings of a beard on his chin, and he wore a greatcoat spun of a coarse, dark blue wool that was clearly intended for a much larger man than he. He had also been wearing a moth-eaten tri-corner hat, but this now lay several feet from his person. His skin was very pale, but that was no wonder, for this man was stone dead.
A corpse in the village square was an occasion, and the news had travelled fast. The Earl was there, as was his daughter Anne—much to her father’s apparent chagrin—in her scarlet riding habit, along with several inquisitive members of their household. Respectfully apart from them was a cross-section of village folk, numbering about two dozen—shepherds, labourers, housewives, as well as the assorted idlers, loafers and hangers-on, all muttering amongst themselves in ominous tones. Some were children, peering through the adults’ legs like monkeys in a cage.
Presiding over the affair like some pompous master of ceremonies was Constable Horace Burke, the buttons on his waistcoat threatening to take flight as he puffed out his chest, snapping at those who came too close to the corpse. Meanwhile, Dr William Marlowe—not a ‘morning person’ by any means—was feeling quite drowsy as he conducted a tentative post-mortem, his discomfort exacerbated by the fact that he had an audience.
‘So does anybody actually know who he is?’ William asked, peeling back an eyelid with his thumb.
‘Unfortunately no,’ said the constable. ‘He’s not one of ours. A traveller I suppose, although whether he had business here or was simply passing through is anyone’s guess.’
‘And you’ve checked his pockets? Was he carrying anything?’
‘A few copper coins and a piece of string. He mustn’t have come far—he’s not exactly provisioned for a journey. That’s what’s so odd. Well, apart from the fact that he’s dead.’ He cleared his throat.
‘Not necessarily. The lad obviously rode here—look at his boots. And here, the calluses on the palms of his hands. I’d say his supplies are with his horse, which is probably halfway home by now if it’s not wandering on the moor somewhere.’ The doctor’s eyes made a cursory sweep of his surroundings. ‘Look hard enough and you might see a hoof print, if they haven’t already been trampled over.’
‘Yes… yes, you may be right. But that’s beside the point. I didn’t ask you here so you could play the sleuthhound: you can leave that to me, thank you very much.’
‘Then why am I here, Constable? Not to sell myself short, but what ails this man isn’t exactly something I can treat.’
A snigger ran through the crowd, one or two appreciating the doctor’s black humour.
‘Don’t be a fool, Marlowe. I want you to tell me how he died.’
‘Oh. Well, you should have said.’
The doctor turned up his shirtsleeves and proceeded with his examination. The spectators watched, fascinated, as he inspected the lifeless body for injuries; feeling for bumps on the crown of his head, then giving it a gentle twist to see if the neck was broken. He peered into his eyes and nostrils, and inside his mouth and under his tongue. Leaving the mouth open, he then put an ear to the man’s lips and lightly pressed on his sternum, the expulsion of air drawing a murmur of consternation from his audience as the vocal chords gave an unpleasant rattle.
Finding nothing amiss, William sat back on his heels.
‘Well?’ Burke prompted.
‘How did he die?’
‘I have absolutely no idea.’
‘Oh for goodness’ sake!’ The constable threw up his hands.
The villagers, too, were disappointed by this answer, although a few of the older ones took to whispering. The words ‘Mad’ and ‘Edmund’ were faintly audible.
‘I am sorry,’ William said, ‘but in the absence of any obvious malady or misadventure, there is little I can tell you.’ Standing, he drew a handkerchief from inside his cuff and wiped his hands. ‘It looks to me as if the poor fellow just dropped down dead. Perhaps he did. Best thing you can do is fetch a bed sheet or a tablecloth from the inn, cover him up, and send for the coroner.’
‘Coroner? Is that entirely necessary, Doctor?’ Lord Munley broke in, speaking for the first time. His Gaelic lilt—to William’s ears, at least—was incongruous amid the broad Yorkshire. Our nearest coroner is in Scarborough. It could take him days to arrive.’
‘There’s no need for that,’ said Burke. ‘The poor fellow was probably ill, or he fell off his horse and bashed his head. The last thing we want is some busybody poking about, holding inquests and interrogating villagers. Our priority should be finding out who he is, and getting him home to his family. There is nothing suspicious here.’
‘That is not for us to decide, Burke,’ said the doctor. ‘In the event of any unexplained or accidental death, a coroner must be summoned. I should not have to lecture you—of all people!—on the correct procedure.’ He turned to the Earl. ‘I know it’s a bother, James, but we have a legal obligation. This isn’t a case of some old man dying in his bed, or an infant contracting a fever. I cannot make a ruling here.’
William was the only man in the village allowed to address Lord Munley by his Christian name. He wore the badge with honour.
‘No… no, I understand,’ Lord Munley sighed. ‘We must respect the law, of course. But I am not having a corpse lying in the street, attracting rats and God knows what else. Is there anywhere we can put him in the meantime?’
‘Well, we’re not really supposed to move…’ Glancing down at the body, William paused mid-sentence. His eyes settled upon the tri-corner hat, and at once his demeanour changed. He crouched down, and to the bewilderment of all, made a careful study of the dead man’s hands, fingers, and knees.
Whatever he was looking for, he did not appear to find it.
‘The hat,’ he said. ‘Who took off his hat?’
‘What?’ said Burke. ‘No one’s touched his bloody hat!’
‘Who found him?’ William cast his gaze around the crowd. ‘Quickly! Who found him?’
‘It were me, sir.’ Ned, publican of the White Rose, stepped forward. He spoke in a slow baritone. ‘He was lyin’ there this mornin’ when I come out to empty me chamber pot. But I never went near him. Went straight to the constable, I did.’
‘And his hat? It was like that when you found him?’
‘Well… aye, I think so.’
‘What on earth does his hat have to do with anything?’ said Burke. ‘It obviously came off his head when he fell!’
‘Obviously…’ The doctor chewed his lip. ‘I’ll tell you what: let me take him back to my surgery. He’ll be all right there for a day or two, until the coroner arrives. In the meantime I can take a proper look at him. Perform a full examination, and see if I can’t shed some more light on this.’
‘A “full examination?” And what does that entail, Marlowe?’ Burke’s voice had a habit of rising to a squeak whenever he became impassioned. ‘He’s not some anatomical specimen for you to dissect—he’s a man with a family! I’ve heard stories about your kind, robbing mortuaries and digging up graves. It’s indecent, and I won’t have it in my village.’
‘What do you take me for, Burke?’ William said, rising to his feet so the constable was not standing over him. ‘You think I want to do this for fun? It is the prerogative of the attending physician or surgeon to perform a dissection to determine cause of death. In this case I’d say it is entirely appropriate.’
‘A dissection… I don’t know if I like the sound of that,’ said the Earl. ‘No, I cannot allow it. The constable is right, Doctor: the man has a family. We can move the body to your surgery, but I will not have you interfering with it.’
Burke smiled, pleased to be vindicated.
‘I understand if you find it distasteful James,’ said William. ‘It is an ugly business, but it will have to be done regardless. The coroner will demand a full report—might as well get it out of the way now? Look, I don’t mean to cause a fuss, but,’ and here his voice lowered, ‘we need to know what happened here. Something isn’t right.’
At this, Lord Munley’s interest was aroused. Eyeing the corpse, the discarded hat, and William’s earnest face each in turn, he gave a single nod. ‘If you think it best, Doctor,’ he said. ‘Just… promise me you will put everything back where you found it.’
‘Burke, round up a couple of lads to carry the body into the surgery. And I will need two volunteers: someone to take a message to Scarborough, and one to ride around all the outlying towns and villages—see if anyone knows who this poor fellow is.’
‘My lord, this really is beyond the pale,’ Burke protested.
‘You have your instructions, Constable,’ the Earl said, in a tone which suggested there would be no further argument. ‘We will meet in the surgery at noon, and the doctor can give us his verdict.’
Seeing that he was defeated, the constable grumbled a little, directing his frustration at two loitering youths who would serve as bearers for the deceased.
Some of the villagers, too, seemed unhappy or confused by the arrangement. Most of them didn’t know what a dissection was, or why any sane person would want to perform one, and the doctor feared that his reputation—especially in light of Burke’s outburst—would inevitably suffer.