Skin & Bone by Robin Blake is book #4 in the Cragg & Fidelis Series (Available October 25, 2016).
It’s 1743, and the tanners of Preston are a pariah community, plying their unwholesome trade beside a stretch of riverside marsh where many Prestonians by ancient right graze their livestock. When the body of a newborn child is found in one of their tanning pits, Cragg’s inquiry falls foul of a cabal of merchants dead set on modernizing the town’s economy and regarding the despised tanners—and Cragg’s apparent championship of them—as obstacles to their plan. The murder of a baby is just the evidence they need to get rid of the tanners once and for all.
But the inquest into the baby’s death is disrupted when the inn where it is being held mysteriously burns down, and Cragg himself faces a charge of lewdness, jeopardizing his whole future as a coroner. But the fates have not finished playing with him just yet. The sudden and suspicious death of a very prominent person may just, with the help of Fidelis’s sharp forensic skills, bring about Cragg’s redemption…
T WAS A DAY on which the sun was a disc of polished brass, and flocks of white cloud chased each other cheerfully across a blue field of sky: the perfect September afternoon for a game of bowls.
I was on the green by Friar Gate Bar and just about to cast my second wood. My opponent’s two bowls lay temptingly together like a pair of cherries just in front of the jack, and I planned a drive shot that would crash violently into them both, shooting them away to one side and the other while mine, with luck, would come to rest in their place and win the end. I grasped the wood firmly in my right hand, took up the bowling position with care and swung my arm. Then I heard a voice shouting my name from the direction of the Greenkeeper’s hut and it sounded as rough as the caw of a raven.
‘Mr Cragg! Mr Coroner Cragg!’
The rhythm of my stroke was naturally disturbed. The wood left my hand awkwardly and was, in effect, lobbed rather than rolled. It therefore bounced off the grass, disastrously lost its momentum and came to rest far short of my aim. My opponent, James Starkey the stationer, crowed in delight.
‘Ha! Ha! That’s another end to me, Titus. You owe me two shillings and fourpence, unless you want to play again for double the stake.’
I don’t much like triumphalism in sports. A man should win a game with as much grace as he loses one.
‘No, I’ll play no more,’ I said, opening my purse and counting out the money. ‘It seems I am needed elsewhere.’
The footing-plate that marked the playing position of that final end was placed on the opposite side of the green to the hut, from where a raggedy young woman now came striding towards its crown, stopping there to shade her eyes against the glare of the sunlight. She turned this way and that to survey the four or five pairs of bowlers that were ranged around the circular and slightly domed green – the field of play. Some of them cursed her for a pest. But she was no respecter of the rituals of the game.
‘They say the Coroner’s playing here. Which is he?’
‘He is me,’ I called up to her, raising my hat to make myself seen. ‘Who’s asking?’
‘A corpus has been found and you’re needed to come.’
I shook hands with Starkey and hurried towards the woman. I did not know her and so had to ask her name. It was Ellen Kite, and she was the daughter of a skinner and a skinner herself, since at Preston women as well as men work in that separated and unwholesome trade. The rank smell that came off her, as off all skinners, was the reason they kept to themselves and were little seen in town – a powerful compound of rotten blood and stale urine, with more than a hint of manure added in.
‘It’s a babby, Sir, and a newborn.’
‘Where was it found?’
‘At the skin-yard. You must come.’
She led the way as we left the green and, turning away from the town, hurried along Spaw Brow Lane, the lower and less frequented of the two ways from the town that went towards Spaw Brow, and below it the wharf where sea-going vessels came and went on the tide, as well as river boats that plied between Preston and the southern half of the county along the River Douglas Navigation. The top of the Brow commanded a view over the Marsh Mill Dam, the Marsh itself, the wharf with its few ships, and the whole estuary as it runs and broadens westwards to the sea.
I paused there and, looking down, saw below me the small brick house built halfway down the slope for the outflow of the spring that supplied the bath. A hundred yards below that lay the curious structure of the bath house itself, a little temple of cleanliness with its domed roof, key-pattern decorations and semi-circular porch supported by six round columns. The style was inspired no doubt by the Classical world’s love of bathing in company but, if its first founders a generation ago had hoped the habit would be adopted by all prominent citizens of Preston, they have been sadly disappointed. The bath was successful for a while but had then suffered a painful decline and now stood locked and unused on its hillside station.
The bath stood beside a steep rutted track to which it gave its name. Cold Bath Lane descended from the bath house to a crossroads – the way ahead led to the township of Ashton and beyond that the small town of Kirkham; the one on the right took you back to Preston by the more level route of Water Lane; and the left-hand road led to the river bank and the wharf.
The skin-yard stood at this crossroads and behind lay a grassy water-meadow that stretched a hundred and fifty yards to the river’s edge. This was known as the Marsh and Prestonians had for centuries enjoyed the right to graze their cattle, sheep and goats on it. The skin-yard itself was enclosed by a ten-foot wall and entered through an arched gateway. A group of women had gathered a few yards from this gate and were in animated conversation amongst themselves while, under the arch itself, there was a second group of both men and women standing more silently. The two groups were quite distinct. The mixed group were Ellen Kite’s fellow workers from the tannery within; the females were local women that lived in the cottages scattered around the crossroads and along Watery Lane. It was these women that I came to first.
In my experience, an infant that’s been found dead has power to bring out the community of women like no other unexpected corpse. When I arrived at the place, there must have been above a dozen of them, gathered in a conspiratorial circle. There would have been only one subject of their muttering: which young woman had been secretly pregnant? Which girl of the parish had turned whore and then done away with her ill-begotten child? One of the women, a tall, gaunt one called Hannah Parsons who was the wife of Jem Parsons the bath-house keeper, was leading the discussion, hissing that they must leave no stone unturned, no secret unrevealed, until they had found who had done this killing.
‘Now, ladies,’ I said as Ellen left me to join her friends next to the gate. ‘What is the matter?’
The women started talking all at once and the words came to me in such a gabble that I understood nothing. I pointed to Hannah Parsons.
‘Hannah, you speak. This is about the dead infant, I take it.’
‘Yes, Your Honour,’ she said.
‘Was it any of you that found it?’
‘No, it was them inside the skin-yard. We heard a shouting and a caterwauling, so we came out to see what it was about. They were saying they’d fished a baby out of one of their tan-pits.’
She wrinkled her nose in what I took to be disgust for the skinning trade and those who worked in it.
‘Now they won’t let nobody near. They won’t let us in, or bring it out for us to see it.’
I spoke to her firmly.
‘Well, that is quite right, Hannah. A body that’s found is for me to look at first, and is not to be removed from the place unless I say so. Now, do any of you have anything to tell me about this matter? If so, you must do so.’
They glanced around at each other. No one spoke up.
‘Very well. But please understand that if you do think of anything – anything definite, mind! – I must be told. In the meantime you should disperse to your homes or your work.’
I added the last injunction largely as a matter of form, for I knew they would not obey.
I now walked across to the skinners, who numbered a dozen at most. They had gathered around Ellen Kite and were questioning her. As I drew near my nose was assailed by the same pungency that emanated from the clothes of Ellen Kite, but multiplied. It was the smell that set these folk apart in every way from Hannah and her friends, who considered themselves more proper, even if no richer. I strove not to betray any sign of displeasure as I came near.
A man of middle age stepped towards me and tipped his hat.
‘How do, Coroner? Barney Kite.’
He neither confirmed nor denied it, but only said,
‘Follow me. I’ll show it thee.’
* * *
Within the gateway arch, and built as part of it, was a small stone lodge with a single room below and another above. It was halfway to ruin, the thatch sagging, the ceiling pocked by rot, the interior damp and draughty. With the whole company in attendance I was led inside and shown a trestle table in the lower room. Walking ahead of me, Kite reached the table and grasped the square of sacking that covered it. With one movement he pulled it away to expose a tiny dirt-caked heap of human remains.
It was clear that this was, indeed, a newborn. Its body was wrapped in what appeared to be a piece of sodden filthy linen, but its head was exposed. I stooped to look more closely. Smears of stinking mud lay across the face, whose features were yet hardly formed. The eyelids were shut, but the round mouth was a little open and the nose was flat. I was suddenly almost overwhelmed by a rush of pity at the sight of those closed eyes and parted lips. I stood upright once more.
‘What happened? Does anyone know how this poor thing came here?’
I looked around at the faces surrounding me. They were uniformly anxious, but otherwise blank. I addressed the one who had earlier seemed to put himself forward as their leader.
‘Mr Kite, can you explain the circumstances?’
‘By some wickedness, we suppose, the babby got into one of the handler pits,’ he said. ‘Our Ellen found it this afternoon.’
His daughter was standing next to him. He hooked an arm around her shoulders and pulled her tightly to him.
I said, ‘Ellen, I need to know exactly where this was. Will you show me? No! No! The rest of you stand off!’
Her father released her and she preceded me out of the lodge.
The skin-yard was about half an acre in extent. The central part comprised the area of the tanning pits, each about ten feet square and lined up in three rows. Above them were erected frames from which hides were lowered for soaking in the tanning fluid. As we reached them, I turned to survey the whole perimeter of the yard. Against the surrounding wall a run of sloping roofs had been pitched to make a kind of gallery. This sheltered tuns and troughs and stone-topped work tables, as well as further racks for drying or storing hides. There were also fires burning here and there, heating great iron pots which steamed sulphurously into the afternoon air. This air was everywhere rank with the smell of decayed vegetation, rotten flesh and manure, a smell which evidently came from the tanning liquor inside the pits.
Ellen led me directly to the nearest pit.
‘It were this pit I found it in.’
‘Your father said it is a handler pit. What is that?’
‘That’s a pit where we start off the hides, where the ooze is weakest.’
‘What’s in the pit. Hides go from pit to pit, with the ooze getting stronger every time, see?’
I saw that each of the pits was slate-lined, and that the frames surmounting them were equipped with crude winching machinery, operated by turning a wheel. By this means the hides were dipped and brought out of the ooze, which was a dark brown, like coffee.
‘How long do the hides stay in this pit?’
‘Twenty weeks. But meantime we must handle them every day, which is what I came to the pit to do after my dinner.’
‘Handle them? What’s that?’
‘We wind out the hides and stir up the ooze.’
She pointed to a long-handled paddle lying beside the winching wheel.
‘Why do you do that?’
‘If you don’t the goodness settles at the bottom and the leather doesn’t cure properly all the way up.’
‘So when you stirred the pit you found the remains?’
‘Aye, it came up on the paddle, like. I just took it out and laid it on the side. I was right shocked. I shouted for me dad. He came and carried it into the gatehouse, and sent me up to get you.’
‘I see. That means you are the first finder, Ellen, and shall go down in the record as such. You shall have to swear a deposition and in due course give evidence at the inquest into what you found and how you found it. Will you be able to remember everything that happened?’
Ellen, who was quite a presentable young female under her noxious grime, nodded and tapped her temple.
‘Don’t worry, Sir. I’ve got over the shock now. It’s all in here.’
Passably intelligent, too, I thought, as I indicated that we should return to the gate.
‘The baby must be kept for examination,’ I said on the way, ‘but not here. It must be somewhere safe and in the vicinity.’
I looked up the hillside that rose above the skin-yard. The bath house, like a domed and pillared temple, was in clear view halfway up, and it occurred to me at once that, unused and secure, this was the obvious place in the neighbourhood. I hurried back to the gatehouse, gathered up the dead baby and took it out through the skin-yard gate. The local women were still waiting in a huddle, like harpies.
‘Is your husband up at the bath?’ I asked Hannah.
‘No, he’s gone to town,’ she said.
‘I need somewhere to keep the body safe, as near as possible to where it was discovered. The bath will serve my purpose. Do you have a key?’
A few minutes later, with the tiny body resting on my upturned hands, I led a small procession up Cold Bath Lane. When we reached the place, Hannah unlocked the doors and the two of us went inside. The others gathered around the porch to await whatever might ensue.
At the time I am describing – the autumn of the year 1743 – the Preston spa had been closed to all business for a long time and, entering it now with my dismal burden, I could see why. What once, twenty-five years ago, had been an airy and modern interior now looked gloomy and decrepit. The previously white walls were mottled with black and blue mould; the plunge-bath was half-full of dirty water, its bottom a thick layer of sludge; the window panes – set high in the walls to prevent folk peeping at the bathers’ nakedness – were cracked and grimy.
There had been talk that the bath was to be furbished up again, with investment provided by Lord Grassington, a member of the county nobility. But there had been legal objections to the scheme from the Corporation, which owned the water supply, and the water which had once filled the bath now merely ran through beneath the building and into the conduit on the other side so that a faint subterraneous rushing sound was heard at all times.
Entering the desolate place now, I decided the conversation should continue solemn and so, though I was curious, I did not ask Hannah Parsons how matters stood between Lord Grassington’s project and the Mayor. I only told her I needed a room and some receptacle in which the baby’s remains could be kept safe. She conducted me around the simple building, which consisted of half a dozen rooms – apart from an entrance hall and the plunging room under the central dome, there were the keeper’s little hutch, a cupboard-like tiring-room for changing out of one’s clothes, the jakes and the tiled sluicing room. The sole features of the latter were the open fireplace with its great water cauldron hanging above the blackened grate, wooden benches arrayed around the wall, a stone sink and a drain hole in the middle of the floor.
‘Shall this be the room where you inquest into the babby, Mr Cragg?’ she asked, her voice lowered for the first time.
‘No, but I shall keep it here, Mrs Parsons. A body waiting for inquest must lie as close as possible to where it was found, making this place very suitable. The spa is not in public use, and the sluicing room is cool and has a stout door, which is a most important consideration. We can’t risk the little one being taken away, as without it I am unable to proceed to inquest and in that case we may never know the truth.’
Hearing this her face took on a sudden intensity.
‘And that we must know, Mr Cragg. This is murder and whatever harlot-whore did it must pay – and she will! Every woman in the world – every honest woman – will say yes to that with me.’
I moved over to inspect the sink. Its interior, and the tap that had once filled it, were cobwebbed and perfectly dry, while a wooden lid leaned against the wall alongside. I felt confident that here my little victim would come to no harm.
‘Please would you brush out this sink?’ I asked.
While she went to find a brush I walked restlessly around the room. I remembered times when I had been in here with my young friends, all of us naked and covered in soapsuds while the keeper dipped a bucket in the cauldron that he kept steaming over the burning logs. For a halfpenny a time he would hurl the water at us with gusto, laughing at how we cried and jumped around at the shock of the soaking. I had much enjoyed going there in such company, on one of the alternate days in the week when it was reserved for the use of males. But soon enough, as domesticity supervened, I found less and less delight in jumping into icy water, or in having the bathhouse keeper hurl buckets over me that he always claimed would contain hot water, but generally proved scarcely tepid. It became so much more agreeable to enjoy a weekly soak in my own kitchen fireside tub, with my own Elizabeth on hand to scrub my back.
But now I thought how sweet it had been to be young and slippery with soap, and to stand laughing with arms wide to welcome the force of the hurled water against our bodies. I looked down at the dead baby in my hands and felt another pang of sorrow. Whether it was for this bud of unfulfilled humanity, or for my own lost and irrecoverable youth, I cannot say.
Hannah returned with brush and pan, and cleared the sink of its webs and dust, after which I placed the baby inside. Then I lifted and covered it reverently with the sink’s wooden cover.
‘Hannah, I expect you to lock up and safeguard these remains to the utmost of your ability. It is getting late now and I can do no more today. But tomorrow I shall return with someone to help me examine it and we shall begin our investigation into this distressing event.’
So I went outside to find the skinners shifting around and talking together urgently. They wanted to get away to their work before nightfall, but were uncertain in case I required them to remain. I told them at once that I didn’t and as they began to turn away, I called Ellen Kite to me.
‘Ellen, I shall be obliged if you would come to my office in Cheapside first thing in the morning. With the help of my clerk Mr Furzey I shall take your deposition.’
She gave a bob of a curtsey, a politeness at odds with her mired and noxious working clothes, and said, ‘I come to market every Wednesday with my brother, Sir, bringing some of our leather goods to sell. As soon as we have the stall set up I’ll come to your door.’
So they all went down the lane in a troop to their skin-yard. Beyond them the orange sun was already sidling towards the west where, in a couple of hours, it would lower itself, as into a bath, below the horizon.
Copyright © 2016 Robin Blake.
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ROBIN BLAKE is the author of the Cragg & Fidelis series, including A Dark Anatomy and Dark Waters, in addition to acclaimed works on the artists Van Dyck and Stubbs. He has written, produced and presented extensively for radio, is widely published as a critic. He lives in London.