Read A Pig of Cold Poison Online

Authors: Pat McIntosh

A Pig of Cold Poison

For Ellissa,
who has blue eyes but a much nicer disposition

Although he was watching closely when the mummer was poisoned, it took Gil Cunningham several days and three more poisonings to work out how it was done.


There were many more people in the hall of his sister’s house than he had anticipated. The weather had been mild for late October, and not all the guests were in their winter-weight finery, so that the wide, light chamber and its two huge window bays each as big as another small room seemed to be crammed with furred wool set next to rustling taffeta-lined brocades, with a top-dressing of black silk hoods and jewelled hats. Gil, checking on the threshold with his wife on his arm, cast a glance round and muttered to Alys:

‘Sweet St Giles, she’s asked half the High Street. She’d never have noticed if I’d stayed at home.’

‘We have a good company,’ observed Alys’s father, the French master-mason, at Gil’s other side. Alys, ignoring them both, handed her plaid to the journeyman who had let them in, paused to ask after the man’s family, and went forward across the buzzing room to embrace her sister-in-law Kate, who sat enthroned beside the cradle, her crutches propped against the arm of the great chair and her gigantic waiting-woman on guard beside her.

Kate and her husband, Gil’s good friend Maister Augie Morison, had launched on the process of entertaining most of the burgh council of Glasgow and their families, in small batches, with the twofold purpose of showing off their newly extended house and their baby son to Morison’s fellow merchants. As the child’s godparents, Gil and Alys were naturally expected to be present at this first occasion, but Gil had obeyed his sister’s stringent invitation with some reluctance. He had a report to compile for his master the Archbishop of Glasgow, and two legal documents to compose before the week was out. Either would have been a preferable occupation for the afternoon, if he could not borrow a horse and ride out into the autumn sunshine. Instead here he was, in his good blue brocade, required to make civil conversation about nothing in a group of people he did not know well.

‘There is Francis Renfrew the apothecary,’ stated Maistre Pierre. ‘And Maister Hamilton. I suppose they would start with their neighbours, indeed. They had to suffer the worst while the building went on.’

‘Aye, Gil,’ said their host, appearing beside them. ‘And yourself, Pierre. I’m right glad to see you.’

‘How is Edward?’ asked Gil, nodding towards the cradle. Morison’s face broke into his lambent smile.

‘Oh, he’s well enough,’ he said, with unconvincing modesty. ‘I think he’s going to be a reader. He listened to every word on a page o
Floris and Blanchflour
last night.’

‘Do you tell me?’ said Maistre Pierre, suitably impressed. ‘At ten weeks of age?’

Gil preserved his countenance and gestured at the company.

‘Who have you got here today?’ he asked. ‘Looks like a town meeting.’

‘Not so many,’ pronounced Maistre Pierre. ‘There is Dod Wilkie the litster, who is Hamilton’s friend, and is that also Wat Forrest from the Drygate? It is to be hoped nobody falls ill today in the burgh, if both of the established apothecaries have closed up shop to admire wee Edward.’

‘It’s worse than that,’ confided Morison in amusement. ‘We’re to have the Play of Galossian acted later for the company, seeing it’s the season, and it seems young Bothwell, that has the potyngar’s booth at the Tolbooth, is one o the band I’ve asked in to play it. There won’t be a potyngar of any sort at liberty in the town. Bide there till I get you a glass, maisters, and then we’ll go talk to Adam and Dod yonder.’

He slipped away past three seated women. Gil identified Mistress Hamilton in ill-judged light blue velvet, Nancy Sproull the wife of Wilkie the dyer, and the hugely pregnant Meg Mathieson, second wife of Maister Renfrew the burgh’s senior apothecary. Meg shifted uncomfortably on her seat as his eye fell on her, but none of the three looked up from their intent dissection of someone else’s reputation, and Maistre Pierre said:

‘Galossian? Does he mean that tale of champions and death and healing?’

Gil nodded, still surveying the room.

‘I have never understood why such things should be seasonal.’

‘It always has been,’ Gil answered absently. ‘Any time from All Hallows Eve –’

‘That is today,’ observed his father-in-law.

‘– to New Year. I suppose it celebrates the death of the old year and the coming of the new one. Out in Lanarkshire every parish has its own version, and the young men go about playing it in houses and farmyards and get rewarded with ale.’

‘Better, surely, to play out tales from Holy Writ,’ said Maistre Pierre in faint disapproval, accepting a brimming glass from Morison. ‘Your health, maister.’

Following his friend between the clustered backstools, Gil listened to the snatches of conversation. The chamber was not in fact as crowded as it had seemed at first sight, although all the guests had brought their ladies; unless one counted the baby and his nursemaid, and Morison’s small daughters and their stout black-browed nurse who were handing little cakes and sweetmeats, there were no more than two dozen people present, and most of the men had retired into one of the big new windows in a comfortable, argumentative group. In the further window, three women seemed to be discussing herbs for the complexion, two black cloth veils leaning together with one head of soft brown waves.

‘You want to choose him a young lassie, she’ll be by far more biddable.’ That was Francis Renfrew, striking in tawny velvet braided with crimson silk, his wide-brimmed bonnet close to Wat Forrest’s neat black felt.

‘That depends on the lassie, Frankie,’ observed Maister Forrest. ‘An older one will be the more grateful to get a husband.’

Whose marriage were they hatching? Gil wondered. Could Wat be turning his mind to his brother’s future? Adam had been a year ahead of Gil at the grammar school. He must be nearing thirty, it was full time he brought a wife and her dowry to the business in the Drygate, but by all accounts
was not a word to apply to Renfrew’s younger daughter.

An even less biddable lassie paused in front of him, holding her wooden platter up level with her chin so that he could reach it.

‘There’s two cakes each,’ she warned him, ‘and you get one of the marchpane cherries. But there’s plenty quince zozinzes.’

‘I’ll take a quince lozenge, then,’ Gil said, ‘and leave some cakes for other people. Thank you, Ysonde.’

His sister’s younger stepdaughter gave him another penetrating grey stare.

‘Some folk’s taking more than two cakes,’ she said. ‘If you don’t take one now you might not get any. Wynliane and me made them,’ she expanded. ‘Nan helped.’

‘I see.’ Gil took a cake obediently. ‘Has Mistress Alys had hers yet?’

‘Yes, and she said it was good.’ Ysonde waited. Realizing his duty, Gil took a cautious bite of the greyish morsel, and nodded with emphatic pleasure. ‘You can get another one if you like. But I’m not giving any more to him.’ She glowered at someone beyond Gil. ‘He laughed when I said how many, and then he took a great big handful.’

‘That was ill mannered,’ Gil agreed, swallowing the final crumbs. The little cake was perfectly edible; Nan Thomson, who was now shepherding the older girl out to the kitchen with an empty tray, must have had more to do with it than Ysonde would admit.

‘You didn’t bring your baby,’ she observed.

‘No, we didn’t,’ he agreed. And he isn’t our baby, he thought, and it’s beginning to matter. ‘John’s only two, so he couldn’t take the sweetmeats round like you and Wynliane. He’d eat them all.’

‘So he would,’ she agreed solemnly. ‘I’m not eating these ones. We kept ours back in the kitchen. Now you have to go and talk to people, Mammy Kate said.’

‘Is that right?’ Gil looked around him. ‘Who will I talk to?’

‘I don’t care.’ Ysonde tossed her head. ‘They’re all growed up and boring.’

She turned away and marched past Wat Forrest just as he said rather firmly, ‘Frankie, you ken fine my brother has another in mind. I see no purpose in arguing the matter.’

‘If he goes that road, you’ll rue it, Wat,’ responded Maister Renfrew, ‘and so will he.’ He rose and stalked off into the window bay, the set of his tawny velvet shoulders suggesting annoyance and indignation. Was that a threat? Gil wondered, and turned away, not wishing to catch Wat Forrest’s eye at such a moment.

As usual at events like this, the men and women were conversing separately. Alys, easy to find in her apricot-coloured taffeta, had settled beside her sister-in-law and was bending over the cradle with a sour-faced young woman in a huge Flemish hood whose black silk cap must surely be wired to make it stand up like that. The three women nearby were still intent on someone else’s reputation, but Agnes Hamilton, wife of Andrew Hamilton the master-carpenter, looked up briefly and smiled at Gil from among her chins.

In the nearer window the men had broken into smaller clumps. Renfrew had joined Maistre Pierre, who was already deep in conversation with Wat Forrest’s brother Adam and a small sturdy man in bright green broadcloth faced with sunshine yellow, Wilkie the dyer, who had probably not produced those difficult shades in his own workshop. Morison had moved on to speak to his neighbour Andrew Hamilton, and nearest to Gil two younger men he knew slightly were discussing apothecary business while the target of Ysonde’s displeasure, seated sideways on a backstool, swung one leg and stared at the painted beams above him, humming tunelessly.

Gil looked closer at this man. He had taken him at first for a stranger, but he was startled to find he recognized him. It was Nicol Renfrew, eldest son of the apothecary, who had been in the same year as Gil at the grammar school and who had been a strange, scrawny, twitching boy with restless hands and feet and a tendency to blurt out whatever remarks came into his mind, generally trimmed with foul language, which had got him beaten on a twice-daily basis despite his undoubted ability in Latin and geometry. Here he was, filled out, even slightly plump, calm and sleepy-eyed, smiling up at the painted vines. Hooking a stool closer with his foot, Gil sat down next him.

‘Aye, Nicol,’ he said. ‘I heard you were back in Glasgow.’

‘Gil Cunningham,’ said the other man after a moment, and produced a high-pitched chuckle. ‘So what you doing here? Did you ever see such a parcel of stuffed sarks, and the auld man the worst of them? I’d never ha come, but he insisted.’

Perhaps the man was less changed than he had thought. Gil ignored this remark, and went on, ‘Where is it you’ve been? The Low Countries? Did I hear it was Middelburgh?’

‘So they said,’ agreed Nicol vaguely, and waved a hand. ‘Could a been anywhere. They spoke Latin,’ he added. ‘And the Saracen tongue.’

‘What are you doing now you’re back?’ This was harder work than it should be. ‘Do you work with your father?’

Nicol shrugged one shoulder, and swung the foot again. ‘He’s no need of me. He’s got Jimmy Syme and my dear little brother, he’s not needing another to fetch and carry. So Agnes and Grace does that, when they’re not fetching for my new mammy.’

High Street gossip swirled in Gil’s head. Syme was Nicol’s brother-in-law, four or five years younger than him, wedded to the elder daughter perhaps two years since and now standing over yonder conversing stiffly with the same dear little brother, and Agnes was the younger girl. Whatever the older was called, it was not …

‘Grace?’ he queried.

‘My blessed wife.’

‘Your wife? Good wishes on the marriage. When was that?’

‘Last Yule, or thereabout.’ Nicol’s heavy-lidded gaze lifted above Gil’s head, and his vague expression warmed. ‘Speak of the devil.’

The woman moved forward from behind Gil as he rose to greet her. He had a swift impression of height and slenderness, a modest gown of dark silk brocade and foreign cut, then light grey eyes met his and he found himself read, assessed, evaluated, in the time it took her to curtsy and smile at him. She must be nearly his height, and fully as intelligent as Alys.

‘Introduce me, Nicol,’ she prompted, an odd lilt to her voice.

‘Grace,’ said Nicol offhandedly. ‘Gil Cunningham. We were at the grammar school,’ he enlarged.

‘Grace Gordon,’ she supplied resignedly, and leaned forward to kiss Gil in greeting. ‘I’m aye glad to meet a friend from Nicol’s boyhood.’

‘The surname explains the accent,’ Gil said, seating her and reaching for another stool.

‘Aye, I’m a Buchan lass,’ she agreed, ‘though I met Nicol in Middelburgh.’ A movement by the door to the kitchen stair caught her eye; she turned to look at the girl just crossing the chamber, and apologized. ‘I wonder what Agnes has been up to now?’

‘She likely stepped out to ease hersel,’ said her husband. ‘Leave the lass alone, why can’t you? She’s seventeen.’

‘That’s exactly why I can’t leave her alone,’ she said patiently, ‘and neither Meg nor Eleanor is fit to have an eye to her the now.’ Ah, that was the older daughter’s name, thought Gil, pleased to get that called back to mind. ‘Och, she’s brought Meg the lavender cushion, that’s all. She must have run round to the house. Forgive me, Maister Cunningham, I should leave family business at home. Aye, Nicol and I met in Middelburgh.’

‘You’ll find it damp here,’ Gil offered, as a harmless gambit.

‘I do, but at least I don’t miss the east wind.’

‘What’s to talk o but the weather?’ said Nicol irritably. ‘East wind, west wind, damp or cold, so? Even my faither canny sort that, whatever else he can order.’

‘Then tell me about this play we’re to see,’ said his wife. ‘Who might Galossian be? We’ve no tales o him in the nor’east, though we’ve plays enow. Is it comical, or are we like to weep at it, Maister Cunningham?’

‘Both, I suspect, depending on the acting,’ he offered, and she laughed, a sound as attractive as he had thought it might be. ‘It’s an old tale of battle and the hero’s death, with a doctor who comes in to cure him.’

‘And who plays the doctor? I hope it’s someone well qualified!’

‘I’ve no notion,’ Gil admitted. ‘Augie said it’s the company that young Bothwell from the Tolbooth runs with, so maybe he’ll take that part.’

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