Earlier this year we launched a brand new eBook series by Shirley McKay, a quintet of Hew Cullan mysteries entitled 1588: A Calendar of Crime. Last week saw the publication of book two in the series, Whitsunday – a gripping tale of murder, corruption and witchcraft. In this extract from the book, an unfortunate group of teachers and students are horrified to discover the body of a Lord Justice in the grounds of St. Leonard’s college. Before long, Hew Cullan is reluctantly dragged into the ensuing melee of investigation and accusation. But will he get to bottom of this gruesome case in time to save the man wrongfully accused of the murder? There’s only one way to find out…
‘In St Leonard’s College on the South Street of St Andrews, a boy of fourteen lay half the night awake. His name was Robin Grubb, and he was the smallest of the poor scholar clerks, who paid for their degrees by completing menial tasks. It was Robin’s turn on Tuesdays to ring the bell to call the college from its sleep, to light the fires and fetch the water from the well, and introduce his colleagues briskly to a day which they were more inclined to take their time to meet. Robin was a country boy, and natural instinct told him when he ought to rise. And yet, on Tuesday last, his country sense had failed. He had overslept. It was already a quarter to six when the sun had streaked into the dust of his room and spilled on his white face to wake him, and it was six o’clock before the bell was rung. The shame of it engulfed him now, and kept him from his sleep. For when he closed his eyes he could hear again the censure of the college principal, magnificent, benign, and measured in reproof. He had not called Robin to account for his fault, nor shown his disapproval of him in a word or look. Instead, he had preached a sermon against sloth, taking as his theme ‘the sluggard will not plough by reason of the cold, therefore shall he beg in harvest’, and hot blood had flown to fill Robin’s cheeks, as surely as though he had slapped them.
Tonight there was no moon, and Robin could not quell, through the dim dead hours, the fear that the daylight somehow might escape him. He left his bed at last to look out on the darkness where the lanterns hung, hoping for a glimpse of the college clock. He gasped at what he saw, rubbing at his eyes, uncertain for a moment if he was awake.
The wind of Robin’s gasp, blowing through his dreams, caused the fellow student who shared a bed with him to mutter in his sleep, turning on his back and flinging out a foot, beyond the blanket’s grip. It was only this, a foot more stout and ominous than either of his own, that stamped on Robin’s will to rush across and wake him. He gathered up his breeks about his slender hips, and flimsily protected, tiptoed from the room.
He paused at the door of the regent, Robert Black, believing it was safest to report to him. Robert was in charge of the third year class. He had been a regent a dozen years or more, without promotion to professor or a living at the kirk, and nothing could surprise him in this weary world. His most withering reproach was a cynical disdain. He was also quite sharp in his wits, once the whiff of a crisis had prised him awake. This had been tested the previous term, when the snuff of a candle, carelessly flicked, had threatened to burn them alive in their beds.
Robin gave a knock, and when there was no answer entered Robert’s room. The master was asleep in a truckle bed. It was rumoured at the college that the masters dreamt in Latin, save for at St Mary’s, where they dreamt in Greek. Robin did not choose to put this to the test, for though the students were constrained to speak Latin at all times, it felt to him a leaden and unwieldy instrument. He could read it well enough – it was for that reason that the minister of his parish kirk had recommended him to the university – but he found it cumbersome and foreign on his tongue. It lacked the sense of urgency that was wanted here – how could he be adamant, fishing for a verb? And so he spoke in Scots. ‘Sir, sir, ye maun wake up now, sir,’ lifting up the sheet to pull at Robert’s shirt. And Robert Black confirmed his intuitions were correct, for he sat bolt upright, wild-eyed and bright as a ghost in a tale, and answered him at once.
‘What is the matter, child?’
Words in no language were adequate enough. ‘Ye maun come an’ look.’ Robin tugged at him. ‘Is that no the gentleman that was here the day?’
The window to the chamber opened to the south. Robert Black looked out. ‘Upon my soul,’ he said, ‘I believe it is.’
‘He is, ah, he is—’
Robert answered gently, ‘I can see that too. You did well to wake me. And I would like to think you have shown no one else.’
‘Wha would I show? They are all asleep.’
‘That is to the good. But you must fetch the principal.’
‘Must I?’ Robin said.
‘Certainly you must. Run and wake him now. I will deal with this.’
The boy set off reluctantly, while the master dressed. And Robert kept an eye on the dancer in the square, who did not seem to know or care that he was watched.
The dance was grave and strange, the dancer with his head inclined, as though he were attuning to a distant sound, too rare and faint a melody to touch the common ear. His trunk and neck were still, the movement of his feet at first quite slow and stately, turned to skip and lilt, to sway upon the ball, and finally to leap, spinning in the air with a speed and grace surprising in a man so fleshly in his form, light upon the toes that did not miss a beat. The slender limbs that bore the full force of his gravity maintained his bulk aloft, and held it proud and stern, as Atlas bore the weight upon him of the world. The dancer entranced, as though he cast a spell. The more, since he was dressed in not a stitch of clothes.
The regent Robert Black made his way outside and approached the dancer, holding out in front of him his folded scholar’s gown. ‘Your honour, are you well? The night air is cold. Will you take my robe?’
The dancer paused his flight, and turned to stare at him. His eyes were dazed and dark. The principal appeared, in his shirt and pantofills, with little Robin Grubb close upon his heels. ‘How now, my lord,’ he said. ‘This will not do at all.’
The dancer held their gaze, and did not seem to hear. He answered not a word, but as his dance was paused, it seemed as though the sound to which he harked had stopped, the music that had worked him coming to a close, and there and then, he dropped, lifeless as a puppet broken at the strings, reflecting in the shimmer of his sightless eyes the sliver of a light that he would not see again.’