It was not until the next morning that I realized a catastrophe was in the making; the earlier part of the day was spent commiserating with Lower on the loss of his corpse.
He took it in good part; as he said, his chances of getting his hands on Prestcott’s body had been small, so it gave him a little satisfaction to know that the university wouldn’t be getting it either. Besides, he’d quite liked the lad, although he, and most of the members of the town, did think that the way he had maltreated Dr. Wallis was quite unseemly.
To explain briefly—and this succinct account was the result of piecing together innumerable accounts until I understood what had happened—the escape of Jack Prestcott from the king’s justice was partly my doing. I had delivered the message about the lad wanting a visitor, and Dr. Wallis, the very man who had been so rude to me at dinner, had gone in Grove’s place because of my medical advice. It was a kind act, both to Grove and to Prestcott, and I felt ashamed for deriving some small amusement from the result.
Wallis had asked that the prisoner be unshackled so that he might have more ease in prayer, and was left alone with him. About an hour later, still swaddled in his thick black gown and heavy winter hat, he had emerged so distressed at the imminent loss of a fine young life that he had scarcely been able to speak, merely tipping the jailer two pence and asking that Prestcott be allowed an undisturbed night’s sleep. Reshackling could wait until the morning.
The jailer, who would undoubtedly lose his place as a result, had obeyed and it was not until after five the next morning that the cell was opened. Whereupon it was discovered that the person on the little cot was not Prestcott, but a bound and gagged Dr. Wallis who had, so he related, been overpowered by the young criminal, tied up and stripped of his cloak and hat. It had been Prestcott who had left the previous evening and who had won, as a result, nearly ten hours’ start on any pursuers.
This intelligence caused a wonderful sensation; the population at large of course enjoyed the majesty of the law to be made ridiculous but was aggrieved at the loss of a hanging. On balance, admiration for the audacity outweighed the disappointment; the hue and cry set off to find him, but I suspect that most were not wholly displeased when they came back empty-handed.
Having appointed myself Grove’s physician, I was naturally dispatched by Lower to examine his eye once more so that I could pick up gossip on the matter. However, the thick oak door leading to his room was firmly shut and locked, and this time there was no reply when I beat on it with my stick.
“Do you know where Dr. Grove is?” I asked of a serving woman.
“In his room.”
“There is no answer.”
“He must be still asleep.”
I pointed out that it was nearly ten o’clock. Did not Fellows have to rise in order to attend chapel? Was it not unusual for him to be still asleep?
She was a surly and unhelpful woman, so I appealed to Mr. Ken, whom I saw walking around the other side of the quadrangle. He looked concerned, because he said it was Grove’s particular pleasure to take the roll at chapel, and persecute latecomers. Perhaps his illness… ?
“It was only an inflamed eye,” I said. “He was well enough to dine last night.”
“What medicine did you give him? Perhaps that accounts for it?”
I did not like the suggestion that I might be responsible for making him ill, if he was so. But I hardly felt like admitting that my cure—which I had used as an example of the superiority of experimental medicine the previous evening—was merely water and eau de cologne.
“I hardly think so. But it concerns me; is there any way in which we can open this door?”
Mr. Ken talked to the servant and while they went in search of another key, I stood outside the door, and pounded again to see whether Grove could be roused.
I was still pounding when Ken reappeared with a key.
“Of course, it will be of no use if his own is in the lock, you know,” he said as he knelt down and peered through the keyhole. “And he will be very angry indeed if he returns to find us here.”
Ken, I noted, looked alarmed at this prospect.
“Perhaps you want to retire?” I suggested.
“No, no,” he said uncertainly. “We have no love for each other, as you may have noticed, but in all Christian charity I could not abandon him if he were ill.”
“You have heard about Professor Wallis?”
Mr. Ken suppressed a twitch of very unzealous merriment just in time to maintain his somber countenance. “I have indeed, and it shocks me that a man of the church should be treated in such a shameful fashion.”
Then the door was open, and all thought of Dr. Wallis was banished from our thoughts.
That Dr. Grove was corpus sine pectore was indisputable, and it was apparent that he had died in considerable pain. He was lying on his back in the middle of the floor, face creased up, mouth open, with dried saliva dribbling out of one side. He had vomited and emptied his guts in his last moments, so there was an insufferable stink in the room. His hands were clenched so they more resembled claws than human hands, with one arm outstretched along the floor, and the other at his neck, almost as though he had tried to extinguish himself. The chamber itself was in total disarray; books lying on the floor, papers scattered about, so that it looked as if he had flailed around violently in his last moments. Or, as Lower later pointed out, maybe he was just untidy.
Fortunately, dead bodies do not trouble me greatly, although the shock of seeing this one and the horrible circumstances of its arrangement distressed me. But the sight terrified Mr. Ken. I half-thought he almost made the sign of the cross, and only stopped himself in time to preserve propriety.
“Dear Lord protect us in our time of sorrows,” he said with a shaking voice as he saw the outstretched body. “You,” he said to the servant, “run and fetch the warden quickly. Mr. Cola, what has happened here?”
“I am at a loss to say,” I replied. “The obvious explanation would be a seizure, but the clenched hands and expression of the face would not indicate that. It looks as though he was in some great pain; perhaps the state of the room is a result of that.”
We looked quietly at the poor man’s corpse until the sound of steps on the wooden stairs roused us. Warden Woodward was a small, alert-looking man who maintained a great degree of self-possession when he saw what was within the room. He had a small mustache and beard in the old Royalist manner but, I was told, was in fact a Parliament man, who had hung onto his position not because he was a great scholar—the college paid little attention to that—but because he was a marvelous man with the money. As one fellow remarked, he could make a dead pig yield up a perpetual profit, and for that the college respected him.
“Maybe we should have a more definite opinion before we proceed,” he said after he heard Ken and myself explain what we had found. “Mary,” he went on, addressing the servant who was still standing in the background, ears flapping, “go and find Dr. Bate in the High Street, if you please. Tell him it is urgent, and that I would be grateful for his immediate attendance.”
I almost opened my mouth to speak here, but again said nothing. To be passed over so rapidly did not please me, but there was little I could do about it. My only hope was that, my services not required and this a college matter, I would not be expelled from a most interesting situation. Lower, for one, would find it hard to forgive me if I returned without the story complete in all particulars.
“It seems clear to me,” the warden said in a definite tone of voice that brooked no contradiction as we waited, “that the unfortunate man had a seizure. I can think of little else to be said. We must of course wait for confirmation, but I have no doubt it will be forthcoming.”
Mr. Ken, one of those obsequious prelates who made a point of agreeing with anyone more powerful than he, nodded fervently. Both of them, in fact, seemed excessively eager to reach this conclusion, but it was mainly because of my sense of pique, I think, that I ventured my own opinion.
“Might I suggest,” I said tentatively, “that the particulars of this business be examined more thoroughly before such a conclusion is adopted?”
Both looked at me with reluctance as I spoke. “For example, what ailments had the man complained of in the past? Did he, perhaps, drink too much the previous evening? Had he taken some physical exertion which strained his heart?”
“What are you suggesting?” Woodward said, turning round, stony-faced, to confront me. I noticed that Ken turned pale at my words as well.
“Nothing at all.”
“You are a malicious man,” he replied, taking me entirely by surprise. “Such an allegation is entirely without foundation. For you to bring it up at a time like this is monstrous.”
“I know of no allegations, nor am I bringing them up,” I said, completely astonished, yet again, by the unpredictability of the English. “Please assure yourself of my entire innocence on that. I simply wondered…”
“It is obvious even to me,” Woodward continued vehemently, “that this was merely a seizure. And, what is more, it is a college matter, sir. We thank you for raising the alarm, but do not wish to trespass further on your time.”
Which statement was obviously a dismissal, and a somewhat offensive one. I took my leave with more politeness than they.