Plenty of you seemed to enjoy the Richard Nottingham story I posted last week. So I dug deep and discovered this…maybe you’ll like it as much.
Outside, the wind was howling up a gale, bruising and battering. It whipped against the window, rattling it in the loose frame, and hammered sharply against the door. Night had fallen and any folk with sense were indoors, gathered close by their hearths. Winter was announcing its arrival.
Richard Nottingham, Constable of Leeds, stirred up the embers of the fire at the jail, watching the coals glow rich and red as the sparks leaped up the chimney. He rubbed his hands together, trying to pull some warmth into his flesh. He’d been out all day hunting a killer.
Ten people in the Packhorse had seen the murder happen the night before. Simon Walsh, deep in his cups, had started an argument. Those who knew him always kept their distance once he started drinking. He was a big man, violent when the mood and the ale took him. From all the Constable had learned, Walsh had begun shouting at a small man, a stranger, just words to begin, turning quickly to pushing and goading, until the man drew a knife to defend himself. Then Simon had pulled his own weapon, cutting and slashing, the rage gathering him up, until the stranger was dead.
Only then, as the blood lust faded from his mind, had he seen what he’d done. He’d run from the inn, no one brave enough to challenge him. And now it was the job of Nottingham and his men to find him.
The Constable had been called from his bed in the middle of the night and had worked ever since. He was chilled to his marrow, ready to go home to his wife and daughters and leave Simon to freeze to death out there. But he knew he couldn’t do that. They’d keep going until they found him and he was in a cell.
Nottingham poured some ale into a mug and drank it slowly while the warmth of the fire began to soak through him. Another ten minutes and he’d go back out.
He’d just started to pull the greatcoat around himself when the door opened and John Sedgwick, the deputy, appeared, breathless, his face flushed with running.
‘We’ve got him, boss. He’s down at the new church.’
‘Do you have someone guarding the place?’
‘Front and back.’ He hesitated, frowning.
‘What?’ Nottingham asked.
‘He’s taken a girl in with him. Pulled her off the street when we chased him there.’
‘Right,’ the Constable decided quickly. ‘You go and find Mr. Scott, the vicar. I’ll go and talk to Simon. He’ll be sober by now. He’s scared.’
‘Every right to be. He’s going to hang for this.’ He paused for a moment. ‘Better be armed, boss. You know what he can be like.’
Nottingham took a sword from the cupboard on the wall and strapped on the belt, then handed the other to the deputy. ‘You too, John. Just in case.’
The air had turned even colder, the wind brisker, more piercing than before. Their breath made small clouds as they walked down Briggate and along Boar Lane where Holy Trinity, the new church, had been built just two years earlier, its pale stone not yet blackened by all the soot, the strange wooden steeple rising up towards heaven.
The Constable pushed open the heavy wooden door and walked into the porch, then through to the nave. His boots clattered on the tile floor. Candles were lit by the altar and he could see Walsh sitting there, a young woman crumpled at his feet where she’d fainted. He was stroking her hair gently and looked up at the sound.
‘I’ve not hurt her,’ Simon said. He was close to fifty, a good ten years older than Nottingham, bigger and stronger, with thick arms that could effortlessly pick up and carry a bale of cloth. His coat was ragged, parting at some of the seams, his linen grimy. The ragged waistcoat had been sewn for a smaller man. It hung open, the tails flapping over his thighs. Walsh wore heavy boots and thick worsted hose, the breeches torn at the knee and covered in mud. ‘I wouldn’t, neither. I just wanted them to leave me be to come in here. That’s why I took hold of her. And then she went and did that.’ He seemed astonished by her behaviour.
The Constable strode forward until barely two yards separated the men. In the soft, flickering light he could see the girl’s chest rise and fall as she breathed, and her eyelids started to move. He crouched, reaching out to take her hand in his own.
‘You’re going to be fine, love.’ He kept his voice low and gentle, rubbing small circles on her skin and watching as she slowly came to, eyes blinking. Who could blame her for her fear? ‘I’m the Constable,’ he told her. ‘You don’t have to worry now. You’re safe now.’
Her eyes opened quickly, terrified, and she looked around in a panic. Seeing Walsh, she opened her mouth to scream and tried to push herself away.
‘He’s not going to do anything,’ Nottingham assured her. ‘I promise. I’m here.’ As she turned to stare at him, he smiled. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Martha,’ she answered, her voice just a croak. She swallowed hard. ‘Martha, sir.’
‘Try not to worry, Martha. Mr. Walsh won’t hurt you. Can you stand?’
‘I think so.’
He helped her to her feet. For a moment she was unsteady, holding hard on to his arm, then she breathed in and nodded.
‘My men are waiting outside,’ he said. ‘Just go out and they’ll look after you.’
She glanced back at Walsh.
‘You’re safe. He’s not going to hurt you. I’ll make sure he doesn’t do anything.’ He waited until she gave another small nod. He heard her footsteps as she scurried away, the sound of the door closing booming in echoes around the church.
‘Right, it’s just you and me, then, Simon,’ the Constable said. He leaned against one of the box pews, the carefully polished wood gleaning in the light.
‘Did I kill him?’ Walsh’s eyes were empty, his mouth little more than a pinched line. He was a man who’d always worked with his body, not his mind; he acted first and thought after. ‘Last night. The man.’
‘You know full well you did. You knew it back then after you’d attacked him. Why else would you run?’
‘Aye.’ Walsh agreed, rubbing his hand across the back of his neck.
‘Why? Why did you do it, Simon?’ He’d caused trouble often enough, but in the past it had always been fists and feet, bloody but never deadly.
He glanced up, a regretful look on his face.
‘I don’t know, Mr. Nottingham. I swear I don’t. It were the ale. It were in me.’
‘Do you know who he was?’
Walsh shook his head, grimacing as if he didn’t want to hear the answer.
‘His name was Tom Dunn,’ the Constable said. ‘He’d not even been here a month. Came down from Malton with his wife and baby girl hoping to make a little money and a decent life. I had to go and tell them last night.’ He saw Simon look at the floor. ‘The little one’s not even two and the wife is carrying again.’
The words filled the church, falling slowly away to silence.
‘You’re going to hang for this, Simon.’
‘Nay, Mr. Nottingham.’ He could hear the pleading in the man’s voice, the sorrow and remorse. ‘You can’t do that. I didn’t mean to hurt him. It weren’t me. You know what I’m like.’
‘You killed him. Ten people saw you do it.’
‘There’s none of them tried to stop me!’
‘Look at yourself,’ the Constable said angrily. ‘Who could stop you when you’ve a fury on you? You’d have murdered them, too.’
‘Will you tell his wife I’m sorry? Tell her I didn’t mean to do it.’
‘Words aren’t going to help her, Simon.’
Walsh moved his hand and Nottingham stiffened, ready to draw his sword. Instead the man reached into the pocket of his breeches, pulling out as few coins and tossing them on the floor. ‘Give her that. It’s all as I’ve got.’
The Constable sighed.
‘Come on, Simon, it’s time to go. You’ve led us a pretty dance all day but it’s enough now.’
Walsh didn’t stir.
‘You know that’s not right, Mr. Nottingham.’
‘What isn’t?’ He didn’t understand.
‘I’m in a church. I’m by the altar.’ He gave a smile.
‘What are you trying to say?’
‘It’s the law, I’ve got sanctuary here.’ He pronounced the word slowly, unfamiliar and awkward, something heard years before and faintly recalled. ‘Why do you think I came here? It’s the law. Me granddad told me where I were a little ‘un.’
Nottingham sighed. Now it made sense.
‘No, Simon, it’s not the law. I don’t know what he said to you, but it was wrong.’
Walsh looked up, pain and fear filling his eyes.
‘He’d not have lied to me,’ he said sharply. ‘He were a good man.’
‘Long ago churches used to offer sanctuary,’ the Constable explained, watching as the man cocked his head. ‘That part’s right. But it’s all in the past. They changed that law more than a century ago.’
The candles lit a tear falling down the man’s cheek.
‘You’d not lie to me, Mr. Nottingham?’
‘No, Simon,’ he answered softly. ‘You know I wouldn’t.’
Walsh rose slowly, pushing himself off the floor with strong arms until he was upright, his shoulders slumped.
‘You know it has to be this way, don’t you?’ the Constable asked and waited as the man nodded his acceptance. ‘You can walk out next to me. Mr. Sedgwick’s out there. We’ll take you to the jail.’