The Saint John's Fern

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Authors: Kate Sedley
Tags: rt, blt, _MARKED
see what you’re selling.’
    I unbuckled the straps of my pack and laid out its contents for her inspection. Whilst I did so, I cudgelled my brains for the most natural way in which to introduce the subject of Oliver Capstick’s murder and their sighting of Beric Gifford. In the end, though, I need not have worried. It was the man, Jacob, who mentioned the subject without any prompting from me.
    ‘You’ve been hawking your goods around Plymouth, have you? Not much joy to be had there, I’ll be bound. Tight-fisted lot! Never want to pay a fair price for anything. Which way have you come? By Martyn’s Gate and Bilbury Bridge?’ I grunted assent and he went on, ‘Did you happen to notice a house just inside the gate, painted red and gold? There was a very nasty murder there, five months back. At the very beginning of May it was. The owner, Oliver Capstick by name, was bludgeoned to death by one of his own kinfolk; by his own great-nephew, Beric Gifford.’
    ‘I did hear something of the story,’ I said, keeping a close eye upon the goodwife who, I felt, was not above slipping one or two of the smaller items into her apron pocket while my attention was engaged elsewhere. ‘There seems to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the killer was this young man you’ve mentioned. And yet surely it would be too foolhardy for anyone to commit such a crime so openly. Perhaps people are mistaken as to his identity.’
    ‘There’s no mistake,’ the goodwife said tartly, picking up and putting down a length of cream silk ribbon on which she left earthy fingermarks. ‘Jacob and I both saw him that very morning, the first time on his way to do the deed, and the second time on his way back.’
    ‘And you’re certain that it was Master Capstick’s great-nephew? You know him well enough, do you, to recognize him? You weren’t persuaded into thinking it was him, after others has named him as the culprit?’
    The goodwife swelled up like a frog and almost burst with indignation.
    ‘How dare you question my judgement?’ she cried. ‘Why, I’ve known Beric Gifford since he was in his cradle, even if my husband hasn’t. Before I wed Jacob, I was laundress to Mistress Gifford, who died, poor thing, when Beric was born. And since my marriage, many and many’s the time I’ve seen him and his sister pass by on their way to visit Master Capstick. They both knew us by sight as well as we knew them, and Beric would always wave to us if we were outside the cottage. Not recognize him, indeed! What would you know about it?’
    ‘And did you ever think him capable of murder?’
    The goodwife took a sudden, deep breath and looked unhappy. ‘Of course I didn’t! You can’t imagine someone you know –’ she did not add the words ‘and like’ although I could tell that they were on the tip of her tongue – ‘doing something as … as horrible as that.’
    ‘So why do think he did it?’
    She shrugged. ‘There’s talk in the town of a family quarrel. Something to do with his great-uncle wanting him to marry money and Beric wanting to marry his sister’s maid.’
    ‘Money’s really at the bottom of it, you can be certain of that,’ the man, Jacob, said, patting his pocket and making the coins in it jingle. ‘There are more murders committed for money than love.’
    His wife snorted. ‘And what would you know about love, pray? Answer me that!’
    I decided it was time I left before a family dispute erupted and entangled me in its coils. ‘Have you found anything you wish to buy?’ I asked the goodwife.
    She shrugged. ‘No. Put your stuff away. There’s nothing there that tempts me.’
    In normal circumstances, I should have been irritated by this contemptuous dismissal of my wares, especially after so much careless handling of them. But I had not come to sell and had learnt what I wanted to know. The goodwife and her husband were both as sure that they had seen Beric Gifford on the day of Master Capstick’s murder as

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