In The Assize of the Dying, a defendant in an English courtroom is sentenced to death for a terrible slaying he insists he did not commit. Rising to his feet, Louis Stevenson places a medieval curse on the prosecutor, the judge, the jury foreman, and the actual killer—the four men responsible for his fate. Profoundly shaken by the condemned prisoner’s words, a young couple looking on believes Stevenson’s declaration of innocence. And their determination to uncover the truth only intensifies when two more deaths follow in quick succession.
In Aunt Helen, the seemingly civilized residents of a stately English country house keep secrets about love, marriage, adulthood, and desire hidden behind closed doors—until the “perfect murder” threatens to expose them.
Two chilling tales of murder and revenge in one volume from the Edgar, Agatha, and Gold Dagger Award–winning author of the Brother Cadfael historical mysteries, who “writes with undiminished skill” (The Times, London).
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About the Author
Ellis Peters is a pseudonym of Edith Mary Pargeter (1913–1995), a British author whose Chronicles of Brother Cadfael are credited with popularizing the historical mystery. Cadfael, a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey in the first half of the twelfth century, has been described as combining the curious mind of a scientist with the bravery of a knight-errant. The character has been adapted for television, and the books drew international attention to Shrewsbury and its history.
Pargeter won an Edgar Award in 1963 for Death and the Joyful Woman, and in 1993 she won the Cartier Diamond Dagger, an annual award given by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. She was appointed officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1994, and in 1999 the British Crime Writers’ Association established the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, later called the Ellis Peters Historical Award.
Read an Excerpt
The Assize of the Dying
By Ellis Peters, Karl Kotas
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1958 Edith Pargeter
All rights reserved.
Into the well of intense silence Mr Justice Manton let fall, in his beautiful, dispassionate voice: 'Do you find the prisoner at the bar guilty or not guilty of murder?'
The foreman of the jury, a highly strung little middle-aged architect, stood gripping the front of the box as though he were being asked to pronounce upon his own life and death, so desperately oppressed by the weight of history upon his inoffensive neck that his balding, fawn-coloured head trembled like a heavy flower upon an inadequate stem. In a dry croak he said: 'Guilty, my lord!' and it was upon his forehead, not the prisoner's, that an instant sweat broke out before the sound of the words had ceased.
Charlie's hand clenched for a moment upon Margaret's in a convulsion of pure excitement. She heard a sound like an enormous sigh that emanated from every corner of the crowded court, and realised that she had been holding her breath in the unbearable tension of waiting for that verdict, and that hundreds of other people must have been doing the same. There was more in the suddenly released sound than awe and pity: a horrid suggestion, to her ear, of sensuous enjoyment. After all, they were not responsible for the prisoner's plight; there was no reason why they should not get a legitimate thrill out of it. Even Charlie, already tucking his notes and pencil away one-handed in preparation for a quick departure to the nearest phone, could not quite keep the hiss of satisfied appetite out of his deep sigh. Then, as if he sensed her disapproval, he flashed a soft, placating glance along his shoulder at her, and made a deprecating grimace before he turned his eyes again upon the solitary grey figure standing in the dock.
Mr Justice Manton said, with the same immovable courtesy: 'Louis Bretherton Stevenson, you have been found guilty of the wilful murder of Zoë Trevor, at Hampstead, on the third of September last. Have you anything to say before sentence is passed upon you?'
The prisoner raised his shaggy grey head, and levelled the hollow brilliance of his ageing eyes upon the Judge's face. In this situation Margaret found him an incredible figure. He did not belong here at all; he belonged in the reading-room of the British Museum, or the chair of archæology at some obscure university, or to some byway of lost literature in which he could explore and write for ever without causing a ripple upon the oblivious surface of his century. He was tall, thin and slightly stooped, with all the marks of the scholar about him, and throughout the four days of the trial she had watched the public nature of his ordeal invade him gradually like a corrosive poison, dislocating his armour of habit joint by joint, and one by one upsetting every equilibrium he had perfected in his fifty-five years of highly personal living. Even if they had not found him guilty at the end of it, she thought bitterly, there would have been no way in the world of restoring him to his old condition. In a way, they'd already killed him: it only remained to regularise the position.
'Yes, my lord,' said Louis Stevenson, 'I have.'
His voice was quiet but clear, much as it must have sounded in the days when he had lectured at his provincial university, and periodically scandalised the faculty, as the prosecution had not failed to bring out, by the irregularities of his private life. There was nothing scandalous left in him now; he looked dusty and disorganised, shrunken into a smaller compass because of the necessity of preserving himself from the touch of a curiosity which nevertheless pursued him inch by inch even into his own body.
Mr Justice Manton waited, with his granite calm and patience unshaken. One elderly professional greyness confronted another. They might have been the two halves of a schizophrenic personality examining each other, on one side with uninhibited detestation, on the other with a cold tolerance at least as terrible. Margaret thought, with a sense of inevitability: 'Uncle John disliked him from the first moment he set eyes on him – I could see it. I suppose order always feels like that about disorder. But then, oughtn't he to have found some way of getting rid of the case? Or has he been pushing himself to the limit of fairness the other way, for fear of injustice?' For the Judge was incorruptibility in one man, and had been in the game so long that he was on guard against every motion of his own mind, and had subdued the impulses of his heart as an expert breaks a horse.
Supposing, of course, that he had a heart! But for the existence of her cousin Charlie, who was unquestionably his child, she would have found it difficult to believe that her uncle belonged to the same warm and fallible species as other men.
'I did not kill Zoë Trevor,' said the prisoner's muted but bitterly clear voice, 'but you, in the name of society, are about to kill me. To kill unjustly is murder, and since I have no remedy here I must and I do appeal for redress in another place.'
When he paused for an instant, as he did now, the weight and quality of the silence became intense. He was so far apart from the collective experience of this courtroom full of people that they could hardly comprehend what he was saying; and what was to come was something beyond their power to guess. They hung upon the faint greyish lips, and held their breath, avid for his alien flavour.
'I therefore summon the representatives of your guilt,' said Louis Stevenson, sweeping his disorientated glance suddenly round the court before he fixed again upon the Judge's impassive face, 'to answer for my murder. You, who have conducted the case against me —'
Counsel for the Prosecution gazed out from under his vast white brow and his unbecoming wig with a faintly embarrassed calm, as though he had accidentally overheard his distinguished name mentioned in a public place. Mr Justice Manton maintained his monolithic stillness, and waited for the protest to end. It was, after all, only a variation on all the other protests he had heard in similar circumstances in his long career.
'You, who pronounced the verdict of guilty against me —'
The foreman of the jury jumped as though a ghost had nudged his arm, and wilted a little more grievously in his own heat. His mouth hung open and trembling.
'You, who summed up against me, and are about to condemn me to death —' The two pairs of fierce old eyes locked again, and this time the fixed stare held – 'and the man, whoever he may be, who committed the crime for which I am being killed. You four,' said Louis Stevenson, suddenly loud and peremptory through the stupefied quietness, 'I summon to meet me at the time appointed, at the Assize of the Dying.'
After his voice had ceased, the silence fell like a stone. No one understood, yet they felt, chillingly through the alien syllables, the conviction that they had been listening to an indictment. The words had to do with them all, and with the four he had selected in particular, and all they knew was that they were being threatened, and did not know from which quarter to expect the blow. They came out of their superstitious stillness with a rustle and a murmur, whispering to their neighbours in overwrought, shrill sibilants that mounted in a few seconds to a formidable crescendo of uneasiness. Here and there about the crowded court began the helpless, infectious giggles of hysteria. The reporters, stirring quickly out of their paralysis, were already on their marks like runners, waiting for release.
Mr Justice Manton lifted his head imperiously, and said: 'Silence!' in a knife-like voice that lopped off all sound far more effectively than the rapping of the gavel.
Charlie, his fingers pressing hard into Margaret's arm, whispered: 'But, my God, what does it mean? There's the one man who could tell us, and I bet you my old man won't ask him!' All the newspaperman in Charlie was quivering with curiosity and exasperation, to think that the Judge would pass by so intriguing an opening without exploring it. He knew his father very accurately; the measured voice, coldly courteous still, was merely asking gently:
'That is all you wish to say?'
'It is all, my lord. You'll find it enough.'
The Judge waited, erect, for the black cap to settle like a crow upon the curls of his wig. He began to pass sentence. Margaret pressed her shoulder against Charlie's arm, dropped her glance into her gloved palms and wished not to hear, but the stale, oppressive hush let the words fall upon her heavily one by one, and she could not avoid them.
'— and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.'
'And on yours, my lord!' said Louis Stevenson very softly, staring across the court from hollow, exhausted eyes. He was still looking back over his shoulder when they touched him on both arms, and he turned and went away with them, down slowly from view into the earth. They had killed him; they buried him.
She opened her eyes, which she had instinctively closed upon his going, and saw the court clearing like snow in the sun, the pressmen bolting for their telephones as soon as the Judge's stately back had vanished. The murmur had broken out again, was rising steadily to a high-pitched thrumming like angry bees, the outcry of gratified excitement. She felt for Charlie's sleeve as her eyes opened, and said aloud: 'But he didn't do it, you know!'
It was not Charlie's face she saw when she turned her head, nor Charlie's voice that answered readily: 'No, I don't think he did, either.'
She ought to have known that Charlie would be away ahead of the others, with his self-reliant memory already arranging impressions, and his fluent tongue composing the sentences which would roll over the wire to his paper already formed and finished. Probably he had even formulated by this time an inspired guess at the significance of the Assize of the Dying, and was busy talking his news editor into staking his reputation upon its accuracy. He might as well. Charlie had a flair which seldom failed him. And from the telephone he would fly to some mine of information, human or encyclopædic, to confirm his guess.
'We seem to be the only two people of our opinion,' said the unknown young man.
She had risen and moved to let him pass, with a quick, indifferent smile, but he seemed in no hurry to go. He was taller and broader than Charlie, with a darkly handsome face and extremely direct and candid eyes. Since he made no move to pass by, and they were holding up other people, she led the way into the gangway, where the stream of excited sensation-hunters was now thinning. The young man walked at her shoulder. His clothes, which were quiet and good, nevertheless had, she thought, a cut which was not quite native. His preoccupied frown, which had lightened for a moment at the recognition of a doubt the fellow to his own, settled again upon straight, bold, dark brows.
'You don't mind my taking advantage of your open comment? It was like having the thought taken out of my mind.'
'It was rather like starting up an echo, too. One always likes to find one isn't entirely alone.'
'Would you mind telling me why you think he's innocent?'
'I'd tell you if I knew,' said Margaret, breathing in deeply the cold outer air as they came into the doorway. 'I just believe his version, I suppose. The devil of it is that I never meant to get involved in this business of believing or disbelieving. I came here only to see my uncle trying a case. I wanted to know something about him, after living with him for three years and never learning a thing. But I'm no wiser now than I was before.' She met the surprised gaze of the uncompromising eyes, and explained with a rueful smile: 'My name's Margaret Manton. I'm the Judge's niece.'
'That's a queer coincidence,' he said slowly. 'I came here to try to get to know somebody, too. I never had much chance when she was alive – I'm Canadian, I only arrived here about a week before she was killed, and I never saw her but once. My name's Malachi Rouault. I'm Zoë Trevor's cousin, and since she didn't make a will, and hadn't any nearer kin – well, they tell me I'm also her heir.'
They had tea together in a café in a back street. Why not? She had no wish to go home to the Judge's house in the leafy recesses of Clevely Square, where as yet there would certainly be no Charlie to lighten her unaccustomed anxiety and depression. She was used to selecting her own companions, making up her own mind about them with firmness and bearing with equanimity such mistakes as she made in the process; and instinctively she liked Malachi Rouault. Believing in the innocence of a condemned man could be, she found, a strong bond. They felt close, and alone, islanded unhappily from the thousands of Londoners who would devour the sensational headlines that evening with no feeling of being involved.
'I don't wonder at the verdict,' said Malachi, 'when you consider the circumstances. Two people living next door to each other in a quiet Hampstead road, a fairly wealthy and rather too well-known actress like Zoë, and a worn-out, disreputable old don like him, up to his eyes in debt, and all his old welcomes worn out long ago. Then she is found strangled one morning when her maid arrives, all her jewellery and whatever cash was in the house has vanished, and his finger-prints are all over her living- room, and not another to be found anywhere but those belonging to the house. Then he's found to have a necklace of hers tucked away in his own place. What else could they possibly think, except that he'd killed her?'
'And yet he didn't,' said Margaret doggedly.
'I know he didn't, but I know it in the teeth of the evidence. And then, the story he told – he's been on friendly terms with her, he says, for years; they enjoyed each other's company, and he was in and out of her place regularly in the evenings. If he was in the way, she told him so and he left, and no hard feelings. Who's going to believe in a relationship like that? Zoë, let's face it, had men running after her in their dozens from the time she was seventeen, according to all the evidence, but she seldom wasted her time on the old, unattractive and defeated. Then beyond that, if you believe him, you've got to believe that he went to see her that night and told her he was desperate for money, and she gave him – gave him! – the pearls to raise money to fend off his creditors.'
'I may be crazy,' said Margaret, 'but I do believe it. It's too tall to be anything but true – a lie would have been more plausible. And he told it from the beginning to the end, and nothing in it got changed. Have you ever had to tell a very complicated lie? The temptation to improve your case at every telling is irresistible. I can believe, too, that a man like that might be an acceptable companion to a woman like that, when she wanted none of the usual stresses, when she'd kicked off her shoes and let down her hair. Things do emerge about Zoë, you know, if you take his word for it. She was intelligent and well-read, she was real and she was generous.'
'You sound like half the argument I've been having with myself,' he said. 'If you believe that, you believe the rest of his story?'
'That she was expecting someone else for dinner? Yes, I believe it. I don't care if there was no trace of another visitor, there'd been plenty of time to remove the evidence. If there'd been servants living in, it would have been different, but whoever it was had all night to set his scene. And the dress she was wearing – changing it was more than he cared to tackle, I expect – that agrees very well with Stevenson's story that she was expecting a very special guest. It was rather a special toilette. Of course there were no other finger-prints – whoever came to dine with her didn't intend that there should be. It's wonderful how you can watch your fingers if your life depends on it, and he had time to polish any doubtful surfaces afterwards. If Stevenson had gone there to kill and rob her, the room wouldn't have been littered with the marks of his fingers either. All the evidence against him was there simply because he was innocent.'
Excerpted from The Assize of the Dying by Ellis Peters, Karl Kotas. Copyright © 1958 Edith Pargeter. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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