Apothecary Melchior and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street
The Prior was – naturally – in the scriptorium with his spectacles on, and reading, to Hinric’s surprise, Der Edelstein, moral tales by Ulrich Boner of the Berne Dominicans, translated from the Latin.
‘This is that same Melchior, eh?’ asked the Prior when he had read the letter.
‘Yes, that same Melchior,’ Hinric assured him, mentally adding a curse.
‘And this is quite a peculiar request that he asks of the monastery,’ said the Prior. ‘Why is he doing it?’
Hinric told him. He told him about the corpse in front of the Unterrainer house and Melchior’s interest in the deaths, the stories about the ghost.
‘So this man is looking for the truth?’ The Prior’s question cut into Hinric’s narrative.
‘The truth about the shadows of the past, yes,’ agreed Hinric.
‘Aren’t we all looking for that?’ muttered the Prior meditatively.
‘If you put it that way, holy Father.’
‘Then he must find it. May I refuse him on the day of St Dominic?’ Those were the Prior’s last words on the subject of Melchior’s request, and then he turned back to his manuscript and placed his glasses on to his nose.
And Hinric gave an order that the old grave of Brother Adelbert be dug up for the interment of Lay Brother Eric.
Melchior was at the monastery straight after the chapterhouse meeting, and he arrived on horseback. He arrived, a dapple‐grey mare on the end of a halter, tethered it to the monastery’s hitchingpost – Hinric noticed that the Apothecary wore a proud expression in doing so – and then rushed up to Hinric, who was standing near the main portal.
‘Good morrow, holy Brother,’ he said. ‘What reply did the Prior give to my request?’
Instead of answering Hinric motioned with his head in the direction of the graveyard, towards which the lay brothers were bearing the corpse of Eric, resting on a frame and wrapped in a winding‐sheet.
‘And the grave,’ asked Melchior, agitated. ‘Was it dug yesterday?’
‘Until they got to Adelbert’s corpse,’ replied Hinric peevishly.
‘Listen, tell me the truth, in the name of St Nicholas. What are you up to?’
‘And you haven’t opened the coffin yet?’ Melchior enquired further. ‘And it was a coffin, as I thought?’
‘Yes, it was a coffin,’ replied Hinric laconically.
‘Isn’t that strange? As far as I was aware, in those days the lesser brothers were simply buried on planks wrapped in a shroud.’
Yes, it was passing strange, Hinric had to admit to himself. A coffin was expensive, and it was far from usual for brothers to be buried in coffins –especially not sinners like Brother Adelbert. Yet this poor wretch had been buried in a casket, even at a time when the monastery’s finances were scant.
‘No, we didn’t open it, but it has been dug out now,’ Hinric said.
‘So it could be opened now?’
‘I won’t allow it until the Prior gives his blessing.’
‘Well, here he comes,’ said Melchior. Hinric turned his head and saw that the Prior was indeed coming from the dormitory and walking towards the freshly dug grave. Hinric and Melchior went after him.
The service at the graveside was brief. Eric had not, after all, taken his vows, and the monastery had many other activities to attend to since they were marking St Dominic’s feast day. The brothers had already prayed for the soul of Lay Brother Eric at the vigil and the first mass, so after the precentor had said the words that he was obliged to say everyone remained standing, perplexed and silent. The precentor had a book in one hand and a coal‐pan in the other, but he didn’t know what to do – whether to have Eric’s body placed in the grave on top of the old coffin or do something else. He didn’t even know why the grave had been exhumed because there was still space in the graveyard.
Melchior and Hinric stood side by side, both fixing their gaze on the decayed coffin that had been revealed. Without turning his head or changing his expression Melchior asked Hinric very softly,
‘The brothers ate my biscuits last night, did they?’
‘We didn’t have any biscuits,’ whispered Hinric in reply, staring straight ahead. ‘You know what the times are like – no sweet things.’
At this Melchior hissed something so softly that Hinric didn’t hear it, but it was probably a curse.
The precentor, meanwhile, was looking questioningly at the Prior; the Prior’s mild eyes bored into Melchior, and he finally
nodded to Hinric. The cellarius sighed deeply and ordered the lay brothers to jump into the grave and prise open the lid of the old coffin.
A moment later they all leaned over to look.
And then they raised their eyes in astonishment. Only the Prior closed his eyes and nodded to himself. He turned to go.
The casket was half full of sand; there was not a single bone.
‘Father,’ whispered Hinric, shocked. ‘Did you know about this?’
‘There is a scroll, the first lines of which were written by Prior Maurice about two hundred years ago,’ replied Reinhart Moninger.
‘It is passed down from prior to prior, and it contains things that may not be said in the daybook or the account book, but they are
things the priors have to know about the monastery. I think this is the time when an old lie is turned into a truth.’
And then, with slow steps, he trudged back to the scriptorium.
‘What does this all mean, Melchior?’ Hinric now asked him.
‘You must have known this.’
‘I didn’t,’ he replied quietly, ‘but I guessed that it might be so.’
‘So where is Adelbert’s corpse?’
Melchior didn’t answer, but the shocking realization came quickly. The cellarius was breathing very softly and rapidly. Then he closed his eyes and whispered, ‘Holy Virgin. Adelbert is still there . . . in the Unterrainer house.’
On the Road from Tallinn to St Bridget’s Convent, Marienthal, 8 August, Mid-Morning
EARLY THAT MORNING Melchior had done exactly as Dorn had instructed. He had gone to the stables, asked for Hartmann the stablehand and told him that the Magistrate had ordered him to give him a horse to ride to Marienthal, and if Hartmann raised any objection he would be put in irons in the marketplace. The stablehand did grumble that the Magistrate could go hang himself in the Town Hall tower and then the townsfolk could have
a bit of fun, but he brought Melchior a dapple‐grey mare saying she was a good, peaceful animal who knew the way to Bridget’s well, since she often visited the Varsaallik Estate.
‘Bridget’s?’ asked Melchior. He had not heard of such a place before.
‘Isn’t that what they call it?’ responded Hartmann. ‘The new convent? They Swedes used to call it Mariendal, but now people tend to call it Bridget’s. On the way you come to Martin’s Brook, don’t you, and there’s a good place to drink that this animal knows, so if she starts pulling that way you’d better let her go there because she drinks her fill and goes straight back on to the right road. You won’t need to use your spurs much with her.’
Melchior assured him that he wasn’t in any hurry – which was not entirely true – left him two pennies and a sweet confection as a tip and promised to be back by sunset. He had put a bottle of his spirits into his travel pouch as well as a double handful of sweets wrapped in a cloth – after Brother Lodevic’s ravaging this was a great sacrifice, but perhaps on this pilgrimage of his he might need to sweeten some mouths into talking.
With Eric’s funeral at the monastery now behind him he led the mare through the bustling town with a thoughtful mien and out through the Clay Gate, nodded gratefully to the image of St Victor – which stood at the side of the foregate as a sign to strangers that this town was under the protection of heavenly powers – swung into the saddle and headed westward. The miller at the Clay Gate mill looked on curiously at the passing apothecary, and Melchior waved in greeting to his old friend. Straight after the embankment and the mill the road divided into three. One fork carried on west along the edge of the town wall and the embankment; another turned south‐east, past the clay‐ponds to St John’s Hospital, where the lepers were kept, then through the outskirts and over the sandy
hummocks up the hill to the shale quarry and on towards Viru and Tartu. But Melchior had to choose the narrower and rougher fork, leading along the seashore towards Marienthal and the Apenes Peninsula. This was a quieter road, for ahead of it, on the peninsula, lay only the Order’s meadows, coastal villages and marshy forests.
But this road could become important in the future, once the large and splendid convent had been finished, thought Melchior. Inns and guesthouses were already being built alongside the road and large crosses were being erected for the pilgrims. At present only the old town gallows stood by the Seppade Gate, and they were hardly ever used now, but they served as a sign that Tallinn had the right to exact a price in blood in this land where the town had the right to strike with the sword. Anyone coming to town by this road would get the message that St Victor protected the town and all evildoers would be dealt with.
Just ahead of the bridge over the Härjapea river, where there was an image of the Mother of God and where many beggars usually gathered, another road led off towards the shale pits, and from there on the road was deeply rutted by wagons wheels. Shale from the cliffs was taken into town or to the lime kilns beyond, at Köismäe, and Melchior saw a couple of wagons approaching from afar. He rode the mare over the bridge and followed the road as it went down along the littoral to the meadows by the seashore and the Swedish fishing villages. The weather was windless and cloudy. Melchior breathed the fresh sea air deeply and settled comfortably in the saddle. He was no great rider, but the road wasn’t long. And he needed to think. The morning at the monastery and the opening of the casket,
Hinric’s words at the graveside – ‘Adelbert is still there . . . in the Unterrainer house’ – aroused a vague kind of terror in him. He could not shake the feeling off that he was circling around a riddle, the solution of which was simple and whose clues should already be present but also that he had got himself involved in something very dangerous. He was lost in a false labyrinth; he must escape from it; he ought to be afraid. He asked himself whether forces from beyond the grave could harm the living – his own experience told him that only the hatred of the living could cause suffering to others . . . and something of that nature had taken place in the Unterrainer house in times past. Or was it so long ago? Adelbert had died seventy years ago. And Cristian Unterrainer might still have been alive when Melchior was born. He was haunted by the thought that Unterrainer was said to have whipped his wife, and that corpse of the unknown tramp had wheals from a whip, and that Unterrainer had castrated Adelbert, as had also happened to that poor wretch who was killed in front of his house. And yet it was as if St Cosmas were whispering in his ear that he was following the wrong path.
His earthly path now, though, was the right one, and there was no fear of getting lost, as he knew this road well. He rode steadily along the shore until the road rose from the Härmapõld pasture lands up to a plateau. To the south‐east he could make out the escarpment of the shale quarry; behind him were the beautiful towers of Tallinn. Gentle waves lapped against the shingly shore.
Carts loaded with logs were travelling from the direction of Marienthal, and he let the horse go aside to the bank.
Out at sea he could see Wulvesøø, the island where the Council had its timber cut and its hay made; for centuries pirates had used the island as a hiding place. The shipping lane to the east went through the Strait of Wulvesøø to avoid the reefs around the island and the shallows of Nargensgrund where ships ran aground every year. Keeping to the correct shipping lane was so important that each spring the Council marked it with a couple of tuns floating in the water that were securely anchored to the sea bed. But the pirates also knew this passage well and were used to lurking around Wulvesøø. It was especially easy for them to try their luck with ships seeking shelter on the island during a storm – although no pirates had been spotted near Tallinn in recent years, as the Council had taken care to send its warships to Wulvesøø and see them off.
Now the road turned a little to the north, on to the Apenes Peninsula, and there, in the distance, was Martin’s Brook. The old mare pricked up her ears and started to speed up. Melchior did not rein her in when she stepped off the road down towards the grassy path and the drinking‐place. At the brook was one more road leading from the shale pits, and here the cartwheels had created deep ruts in the mud. Stones had been taken from around here to the new convent for over a year by this time and would surely be for years to come until the job was completed.