The Rose Rent
The Thirteenth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael
EBook Design Group [EDG] digital edition
v2 HTML – January 20,2003
By reason of the prolonged cold, which lingered far into April, and had scarcely mellowed when the month of May began, everything came laggard and reluctant that spring of 1142. The birds kept close about the roofs, finding warmer places to roost. The bees slept late, depleted their stores, and had to be fed, but neither was there any early burst of blossom for them to make fruitful. In the gardens there was no point in planting seed that would rot or be eaten in soil too chilly to engender life.
The affairs of men, stricken with the same petrifying chill, seemed to have subsided into hibernation. Faction held its breath. King Stephen, after the first exhilaration of liberation from his prison, and the Easter journey north to draw together the frayed strings of his influence, had fallen ill in the south, so ill that the rumour of his death had spread throughout England, and his cousin and rival, the Empress Maud, had cautiously moved her headquarters to Oxford, and settled down there to wait patiently and vainly for him to make truth of rumour, which he stubbornly declined to do. He had still business to settle with the lady, and his constitution was more than a match for even this virulent fever. By the end of May he was on his way manfully back to health. By the early days of June the long sub-frost broke. The biting wind changed to a temperate breeze, the sun came out over the earth like a warm hand stroking, the seed stirred in the ground and put forth green blades, and a foam of flowers, all the more exuberant for having been so long restrained, burst forth in gold and purple and white over garden and meadow. The belated sowing began in jubilant haste. And King Stephen, like a giant breaking loose from some crippling enchantment, surged out of his convalescence into vigorous action, and bearing down on the port of Wareham, the most easterly still available to his enemies, seized both town and castle with hardly a graze to show for it.
“And is making north again now towards Cirencester,” reported Hugh Beringar, elated by the news, “to pick off the empress’s outposts one by one, if only he can keep up this storm of energy.” It was the one fatal flaw in the king’s military make-up that he could not sustain action for long if he failed to get instant results, but would abandon a siege after three days, and go off to start another elsewhere, squandering for no gain the energy devoted to both. “We may see a tidy end to it yet!”
Brother Cadfael, preoccupied with his own narrower concerns, continued to survey the vegetable patch outside the wall of his herb-garden, digging an experimental toe into soil grown darker and kinder after a mild morning shower. “By rights,” he said thoughtfully, “carrots should have been in more than a month ago, and the first radishes will be fibrous and shrunken as old leather, but we might get something with more juices in it from now on. Lucky the fruit-blossom held back until the bees began to wake up, but even so it will be a thin crop this year. Everything’s four weeks behind, but the seasons have a way of catching up, somehow. Wareham, you were saying? What of Wareham?”
“Why, that Stephen has taken it, town and castle and harbour and all. So Robert of Gloucester, who went out by that gate barely ten days earlier, has it slammed in his face now. Did I not tell you? The word came three days since. It seems there was a meeting back in April, in Devizes, between the empress and her brother, and they made it up between them that it was high time the lady’s husband should pay a little heed to her affairs, and come over in person to help her get her hands on Stephen’s crown. They sent envoys over to Normandy to meet with Geoffrey, but he sent back to say he was well disposed, no question, but the men sent out to him were unknown to him, name or reputation, and he would be uneasy in dealing with any but the Earl of Gloucester himself. If Robert will not come, says Geoffrey, no use sending me any other.”
Cadfael was momentarily distracted from his laggard crops. “And Robert let himself be persuaded?” he said, marvelling.
“Very reluctantly. He feared to leave his sister to the loyalties of some who were all but ready to desert her after the Westminster shambles, and I doubt if he has any great hopes of getting anything out of the Count of Anjou. But yes, he let himself be persuaded. And he’s sailed from Wareham, with less trouble than he’ll have sailing back into the same port, now the king holds it. A good, fast move, that was. If he can but maintain it now!”
“We said a Mass in thanksgiving for his recovery,” said Cadfael absently, and plucked out a leggy sow-thistle from among his mint. “How is it that weeds grow three times faster than the plants we nurse so tenderly? Three days ago that was not even there. If the kale shot up like that I should be pricking the plants out by tomorrow.”
“No doubt your prayers will stiffen Stephen’s resolution,” Hugh said, though with less than complete conviction. “Have they not given you a helper yet, here in the garden? It’s high time, there’s more than one’s work here in this season.”
“So I urged at chapter this morning. What they’ll offer me there’s no knowing. Prior Robert has one or two among the younger ones he’d be glad to shuffle off his hands and into mine. Happily the ones he least approves tend to be those with more wit and spirit than the rest, not less. I may yet be lucky in my apprentice.”
He straightened his back, and stood looking out over the newly turned beds, and the pease-fields that sloped down to the Meole Brook, mentally casting an indulgent eye back over the most recent of his helpers here in the herbarium. Big, jaunty, comely Brother John, who had blundered into the cloister by mistake, and backed out of it, not without the connivance of friends, in Wales, to exchange the role of brother for that of husband and father; Brother Mark, entering here as an undersized and maltreated sixteen-year-old, shy and quiet, and grown into a clear, serene maturity of spirit that drew him away inevitably towards the priesthood. Cadfael still missed Brother Mark, attached now to the household chapel of the Bishop of Lichfield, and already a deacon. And after Mark, Brother Oswin, cheerful, confident and ham-fisted, gone now to do his year’s service at the lazarhouse of Saint Giles at the edge of the town. What next, wondered Cadfael? Put a dozen young men into the same rusty black habits, shave their heads, fit them into a single horarium day after day and year after year, and still they will all be irremediably different, every one unique. Thank God!
“Whatever they send you,” said Hugh, keeping pace with him along the broad green path that circled the fish-ponds, “you’ll have transformed by the time he leaves you. Why should they waste a simple, sweet saint like Rhun on you? He’s made already, he came into the world made. You’ll get the rough, the obdurate, the unstable to lick into shape. Not that it ever comes out the shape that was expected,” he added, with a flashing grin and a slanted glance along his shoulder at his friend.
“Rhun has taken upon himself the custody of Saint Winifred’s altar,” said Cadfael. “He has a proprietorial interest in the little lady. He makes the candles for her himself, and borrows essences from me to scent them for her. No, Rhun will find his own duties, and no one will stand in his way. He and she between them will see to that.”
They crossed the little foot-bridge over the leat that fed the pools and the mill, and emerged into the rose-garden. The trimmed bushes had made little growth as yet, but the first buds were swelling at last, the green sheaths parting to show a sliver of red or white. “They’ll open fast now,” said Cadfael contentedly. “All they needed was warmth. I’d begun to wonder whether the Widow Perle would get her rent on time this year, but if these are making up for lost time, so will her white ones be. A sad year, if there were no roses by the twenty-second day of June!”
“The Widow Perle? Oh, yes, the Vestier girl!” said Hugh. “I remember! So it’s due on the day of Saint Winifred’s translation, is it? How many years is it now since she made the gift?”
“This will be the fourth time we’ve paid her her annual rent. One white rose from that bush in her old garden, to be delivered to her on the day of Saint Winifred’s translation—”
“Supposed translation,” said Hugh, grinning. “And you should blush when you name it.”
“So I do, but with my complexion who notices?” And he was indeed of a rosy russet colouring, confirmed by long years of outdoor living in both east and west, so engrained now that winters merely tarnished it a little, and summers regularly renewed the gloss.
“She made modest demands,” observed Hugh thoughtfully, as they came to the second plank-bridge that spanned the channel drawn off to service the guest-hall. “Most of our solid merchants up in the town value property a good deal higher than roses.”
“She had already lost what she most valued,” said Cadfael. “Husband and child both, within twenty days. He died, and she miscarried. She could not bear to go on living, alone, in the house where they had been happy together. But it was because she valued it that she wanted it spent for God, not hoarded up with the rest of a property large enough to provide handsomely even without it for herself and all her kinsfolk and workfolk. It pays for the lighting and draping of Our Lady’s altar the whole year round. It’s what she chose. But just the one link she kept—one rose a year. He was a very comely man, Edred Perle,” said Cadfael, shaking his head mildly over the vulnerability of beauty, “I saw him pared away to the bone in a searing fever, and had no art to cool him. A man remembers that.”
“You’ve seen many such,” said Hugh reasonably, “here and on the fields of Syria, long ago.”
“So I have! So I have! Did ever you hear me say I’d forgotten any one of them? But a young, handsome man, shrivelled away before his time, before even his prime, and his girl left without even his child to keep him in mind… A sad enough case, you’ll allow.”
“She’s young,” said Hugh with indifferent practicality, his mind being on other things. “She should marry again.”
“So think a good many of our merchant fathers in the town,” agreed Cadfael with a wry smile, “the lady being as wealthy as she is, and sole mistress of the Vestiers’ clothier business. But after what she lost, I doubt if she’ll look at a grey old skinflint like Godfrey Fuller, who’s buried two wives already and made a profit out of both of them, and has his eye on a third fortune with the next. Or a fancy young fellow in search of an easy living!”
“Such as?” invited Hugh, amused.
“Two or three I could name. William Hynde’s youngster, for one, if my gossips tell me truth. And the lad who’s foreman of her own weavers is a very well-looking young man, and fancies his chance with her. Even her neighbour the saddler is looking for a wife, I’m told, and thinks she might very well do.”
Hugh burst into affectionate laughter, and clapped him boisterously on the shoulders as they emerged into the great court, and the quiet, purposeful bustle before Mass. “How many eyes and ears have you in every street in Shrewsbury? I wish my own intelligencers knew half as much of what goes on. A pity your influence falls short of Normandy. I might get some inkling then of what Robert and Geoffrey are up to there. Though I think,” he said, growing grave again as he turned back to his own preoccupations, “Geoffrey is far more concerned with getting possession of Normandy than with wasting his time on England. From all accounts he’s making fast inroads there, he’s not likely to draw off now. Far more like to inveigle Robert into helping him than offering much help to Robert.
“He certainly shows very little interest in his wife,” agreed Cadfael drily, “or her ambitions. Well, we shall see if Robert can sway him. Are you coming in to Mass this morning?”
“No, I’m away to Maesbury tomorrow for a week or two. They should have been shearing before this, but they put it off for a while because of the cold. They’ll be hard at it now. I’ll leave Aline and Giles there for the summer. But I’ll be back and forth, in case of need.”
“A summer without Aline, and without my godson,” said Cadfael reprovingly, “is no prospect to spring on me without preamble, like this. Are you not ashamed?”
“Not a whit! For I came, among other errands, to bid you to supper with us tonight, before we leave early in the morning. Abbot Radulfus has given his leave and blessing. Go, pray for fair weather and a smooth ride for us,” said Hugh heartily, and gave his friend a vigorous shove towards the corner of the cloister and the south door of the church.
It was purely by chance, or a symbol of that strange compulsion that brings the substance hard on the heels of the recollection, that the sparse company of worshippers in the parish part of the church at the monastic Mass that day should include the Widow Perle. There were always a few of the laity there on their knees beyond the parish altar, some who had missed their parish Mass for varying reasons, some who were old and solitary and filled up their lonely time with supererogatory worship, some who had special pleas to make, and sought an extra opportunity of approaching grace. Some, even, who had other business in the Foregate, and welcomed a haven meantime for thought and quietness, which was the case of the Widow Perle.
From his stall in the choir Brother Cadfael could just see the suave line of her head, shoulder and arm, beyond the bulk of the parish altar. It was strange that so quiet and unobtrusive a woman should nevertheless be so instantly recognisable even in this fragmentary glimpse. It might have been the way she carried her straight and slender shoulders, or the great mass of her brown hair weighing down the head so reverently inclined over clasped hands, hidden from his sight by the altar. She was barely twenty-five years old, and had enjoyed only three years of a happy marriage, but she went about her deprived and solitary life without fuss or complaint, cared scrupulously for a business which gave her no personal pleasure, and faced the prospect of perpetual loneliness with a calm countenance and a surprising supply of practical energy. In happiness or unhappiness, living is a duty, and must be done thoroughly.
A blessing, at any rate, thought Cadfael, that she is not utterly alone, she has her mother’s sister to keep the house for her now she lives, as it were, over her shop, and her cousin for a conscientious foreman and manager, to take the weight of the business off her shoulders. And one rose every year for the rent of the house and garden in the Foregate, where her man died. The only gesture of passion and grief and loss she ever made, to give away voluntarily her most valuable property, the house where she had been happy, and yet ask for that one reminder, and nothing more.
She was not a beautiful woman, Judith Perle, born Judith Vestier, and sole heiress to the biggest clothiers’ business in the town. But she had a bodily dignity that would draw the eye even in a market crowd, above the common height for a woman, slender and erect, and with a carriage and walk of notable grace. The great coils of her shining light-brown hair, the colour of seasoned oak timber, crowned a pale face that tapered from wide and lofty brow to pointed chin, by way of strong cheekbones and hollow cheeks, and an eloquent, mobile mouth too wide for beauty, but elegantly shaped. Her eyes were of a deep grey, and very clear and wide, neither confiding nor hiding anything. Cadfael had been eye to eye with her, four years ago now, across her husband’s death-bed, and she had neither lowered her lids nor turned her glance aside, but stared unwaveringly as her life’s happiness slipped irresistibly away through her fingers. Two weeks later she had miscarried, and lost even her child. Edred had left her nothing.
Hugh is right, thought Cadfael, forcing his mind back to the liturgy. She is young, she should marry again.
The June light, now approaching the middle hours of the day, and radiant with sunshine, fell in long golden shafts across the body of the choir and into the ranks of the brothers and obedientiaries opposite, gilding half a face here and throwing its other half into exaggerated shade, there causing dazzled eyes in a blanched face to blink away the brightness. The vault above received the diffused reflections in a soft, muted glow, plucking into relief the curved leaves of the stone bosses. Music and light seemed to mate only there in the zenith. Summer trod hesitantly into the church at last, after prolonged hibernation.
It seemed that brother Cadfael was not the only one whose mind was wandering when it should have been fixed. Brother Anselm the precentor, absorbed into his singing, lifted a rapt face into the sun, his eyes closed, since he knew every note without study or thought. But beside him Brother Eluric, custodian of Saint Mary’s altar in the Lady Chapel, responded only absently, his head turned aside, towards the parish altar and the soft murmur of responses from beyond.
Brother Eluric was a child of the cloister, not long a full brother, and entrusted with his particular charge by reason of his undoubted deserving, tempered by the reserve that was felt about admitting child oblates to full office, at least until they had been mature for a number of years. An unreasonable reserve, Cadfael had always felt, seeing that the child oblates were regarded as the perfect innocents, equivalent to the angels, while the conversi, those who came voluntarily and in maturity to the monastic life, were the fighting saints, those who had endured and mastered their imperfections. So Saint Anselm had classified them, and ordered them never to attempt reciprocal reproaches, never to feel envy. But still the conversi were preferred for the responsible offices, perhaps as having experience of the deceits and complexities and temptations of the world around them. But the care of an altar, its light, its draperies, the special prayers belonging to it, this could well be the charge of an innocent.
Brother Eluric was past twenty now, the most learned and devout of his contemporaries, a tall, well-made young man, black-haired and black-eyed. He had been in the cloister since he was three years old, and knew nothing outside it. Unacquainted with sin, he was all the more haunted by it, as by some unknown monster, and assiduous in confession, he picked to pieces his own infinitesimal failings, with the mortal penitence due to deadly sins. A curious thing, that so over-conscientious a youth should be paying so little heed to the holy office. His chin was on his shoulder, his lips still, forgetting the words of the psalm. He was gazing, in fact, precisely where Cadfael had been gazing only moments earlier. But from Eluric’s stall there would be more of her to see, Cadfael reflected, the averted face, the linked hands, the folds of linen over her breast.
The contemplation, it seemed, gave him no joy, but only a brittle, quivering tension, taut as a drawn bow. When he recollected himself and tore his gaze away, it was with a wrench that shook him from head to foot.
Well, well! said Cadfael to himself, enlightened. And in eight days more he has to carry the rose rent to her. That task they should have allotted to some old hardened sinner like me, who would view and enjoy, and return untroubled and untroubling, not this vulnerable boy who surely can never else have been alone in a room with a woman since his mother let him be taken out of her arms. And a pity she ever did!
And this poor girl, the very image to wring him most painfully, grave, sad, with a piteous past and yet composed and calm like the Blessed Virgin herself. And he coming to her bearing a white rose, their hands perhaps touching as he delivers it. And now I recall that Anselm says he’s something of a poet. Well, what follies we commit without evil intent!
It was far too late now to devote his mind to its proper business of prayer and praise. He contented himself with hoping that by the time the brothers emerged from the choir after service the lady would be gone.
By the mercy of God, she was.
But she was gone, it seemed, no further than Cadfael’s workshop in the herb-garden, where he found her waiting patiently outside the open door when he came to decant the lotion he had left cooling before Mass. Her brow was smooth and her voice mild, and everything about her practical and sensible. The fire that burned Eluric was unknown to her. At Cadfael’s invitation she followed him in, under the gently swaying bunches of herbs that rustled overhead from the beams.
“You once made me an ointment, Brother Cadfael, if you remember. For a rash on the hands. There’s one of my carders breaks out in little pustules, handling the new fleeces. But not every season—that’s strange too. This year she has trouble with it again.”
“I remember it,” said Cadfael. “It was three years ago. Yes, I know the receipt. I can make some fresh for you in a matter of minutes, if you’ve leisure to wait?”
It seemed that she had. She sat down on the wooden bench against the timber wall, and drew her dark skirts close about her feet, very erect and still in the corner of the hut, as Cadfael reached for pestle and mortar, and the little scale with its brass weights.
“And how are you faring now?” he asked, busy with hog’s fat and herbal oils. “Up there in the town?”
“Well enough,” she said composedly. “The business gives me plenty to do, and the wool clip has turned out better than I feared. I can’t complain. Isn’t it strange,” she went on, warming, “that wool should bring up this rash for Branwen, when you use the fat from wool to doctor skin diseases for many people?”
“Such contrary cases do happen,” he said. “There are plants some people cannot handle without coming to grief. No one knows the reason. We learn by observing. You had good results with this salve, I remember.”
“Oh, yes, her hands healed very quickly. But I think perhaps I should keep her from carding, and teach her weaving. When the wool is washed and dyed and spun, perhaps she could handle it more safely. She’s a good girl, she would soon learn.”
It seemed to Cadfael, working away with his back turned to her, that she was talking to fill the silence while she thought, and thought of something far removed from what she was saying. It was no great surprise when she said suddenly, and in a very different voice, abrupt and resolute: “Brother Cadfael, I have thoughts of taking the veil. Serious thoughts! The world is not so desirable that I should hesitate to leave it, nor my condition so hopeful that I dare look for a better time to come. The business can do very well without me; Cousin Miles runs it very profitably, and values it more than I do. Oh, I do my duty well enough, as I was always taught to do, but he could do it every bit as well without me. Why should I hesitate?”
Cadfael turned to face her, the mortar balanced on his palm. “Have you said as much to your aunt and your cousin?”
“I have mentioned it.”
“And what do they say to it?”
“Nothing. It’s left to me. Miles will neither commend nor advise, he brushes it aside. I think he doesn’t take me seriously. My aunt—you know her a little? She’s widowed like me, and for ever lamenting it, even after years. She talks of the peace of the cloister, and release from the cares of the world. But she always talks so, though I know she’s well content with her comfortable life if the truth were told. I live, Brother Cadfael, I do my work, but I am not content. It would be something settled and stable, to take to the cloister.”
“And wrong,” said Cadfael firmly. “Wrong, at least, for you.”
“Why would it be so wrong?” she challenged. The hood had slipped back from her head, the great braid of light-brown hair, silver-lit like veined oak, glowed faintly in the subdued light.
“No one should take to the cloistered life as a second-best, and that is what you would be doing. It must be embraced out of genuine desire, or not at all. It is not enough to wish to escape from the world without, you must be on fire for the world within.”
“Was it so with you?” she asked, and suddenly she smiled, and her austere face kindled into warmth for a moment.
He considered that in silence for a brief, cautious while. “I came late to it, and it may be that my fire burned somewhat dully,” he said honestly at length, “but it gave light enough to show me the road to what I wanted. I was running towards, not away.”
She looked him full in the face with her daunting, direct eyes, and said with abrupt, bleak deliberation: “Have you never thought, Brother Cadfael, that a woman may have more cause to run away than ever you had? More perils to run from, and fewer alternatives than flight?”
“That is truth,” admitted Cadfael, stirring vigorously. “But you, as I know, are better placed than many to hold your own, as well as having more courage than a good many of us men. You are your own mistress, your kin depend on you, and not you on them. There is no overlord to claim the right to order your future, no one can force you into another marriage—yes, I have heard there are many would be only too pleased if they could, but they have no power over you. No father living, no elder kinsman to influence you. No matter how men may pester you or affairs weary you, you know you are more than equal to them. And as for what you have lost,” he said, after a moment’s hesitation as to whether he should tread so near, “it is lost only to this world. Waiting is not easy, but no harder, believe me, among the vexations and distractions of the world than in the solitude and silence of the cloister. I have seen men make that mistake, for as reasonable cause, and suffer all the more with the double deprivation. Do not you take that risk. Never unless you are sure of what you want, and want it with all your heart and soul.”
It was as much as he dared say, as much as and perhaps more than he had any right to say. She heard him out without turning her eyes away. He felt their clear stare heavy upon him all the time he was smoothing his ointment into its jar for her, and tying down the lid of the pot for safe carriage.
“Sister Magdalen, from the Benedictine cell at Godric’s Ford,” he said, “is coming to Shrewsbury in two days’ time, to fetch away Brother Edmund’s niece, who wants to join the sisterhood there. As for the girl’s motives, I know nothing of them, but if Sister Magdalen is accepting her as a novice it must be from conviction, and moreover, the child will be carefully watched, and get no further than her novitiate unless Magdalen is satisfied of her vocation. Will you speak with her about this? I think you already know something of her.”
“I do.” Judith’s voice was soft, and yet there was a shade of quiet amusement in the tone. “Her own motives, I think, when she entered Godric’s Ford, were scarcely what you are demanding.”
That was something he could not well deny. Sister Magdalen had formerly been, for many years, the constant mistress of a certain nobleman, and on his death had looked about her with single-minded resolution for another field in which to employ her undoubted talents. No question but the choice of the cloister had been coolly and practically made. What redeemed it was the vigour and loyalty she had devoted to it since the day of her entry, and would maintain, without question, until the day of her death.
“In no way that I know of,” admitted Cadfael, “is Sister Magdalen anything but unique. You are right, she entered the cell seeking not a vocation, but a career, and a career she is making, and a notable one, too. Mother Mariana is old and bedridden now; the weight of the cell falls all on Magdalen, and I know no shoulders better fitted to carry it. And I do not think she would say to you, as I said, that there is but one good reason for taking the veil, true longing for the life of the spirit. The more reason you could and should listen to her advice and weigh it carefully, before you take so grave a step. And bear in mind, you are young, she had said goodbye to her prime.”
“And I have buried mine,” said Judith very firmly, and as one stating truth, without self-pity.
“Well, if it comes to second-bests,” said Cadfael, “they can be found outside the cloister as well as within. Managing the business your fathers built up, providing employment for so many people, is itself a sufficient justification for a life, for want of better.”
“It does not put me to any great test,” she said indifferently. “Ah, well, I said only that I had been thinking of quitting the world. Nothing is done, as yet. And whether or no, I shall be glad to talk with Sister Magdalen, for I do value her wit, and know better than to discard unconsidered whatever she may say. Let me know when she comes, and I will send and bid her to my house, or go to her wherever she is lodged.”
She rose to take the jar of ointment from him. Standing, she was the breadth of two fingers taller than he, but thin and slender-boned. The coils of her hair would have seemed over-heavy if she had not carried her head so nobly.
“Your roses are budding well,” she said, as he went out with her along the gravel path from the workshop. “However late they come, they always bloom equally in the end.”
It could have been a metaphor for the quality of a life, he thought, as they had been discussing it. But he did not say so. Better leave her to the shrewd and penetrating wisdom of Sister Magdalen. “And yours?” he said. “There’ll be a choice of blooms when Saint Winifred’s feast comes round. You should have the best and freshest for your fee.”
The most fleeting of smiles crossed her face, and left her sombre again, her eyes on the path. “Yes,” she said, and nothing more, though it seemed there should have been more. Was it possible that she had noted and been troubled by the same trouble that haunted Eluric? Three times he had carried the rose rent to her, a matter of… how long… in her presence? Two minutes annually? Three, perhaps? But no man’s shadow clouded Judith Perle’s eyes, no living man’s. She might, none the less, have become somehow aware, thought Cadfael, not of a young man’s physical entrance into her house and presence, but of the nearness of pain.
“I’m going there now,” she said, stirring out of her preoccupation. “I’ve lost the buckle of a good girdle, I should like to have a new one made, to match the rosettes that decorate the leather, and the end-tag. Enamel inlay on the bronze. It was a present Edred once made to me. Niall Bronzesmith will be able to copy the design. He’s a fine craftsman. I’m glad the abbey has such a good tenant for the house.”
“A decent, quiet man,” agreed Cadfael, “and keeps the garden well tended. You’ll find your rose-bush in very good heart.”
To that she made no reply, only thanked him simply for his services as they entered the great court together, and there separated, she to continue along the Foregate to the large house beyond the abbey forge, where she had spent the few years of her married life, he to the lavatorium to wash his hands before dinner. But he turned at the corner of the cloister to look after her, and watched until she passed through the arch of the gatehouse and vanished from his sight. She had a walk that might be very becoming in an abbess, but to his mind it looked just as well on the capable heiress of the chief clothier in the town. He went on to the refectory convinced that he was right in dissuading her from the conventual life. If she looked upon it as a refuge now, the time might come when it would seem to her a prison, and none the less constricting because she would have entered it willingly.
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The house in the Foregate stood well along towards the grassy triangle of the horse-fair ground, where the high road turned the corner of the abbey wall. A lower wall on the opposite side of the road closed in the yard where Niall the bronzesmith had his shop and workshop, and beyond lay the substantial and well-built house with its large garden, and a small field of grazing land behind. Niall did a good trade in everything from brooches and buttons, small weights and pins, to metal cooking pots, ewers and dishes, and paid the abbey a suitable rent for his premises. He had even worked occasionally with others of his trade in the founding of bells, but that was a very rare commission, and demanded travel to the site itself, rather than having to transport the heavy bells after casting.
The smith was working in a corner of his shop, on the rim of a dish beaten out in sheet metal, pecking away with punch and mallet at an incised decoration of leaves, when Judith came in to his counter. From the unshuttered window above the work-bench the light fell softly sidewise upon her face and figure, and Niall, turning to see who had entered, stood for a moment at gaze with his tools dangling in either hand, before he laid them down and came to wait upon her. “Your servant, mistress! What can I do for you?” They were barely acquaintances, merely shopkeeper-craftsman and customer, and yet the very fact that he now did his work in the house which she had given to the abbey made them study each other with a special intensity. She had been in his shop perhaps five times in the few years since he had rented it; he had supplied her with pins, points for the laces of bodices, small utensils for her kitchen, the matrix for the seal of the Vestier household. He knew her history, the gift of the house had made it public. She knew little of him beyond the fact that he had come to her erstwhile property as the abbey’s tenant, and that the man and his work were well regarded in town and Foregate.
Judith laid her damaged girdle upon the long counter, a strip of fine, soft leather, excellently worked and ornamented with a series of small bronze rosettes round the holes for the tongue, and a bronze sheath protecting the end of the belt. The bright enamel inlays within the raised outlines were clear and fresh, but the stitching at the other end had worn through, and the buckle was gone.
“I lost it somewhere in the town,” she said, “one night after dark, and never noticed under my cloak that girdle and all had slipped down and were gone. When I went back to look for it I could find only the belt, not the buckle. It was muddy weather, and the kennel running with the thaw. My own fault, I knew it was fraying, I should have made it secure.”
“Delicate work,” said the smith, fingering the end-tag with interest. “That was not bought here, surely?”
“Yes, it was, but at the abbey fair, from a Flemish merchant. I wore it much,” she said, “in earlier days, but it’s been laid by since the winter, when I lost the buckle. Can you make me a new one, to match these colours and designs? It was a long shape—thus!” She drew it on the counter with a fingertip. “But it need not be so, you could make it oval, or whatever you think suits best.”
Their heads were close together over the counter. She looked up into his face, mildly startled by its nearness, but he was intent upon the detail of the bronzework and inlay, and unaware of her sharp scrutiny. A decent, quiet man, Cadfael had called him, and coming from Cadfael there was nothing dismissive in that description. Decent, quiet men were the backbone of any community, to be respected and valued beyond those who made the biggest commotion and the most noise in the world. Niall the bronzesmith could have provided the portrait for them all. He was of the middle height and the middle years, and even of the middle brown colouring, and his voice was pitched pleasantly low. His age, she thought, might be forty years. When he straightened up they stood virtually eye to eye, and the movements of his large, capable hands were smooth, firm and deft.
Everything about him fitted into the picture of the ordinary, worthy soul almost indistinguishable from his neighbour, and yet the sum of the parts was very simply and positively himself and no other man. He had thick brown brows in a wide-boned face, and wide-set eyes of a deep, sunny hazel. There were a few grizzled hairs in his thick brown thatch, and a solid, peaceful jut to his shaven chin.
“Are you in haste for it?” he asked. “I should like to make a good job of it. If I may take two or three days over it.”
“There’s no hurry,” she said readily. “I’ve neglected it long enough, another week is no great matter.”
“Then shall I bring it up to you in the town? I know the place, I could save you the walk.” He made the offer civilly but hesitantly, as though it might be taken as presumption rather than simply meant as a courtesy.
She cast a rapid glance about his shop, and saw evidences enough that he had in hand a great deal of work, more than enough to keep him busy all through the labouring day. “But I think your time is very well filled. If you have a boy, perhaps—but I can as well come for it.”
“I work alone,” said Niall. “But I’d willingly bring it up to you in the evening, when the light’s going. I’ve no other calls on my time, it’s no hardship to work the clock round.”
“You live alone here?” she asked, confirmed in her assumptions about him. “No wife? No family?”
“I lost my wife, five years ago. I’m used to being alone, it’s a simple enough matter to take care of my few needs. But I have a little girl. Her mother died bearing her.” He saw the sudden tension in her face, the faint spark in her eyes as she reared her head and glanced round, half expecting to see some evidence of a child’s presence. “Oh, not here! I should have been hard put to it to care for a newborn babe, and there’s my sister, out at Pulley, no great distance, married to Mortimer’s steward at the demesne there, and with two boys and a girl of her own, not very much older. My little lass stays there with them, where she has other children for playmates, and a woman’s care. I walk over to see her every Sunday, and sometimes in the evenings, too, but she’s better with Cecily and John and the youngsters than here solitary with me, leastways while she’s still so young.”
Judith drew breath long and deeply. Widower he might be, and his loss there as bitter as hers, but he had one priceless pledge left to him, while she was barren. “You don’t know,” she said abruptly, “how I envy you. My child I lost.” She had not meant to say so much, but it came out of her naturally and bluntly, and naturally and bluntly he received it.
“I heard of your trouble, mistress. I was mortally sorry then, having known the like myself not so long before. But the little one at least was spared to me. I thank God for that. When a man suffers such a wound, he also finds out how to value such a mercy.”
“Yes,” she said, and turned away sharply. “Well… I trust your daughter thrives,” she said, recovering, “and will always be a joy to you. I’ll come for the girdle in three days’ time, if that’s enough for you. No need to bring it.”
She was in the doorway of the shop before he could speak, and then there seemed nothing of any significance to say. But he watched her cross the yard and turn into the Foregate, and turned back to his work at the bench only when she had vanished from his sight.
It was late in the afternoon, but still an hour short of Vespers at this season of the year, when Brother Eluric, custodian of Saint Mary’s altar, slipped almost furtively away from his work in the scriptorium, crossed the great court to the abbot’s lodging in its small fenced garden, and asked for audience. His manner was so taut and brittle that Brother Vitalis, chaplain and secretary to Abbot Radulfus, raised questioning eyebrows, and hesitated before announcing him. But Radulfus was absolute that every son of the house in trouble or need of advice must have ready access to him. Vitalis shrugged, and went in to ask leave, which was readily given.
In the panelled parlour the bright sunlight softened into a mellow haze. Eluric halted just within the doorway, and heard the door gently closed at his back. Radulfus was sitting at his desk near the open window, quill in hand, and did not look up for a moment from his writing. Against the light his aquiline profile showed dark and calm, an outline of gold shaping lofty brow and lean cheek. Eluric went in great awe of him, and yet was drawn gratefully to that composure and certainty, so far out of his own scope.
Radulfus put a period to his well-shaped sentence, and laid down his quill in the bronze tray before him. “Yes, my son? I am here. I am listening.” He looked up. “If you have need of me, ask freely.”
“Father,” said Eluric, from a throat constricted and dry, and in a voice so low it was barely audible across the room, “I have a great trouble. I hardly know how to tell it, or how far it must be seen as shame and guilt to me, though God knows I have struggled with it, and been constant in prayer to keep myself from evil. I am both petitioner and penitent, and yet I have not sinned, and by your grace and understanding may still be saved from offence.”
Radulfus eyed him more sharply, and saw the tension that stiffened the young man’s body, and set him quivering like a drawn bowstring. An over-intense boy, always racked by remorse for faults as often as not imaginary, or so venial that to inflate them into sins was itself an offence, being a distortion of truth.
“Child,” said the abbot tolerantly, “from all I know of you, you are too forward to take to your charge as great sins such small matters as a wise man would think unworthy of mention. Beware of inverted pride! Moderation in all things is not the most spectacular path to perfection, but it is the safest and the most modest. Now speak up plainly, and let’s see what between us we can do to end your trouble.” And he added briskly: “Come closer! Let me see you clearly, and hear you make good sense.”
Eluric crept closer, linked his hands before him in a nervous convulsion that whitened the knuckles perceptibly, and moistened his dry lips. “Father, in eight days’ time it will be the day of Saint Winifred’s translation, and the rose rent must be paid for the property in the Foregate… to Mistress Perle, who gave the house by charter on those terms
“Yes,” said Radulfus, “I know it. Well?”
“Father, I came to beg you to release me from this duty. Three times I have carried the rose to her, according to the charter, and with every year it grows harder for me. Do not send me there again! Lift this burden from me, before I founder! It is more than I can bear.” He was shaking violently, and had difficulty in continuing to speak, so that the words came in painful bursts, like gouts of blood from a wound. “Father, the very sight and sound of her are torment to me, to be in the same room with her is the pain of death. I have prayed, I have kept vigil, I have implored God and the saints for deliverance from sin, but not all my prayers and austerities could keep me from this uninvited love.”
Radulfus sat silent for a while after the last word had been said, and his face had not changed, beyond a certain sharpening of his attention, a steady gleam in his deep-set eyes.
“Love, of itself,” he said at last with deliberation, “is not sin, cannot be sin, though it may lead into sin. Has any word of this inordinate affection ever been said between you and the woman, any act or look that would blemish your vows or her purity?”
“No! No, Father, never! Never word of any sort but in civil greeting and farewell, and a blessing, due to such a benefactress. Nothing wrong has been done or said, only my heart is the offender. She knows nothing of my torment, she never has nor never will give one thought to me but as the messenger of this house. God forbid she should ever come to know, for she is blameless. It is for her sake, as well as mine, that I pray to be excused from ever seeing her again, for such pain as I feel might well disturb and distress her, even without understanding. The last thing I wish is for her to suffer.”
Radulfus rose abruptly from his seat, and Eluric, drained with the effort of confession and convinced of guilt, sank to his knees and bowed his head into his hands, expecting condemnation. But the abbot merely turned away to the window, and stood for a while looking out into the sunlit afternoon, where his own roses were coming into lavish bud.
No more oblates, the abbot was reflecting ruefully, and thanking God for it. No more taking these babes out of their cradles and severing them from the very sight and sound of women, half the creation stolen out of their world. How can they be expected to deal capably at last with something as strange and daunting to them as dragons? Sooner or later a woman must cross their path, terrible as an army with banners, and these wretched children without arms or armour to withstand the onslaught! We wrong women, and we wrong these boys, to send them unprepared into maturity, whole men, defenceless against the first pricking of the flesh. In defending them from perils we have deprived them of the means to defend themselves. Well, no more now! Those who enter here henceforward will be of manhood’s years, enter of their own will, bear their own burdens. But this one’s burden falls upon me.
He turned back into the room. Eluric knelt brokenly, his smooth young hands spread painfully to cover his face, and slow tears sliding between the fingers.
“Look up!” said Radulfus firmly, and as the young, tortured face was turned up to him fearfully: “Now answer me truly, and don’t be afraid. You have never spoken word of love to this lady?”
“Nor she ever offered such a word to you, nor such a look as could inflame or invite love?”
“No, Father, never, never! She is utterly untouched. I am nothing to her.” And he added with despairing tears: “It is I who have in some way besmirched her, to my shame, by loving her, though she knows nothing of it.”
“Indeed? In what way has your unhappy affection befouled the lady? Tell me this, did ever you let your fancy dwell on touching her? On embracing her? On possessing her?”
“No!” cried Eluric in a great howl of pain and dismay. “God forbid! How could I so profane her? I revere her, I think of her as of the company of the saints. When I trim the candles her goodness provides, I see her face as a brightness. I am no more than her pilgrim. But ah, it hurts…” he said, and bowed himself into the skirts of the abbot’s gown and clung there.
“Hush!” said the abbot peremptorily, and laid his hand on the bowed head. “You use extravagant terms for what is wholly human and natural. Excess is blameworthy, and in that field you do indeed offend. But it is plain that in the matter of this unhappy temptation you have not done ill, but in truth rather well. Nor need you fear any reproach to the lady, whose virtue you do well to extol. You have not harmed her. I know you for one unfailingly truthful, insofar as you see and understand truth. For truth is no simple matter, my son, and the mind of man is stumbling and imperfect in wisdom. I blame myself that I submitted you to this trial. I should have foreseen its severity for one as young and unpractised as you. Get up now! You have what you came to ask. You are excused from this duty henceforth.”
He took Eluric by the wrists, and hoisted him firmly to his feet, for he was so drained and trembling with weakness that it seemed doubtful if he could have risen unaided. The boy began to utter stumbling thanks, his tongue lame now even upon ordinary words. The calm of exhaustion and relief came back gradually to his face. But still he found something to fret him even in his release.
“Father… the charter… It will be void if the rose is not delivered and the rent paid.”
“The rose will be delivered,” said Radulfus forcibly. “The rent will be paid. This task I lift here and now from your shoulders. Tend your altar, and give no further thought to how or by whom the duty is undertaken from this day.”
“Father, what more should I do for the cleansing of my soul?” ventured Eluric, quivering to the last subsiding tremors of guilt.
“Penance may well be salutary for you,” admitted the abbot somewhat wearily. “But beware of making extravagant claims even upon punishment. You are far from a saint—so are we all—but neither are you a notable sinner; nor, my child, will you ever be.”
“God forbid!” whispered Eluric, appalled.
“God does indeed forbid,” said Radulfus drily, “that we should make more of our virtues or our failings than is due. More than your due you shall not have of, neither praise nor blame. For your soul’s ease, go and make your confession as I have ordered, with moderation, but say to your confessor that you have also been with me, and have my countenance and blessing, and are by me delivered from the duty which was too heavy for you. Then perform whatever penance he may give you, and beware of asking or expecting more.”
Brother Eluric went out from the presence on shaky legs, emptied of all feeling, and dreading that this emptiness could not last. It was not pleasure, but at least it was not pain. He had been dealt with kindly, he who had come to this interview looking upon success and release from the ordeal of the woman’s nearness as the end of all his troubles, yet now this void within him was like the house swept clean in the Bible, ready for residence, aching to be filled, and as apt for devils as for angels.
He did as he had been bidden. Until the end of his novitiate his confessor had been Brother Jerome, ear and shadow of Prior Robert, and from Jerome he could have counted on all the chastisement his over-anxious soul desired. But now it was to the sub-prior, Richard, that he must turn, and Richard was known to be easy and consoling to his penitents, as much out of laziness as kindliness. Eluric did his best to obey the abbot’s injunction, not to spare himself but not to accuse himself of what he had not committed, even in his secret mind. When it was done, penance allotted and absolution given, still he kneeled, with closed eyes and brows painfully drawn together.
“Is there more?” asked Richard.
“No, Father… No more to tell of what is done. Only I am afraid…” The numbness was beginning to melt, a small ache had begun in his guts, the empty house would not long be uninhabited. “I will do all I may to put away even the memory of this illicit affection, but I am not sure… I am not sure! How if I fail? I go in dread of my own heart
“My son, whenever that heart fails you, you must go to the source of all strength and compassion, and pray to be aided, and grace will not fail you. You serve the altar of Our Lady, who is perfect purity. Where better could you turn for grace?”
Where, indeed! But grace is not a river into which a man can dip his pail at will, but a fountain that plays when it lists, and when it lists is dry and still. Eluric performed his penance before the altar he had newly trimmed, kneeling on the chill tiles of the floor, his whispering voice half-choked with passion, and kneeled still when he was done, with every nerve and sinew of his body imploring plenitude and peace.
Surely he should have been happy, for he was vindicated, delivered from the weight of mortal guilt, saved from ever having to see the face of Judith Perle again, or hear her voice, or breathe the faint sweetness that distilled out of her clothing as she moved. Free of that torment and temptation, he had believed his troubles were at an end. Now he knew better.
He knotted his hands into pain, and burst into a fury of passionate, silent prayers to the Virgin whose faithful servant he was, and who could and must stand by him now. But when he opened his eyes and looked up into the mellow golden cones of the candle-flames, there was the woman’s face radiant before him, a dazzling, insistent brightness.
He had escaped nothing, all he had done was to cast away with the unbearable pain the transcendent bliss, and now all he had left was his barren virgin honour, this grim necessity to keep his vows at all costs. He was a man of his word, he would keep his word.
But he would never see her again.
Cadfael came back from the town in good time for Compline, well fed and well wined, and content with his evening’s entertainment, though regretful that he would see no more of Aline and his godson Giles for three or four months. Doubtless Hugh would bring them back to the town house for the winter, by which time the boy would be grown out of all knowledge, and approaching his third birthday. Well, better they should spend the warm months up there in the north, at Maesbury, in the healthy caput of Hugh’s modest honour, rather than in the congested streets of Shrewsbury, where disease had easier entry and exaggerated power. He ought not to grudge their going, however he was bound to miss them.
It was a warm early twilight as he crossed the bridge, matching his mood of content with its mild and pleasant melancholy. He passed the spot where trees and bushes bordered the path down to the lush riverside level of the Gaye, the abbey’s main gardens, and the still silver gleam of the mill-pond on his right, and turned in at the gatehouse. The porter was sitting in the doorway of his lodge in the mild sweet air, taking the cool of the evening very pleasurably, but he also had an eye to his duties and the errand he had been given.
“So there you are!” he said comfortably, as Cadfael entered through the open wicket. “Gallivanting again! I wish I had a godson up in the town.”
“I had leave,” said Cadfael complacently.
“I’ve known times when you couldn’t have said that so smugly! But yes, I know you had leave tonight, and are back in good time for the office. But that’s all one for tonight—Father Abbot wants you in his parlour. As soon as he returns, he said.”
“Does he so, indeed?” Cadfael echoed, brows aloft. “What’s afoot, then, at this hour? Has something wild been happening?”
“Not that I know of, there’s been no stir about the place at all, everything as quiet as the night. Just the simple summons. Brother Anselm is sent for, too,” he added placidly. “No mention of the occasion. Better go now and see.”
So Cadfael thought, too, and betook himself briskly down the length of the great court to the abbot’s lodging. Brother Anselm the precentor was there before him, already ensconced on a carved bench against the panelled wall, and it appeared that nothing of too disturbing a nature was towards, for abbot and obedientiary were provided with wine-cups, and the like was offered to Cadfael as soon as he had reported himself in response to the abbot’s summons. Anselm moved up on the bench to make room for his friend. The precentor, who also presided over the library, was ten years younger than Cadfael, a vague, unworldly man except where his personal enthusiasms were concerned, but alert and subtle enough in anything that concerned books, music or the instruments that make music, best of all the most perfect, the human voice. The blue eyes that peered out beneath his bushy brown eyebrows and shock of shaggy brown hair might be short-sighted, but they missed very little that went on, and had a tolerant twinkle for fallible human creatures and their failings, especially among the young.
“I have sent for you two,” said Radulfus, when the door was firmly closed, and there was no fourth to overhear, “because a thing has arisen that I would as lief not bring up in chapter tomorrow. It will certainly be known to one other, but through the confessional, which is secret enough. But else I want it kept within here, between us three. You have both long experience of the world and its pitfalls before you entered the cloister, you will comprehend my reasons. What is fortunate is that you were also the abbey witnesses to the charter by which we acquired the Widow Perle’s house here in the Foregate. I have asked Anselm to bring with him a copy of the charter from the lieger-book.”
“I have it here,” said Brother Anselm, half-unfolding the leaf of vellum on his knee.
“Good! Presently! Now the matter is this. This afternoon Brother Eluric, who as custodian of the Lady Chapel altar, which benefits from the gift, seemed the natural person to pay the stipulated rent to the lady each year, came to me and requested to be excused from this duty. For reasons which I should have foreseen. For there is no denying that Mistress Perle is an attractive woman, and Brother Eluric is quite unpractised, young and vulnerable. He says, and I am sure truly, that no ill word or look has ever passed between them, nor has he ever entertained a single lustful thought concerning her. But he wished to be relieved of any further meeting, since he suffers and is tempted.”
It was a carefully temperate description, Cadfael thought, of what ailed Brother Eluric, but mercifully it seemed the disaster had been averted in time. The boy had got his asking, that was plain.
“And you have granted his wish,” said Anselm, rather stating than asking.
“I have. It is our work to teach the young how to deal with the temptations of the world and the flesh, but certainly not our duty to subject them to such temptations. I blame myself that I did not pay sufficient attention to what was arranged, or foresee the consequences. Eluric has behaved emotionally, but I believe him absolutely when he says he has not sinned, even in thought. I have therefore relieved him of his task. And I do not wish anything of his ordeal to be known among the other brothers. At best it will not be easy for him, let it at least be private, or confined to the few of us. He need not even know that I have confided in you.”
“He shall not,” said Cadfael firmly.
“So, then,” said Radulfus, “having rescued one fallible child from the fire, I am all the more resolved not to subject another equally unprepared to the same danger. I cannot appoint another boy of Eluric’s years to carry the rose. And if I nominate an elder, such as yourself, Cadfael, or Anselm here, it will be known all too well what the change means, and Brother Eluric’s trouble will become matter for gossip and scandal. Oh, be sure I know that no rule of silence keeps news from spreading like bindweed. No, this must be seen as a change of policy for good and canonical reasons. Which is why I asked for the charter. Its purport I know, but its exact wording I cannot recall. Let us see what the possibilities are. Will you read it aloud, Anselm?”
Anselm unrolled his leaf and read, in the mellifluous voice that rejoiced in swaying hearers in the liturgy:
‘Be it known to all, present and future, that I, Judith, daughter of Richard Vestier and widow of Edred Perle, being in full health of mind, give and bestow, and by this present charter confirm to God and to the altar of Saint Mary in the church of the monks of Shrewsbury, my house in the Monks’ Foregate, between the abbey forge and the messuage of Thomas the farrier, together with the garden and field pertaining to it, for an annual rent, during my lifetime, of one rose from the white rose-bush growing beside the north wall, to be delivered to me, Judith, upon the day of the translation of Saint Winifred. By these witnesses recorded: as to the abbey, Brother Anselm, precentor, Brother Cadfael; as to the town, John Ruddock, Nicholas of Meole, Henry Wyle.’
“Good!” said the abbot with a deep, satisfied breath, as Anselm lowered the leaf into the lap of his habit. “So there is no mention of who is to deliver the rent, merely that it must be paid on the fixed day, and into the donor’s own hand. So we may excuse Brother Eluric without infringing the terms, and as freely appoint another to bear the rose. There is no restriction, any man appointed may act for the abbey in this matter.”
“That’s certain,” agreed Anselm heartily. “But if you purpose to exclude all the young, Father, for fear of bringing them into temptation, and all of us elders for fear of exposing Brother Eluric to suspicion of, at least, weakness, and at worst, misconduct, are we to look to a lay servant? One of the stewards, perhaps?”
“It would be perfectly permissible,” said Radulfus practically, “but perhaps might lose something of relevance. I would not wish to diminish the gratitude we feel, and should feel, for the lady’s generous gift, nor the respect with which we regard the gesture of her choice of rent. It means much to her, it should and must be dealt with by us with equal gravity. I would welcome your thoughts on the matter.”
“The rose,” said Cadfael, slowly and consideringly, “comes from the garden and the particular bush which the widow cherished during the years of her marriage, and tended along with her husband. The house has a tenant now, a decent widower and a good craftsman, who has cared for the bush, pruned and fed it ever since he took up household there. Why should not he be asked to deliver the rose? Not roundabout, through a third and by order, but direct from bush to lady? This house is his landlord, as it is her beneficiary, and its blessing goes with the rose without further word said.”
He was not sure himself what had moved him to make the suggestion. It may have been that the evening’s wine, rewarmed in him now by the abbot’s wine, rekindled with it the memory of the close and happy family he had left up in the town, where the marital warmth as sacred in its way as any monastic vows gave witness to heaven of a beneficent purpose for mankind. Whatever it was that had moved him to speak, surely they were here dealing with a confrontation of special significance between man and woman, as Eluric had all too clearly shown, and the champion sent into the lists might as well be a mature man who already knew about women, and about love, marriage and loss.
“It’s a good thought,” said Anselm, having considered it dispassionately. “If it’s to be a layman, who better than the tenant? He also benefits from the gift, the premises suit him very well, his former quarters were too distant from the town and too cramped.”
“And you think he would be willing?” asked the abbot.
“We can but ask. He’s already done work for the lady,” said Cadfael, “they’re acquainted. And the better his contacts with the townsfolk, the better for trade. I think he’d have no objection.”
“Then tomorrow,” decided the abbot with satisfaction, “I will send Vitalis to put the matter to him. And our problem, small though it is, will be happily solved.”
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Brother Vitalis had lived so long with documents and accounts and legal points that nothing surprised him, and about nothing that was not written down on vellum did he retain any curiosity. The errands that fell to his lot he discharged punctiliously but without personal interest. He delivered the abbot’s message to Niall the bronzesmith word for word, expecting and receiving instant agreement, carried the satisfactory answer back, and promptly forgot the tenant’s face. Not one word of one parchment that ever passed through his hands did he forget, those were immutable, even years would only slightly fade them, but the faces of laymen whom he might well never see again, and whom he could not recall ever noticing before, these vanished from his mind far more completely than words erased deliberately from a leaf of vellum to make way for a new text.
“The smith is quite willing,” he reported to Abbot Radulfus on his return, “and promises faithful delivery.” He had not even wondered why the duty should have been transferred from a brother to a secular agent. It was in any case more seemly, since the donor was a woman.
“That’s well,” said the abbot, content, and as promptly dismissed the matter from his mind as finished.
Niall, when he was left alone, stood for some minutes gazing after his departed visitor, leaving the all but completed dish with its incised border neglected on his workbench, the punch and mallet idle beside it. A small sector of the rim left to do, and then he could turn his hand to the supple leather girdle rolled up on a shelf and waiting for his attention. There would be a small mould to make, the body of the buckle to cast, and then the hammering out of the fine pattern and the mixing of the bright enamels to fill the incisions. Three times since she had brought it in he had unrolled it and run it caressingly through his fingers, dwelling on the delicate precision of the bronze rosettes. For her he would make a thing of beauty, however small and insignificant, and even if she never noticed it but as an article of apparel, a thing of use, at least she would wear it, it would encircle that body of hers that was so slender, too slender, and the buckle would rest close against the womb that had conceived but once and miscarried, leaving her so lasting and bitter a grief.
Not this night, but the night following, when the light began to fade and made fine work impossible, he would close the house and set out on the walk down through Brace Meole to the hamlet of Pulley, a minor manor of the Mortimers, where his sister’s husband John Stury farmed the demesne as steward, and Cecily’s boisterous children kept his own little girl company, made much of her, and ran wild with her among the chickens and the piglets. He was not utterly bereft, like Judith Perle. There was great consolation in a little daughter. He pitied those who had no children, and most of all such as had carried a child half the long, hard way into this world, only to lose it at last, and too late to conceive again. Judith’s child had gone in haste after its father. The wife was left to make her way slowly, and alone.
He had no illusions about her. She knew little of him, desired no more, and thought of him not at all. Her composed courtesy was for every man, her closer regard for none. That he acknowledged without complaint or question. But fate and the lord abbot, and certain monastic scruples about encountering women, no doubt, had so decreed that on one day in the year, at least, he was to see her, to go to her house, to stand in her presence and pay her what was due, exchange a few civil words with her, see her face clearly, even be seen clearly by her, if only for a moment.
He left his work and went out by the house door into the garden. Within the high wall there were fruit trees bedded in grass, and a patch of vegetables, and to one side a narrow, tangled bed of flowers, overcrowded but spangled with bright colour. The white rose-bush grew against the north wall, tall as a man, and clutching the stonework with a dozen long, spiny arms. He had cut it back only seven weeks before, but it made rapid and lengthy growth every year. It was old; dead wood had been cut away from its stem several times, so that it had a thick, knotty bole at the base, and a sinewy stalk that was almost worthy of being called a trunk. A snow of white, half-open buds sprinkled it richly. The blooms were never very large, but of the purest white and very fragrant. There would be no lack of them at their best to choose from, when the day of Saint Winifred’s translation came.
She should have the finest to be found on the tree. And even before that day he would see her again, when she came to fetch her girdle. Niall went back to his work with goodwill, shaping the new buckle in his mind while he completed the decoration of the dish for the provost’s kitchen.
The burgage of the Vestier family occupied a prominent place at the head of the street called Maerdol, which led downhill to the western bridge. A right-angled house, with wide shop-front on the street, and the long stem of the hall and chambers running well back behind, with a spacious yard and stables. There was room enough in all that elongated building, besides the living rooms of the family, to house ample stores in a good dry undercroft, and provide space for all the girls who carded and combed the newly dyed wool, besides three horizontal looms set up in their own outbuilding, and plenty of room in the long hall for half a dozen spinsters at once. Others worked in their own homes, and so did five other weavers about the town. The Vestiers were the biggest and best-known clothiers in Shrewsbury.
Only the dyeing of the fleeces and fulling of the cloth were put out into the experienced hands of Godfrey Fuller, who had his dye-house and fulling-works and tenterground just down-river, under the wall of the castle.
At this time of year the first fleeces of the clip had already been purchased and sorted, and sent to be dyed, and on this same day had been duly delivered in person by Godfrey. Nor did he seem to be in any hurry to be off about his business, though he was known for a man to whom time was money, and money very dear. So was power. He enjoyed being one of the wealthiest of the town’s guildsmen, and was always on the look-out for an extension to his realm and influence. He had his eye, so the common gossip said, on the almost comparable wealth of the Widow Perle, and never neglected an opportunity of urging the benefits of bringing the two together by a match.
Judith had sighed at his staying, but dutifully offered refreshment, and listened patiently to his dogged persuasions, which at least had the decency to avoid any semblance of loving courtship. He spoke solid sense, not dalliance, and all he said was true. His business and hers, put together, and run as well as they were being run now, would become a power in the shire, let alone the town. She would be the gainer, in terms of wealth at least, as well as he. Nor would he make too repulsive a husband, for if he was turned fifty he was still a presentable figure of a man, tall, vigorous, with a long stride on him, and a thick crop of steel-grey hair capping sharp features, and if he valued money, he also valued appearances and refinements, and would see to it, if only for his own prestige, that his wife went decked out as handsomely as any in the county.
“Well, well!” he said, recognising his dismissal and accepting it without resentment, “I know how to bide my time, mistress, and I’m not one to give up short of the victory, nor one to change my mind, neither. You’ll come to see the rights of what I’ve said, and I’m not afraid to stand my ground against any of these young fly-by-nights that have nothing to offer you but their pretty faces. Mine has seen long service, but I’ll back it against theirs any day. You have too much good sense, girl, to choose a lad for his dainty seat on a horse, or his pink and yellow beauty. And think well on all we could do between us, if we had the whole of the trade brought together in our hands, from the ewe’s back to the cloth on the counter and the gown on the customer’s back.”
“I have thought of it,” she said simply, “but the truth is, Master Fuller, I do not purpose to marry again.”
“Purposes can change,” said Godfrey firmly, and rose to take his leave. The hand she gave him resignedly he raised to his lips.
“Yours, too?” she said with a faint smile.
“My mind won’t change. If yours does, here am I waiting.” And with that he did leave her, as briskly as he had come. Certainly there seemed to be no end to his persistence and patience, but fifty can ill afford to wait too long. Very soon she might have to do something decisive about Godfrey Fuller, and against that massive assurance it was hard to see what she could do but what she had been doing all along, fend him off and be as constant in denial as he was in demanding. She had been brought up to take good care of her business and her labourers, no less than he, she could ill afford to take her dyeing and fulling to another master.
Aunt Agatha Coliar, who had sat a little apart, sewing, bit off her thread, and said in the sweet, indulgent voice she affected sometimes towards the niece who kept her in comfort: “You’ll never rid yourself of him by being too civil. He takes it for encouragement.”
“He has a right to speak his mind,” said Judith indifferently, “and he’s in no doubt about mine. As often as he asks, I can refuse.”
“Oh, my dear soul, I trust you can. He’s not the man for you. Nor none of those youngsters he spoke of, neither. You well know there’s no second in the world for one who’s known joy with the first. Better by far go the leave of the way alone! I still grieve for my own man, after all these years. I could never look at any other, after him.” So she had said, sighing and shaking her head and wiping away a facile tear, a thousand times since she had kept the storehouse and the linen here, and brought her son to help manage the business. “If it had not been for my boy, who was young then to fend for himself, I would have taken the veil that same year that Will died. There’d be no fortune-hunting lads pestering a woman in the cloister. Peace of mind there’d be, there.” She was off upon her best theme, and sometimes seemed almost to forget that she was talking to anyone but herself.
She had been a pretty woman in youth, and still had a round, rosy, comfortable freshness, somewhat contradicted by the alert sharpness of her blue eyes, and the taut smile that visited her mouth very often when it should have been relaxed and easy in repose, as if shrewd thoughts within wore her soft outward seeming like a disguise. Judith could not remember her own mother, and often wondered if there had been much resemblance between the sisters. But these, mother and son, were the only kin she had, and she had taken them in without hesitation. Miles more than earned his keep, for he had shown himself an excellent manager during the long decline of Edred’s health, when Judith had had no thought to spare for anything but her husband and the child to come. She had not had the heart, when she returned to the shop, to take back the reins into her own hands. Though she did her share, and kept a dutiful eye upon everything, she let him continue as master-clothier. So influential a house fared better with a man in the forefront.
“But there,” sighed Agatha, folding her sewing on her spacious lap and dropping a tear on the hem, “I had my duty to do in the world, there was to be no such calm and quiet for me. But you have no chick nor child to cling to you, my poor dear, and nothing now to tie you to the world, if it should please you to leave it. You did speak of it once. Oh, take good thought, do nothing in haste. But should it come to that, there’s nothing to hold you back.”
No, nothing! And sometimes the world did seem to Judith a waste, a tedium, hardly worth keeping. And in a day or two, perhaps tomorrow, Sister Magdalen would be coming from Godric’s Ford, from the forest cell of the abbey of Polesworth, to fetch away Brother Edmund’s niece as a postulant. She could as well take back with her two aspiring novices as one.
Judith was in the spinning room with the women when Sister Magdalen arrived, early the following afternoon. As heiress to the clothier’s business for want of a brother, she had learned all the skills involved, from teasing and carding to the loom and the final cutting of garments, though she found herself much out of practice now at the distaff. The sheaf of carded wool before her was russet-red. Even the dye-stuffs came seasonally, and last summer’s crop of woad for the blues was generally used up by April or May, to be followed by these variations on reds and browns and yellows, which Godfrey Fuller produced from the lichens and madders. He knew his craft. The lengths of cloth he would finally get back for fulling had a clear, fast colour, and fetched good prices.
It was Miles who came looking for her. “You have a visitor,” he said, reaching over Judith’s shoulder to rub a strand of wool from the distaff between finger and thumb, with cautious approval. “There’s a nun from Godric’s Ford sitting in your small chamber, waiting for you. She says they told her at the abbey you’d be glad of a word with her. You’re not still playing with the notion of quitting the world, are you? I thought that nonsense was over.”
“I did tell Brother Cadfael I should like to see her,” said Judith, stilling her spindle. “No more than that. She’s here to fetch a new novice away—the infirmarer’s sister’s girl.”
“Then don’t you be fool enough to offer her a second. Though you do have your follies, as I know,” he said lightly, and clapped her affectionately on the shoulder. “Like giving away for a rose-leaf the best property in the Foregate. Do you intend to cap that by giving away yourself?”
He was two years older than his cousin, and given to playing the elder, full of sage advice, though with a lightness that tempered the image. A young man very neatly and compactly made, strong and lissome, and as good at riding and wrestling and shooting at the butts by the riverside as he was at managing a clothier’s business. He had his mother’s blue, alert eyes and light-brown hair, but none of her blurred complacency. All that was, or seemed, vague and shallow in the mother became clear and decisive in the son. Judith had had good cause to be glad of him, and to rely on his solid good sense in all matters concerning commerce.
“I may do as I please with myself,” she said, rising and laying her spindle down in safety with its cone of russet yarn, “if only I knew what does best please me! But truth to tell, I’m utterly in the dark. All I’ve done is to say I should be glad to talk to her. So I shall. I like Sister Magdalen.”
“So do I,” agreed Miles heartily. “But I should grudge you to her. This house would founder without you.”
“Folly!” said Judith sharply. “You know well enough it could fare as well without me as with me. It’s you who hold up the roof, not I.”
If he disclaimed that, she did not wait to hear, but gave him a sudden reassuring smile and a touch of her hand on his sleeve as she passed, and went to join her guest. Miles had a ruthless honesty, he knew that what she had said was no more than truth, he could have run everything here without her. The sharp reminder pricked her. She was indeed expendable, a woman without purpose here in this world, she might well consider whether there was not a better use for her out of the world. In urging her against it, he had reopened the hollow in her heart, and turned her thoughts again towards the cloister.
Sister Magdalen was sitting on a cushioned bench beside the unshuttered window in Judith’s small private chamber, broad, composed and placid in her black habit. Agatha had brought her fruit and wine, and left her to herself, for she went in some awe of her. Judith sat down beside her visitor.
“Cadfael has told me,” said the nun simply, “what ails you, and what you have confided to him. God forbid I should press you one way or the other, for in the end the decision is yours to make, and no other can make it for you. I am taking into account how grievous your losses have been.”
“I envy you,” said Judith, looking down into her linked hands. “You are kind, and I am sure you are wise and strong. I do not believe I am now any of these things, and it is tempting to lean upon someone who is. Oh, I do live, I do work, I have not abandoned house, or kinsfolk, or duties. Yet all this could as well go on without me. My cousin has just shown me as much by denying it. It would be a most welcome refuge, to have a vocation elsewhere.”
“Which you have not,” said Sister Magdalen shrewdly, “or you could not have said that.” Her sudden smile was like a ray of warmth, and the dimple that darted in and out of her cheek sparkled and was gone.
“No. Brother Cadfael said as much. He said the religious life should not be embraced as a second-best, but only as the best—not a hiding-place, but a passion.”
“He would be hard put to it to apply that to me,” said Sister Magdalen bluntly. “But neither do I recommend to others what I myself do. If truth be told, I am no example to any woman. I took what I chose, I have still some years of life in which to pay for it. And if the debt is not discharged by then, I’ll pay the balance after, ungrudging. But you have incurred no such debt, and I do not think you should. The price comes high. You, I judge, will do better to wait, and spend your substance for something different.”
“I know of nothing,” said Judith bleakly, after a long moment of thought, “that I find worth buying in this world now. But you and Brother Cadfael are right, if I took the veil I should be hiding behind a lie. All I covet in the cloister is the quiet, and the wall around me, keeping the world out.”
“Bear in mind, then,” said the nun emphatically, “that our doors are not closed against any woman in need, and the quiet is not reserved for those who have taken vows. The time may come when you truly need a place to be apart, time for thought and rest, even time to recover lost courage, though of that I think you have enough. I said I would not advise, and I am advising. Wait, bear with things as they are. But if ever you need a place to hide, for a little while or a long while, come to Godric’s Ford and bring all your frets in with you, and you shall find a refuge for as long as you need, with no vows taken, never unless you come to it with a whole heart. And I will keep the door against the world until you see fit to go forth again.”
Late after supper that night, in the small manor-house of Pulley, in the open scrubland fringes of the Long Forest, Niall opened the outer door of his brother-in-law’s timber hall, and looked out into the twilight that was just deepening into night. He had a walk of three miles or so before him, back to his house in the Foregate of the town, but it was a familiar and pleasant walk in fair weather, and he was accustomed to making the trip two or three times in the week after work, and home in the early dark, to be up and at work again betimes in the morning. But on this night he saw with some surprise that there was a steady rain falling, so quietly and straightly that within the house they had been quite unaware of it.
“Bide overnight,” said his sister at his shoulder. “No need to get wet through, and this won’t last the night out.”
“I don’t mind it,” said Niall simply. “I shan’t hurt.”
“With all that way to go? Get some sense,” advised Cecily comfortably, “and stay here in the dry, there’s room enough, and you know you’re welcome. You can be up and away in good time tomorrow, no fear of oversleeping, these early dawns.”
“Shut the door on it,” urged John from the table, “and come and have another sup. Better wet inside than out. It’s not often we have time for a talk among the three of us, after the children are all abed and asleep.”
With four of them about the place, and all lively as squirrels, that was true enough; the grown folk were at the beck and call of their young for all manner of services, mending toys, joining in games, telling stories, singing rhymes. Cecily’s two boys and a girl ranged from ten years old down to six, and Niall’s own chick was the youngest and the pet. Now all four were curled up like a litter of puppies on their hay mattresses in the little loft, fast asleep, and round the trestle table in the hall the elders could talk freely without disturbing them.
It had been a good day for Niall. He had cast and decorated and polished the new buckle for Judith’s girdle, and was not displeased with his work. Tomorrow she might come to fetch it, and if he saw pleasure in her eyes when she took it, he would be well rewarded. Meantime, why not settle here cosily for the night, and get up with the dawn to a newly washed world, and a sweet green walk home?
He slept well, and was roused at first light by the usual wild, waking rapture of the birds, at once sweet and strident. Cecily was up and busy, and had small ale and bread ready for him. She was younger than he, fair and benign, happy in her husband and a born hand with children, no wonder the motherless child thrived here. Stury would take nothing for her keep. What was one more little bird, he said, in a full nest? And indeed the family was well provided here, keeping Mortimer’s little manor prosperous and in good repair, the cleared fields productive, the forest well managed, the small coppice ditched against the invading deer. A good place for children. And yet it was always an effort to set out for the town, and leave her behind, and he visited often for fear she should begin to forget that she was his, and not the youngest of the Stury brood, fathered and mothered here from birth.
Niall set out through an early morning moist and sweet, the rain over, seemingly, for some hours, for though the grass sparkled, the open soil had swallowed up the fall, and was beginning to dry. The first long, low beams of the rising sun lanced through the trees and drew patterns of light and dark along the ground. The first passion of bird-song gradually softened and lost its belligerence, grew busy and sweet and at ease. Here also the nests were full of fledgelings, hard work day-long to feed them all.
The first mile was through the edges of the forest, the ground opening gradually into heath and scrub, dotted with small groves of trees. Then he came to the hamlet of Brace Meole, and from there it was a beaten road, widening as it neared the town into a cart-track, which crossed the Meole Brook by a narrow bridge, and brought him into the Foregate between the stone bridge into the town and the mill and mill-pond at the edge of the abbey enclave. He had set off early and walked briskly, and the Foregate was still barely awake; only a few cottagers and labourers were up and about their business, and gave him good day as he passed. The monks were not yet down for Prime, there was no sound in the church as Niall went by, but faintly from the dortoir the waking bell was ringing. The high road had dried after the rain, but the soil of the gardens showed richly dark, promising grateful growth.
He came to the gate in his own burgage wall, and let himself through into the yard, set the door of his shop open, and made ready for the day’s work. Judith’s girdle lay coiled on a shelf. He held his hand from taking it down to caress yet again, for he had no rights in her, and never would have. But this very day he might at least see her again and hear her voice, and in five days’ time he surely would, and that in her own house. Their hands might touch on the stem of the rose. He would choose carefully, wary of offering her thorns, who had been pierced by too many and too sharp thorns already in her brief life.
The thought drove him out into the garden, which lay behind the yard, entered by a door from the house and a wicket in the wall from the yard. After the indoor chill left from the night, the bright sunlight embraced him in the doorway, a scarf of warmth, and gleamed moistly through the branches of the fruit trees and over the tangled flower-bed. He took one step over the threshold and halted, stricken and appalled.
Against the north wall the white rose-bush sagged sidelong, its thorny arms dragged from the stone, its thickened bole hacked in a long, downward gash that split away a third of its weight and growth dangling into the grass. Beneath it the soil of the bed was stirred and churned as if dogs had battled there, and beside the battlefield lay huddled a still heap of rusty black, half sunk in the grass. Niall took no more than three hasty steps towards the wreckage when he saw the pale gleam of a naked ankle jutting from the heap, an arm in a wide black sleeve flung out, a hand convulsively clenched into the soil, and the pallid circle of a tonsure startlingly white in all the blackness. A monk of Shrewsbury, young and slight, almost more habit than body within it, and what, in God’s name, was he doing here, dead or wounded under the wounded tree?
Niall went close and kneeled beside him, in too much awe, at first, to touch. Then he saw the knife, lying close beside the outstretched hand, its blade glazed with drying blood. There was a thick dark moisture that was not rain, sodden into the soil under the body. The forearm exposed by the wide black sleeve was smooth and fair. This was no more than a boy. Niall reached a hand to touch at last, and the flesh was chill but not yet cold. Nevertheless, he knew death. With careful dread he eased a hand under the head, and turned to the morning light the soiled young face of Brother Eluric.
« ^ »
Brother Jerome, who counted heads and censored behaviour in all the brothers, young and old, and whether within his province or no, had marked the silence within one dormitory cell when all the rest were rising dutifully for Prime, and made it his business to look within, somewhat surprised in this case, for Brother Eluric rated normally as a model of virtue. But even the virtuous may backslide now and then, and the opportunity to reprove so exemplary a brother came rarely, and was certainly not to be missed. This time Jerome’s zeal was wasted, and the pious words of reproach died unspoken, for the cell was empty, the cot immaculately neat, the breviary open on the narrow desk. Brother Eluric had surely risen ahead of his kin, and was already on his knees somewhere in the church, engaged in supererogatory prayer. Jerome felt cheated, and snapped with more than his usual acidity at any who looked blear-eyed with sleep, or came yawning to the night-stairs. He was equally at odds with those who exceeded him in devotion and those who fell short. One way or another, Eluric would pay for this check.
Once they were all in their stalls in the choir, and Brother Anselm was launched into the liturgy—how could a man past fifty, who spoke in a round, human voice deeper than most, sing at will in that upper register, like the most perfect of boy cantors? And how dared he!—Jerome again began to count heads, and grew even happier in his self-vindication, for there was one missing, and that one was Brother Eluric. The fallen paragon, who had actually won his way into Prior Robert’s dignified and influential favour, to Jerome’s jealous concern! Let him look to his laurels now! The prior would never demean himself to count or search for defections, but he would listen when they were brought to his notice.
Prime came to its end, and the brothers began to file back to the night-stairs, to complete their toilets and make ready for breakfast. Jerome lingered to sidle confidentially to Prior Robert’s elbow, and whisper into his ear, with righteous disapproval: “Father, we have a truant this morning. Brother Eluric was not present in church. Nor is he in his cell. All is left in order there, I thought surely he was before us into the church. Now I cannot think where he may be, nor what he is about, to neglect his duties so.”
Prior Robert in his turn paused and frowned. “Strange! He of all people! Have you looked in the Lady Chapel? If he rose very early to tend the altar and has lingered long in prayer he may have fallen asleep. The best of us may do so.”
But Brother Eluric was not in the Lady Chapel. Prior Robert hurried to detain the abbot on his way across the great court towards his lodging.
“Father Abbot, we are in some concern over Brother Eluric.”
The name produced instant and sharp attention. Abbot Radulfus turned a fixed and guarded countenance. “Brother Eluric? Why, what of him?”
“He was not in attendance at Prime, and he is nowhere to be found. Nowhere, at least, that he should be at this hour. It is not like him to absent himself from the office,” said the prior fairly.
“It is not. He is a devoted soul.” The abbot spoke almost absently, for his mind was back in the privacy of his parlour, facing that all too brittle devotee as he poured out his illicit and bravely resisted love. This reminder came all too aptly. How if confession and absolution and the release from temptation had not been enough? Radulfus, not a hesitant man, was still hesitating how to act now, when they were interrupted by the sight of the porter coming down from the gatehouse at a scurrying run, skirts and sleeves flying.
“Father Abbot, there’s one here at the gate, the bronze-smith who rents the Widow Perle’s old house, says he has dire news that won’t wait. He asks for you—would not give me the message—”
“I’ll come,” said Radulfus instantly. And to the prior, who would have made to follow him: “Robert, do you have someone search further, the gardens, the grange court… If you do not find him, come back to me.” And he was off at a long, raking stride towards the gate, and the authority of his voice and the vehemence of his going forbade pursuit. There were too many interwoven threads here—the lady of the rose, the house of the rose, the tenant who had willingly undertaken the errand Eluric dreaded, and now Eluric lost from within, and dire news entering from without. A woven pattern began to appear, and its colours were sombre.
Niall was waiting at the door of the porter’s lodge, his broad, strongly boned face very still and blanched with shock under its summer brown.
“You asked for me,” said Radulfus quietly, viewing him with a steady, measuring stare. “I am here. What is this news you bring?”
“My lord,” said Niall, “I thought best you should know it first alone, and then dispose as you see fit. Last night I lay at my sister’s house overnight because of the rain. When I came back this morning I went into the garden. My lord, Mistress Perle’s rose-bush has been hacked and broken, and one of your brothers lies dead there under it.”
After a brief, profound silence Radulfus said: “If you know him, name him.”
“I do know him. For three years he came to the garden to cut the rose for Mistress Perle. He is Brother Eluric, the custodian of Saint Mary’s altar.”
This time the silence was longer and deeper. Then the abbot asked simply: “How long since you discovered him there?”
“About the length of Prime, my lord, for it was nearly the hour when I passed the church on my way home. I came at once, but the porter would not disturb you during the office.”
“And you left all as you found it? Touched nothing?”
“I lifted his head to see his face. Nothing else. He lies just as I found him.”
“Good!” said Radulfus, and winced at using the word even for one right act, where everything else went grimly awry. “Then wait but a moment, while I send for certain others, and we will go back with you to that garden.”
Those he took with him, saying nothing as yet to any other, even the prior, were Brother Anselm and Brother Cadfael, witnesses for the abbey to the charter drawn up with Judith Perle. They alone had been told of Brother Eluric’s trouble, and shared the sorry knowledge that might be relevant here. The young man’s confessor was silenced by his office, and in any case Sub-Prior Richard was not the man Radulfus would have chosen as a wise counsellor in such dark matters.
The four of them stood in silence round the body of Brother Eluric, taking in the pitiful heap of black folds, the outflung hand, the mangled tree and the bloody knife. Niall had withdrawn a few paces to leave them alone, but stood watchful in attendance, to answer whatever they might ask.
“Poor, tormented child,” said Radulfus heavily. “I doubt I failed him fatally, his disease was worse than I knew. He begged to be relieved of his task, but surely he grudged it to any other, and has tried here to destroy the bush. And himself with it.”
Cadfael was silent, his eyes roving thoughtfully over the trampled ground. They had all refrained from treading too close, nothing had been disturbed since Niall went on his knees to turn the pallid face up to the light.
“Is that how you read it?” asked Anselm. “Are we to condemn him as a suicide? However we may pity?”
“What else can it be? Surely this involuntary love had so eaten into him that he could not bear another should take his place with the woman. Why else should he steal out by night and come here to this garden, why else should he hack at the roots of the tree? And from that it would be but a step, in his despair, to the unholy temptation to destroy himself with the roses. What could fix his image more terribly and for ever in her memory than such a death? For you know—you two do know—the measure of his desperation. And there lies the knife beside his hand.”
It was not a dagger, but a good, long-hafted knife, sharp and thin, such as any practical man might carry on him for a dozen lawful purposes, from carving his meat at the table to scaring off footpads on a journey, or the occasional wild boar in the forest.
“Beside it,” said Cadfael shortly, “not in it.”
They turned their eyes on him cautiously, even hopefully.
“You see how his hand is clenched into the soil,” he went on slowly, “and there is no blood upon it, though the knife is bloodied to the hilt. Touch his hand—I think you’ll find it is already stiffening as it lies, clutching the earth. He never held this knife. And if he had, would not the sheath be on his girdle? No man in his senses would carry such a knife about him unsheathed.”
“A man not in his right senses might, however,” said Radulfus ruefully. “He needed it, did he not, for what he has done to the rose-bush.”
“What was done to the rose-bush,” said Cadfael firmly, “was not done with that knife. Could not be! A man would have to saw away for half an hour or more, even with a sharp knife, at such a thick bole. That was done with a heavier weapon, meant for such work, a broom-hook or a hatchet. Moreover, you see the gash begins higher, where a single blow, or two at the most, should have severed the stem, but it swerves downwards into the thick of the bole, where dead wood has been cut away for years, and left this woody encrustation.”
“I fear,” said Brother Anselm wryly, “that Brother Eluric would hardly be expert with such a tool.”
“And there was no second blow,” said Cadfael, undeterred. “If there had been, the bush would be severed utterly. And the first blow, I think, the only blow—even that was deflected. Someone interrupted the act. Someone clutched at the arm that was swinging the hatchet, and sent the blade down into the thick of the bole. I think—I think—it stuck fast there, and the man who held it had not time to get both hands to the haft and pull it out. Why else should he draw his knife?”
“You are saying,” said Radulfus intently, “that there were two men here in the night, not one? One who tried to destroy, and one who tried to prevent?”
“Yes, that is what I see here.”
“And that the one who tried to protect the tree, who caught at the attacker’s arm and caused his weapon to lodge fast—and who was struck down instead with the knife…”
“Is Brother Eluric. Yes. How else can it have been? Certainly he came here secretly in the night of his own will, but not to destroy, rather to take a last farewell of this wild dream of his, to look for one last time on the roses, and then never no more. But he came just in time to see another man here, one who had other thoughts, and for other motives, one who had come to destroy the rose-bush. Would Eluric endure to see that done? Surely he leaped to protect the tree, clutched at the arm wielding the hatchet, drove the blade down to stick fast in the bole. If there was a struggle, as the ground shows, I do not think it lasted long. Eluric was unarmed. The other, if he could not then make use of his hatchet, carried a knife. And used it.”
There was a long silence, while they all stared at him and thought out slowly the implications of what he was saying. And gradually something of conviction came easefully into their faces, even something of relief and gratitude. For if Eluric was not a suicide, but had gone to his end faithfully bearing his burden and seeking to prevent an evil act, then his resting-place in the cemetery was assured, and his passage through death, however his account might stand for little sins needing purging, as safe as a prodigal son re-entering his father’s house.
“If it were not as I’ve said,” Cadfael pointed out, “then the hatchet would still be here in the garden. It is not. And certainly it was not our brother here who carried it away. And neither did he bring it here, I pledge my word on that.”
“Yet if this is true,” said Anselm consideringly, “the other did not stay to complete his work.”
“No, he lugged out his hatchet and made off as fast as he could, away from the place where he had made himself a murderer. A thing I daresay he never intended, done in a moment of alarm and terror, when this poor lad in his outrage lunged at him. He would run from Eluric dead in far greater horror than he ever need have done from Eluric living.”
“Nevertheless,” said Abbot Radulfus strongly, “this is murder.”
“Then I must send word to the castle. It is for the secular authorities to pursue murderers. A pity,” he said, “that Hugh Beringar is gone north, we shall have to wait for his return, though no doubt Alan Herbard will send to him at once, and let him know what has happened. Is there more that we here must do, before we have Brother Eluric carried home?”
“We can at least observe whatever is here to be seen, Father. One thing I can tell you, indeed you yourself will see it, what happened here happened after the rain stopped. The ground was soft when they came together here, see how they’ve marked it. And back and shoulder of the boy’s habit are dry. May we now move him? There are witnesses enough here as to how he was found.”
They stooped in all reverence and lifted the stiffening but not yet rigid body, and laid him out on the grass, stretched on his back. From throat to toes the front of his habit was dark with the moisture from the earth, and the great dark stain of his blood clotted the cloth over his left breast. His face, if it had borne the stamp of sudden anger, dread and pain, had now lost that tension, and eased into the smoothness of youth and innocence. Only his eyes, half-open, retained the frowning anxiety of a troubled soul. Radulfus stooped and closed them gently, and wiped the mud from the pale cheeks.
“You take a load from my heart, Cadfael. Surely you are right, he did not take his own life, it was rapt from him cruelly and unjustly, and there must be a price to pay for it. But as for this child here, he is safe enough. I would I had known better how to deal with him, he might still have been living.” He drew the two smooth hands together, and folded them on the bloodied breast.
“I sleep too well,” said Cadfael wryly, “I never heard when the rain ceased. Did anyone mark the end of it?”
Niall had drawn a little nearer, waiting patiently in case anything further should be required of him.
“It was over by about midnight,” he said, “for before we went to our beds, there at Pulley, my sister opened the door and looked out, and said that the sky had cleared and it was bidding to be a fine night. But it was too late to start out then.” He added, putting his own interpretation on the way they turned to look at him, after so long of forgetting his presence: “My sister and her man and the children will tell you I stayed the night over, and left in the dawn. It might be said a family will hold together, however. But I can tell you the names of two or three I said good day to, coming back along the Foregate this morning. They’ll bear me out.”
The abbot gave him a startled and preoccupied look, and understood. “Such checks and counter-checks are for the sheriff’s men,” he said. “But I make no doubt you’ve told us simple truth. And the rain was over by midnight, you say?”
“It was, my lord. There’s but three miles between, it would surely be much the same here.”
“It fits well,” said Cadfael, kneeling over the body. “He must surely have died about six or seven hours ago. And since he came after the rain stopped, when the ground was soft and moist to tread, there should be traces they’ve left after them. Here they’ve stamped the ground raw between them, there’s nothing clear, but by one way or another they walked in here in the night, and one walked out again.”
He rose from his knees and rubbed his moist palms together. “Hold your places where you stand, and look about you. We may have trampled out something of value ourselves, but at least all of us here but one wear sandals, and so did Eluric. Master Bronzesmith, how did you enter here this morning, when you found him?”
“Through the house-door,” said Niall, nodding in that direction.
“And when Brother Eluric came each year to fetch the rose, how did he enter?”
“Through the wicket from the front yard, as we did now. And was very quiet and modest about it.”
“Then this night past, coming with no ill intent, though so secretly, surely he would come as he always came. Let us see,” said Cadfael, treading carefully along the grass to the wicket gate in the wall, “if any but sandalled feet came that way.”
The earth path, watered into mud by the rain, and again dried into a smooth, soft surface, had taken all their entering footprints and held them clear to view, three pairs of flat soles, here and there overlaid one on another. Or were there four pairs? With these common sandals size meant nothing very helpful, but Cadfael thought he could detect, among all those prints entering and none leaving, one which had trodden deeper than the rest, having entered here while the ground was wetter than now, and by lucky chance escaped being trodden out of shape with their morning invasion. There was also a broad, sturdy shoe-sole, recent like the sandals, which Niall claimed for his, and showed as much by fitting his foot to it.
“Whoever the second was,” said Cadfael, “I fancy he did not come by the front way, as innocent men do. Nor leave by it, either, having left a dead man behind here. Let us look elsewhere.”
On the eastward side the garden was hemmed in by the wall of the house belonging to Thomas the farrier, on the west by Niall’s workshop and dwelling; there was no way out there. But to the rear, on the other side of the north wall, lay a paddock, very easily entered from the fields, and no way overlooked by any building. A few paces along the wall from the mutilated rose-bush there was a vine growing, crabbed and old and seldom fruitful. A part of its twisted trunk had been pulled away from the wall, and when Niall approached it closely he saw that where the trunk turned sidelong and afforded a foothold, a foot had indeed scored it, mounting in panic haste.
“Here! Here he climbed. The ground is higher outside in the paddock, but leaving he needed a holt on the way.”
They drew close, peering. The climber’s boot had scratched the bark and left soil in the scratches. And below, in the exposed earth of the bed, the other foot, the left, had stamped a deep and perfect print as he lunged upward, for he had had to reach high. A booted foot, with a raised heel that had dug deep, but less deep on the outer edge at the back, where the wearer habitually trod his boot down. By the shape his footgear had been well made, but well worn also. There was a fine ridge of earth that crossed from below the great toe diagonally half across the sole, narrowing to vanishing point as it went, left by a crack in the leather. Opposite the downtrodden heel, the toe also had left an imprint shallowing slightly. Whoever the man was, he trod from the left of the heel clean to the right of the toe with this left foot. His spring from the ground had forced the print in deep, but his foot had left the soil cleanly, and the wet earth, gradually drying, had preserved the perfect mould.
“A little warm wax,” said Cadfael, half to himself, intently staring, “a little warm wax and a steady hand, and we have him by the heel!”
They were so intent upon that single spot, the last remaining trace of Brother Eluric’s murderer, that none of them heard the light footsteps approaching the open house-door from within, or caught in the corner of an eye the slight gleam of the sun upon movement and colour, as Judith came into the doorway. She had found the workshop empty, and waited some minutes for Niall to appear. But since the door into his living quarters was wide open as he had left it, and the shifting green and gold of sunlit branches stirring showed in reflection across the room within, and since she knew the house so well, she had ventured to pass through to find him in the garden, where she judged he must be.
“I ask pardon,” she was saying as she stepped into the doorway, “but the doors were open. I did call—”
She broke off there, startled and bewildered to see the whole group of them swing about and stare in consternation at her. Three black Benedictine habits gathered beside the old, barren vine, and one of them the lord abbot himself. What errand could they possibly have here?
“Oh, forgive me,” she began haltingly. “I didn’t know…”
Niall sprang out of his shocked stillness and came running, putting himself between her and what else she might see if once she took her eyes off the abbot. He spread an arm protectively to urge her back into the house.
“Come within, mistress, here’s nothing to trouble you. I have the girdle ready. You’re early, I hadn’t expected you…”
He was not good at providing a flood of reassuring words. She held her ground, and over his shoulder she swept the enclosed space of the garden with dilated eyes blanched into the chill grey of glass, and found the still body lying aloof and indifferent in the grass. She saw the pale oval of the face, the pale cross of the hands on the breast of the habit, the hacked bole of the rose-bush, and its sagging branches torn from the wall. As yet she neither recognised the dead youth, nor understood at all what could have been happening here.
But all too well she understood that whatever befell in this place, between these walls which had once been hers, somehow lay heavy upon her, as if she had set in motion some terrible procession of events which she was powerless to stop, as if a gathering guilt had begun to fold round her, and mock her with her purity of intent and the corruption of its consequences.
She made no sound at all, she did not shrink, or yield to Niall’s awkward, concerned pleading: “Come, come within and sit you down quietly, and leave all here to the lord abbot. Come!” He had an arm about her, rather persuading than supporting, for she stood quite still and erect, not a quiver in her body. She laid her hands on his shoulders, resisting his urging with resigned determination.
“No, let me be. This has to do with me. I know it.”
They were all drawing anxiously about her by then. The abbot accepted necessity. “Madam, there is here matter that must distress you, that we cannot deny. I will not hide anything from you. This house is your gift, and truth is your due. But you must not take to yourself more than is customary from any godly gentlewoman in compassion for a young life taken untimely. No part of this stems from you, and no part of what must be done about it falls to your duty. Go within, and all that we know—all that is of consequence—you shall be told. I promise it.”
She hesitated, her eyes still on the dead youth. “Father, I will not further embitter what is surely hard enough for you,” she said slowly. “But let me see him. I owe him that.”
Radulfus looked her in the eyes, and stood aside. Niall took away his arm from about her almost stealthily, for fear she should suddenly become aware of his touch in the instant when it was removed. She crossed the grass with a firm and steady step, and stood looking down at Brother Eluric. In death he looked even younger and more vulnerable than in life, for all his immovable calm. Judith reached over him to the dangling, wounded bush, plucked one of the half-open buds, and slipped it carefully into his folded hands.
“For all those you brought to me,” she said. And to the rest of those present, raising her head: “Yes, it is he. I knew it must be he.”
“Brother Eluric,” said the abbot.
“I never knew his name. Is not that strange?” She looked round them all, from face to face, with drawn brows. “I never asked, and he never told. So few words we ever had to say to each other, and too late now for more.” She fastened last and longest, and with the first returning warmth of pain in her eyes as the numbness passed, on Cadfael, whom she knew best here. “How could this happen?” she said.
“Come within now,” said Cadfael, “and you shall know.”
« ^ »
The abbot and Brother Anselm departed, back to the abbey to send men with a litter to bring Brother Eluric home, and a messenger to Hugh’s young deputy at the castle, to warn him he had a murder on his hands. Very soon word would go forth through the Foregate that a brother was mysteriously dead, and many and strange rumours would be blown on the summer winds all through the town. Some carefully truncated version of Eluric’s tragedy the abbot would surely make public, to silence the wildest tales. He would not lie, but he would judiciously omit what was eternally private between himself, the two brother witnesses, and the dead man. Cadfael could guess how it would read. It had been decided, on maturer reflection, that it would be more suitable for the rose rent to be paid direct by the tenant, rather than by the custodian of the altar of Saint Mary, and therefore Brother Eluric had been excused from the duty he had formerly fulfilled. That he had gone in secret to the garden was perhaps foolish, but not blameworthy. No doubt he had simply wished to verify that the bush was well cared for and in blossom, and finding a malefactor in the very act of destroying it, he had naturally tried to prevent the act, and had been struck down by the attacker. A creditable death, an honourable grave. What need to mention the conflict and suffering that lay behind it?
But in the meantime here was he, Cadfael, confronted with a woman who surely had the right to know everything. It would not, in any case, be easy to lie to this woman, or even to prevaricate. She would not be satisfied with anything less than truth.
Since the sun was now reaching the flower-bed under the north wall of the garden, and the edge of the deep print might become dry and friable before noon, and perhaps powder away, Cadfael had borrowed some ends of candle from Niall on the spot, melted them in one of the smith’s small crucibles, and gone to fill in carefully the shape of the bootprint. With patient coaxing the congealed form came away intact. It would have to go into a cold place to preserve its sharpness, but for good measure he had also purloined a discarded offcut of thin leather, and made a careful outline of the print, marking where heel and toe were worn down, and the diagonal crack across the ball of the foot. Sooner or later boots come into the hands of the cobbler, they are far too precious to be discarded until they are completely worn out and can no longer be mended. Often they are handed down through three generations before finally being thrown away. So, reflected Cadfael, would this boot some day need attention from Provost Corviser or one of his trade. How soon there was no telling, but justice has to learn to wait, and not to forget.
Judith sat waiting for him now in Niall’s neat, bare and austere living room, the room of a man living alone, orderly and clean, but with none of the small adornments a woman would have added. The doors still stood wide open, there were two unshuttered windows, green of foliage and gold of sun came quivering in, and filled the chamber with light. She was not afraid of light, she sat where it played over her, gilding and trembling as the breeze quickened. She was alone when Cadfael came back from the garden.
“The smith has a customer,” she said with the palest of smiles. “I bade him go. A man must tend to his trade.”
“So must a woman,” said Cadfael, and laid his moulded waxen form carefully down on the stone floor, where the draught would play over it as the sunlight did over her.
“Yes, so I shall. You need not fear me, I have a respect for life. All the more,” she said gravely, “now that I have seen death close to, yet again. Tell me! You said you would.”
He sat down with her on the uncushioned bench, and told her fully all that had happened that morning—the defection of Eluric, the coming of Niall with his story of finding the crumpled body and the broken bush, even the first grim suspicion of deliberate damage and self-murder, before sign after sign pointed another way. She heard him out with unwavering attention, those arresting grey eyes dauntingly wide and intelligent.
“But still,” she said, “I do not understand. You speak as if there was nothing of note or consequence in his leaving the enclave by night as he did. But you know it is something utterly unknown, for a young brother so to dare. And he, I thought, so meek and dutiful, no breaker of rules. Why did he do so? What can have made it so important to him to visit the rose-bush? Secretly, illicitly, by night? What did it mean to him, to drive him so far out of his proper way?”
No question but she was asking honestly. She had never thought of herself as a disturber of any man’s peace. And she meant to have an answer, and there was none to give her but the truth. The abbot might have hesitated at this point. Cadfael did not hesitate.
“It meant to him,” he said simply, “the memory of you. It was no change of policy that removed him from being bearer of the rose. He had begged to be relieved of a task which had become torment to him, and his request was granted. He could no longer bear the pain of being in your presence and as far from you as the moon, of seeing you, and being within touch of you, and forbidden to love. But when he was released, it seems he could not bear absence, either. In a manner, he was saying his goodbye to you. He would have got over it,” said Cadfael with resigned regret, “if he had lived. But it would have been a long, bleak sickness.”
Still her eyes had not wavered nor her face changed, except that the blood had drained from her cheeks and left her pale and translucent as ice. “Oh, God!” she said in a whisper. “And I never knew! There was never word said, never a look… And I so much his elder, and no beauty! It was like sending one of the singing boys from the school to me. Never a wrong thought, how could there be?”
“He was cloistered almost from his cradle,” said Cadfael gently, “he had never had to do with a woman since he left his mother. He had no defence against a gentle face, a soft voice and a motion of grace. You cannot see yourself with his eyes, or you might find yourself dazzled.”
After a moment of silence she said: “I did feel, somehow, that he was not happy. No more than that. And how many in this world can boast of being happy?” And she asked, looking up again into Cadfael’s face: “How many know of this? Need it be spoken of?”
“No one but Father Abbot, Brother Richard his confessor, Brother Anselm and myself. And now you. No, it will never be spoken of to any other. And none of these can or will ever think one thought of blame for you. How could we?”
“But I can,” said Judith.
“Not if you are just. You must not take to yourself more than your due. That was Eluric’s error.”
A man’s voice was raised suddenly in the shop, young and agitated, and Niall’s voice replying in hasty reassurance. Miles burst in through the open doorway, the sunlight behind him casting him into sharp silhouette, and shining through his ruffled fair hair, turning light brown into flaxen. He was flushed and out of breath, but he heaved a great, relieved sigh at the sight of Judith sitting composed and tearless and in calm company.
“Dear God, what has been happening here? The tales they’re buzzing along the Foregate of murder and malice! Brother, is it true? My cousin… I knew she was coming here this morning. Thank God, girl dear, I find you safe and well befriended. No harm has come to you? I came on the run as soon as I heard what they were saying, to take you home.”
His boisterous coming had blown away, like a March wind, the heavy solemnity that had pervaded the room, and his vigour had brought back some rising colour to Judith’s frozen face. She rose to meet him, and let him embrace her in an impulsive hug, and kiss her cold cheek.
“I’ve taken no harm, no need to fret for me. Brother Cadfael has been kind enough to keep me company. He was here before I came, and Father Abbot also, there was never any threat or danger to me.”
“But there has been a death?” With his arms still protectively about her he looked from her face to Cadfael’s, anxiously frowning. “Or is it all a false tale? They were saying—a brother of the abbey was carried home from this place, and his face covered.”
“It’s all too true,” said Cadfael, rising somewhat wearily. “Brother Eluric, the custodian of Saint Mary’s altar, was found here this morning stabbed to death.”
“Here? What, within the house?” He sounded incredulous, as well he might. What would a brother of the abbey be doing invading a craftsman’s house?”
“In the garden. Under the rose-tree,” said Cadfael briefly, “and that rose-tree hacked and damaged. Your cousin will tell you all. Better you should hear truth than the common rumours none of us will quite escape. But the lady should be taken home at once and allowed to rest. She has need of it.” He took up from the stone threshold the form of wax, on which the young man’s eyes rested with wondering curiosity, and laid it carefully away in his linen scrip to avoid handling.
“Indeed!” agreed Miles, recalled to his duty and flushing boyishly. “And thank you, Brother, for your kindness.”
Cadfael followed them out into the workshop. Niall was at his bench, but he rose to meet them as they took their leave, a modest man, who had had the delicacy to remove himself from any attendance on what should be private between comforter and comforted. Judith looked at him gravely, and suddenly recovered from some deep reserve of untouched innocence within her a pale but lovely smile. “Master Niall, I grieve that I have caused you so much trouble and distress, and I do thank you for your goodness. And I have a thing to collect, and a debt to pay—have you forgotten?”
“No,” said Niall. “But I would have brought it to you when the time was better suited.” He turned to the shelf behind him, and brought out to her the coiled girdle. She paid him what he asked, as simply as he asked it, and then she unrolled the buckle end in her hands, and looked long at her dead husband’s mended gift, and for the first time her eyes moistened with a pearly sheen, though no tears fell.
“It is a time very well suited now,” she said, looking up into Niall’s face, “for a small, precious thing to provide me with a pure pleasure.”
It was the only pleasure she had that day, and even that carried with it a piercing undercurrent of pain. Agatha’s flustered and voluble fussing and Miles’s restrained but all too attentive concern were equally burdensome to her. The dead face of Brother Eluric remained with her every moment. How could she have failed to feel his anguish? Once, twice, three times she had received him and parted from him, with no deeper misgiving than a mild sense of his discomfort, which could well be merely shyness, and a conviction that here was a young man none too happy, which she had attributed to want of a true vocation in one cloistered from childhood. She had been so deeply sunk in her own griefs as to be insensitive to his. Even in death he did not reproach her. He had no need. She reproached herself.
She would have sought distraction at least in occupying her hands, but she could not face the awed whispers and heavy silences of the girls in the spinning room. She chose rather to sit in the shop, where, if the curious came to stare and exclaim, at least they were likely to come one at a time, and some at least might come honestly to buy cloth, not even having heard yet the news that was being blown round the alleys of Shrewsbury like thistledown, and taking root as blithely.
But even that was hard to bear. She would have been glad when evening came, and the shutters were put up, but that one late customer, coming to collect a length of cloth for his mother, elected to stay a while and commiserate with the lady in private, or at least as much privacy as he could contrive between the clucking forays of Agatha, who could not leave her niece unattended for many minutes together. Those brief intervals, however, Vivian Hynde knew how to use to the best advantage.
He was the only son of old William Hynde, who ran the biggest flocks of sheep in the central western uplands of the shire, and who for years had regularly sold the less select fleeces of his clip to the Vestiers, while the finest were reserved to be collected by the middlemen for shipping to the north of France and the wool towns of Flanders, from his warehouse and jetty downstream, beyond Godfrey Fuller’s workshops. The partnership between the two families for business purposes had existed for two generations, and made close contact plausible even for this young sprig who was said to be at odds with his father, and highly unlikely to prove a third successful woolman, his talent being more highly developed in spending the money his father made. So much so that it was rumoured the old man had put his foot down heavily, and refused to pay any more debts for his son and heir, or allow him any more funds to squander on dice, and girls, and riotous living. William had bailed him out of trouble often enough already, but now, without his backing, Vivian’s usual resources were far less likely to lend to him or give him extended credit. And easy friends fall off from an idol and patron who no longer has money to spend.
There was no sign of drooping as yet, however, in Vivian’s bright crest when he came, with his considerable charm and grace, to console a dismayed widow. He was a very personable young man indeed, tall and athletic, with corn-yellow hair that curled becomingly, and dancing pebble-brown eyes in which a full light found surprising golden glints. He was invariably elegant in his gear and wear, and knew very well how pleasant a picture he made in most women’s eyes. And if he had made no headway yet with the Widow Perle, neither had anyone else, and there was still hope.
He had the wit to approach delicately on this occasion, with a declaration of sympathy and concern that stopped short of probing too deeply. Excellent at keeping his feet on thin ice, indeed sensible enough to know himself a man for surfaces, not for depths, he also had the gall to rally and tease a little in the hope of raising a smile.
“And now if you shut yourself up here and grieve in private for someone you hardly knew, that aunt of yours will drive you ever more melancholy. She has you talked halfway to a nunnery already. And that,” said Vivian with emphatic pleading, “you must not do.”
“Many another has,” she said, “with no better cause. Why not I?”
“Because,” he said, glittering, and leaning closer to lower his voice for fear Agatha should choose that moment to enter yet again on some pretext or other, “because you are young and beautiful, and have no real wish to bury yourself in a convent. You know it! And because I am your devoted worshipper, as well you know, and if you vanish from my life it will be the death of me.”
She took that as a well-intended if ill-judged flourish, and was even a little touched by his suddenly caught breath and stricken gaze as he realised what he had said, and how it must bite home on this of all days. He caught at her hand, voluble and honeyed in dismay. “Oh, forgive me, forgive me! Fool that I am, I never meant… There is no blame, none, can touch you. Let me in to your life closer, and I’ll convince you. Marry me, and I’ll shut out all vexations and doubts from you.”
She did begin to wonder, afterwards, if it was all calculated, for he was a subtle and persuasive young man; but then she was disarmed and self-doubting, and could not bring herself to attribute deceit or self-interest to any other. Vivian had often enough pressed his attentions upon her and made no impression. Now what she saw in him was a boy no more than a year older than Brother Eluric, one who might, for all his flattery and exaggeration, be suffering something of what Brother Eluric had suffered. She had so lamentably failed to offer the slightest help to the one, the more reason she should deal considerately with the other. So she tolerated him, and made firm but gentle answers, longer than she would have done at any other time.
“It’s foolish to talk so,” she said. “You and I have known each other from childhood. I’m your elder, and a widow, by no means a match for you, and I do not intend to marry again with any man. You must accept that for an answer. Waste no more time here on me.”
“You are fretting now,” he said vehemently, “over this monk who is dead, though God knows that’s none of your fault. But it will not always be so, you’ll see all very differently in a month or so. And for this charter that troubles you, it can be changed. You can, you should rid yourself of the bargain, and with it the reproach. You see now it was folly.”
“Yes,” she agreed resignedly, “it was indeed folly to put a price, even a nominal price, upon a gift. I should never have done it. It has brought nothing but grief. But yes, it can be undone.”
It seemed to her that he was drawing encouragement from this lengthening colloquy, and that she certainly did not desire. So she rose, and pleaded her very real weariness to rid herself of his continuing assiduities as gently as possible. Vivian departed reluctantly but still gracefully, looking back from the doorway for a long, ingratiating moment before he swung about and went, lithe and long-legged and elegant, down the street called Maerdol towards the bridge.
But even when he was gone, the evening was full of echoes of the morning, reminders of disaster, reproaches of folly, as Agatha worried away at the past.
“You see now how foolish it was to make such a ballad-romance agreement, like any green girl. A rose, indeed! You should never have given away half your patrimony so rashly, how could you know when you and yours might have great need of it? And now see what it’s come to! A death, and all at the door of that foolish charter.”
“You need not trouble any longer,” said Judith wearily. “I do repent it. It is not too late to amend it. Let me alone now. There is nothing you could say to me that I have not already said to myself.”
She went early to her bed, and the girl Branwen, relieved of the carding that brought her out in a rash, and put to work for a time in the household, came to fetch and carry for her, fold away into the chest the gown her mistress discarded, and curtain the unshuttered window. Branwen was fond of Judith, but not sorry, on this occasion, to be dismissed early, for Vivian’s serving-man, left behind to carry home the bolt of cloth for Mistress Hynde, was settled cosily in the kitchen, throwing dice with Bertred, the foreman of the weavers, and both of them were personable fellows with an eye for a pretty girl. Branwen was not at all averse to being the desirable bone between two handsome dogs. Sometimes she had felt that Bertred had ideas above his station, and was casting a greedy eye in the direction of his mistress, being vain of his sturdy, straight body and fresh, comely face, and a silver tongue to match. But nothing would ever come of that! And when he had Master Hynde’s Gunnar across the table from him, plainly captivated, he might better appreciate more accessible meat.
“Go now,” said Judith, loosing the great sheaf of her hair about her shoulders. “I shan’t need you tonight. But call me very early in the morning,” she added with sudden resolution, “for I’m going to the abbey. I’ll not leave this matter lying one hour more than need be. Tomorrow I’ll go to the abbot and have a new charter drawn up. No more roses! The gift I made for so foolish a fee I’ll now make unconditional.”
Branwen was proud of her advancement into Judith’s personal service, and fondly imagined herself closer in her mistress’s confidence than in fact she was. And with two young men in the kitchen already interested in her and prepared to be impressed, what wonder if she boasted of being the first to be entrusted with Judith’s plans for the morrow? It seemed a pity that Gunnar should so soon afterwards recall that he had to carry home Mistress Hynde’s cloth, and might end with a flea in his ear if he delayed too long. And though that left her the attentions of Bertred, whom on the whole she preferred, his pricked sense of proprietorship in a woman of this household seemed to flag disappointingly once his rival was out of the house. It was not, after all, a satisfactory evening. Branwen went to her bed out of temper between disillusionment and dudgeon, and out of sorts with men.
Young Alan Herbard, Hugh’s deputy, dutiful and determined though he was, drew the line at coping unaided with murder, and had had a courier on the road as soon as the news came to his ears. By noon of the next day, which was the eighteenth day of June, Hugh would surely be back in Shrewsbury, not in his own house, where only one elderly servant remained during the family’s absence, but at the castle, where garrison, sergeant and all were at his disposal.
Meantime, Cadfael betook himself and his waxen footprint, with the abbot’s blessing, into the town, and showed mould and drawing to Geoffrey Corviser, the provost, and his son Philip, the foremost shoemakers and leather workers in the town. “For sooner or later every boot comes into the cobbler’s hands,” he said simply, “though it may be a year ahead or more. No harm, at least, in keeping a copy of such witness as you see there, and looking out for the like among any you repair.”
Philip handled the wax delicately, and nodded over the evidence it provided of its wearer’s tread. “I don’t know it, but it will be easily seen if ever it does find its way in here. And I’ll show it to the cobbler over the bridge, in Frankwell. Between us, who knows, we may run the fellow down in the end. But there’s many a man patches his own,” said the good craftsman with professional disdain.
A thin chance enough, Cadfael admitted to himself on his way back over the bridge, but one that could not be neglected. What else had they to offer a lead? Little enough, except the inevitable and unanswerable question: Who could possibly have wanted to destroy the rose-bush? And for what conceivable reason? A question they had all voiced already, without profit, and one that would be posed all over again when Hugh arrived.
Instead of turning in at the gatehouse Cadfael passed by and walked the length of the Foregate, along the dusty highway, past the bakery, past the forge, exchanging greetings in at doorways and over hedges as he went, to turn in at the gate of Niall’s yard, and cross to the wicket which led through into the garden. It was bolted fast on the inner side. Cadfael turned instead to the shop, where Niall was at work with a small ceramic crucible and a tiny clay mould for a brooch.
“I came to see if you’d had any further night visitors,” said Cadfael, “but I see you’ve secured one way in, at least. A pity there’s no wall ever built high enough to keep out a man determined to get in. But even stopping one hole is something. What of the bush? Will it live?”
“Come and see. One side may die off, but it’s no more than two or three branches. It may leave the tree lopsided, but a year or so, and pruning and growth will balance all.”
In the green and sunlight and tangled colour of the garden the rose-bush spread its arms firmly against the north wall, the dangling trailers pegged back to the stone with strips of cloth. Niall had wound a length of stout canvas round and round the damaged bole, binding the severed wood together, and coated the covering with a thick layer of wax and grease.
“There’s love been put into this,” said Cadfael approvingly, but wisely did not say whether for the bush or the woman. The leaves on the half-severed part had wilted, and a few had fallen, but the bulk of the tree stood green and glossy, and full of half-open buds. “You’ve done well by it. I could use you inside the enclave, if ever you tire of bronze and the world.”
The quiet, decent man never opened his mouth to answer that. Whatever he felt for woman or rose was his business, no other man’s. Cadfael respected that, and viewing the wide, wide-set, honest and yet reticent eyes, he took his leave and set off back to his proper duties feeling somewhat reproved, and curiously elated. One man at least in this sorry business kept his eyes on his own course, and would not easily be turned aside. And he, surely, looking for no gain. Somewhere in all this there was greed of gain more than enough, and little enough of love.
It was almost noon by this time, and the sun high and hot, a true June day. Saint Winifred must have been at work coaxing the heavens to do her honour for the festival of her translation. As so often happened in a late season, the summer had all but caught up with the laggard spring, flowers which had lingered shivering and reluctant to bloom suddenly sprang into fevered haste, bursting their buds overnight into a blazing prime. The crops, slower to take risks, might still be as much as a month late, but they would be lavish and clean, half their hereditary enemies chilled to death in April and May.
In the doorway of his lodge in the gatehouse Brother Porter was standing in earnest talk with an agitated young man. Cadfael, always vulnerable to curiosity, his prevalent sin, halted, wavered and turned aside, recognising Miles Coliar, that tidy, practical, trim young fellow a great deal less trim than usual, his hair blown and teased erect in disorder, his bright blue eyes dilated beneath drawn and anxious copper brows. Miles turned his head, hearing a new step approaching, and recognised, through a haze of worry, a brother he had seen only the previous day sitting amicably with his cousin. He swung about eagerly.
“Brother, I remember you—you were of some comfort and help yesterday to Judith. You have not seen her today? She has not spoken again with you?”
“She has not,” said Cadfael, surprised. “Why? What is new now? She went home with you yesterday. I trust she has met with no further grief?”
“No, none that I know of. I do know she went to her bed in good time, and I hoped she would sleep well. But now…” He cast a vague, distracted glance about him: “They tell me at home she set out to come here. But…”
“She has not been here,” said the porter positively. “I have not left my post, I should know if she had entered the gate. I know the lady from the time she came here making her gift to the house. I have not set eyes on her today. But Master Coliar here says she left home very early…”
“Very early,” Miles confirmed vehemently. “Before I was waking.”
“And with intent to come here on some errand to the lord abbot,” concluded the porter.
“So her maid told me,” said Miles, sweating. “Judith told her so last night, when the girl attended her to bed. I knew nothing of it until this morning. But it seems she has not been here. She never reached here. And she has not come home again. Midday, and she has not come home! I dread something ill has befallen her.”
« ^ »
There were five of them gathered in the abbot’s parlour that afternoon, in urgent conclave: Radulfus himself, Brothers Anselm and Cadfael, witnesses to the charter which had somehow precipitated these dire events, Miles Coliar, restless and fevered with anxiety, and Hugh Beringar, who had ridden south in haste from Maesbury with Eluric’s murder on his mind, to find on arrival that a second crisis had followed hard on the heels of the first. He had already deputed Alan Herbard to send men hunting through the town and the Foregate for any sign or news of the missing lady, with orders to send word if by any chance she should have returned home. There could, after all, be legitimate reasons for her absence, something unforeseen that had met and deflected her on her way. But minute by minute it began to look less likely. Branwen had told her tearful story, and there was no question but Judith had indeed set out from home to visit the abbey. None, either, that she had never reached it.
“The girl never told me what my cousin had said, until this morning,” said Miles, twisting frustrated hands. “I knew nothing of it, or I could have borne her company. So short a walk, down here from the town! And the watchman at the town gate said good day to her and saw her start across the bridge, but after that he was busy, and had no call to watch her go. And not a sign of her from that moment.”
“And she said her errand was to remit the rose rent,” said Hugh intently, “and make her gift to the abbey free of all conditions?”
“So her maid says. So Judith told her. She was much distressed,” said Miles, “over the young brother’s death. She surely took it to heart that it was her whim brought about that murder.”
“It has yet to be explained,” said Abbot Radulfus, “why that should be. Truly it does appear that Brother Eluric interrupted the attack upon the rose-bush, and was killed for his pains, perhaps in mere panic, yet killed he was. What I do not understand is why anyone should wish to destroy the rose-bush in the first place. But for that inexplicable deed there would have been no interruption and no death. Who could want to hack down the bush? What possible motive could there be?”
“Ah, but, Father, there could!” Miles turned on him with feverish vehemence. “There were some not best pleased when my cousin gave away so valuable a property, worth the half of all she has. If the bush was hacked down and all the roses dead by the day of Saint Winifred’s translation, the rent could not be paid, and the terms of the charter would have been broken. The whole bargain could be repudiated.”
“Could,” Hugh pointed out briskly, “but would not. The matter would still be in the lady’s hands, she could remit the rent at will. And you see she had the will.”
“She could remit it,” Miles echoed with sharp intent, “if she were here to do it. But she is not here. Four days until the payment is due, and she has vanished. Time gained, time gained! Whoever failed to destroy the bush has now abducted my cousin. She is not here to grant or deny. What he did not accomplish by one way he now approaches by another.”
There was a brief, intent silence, and then the abbot said slowly: “Do you indeed believe that? You speak as one believing.”
“I do, my lord. I see no other possibility. Yesterday she announced her intention of making her gift unconditional. Today that has been prevented. There was no time to be lost.”
“Yet you yourself did not know what she meant to do,” said Hugh, “not until today. Did any other know of it?”
“Her maid owns she repeated it in the kitchen. Who knows how many heard it then, or got it from those who did? Such things come out through keyholes and the chinks of shutters. Moreover, Judith may have met with some acquaintance on the bridge or in the Foregate, and told them where she was bound. However lightly and thoughtlessly she had that provision written into the charter, the failure to observe it would render the bargain null and void. Father, you know that is true.”
“I do know it,” acknowledged Radulfus, and came at last to the unavoidable question: “Who, then, could possibly stand to gain by breaking the agreement, by whatever means?”
“Father, my cousin is young, and a widow, and a rich prize in marriage, all the richer if her gift to you could be annulled. There are a bevy of suitors about the town pursuing her, and have been now for a year and more, and every one of them would rather marry the whole of her wealth than merely the half. Me, I manage the business for her, I’m very well content with what I have, and with the wife I’m to marry before the year’s out, a good match. But even if we were not first cousins I should have no interest in Judith but as a loyal kinsman and craftsman should. But I cannot choose but know how she is pestered with wooers. Not that she encourages any of them, nor ever gives them grounds for hope, but they never cease their efforts. After three years and more of widowhood, they reason, her resolution must surely weaken, and she’ll be worn down into taking a second husband at last. It may be that one of them is running out of patience.”
“To name names,” said Hugh mildly, “may sometimes be dangerous, but to call a man a wooer is not necessarily to call him an abductor and murderer into the bargain. And I think you have gone so far, Master Coliar, that in this company you may as well go the rest of the way.”
Miles moistened his lips and brushed a sleeve across his beaded forehead. “Business looks to business for a match, my lord. There are two guildsmen in the town, at least, who would be only too glad to get hold of Judith’s trade, and both of them work in with us, and know well enough what she’s worth. There’s Godfrey Fuller does all the dyeing of our fleeces, and the fulling of the cloth at the end of it, and he’d dearly like to make himself the master of the spinning and weaving, too, and have all in one profitable basket. And then there’s old William Hynde, he has a wife still, but by another road he could get his hands on the Vestier property, for he has a young spark of a son who comes courting her day in, day out, and has the entry because they know each other from children. The father might be willing to use him as bait for a woman, though he’s drawn his purse-strings tight from paying the young fellow’s debts any longer. And the son—if he could win her I fancy he’d be set up for life, but not dance to his father’s tune, more likely to laugh in his face. And that’s not the whole of it, for our neighbour the saddler is just of an age to feel the want of a wife, and in his plodding way has settled on her as suitable. And our best weaver chances to be a very good craftsmen and a fine-looking man, and fancies himself even prettier than he is, and he’s been casting sheep’s eyes at her lately, though I doubt if she even noticed. There’s more than one comely journeyman has caught his mistress’s eye and done very well for himself.”
“Hard to imagine our solid guildsmen resorting to murder and abduction,” objected the abbot, unwilling to accept so readily a suggestion so outrageous.
“But the murder,” Hugh pointed out alertly, “seems to have been done in alarm and terror, and probably never was intended. Yet having so far committed himself, why should a man stop at the second crime?”
“Still it seems to me a hazardous business, for from all I know or have heard about the lady, she would not easily give way to persuasion. Captive or free, she has thus far resisted all blandishments, she will not change now. I do understand,” said Radulfus ruefully, “what force of compulsion the common report may bring to bear in such a case, how a woman might feel it better to yield and marry than endure the scandal of suspicion and the ill will between families that must follow. But this lady, it seems to me, might well survive even that pressure. Then her captor would have gained nothing.”
Miles drew deep breath, and ran a hand through his fair curls, dragging them wildly awry. “Father, what you say is true, Judith is a strong spirit, and will not easily be broken. But, Father, there may be worse! Marriage by rape is no new thing. Once in a man’s power, hidden away with no means of escape, if coaxing and persuasion have no effect, there remains force. It has been known time and time again. My lord Beringar here will witness it happens among the nobility, and I know it happens among the commonalty. Even a town tradesman might resort to it at last. And I know my cousin, if once her virtue was lost, she might well think it best to mend her sorry state by marriage. Wretched though that remedy must be.”
“Wretched indeed!” agreed Radulfus with detestation. “Such a thing must not be. Hugh, this house is deeply committed here, the charter and the gift draw us in, and whatever aid we can lend you to recover this unhappy lady is at your disposal, men, funds, whatever you require. No need to ask—take! And as for our prayers, they shall not be wanting. There is still some frail chance that no harm has come to her, and she may yet return home of her own volition, and wonder at this fury and alarm. But now we must reckon with the worst, and hunt as for a soul in danger.”
“Then we’d best be about it,” said Hugh, and rose to take his leave. Miles was on his feet with a nervous spring, eager and anxious, and would have been first out at the door if Cadfael had not opened his mouth for the first time in this conference.
“I did hear, Master Coliar, indeed I know from Mistress Perle herself, that she has sometimes thought of leaving the world and taking the veil. Sister Magdalen talked with her about such a vocation a few days ago, I believe. Did you know of it?”
“I knew the sister came visiting,” said Miles, his blue eyes widening. “What they said I was not told and did not ask. That was Judith’s business. She has sometimes talked of it, but less of late.”
“Did you encourage such a step?” asked Cadfael.
“I never interfered, one way or the other. It would have been her decision. I would not urge it,” said Miles forcibly, “but neither would I stand in her way if that was what she wanted. At least,” he said with sudden bitterness, “that would have been a good and peaceful ending. Now only God knows what her dismay and despair must be.”
“There goes a most dutiful and loving cousin,” said Hugh, as Cadfael walked beside him across the great court. Miles was striding out at the gatehouse arch with hair on end, making for the town, and the house and shop at Maerdol-head, where there might by this time be news. A frail chance, but still possible.
“He has good cause,” said Cadfael reasonably. “But for Mistress Perle and the Vestier business he and his mother would not be in the comfortable state they are. He has everything to lose, should she give in to force and agree to marriage. He owes his cousin much, and by all accounts he’s requited her very well, with gratitude and good management. Works hard and to good effect, the business is flourishing. He may well be frantic about her now. Do I hear a certain sting in your voice, lad? Have you doubts about him?”
“No, none. He has no more idea where the girl is now than you or I, that’s clear. A man may dissemble very well, up to a point, but I never knew a man who could sweat at will. No, Miles is telling the truth. He’s off now to turn the town upside-down hunting for her. And so must I.”
“She had but so short a way to go,” said Cadfael, fretting at the fine detail, which left so little room for doubt that she was gone, that something untoward had indeed happened to her. “The watch at the gate spoke to her, she had only to cross the bridge and walk this short piece of the Foregate to our gatehouse. A river to cross, a short walk along open road, and in those few minutes she’s gone.”
“The river,” said Hugh honestly, “has been on my mind. I won’t deny it.”
“I doubt if it need be. Unless truly by some ill chance. No man is going to make himself rich or his business more prosperous by marriage with a dead woman. Only her heir would benefit by that, and her heir—I suppose that boy must be her nearest kin?—is going out of his mind worrying over what’s happened to her, as you yourself have seen. There’s nothing false about the state he’s in. No, if some wooer has determined on drastic action, he’ll have spirited her away into some safe place, not done her harm. We need not mourn for the lady, not yet, she’ll be guarded like a miser’s gold.”
Cadfael’s mind was occupied with the problem until Vespers and beyond. From the bridge to the abbey gatehouse there were but three footpaths leaving the Foregate, two that branched off to the right, one on either side the mill-pond, to serve the six small houses there, the other descending on the left to the long riverside tract of the Gaye, the main abbey gardens. Cover was sparse along the high road, any act of violence would be risky there, and the paths that served the abbey houses suffered the disadvantage, from a conspirator’s point of view, of being overlooked by the windows of all six cottages, and in this high summer there would be no shutters closed. The old woman in one cot was stone deaf, and would not have heard even the loudest screams, but generally old people sleep lightly and fitfully, and also, being no longer able to get about as actively as before, they have rather more than their share of curiosity, to fill up the tedium of their days. It would be a bold or a desperate man who attempted violence under their windows.
No trees drew close about the road on that, the southern side of the Foregate, only a few low bushes fringing the pond, and the scrub-covered slope down to the river. Only on the northern side were there well-grown trees, from the end of the bridge, where the path wound down to the Gaye, to a grove some little way short of the abbey gatehouse, where the houses of the Foregate began.
Now if a woman could be drawn aside there, even into the fringe of shadow, at that early hour and with few people abroad, it would not be so difficult to seize a moment when the road was empty and drag her further into the grove, or down among the bushes, with a cloak twisted about her head and arms. But in that case the person involved, man or woman, would have to be someone known to her, someone who could detain her plausibly in talk for a matter of minutes beside the road. Which fitted in well enough with the suggestion Miles had made, for even an unwelcome suitor who was also a town neighbour would be encountered in the ordinary meetings of the day with tolerance and civility. Life in a walled and crowded borough cannot be carried on otherwise.
There might, of course, be other reasons for removing the girl from home and family, though they would have to have something to do with the matter of the charter and the rose-bush, for surely that could not be some lunatic accident, unconnected with her disappearance. There might! But with all the cudgelling of his brains Cadfael could think of none. And a rich merchant widow in a town where everyone knew everyone was inevitably besieged by suitors out to make their fortunes. Her only safe defence was the one Judith had contemplated, withdrawal into a convent. Or, of course, marriage to whichever of the contestants best pleased or least repelled her. And that, so far, she had not contemplated. It might well be true that the one who considered himself most likely to please had risked all on his chance of softening the lady’s heart in a few days of secret courtship. And keeping her hidden until after the twenty-second day of June could break the bargain with the abbey just as surely as destroying the rose-bush and all its blossoms. However many roses survived now, unless Judith was found in time not one of them could be paid into her hand on the day the rent was due. So provided her captor prevailed at last, and drove her to marry him, her affairs would then be his, and he could refuse to renew and prevent her from renewing the broken agreement. And he would have won all, not the half. Yes, whichever way Cadfael viewed the affair, this notion propounded by Miles, who had everything to lose, looked ever more convincing.
He went to his cell with Judith still on his mind. Her well-being seemed to him very much the abbey’s business, something that could not be left merely to the secular arm. Tomorrow, he thought, lying awake in the dim dortoir, to the regular bass music of Brother Richard’s snores, I’ll walk that stretch of road, and see what’s there to be found. Who knows but there may be something left behind, more to the point than a single print of a worn boot-heel.
He asked no special leave, for had not the abbot already pledged Hugh whatever men or horses or gear he needed? It was but a small mental leap to establish in his own mind that if Hugh had not specifically demanded his help, he would have done so had he known how his friend’s mind was working. Such small exercises in moral agility still came easily to him, where the need seemed to justify them.
He set out after chapter, sallying forth into a Foregate swept by the long, slanting rays of the climbing sun, brilliantly lit and darkly shadowed. In the shade there was dew still on the grass, and a glisten in the leaves as a faint, steady, silent breeze ruffled them unceasingly. The Foregate on which he turned his back was bustling with life, every shop-front and house-door opened wide to the summer, and a constant traffic of housewives, urchins, dogs, carters and pedlars on the move, or gathered in gossiping groups. In this belated but lovely burst of summer, life quitted the confines of walls and roof, and moved into the sunshine. Under the west front of the church and across the gateway the knife-edged shadow of the tower fell, but along the enclave boundary it lay close and narrow, huddled under the foot of the wall.
Cadfael went slowly, exchanging greetings with such acquaintances as he met, but unwilling to be sidetracked into lingering. This first stretch of the road she could not have reached, and the steps he was retracing on her behalf were those of a pious intent which had never come to fruit. On his left, the lofty stone wall continued for the length of the great court and the infirmary and school within, then turned away at a right-angle, and alongside it went the first pathway that led past three small grace houses to the mill, on this near side of the mill-pond. Then the wide expanse of the pool, fringed with a low hedge of bushes. He would not and could not believe that Judith Perle had vanished into either this water or the waves of the river. Whoever had taken her—if someone had indeed taken her—wanted and needed her alive and unharmed and ripe for conquest. Hugh had no choice but to draw his net wide and entertain every possibility. Cadfael preferred to follow one notion at a time. Hugh would almost certainly have enlisted the help of Madog of the Dead Boat by this time, to pursue the worst possibilities of death by water, while the king’s sergeants scoured the streets and alleys and houses of Shrewsbury for a live and captive lady. Madog knew every wave of the Severn, every seasonal trick it had in its power to play, every bend or shoal where things swept away by its currents would be cast up again. If the river had taken her, Madog would find her. But Cadfael would not believe it.
And if Hugh also failed to find her within the walls of Shrewsbury? Then they would have to look beyond. It’s no simple matter to transport an unwilling lady very far, and by daylight. Could it even be done at all, short of using a cart? A horseman carrying such a swathed burden would need a horse powerful enough to carry the extra weight, and worse, would certainly be conspicuous. Someone would surely remember him, or even question him on the spot, human curiosity being what it is. No, she could not, surely, be far away.
Cadfael passed by the pool, and came to the second pathway, on this further side, which served the other three little houses. Beyond, after their narrow gardens, there was an open field, and at the end of that, turning sharply left, a narrow high road going south along the riverside. By that track an abductor might certainly retreat within a mile or so into the forest, but on the other hand there was no cover here along the riverside, any attack perpetrated there could be seen even from the town walls across the water.
But on the right of the Foregate, once the houses ended, the thick grove of trees began, and after that the steep path dived down sidelong to the bank of the Severn, through bushes and trees, giving access to the long, lush level of the Gaye. Beyond that, she would still have been on the open bridge, and surely inviolable. Here, if anywhere in this short walk, there was room for a predator to strike and withdraw with his prey. She had to be prevented from reaching the abbey and doing what she intended to do. There would be no second chance. And the house of the rose was indeed a property well worth reclaiming.
With every moment the thing began to look more and more credible. Improbable, perhaps, in an ordinary tradesman, as law-abiding as his neighbours and respected by all; but a man who has tried one relatively harmless expedient, and inadvertently killed a man in consequence, is no longer ordinary.
Cadfael crossed the Foregate and went into the grove of trees, stepping warily to avoid adding any tracks to those already all too plentiful. The imps of the Foregate played here, attended by their noisy camp-following of dogs, and tearfully trailed by those lesser imps as yet too small to be taken seriously and admitted to their games, and too short in the legs to keep up with them. In the more secluded clearings lovers met in the dark, their nests neatly coiled in the flattened grasses. Small hope of finding anything of use here.
He turned back to the road, and walked on the few paces to the path that descended to the Gaye. Before him the stone bridge extended, and beyond it the high town wall and the tower of the gate. Sunlight bathed the roadway and the walls, blanching the stone to a creamy pallor. The Severn, running a little higher than its usual summer level, shimmered and stirred with a deceptive appearance of placidity and languor, but Cadfael knew how fast those smooth currents were running, and what vehement undertows coursed beneath the blue, sky-mirroring surface. Most male children here learned to swim almost as soon as they learned to walk, and there were places where the Severn could be as gentle and safe as its smiling mask, but here where it coiled about the town, leaving only one approach by land, the narrow neck straddled by the castle, it was a perilous water. Could Judith Perle swim? It was no easy matter for girl-children to strip and caper along the grassy shores and flash in and out of the stream as the boys did, and for them it must be a more rare accomplishment.
At the town end of the bridge Judith had passed, unhindered and alone; the watchman had seen her begin to cross. Hard to believe that any man had dared to molest her here on the open crossing, where she had only to utter a single cry, and the watchman would have heard her, and looked out in instant alarm. So she had arrived at this spot where Cadfael was standing. And then? As far as present reports went, no one had seen her since.
Cadfael began the descent to the Gaye. This path was trodden regularly, and bare of grass, and the landward bushes that fringed it drew gradually back from its edge, leaving the level, cultivated ground open. On the river side they grew thickly, all down the slope to the water, and under the first arch of the bridge, where once a boat-mill had been moored to make use of the force of the current. Close to the waterside a footpath led off downstream, and beside it the abbey’s gardens lay neatly arrayed all along the rich plain, and three or four brothers were pricking out plants of cabbage and colewort. Further along came the orchards, apple and pear and plum, the sweet cherry, and two big walnut trees, and the low bushes of little sour gooseberries that were only just beginning to flush into colour. There was another disused mill at the end of the level, and the final abbey ground was a field of corn. Then ridges of woodland came down and overhung the water, and the curling eddies ate away the bank beneath their roots.
Across the broad river the hill of Shrewsbury rose in a great sweep of green, that wore the town wall like a coronet. Two or three small wickets gave access through the wall to gardens and grass below. They could easily be barred and blocked in case of attack, and the clear outlook such a raised fortress commanded gave ample notice of any approach. The vulnerable neck unprotected by water was filled by the castle, completing the circle of the wall. A strong place, as well as a very fair one, yet King Stephen had taken it by storm, four years ago, and held it through his sheriffs ever since.
But all this stretch of our land, Cadfael thought, brooding over its prolific green, is overlooked by hundreds of houses and households there within the wall. How many moments can there be in the day when someone is not peering out from a window, this weather, or below by the riverside, fishing, or hanging out washing, or the children playing and bathing? Not, perhaps, so many of them, so early in the morning, but surely someone. And never a word said of struggle or flight, or of something heavy and human-shaped being carried. No, not this way. Our lands here are open and innocent. The only hidden reach is here, here beside the bridge or under it, where trees and bushes give cover.
He waded the bushes towards the arch, and the last of the dew darkened his sandals and the skirt of his habit, but sparsely now, surviving only here, in the deep green shade. Below the stone arch the water had sunk only a foot or so from its earlier fullness, leaving a bleaching fringe of grass and water-plants. A man could walk through dry-shod but for dew. Even the winter level or the flush of the spring thaw never came nearer than six feet of the crown of the arch. The green growth was fat and lavish and tangled, suckled on rich, moist earth.
Someone had been before him here, the grasses were parted and bent aside by the passage of at least one person, probably more. That was nothing very unusual, boys roam everywhere in their play, and in their mischief, too. What was less usual here was the deep groove driven into the moist soil uncovered by the recent lowering of the level, and prolonged into the grass above. A boat had been drawn aground there, and no long time ago, either. At the town end of the bridge there were always boats beached or moored, handy for their owners’ use. But seldom here.
Cadfael squatted close to view the ground. The grass had absorbed any marks left by feet, except for the lowest lip of the land, and there certainly at least one man had trampled the moist ground, but the mud had slithered under him and obliterated any shape he had left behind. One man or two, for the spread of slippery mud showed both sides of the groove the skiff had made.
If he had not been sitting on his heels he would never have caught the single alien thing, for there under the arch there was no glint of sunlight to betray it. But there it was, trodden into the disturbed mud, a metallic thread like a wisp of reddish-gold straw, no longer than the top joint of his thumb. He prised it out and it lay in his palm, a tiny arrow-head without a shaft, bent a little out of shape by the foot that had trodden it in. He stooped to rinse it in the edge of the river, and carried it out into the sunshine.
And now he saw it for what it was, the bronze tag which had sealed the end of a leather girdle, a delicate piece of work, incised with punch and hammer after being attached to the belt, and surely not torn from its anchorage now without considerable violence and struggle.
Cadfael turned in his tracks, strode up the steep path to the road, and set off back along the Foregate at his fastest pace.
« ^ »
This is hers,” said Niall, looking up from the scrap of bronze with a fixed and formidable face. “I know it, though I did not make it. It belongs to that girdle she took back with her, the morning Brother Eluric lay here dead. I made the new buckle to match this design, this and the rosettes round the tongue-holes. I should know it anywhere. It is hers. Where did you find it?”
“Under the first arch of the bridge, where a boat had been hauled up in hiding.”
“To carry her away! And this—trodden into the mud, you say. See, when this was set in place it was hammered home into the leather with the pattern, it would not come loose easily, even after years, and with the leather softening and thinning from use, and perhaps a little greasy with handling. Someone was rough with the girdle, to tear this away.”
“And with the lady also,” Cadfael agreed grimly. “I could not be sure, myself, I hardly saw the girdle when she took it in her hands that day. But you could not be mistaken. Now I know. One step at least on the way. And a boat—a boat would be the simplest means of all of carrying her off. No neighbour passing close, to query such large freight, no one ashore to wonder at any passing skiff, they’re common enough along the Severn. The girdle from which this came may well have been snatched to help to bind her.”
“And she to be used so foully!” Niall wiped his large, capable hands on the rag of woollen cloth on his bench, and began purposefully unfastening and laying by his leathern apron. “What is to be done now? Tell me how best I can help—where first to look for her. I’ll close my shop—”
“No,” said Cadfael, “make no move, only keep watch still on the rose-bush, for I have this strange fancy the life of the one is bound up fast with the life of the other. What is there you could do elsewhere that Hugh Beringar cannot? He has men enough, and trust me, they’re all hard at it, he’ll see to that. Stay here and be patient, and whatever I discover you shall know. Your business is bronze, not boats, you’ve done your part.”
“And you, what will you do now?” Niall hesitated, frowning, unwilling to be left with the passive part.
“I’m off to find Hugh Beringar as fast as I can, and after him Madog, who knows all there is to know about boats, from his own coracles to the freight barges that fetch the wool clips away. Madog may be able to tell what manner of boat it was from the very dent it left behind in the mud. You bide here and be as easy as you can. With God’s help we’ll find her.”
He looked back once from the doorway, impressed by the charged silence at his back. The man of few words remained quite still, staring into some invisible place where Judith Perle stood embattled and alone, captive to greed and brutality. Even her good works conspired against her, even her generosity turned venomous, to poison her life. The controlled and uncommunicative face was eloquent enough at that moment. And if those big, adroit hands, so precise on his tiny crucibles and moulds, could once get a hold on the throat of whoever has rapt away Judith Perle, thought Cadfael as he hurried back towards the town, I doubt if the king’s justice would have any need of a hangman, or the trial cost the shire much money.
The porter at the town gate sent a boy hotfoot up to the castle in search of Hugh as soon as Cadfael came to report, somewhat breathlessly, that there was need of the sheriff down at the waterside. It took a little time to find him, however, and Cadfael made use of the interval by going in search of Madog of the Dead Boat. He knew well enough where to find him, provided he was not already out on the water somewhere, about some curious part of his varied business. He had a hut tucked under the lee of the western bridge that opened the road into his native Wales, and there he made coracles, or timber boats if required, fished in season, ferried fares on request, carried goods for a fee, anything to do with transport by water. The time being then past noon, Madog happened to be taking a brief rest and a solitary meal when Cadfael reached the bridge. A squat, muscular, hairy elderly Welshman, without kith or kin and in no need of either, for he was sufficient to himself and had been since childhood, he yet had an open welcome for his friends. He needed no one, but if others needed him he was at their disposal. Once summoned, he rose and came.
Hugh was at the gate before them. They crossed the bridge together, and came down to the waterside and under the dim, cool shadow of the arch.
“Here in the mud,” said Cadfael, “I found this, torn off surely in a struggle. It comes from a girdle belonging to Mistess Perle, for Niall Bronzesmith made a new buckle to match the belt fittings only a few days ago, and this was the pattern he had to copy. That puts it past doubt, he knows his work. And here someone had a boat laid up ready.”
“As like as not stolen,” said Madog judicially, eyeing the deep mark in the soil. “For such a cantrip, why use your own? Then if it’s noted, and any man smells something amiss about where it’s seen and what’s within it, nothing leads towards you. And this was early in the morning, yesterday? Now I wonder if any fisherman or waterman from the town has mislaid his boat from its moorings? I know a dozen could have left this scar. And all you need do, when you’d done with the skiff, would be turn it adrift to fetch up where it would.”
“That could only be downstream,” said Hugh, looking up from the little arrow-head of bronze in his palm.
“So it could! Only downstream from wherever he had done with it. And even that would surely be downstream from here, if here he set out with such a cargo. Far easier and safer than heading upstream. Early in the morning it may have been, and few people yet abroad, but by the time one rower, or even a pair, had taken a boat all round the walls of the town against the stream, as they’d have to do to get clear, there’d be folks enough about the shore and the water. Even after turning away from the town they’d have Frankwell to face—a good hour’s rowing before they’d be free of notice and curiosity. Downstream, once past this stretch of the wall and out from under the castle, they could breathe easily, they’d be between fields and woodland, clear of the town.”
“That’s good sense,” said Hugh. “I don’t say upstream is impossible, but we’ll follow the best chance first. God knows we’ve dragged every alley within the walls, and ransacked most of the houses, and are still hard at it in there finishing the work. Not a soul owns to having seen or heard anything of her since last she spoke with the watchman at the gate, and started across the bridge here. And if ever she went, or was taken, back into the town, it was not by the gate. The porter passed in no cart or load that could have been hiding her, so he swears. Still, there are wickets through here and there, though most of them into burgage gardens, and it would be no easy matter to get through to the streets without the household knowing of it. I begin to believe that she cannot be within the walls, but I’ve set men at every wicket that gives access to a street, and made entry to every house an order under the king’s justice. What’s the same for all cannot well be resisted or complained of.”
“And has not?” wondered Cadfael. “Never once?”
“They grumble, but even that under their breath. No, not one has put up any objection, nor shuffled and contrived to keep anything closed. And all yesterday until dusk I had her cousin treading on my heels, probing here and there like a worried hound on an uncertain scent. He’s set two or three of his weavers to help in the hunt for her. The foreman—Bertred they call him, a strapping young fellow all brawn and brag—he’s been out and about with us again all day, nose-down. He’s gone with a party of my men now, out along the Castle Foregate, searching the yards and gardens in the suburb, and round to the river again. All her household is biting its nails, frantic to find her. And no wonder, for it’s she who provides a living for the lot of them—a matter of twenty families or more depend on her. And never a hair of her to be found, and never a shadow of suspicion against any other creature, so far.”
“How did you do with Godfrey Fuller?” asked Cadfael, recalling what rumour said of Judith’s wooers.
Hugh laughed briefly. “I remember, too! And truth is truth, he seems as concerned about her almost as her cousin. What does he do but hand me all his keys, and bid me make free. And I did.”
“His keys for the dye-works and the fulling sheds, too?”
“All, though I needed none, for all his men were at work, and every corner open to view, and as innocent as the day. I think he would even have lent me some men to join the hunt, but that he’s too fond of money to let the work slacken.”
“And William Hynde?”
“The old woolman? He’s been away sleeping the night over with his shepherds and flocks, so his household said, and came home only this morning. He knew nothing about the girl going astray until then. Alan was there yesterday, and Hynde’s wife made no demur, but let him look where he would, but I went back there this morning and spoke with the man himself. He’s off back to the hills before night. It seems he has some hoggets up there with a rot of the feet, he and his man came back only to get a supply of the wash to treat them. And more concerned about them than about Mistress Perle, though he did say he was sorry to hear such news of her. By this time I’m certain she’s not within the town. So,” said Hugh briskly, “we may well look elsewhere. Downstream, we’re agreed. Madog, come back with us to the town gate and get us a boat, and we’ll take a look at what offers, downstream.”
In midstream, running with the current, and with only a twitch of Madog’s oars now and then to keep them on course, they had the whole expanse of Shrewsbury’s eastern side unrolling past them, a steep bank of green under the wall, here and there a cluster of low bushes at the water’s edge, here and there a trailing willow tree, but chiefly one long sweep of seeding summer grass, and then the lofty grey stone of the wall. Barely a single ridge of roof showed over the crest, only the top of Saint Mary’s spire and tower, and a more distant glimpse of the tip of Saint Alkmund’s. There were three wickets in the wall before they reached the mouth of Saint Mary’s water-lane, which gave access to the river from town and castle at need, and in places the householders within had extended their gardens to the outer side, or made use of the ground, where it was level enough, for their stores of wood or other materials for their crafts. But the slope here made cultivation difficult except in favoured spots, and the best gardens outside the wall were on the south-west, within the great serpent-coil of the river.
They passed the narrow walled chute of the water-lane, and beyond was another steep slope of grass, more cloaked in bushes here, before the town wall drew closer to the river, flanking the level, cleared strip of green where the young men were accustomed to set up the butts and practise their archery on holidays and fair-days. At the end of this ground there was one last wicket, close under the first tower of the castle, and past that the ground levelled, a sweep of open field between the water and the high road that emerged under the castle gates. Here, as on the Welsh side, the town had spilled beyond the wall for a short way, and little houses, close-set, bordered the road, huddling under the shadow of the great hulk of stone towers and curtain wall that straddled the only dry-shod approach to Shrewsbury.
The open meadows stretched away, widening, into an undulating expanse of field and woodland, peaceful and serene. The only remaining reminders of the town were here close beside the river, Godfrey Fuller’s sheds and fulling-troughs and tenterground, and a short way beyond, the substantial warehouse where William Hynde’s best fleeces lay corded and ready, waiting for the middleman’s barge to come and collect them, and the narrow, stout jetty where it would draw alongside to load.
There were men going busily in and out here about the fulling workshop, and two lengths of bright russet cloth stretched and drying on the frames. This was the season for the reds, browns and yellows. Cadfael looked back along the castle wall to the last wicket giving access to the town, and recalled that Fuller’s house lay not far from the castle precinct. So, for that matter, though a little more distant, close to the high cross, did William Hynde’s. This gate was convenient for both. Fuller kept a watchman here at night, living on the workshop premises.
“Small chance of ever hiding a captive lady here,” said
Hugh resignedly. “By day it would be impossible, with so many busy about the place, and by night the fellow who sleeps here is paid to keep a close eye on Hynde’s property, too, and keeps a mastiff into the bargain. I don’t recall that there’s anything but meadow and woodland beyond, but we’ll go a little further.”
The green banks drifted by on either side, encroaching trees overhanging both shores, but there was no thick woodland, and no building, not even a hut for half a mile or more. They were about to give up the hunt and turn back, and Cadfael was preparing to tuck up his sleeves and take an oar to help Madog back upstream, when Madog checked and pointed.
“What did I say? No need to go beyond this, here’s what marks the end of the chase.”
Close under the left bank, where a curving current had hollowed the ground and exposed the roots of a small hawthorn, causing it to lean at an angle over the water, its branches had snared a fish of their own. The empty boat lay unevenly, its bow held between two thorn-boughs, its oars shipped, rocking gently in the shallows.
“This one I know,” said Madog, drawing alongside and laying a hand to the thwart to hold them together. “It belongs to Arnald the fishmonger, under the Wyle, he moors it there at the town end of the bridge. Your man had nothing to do but row it across and hide it. Arnald will be raging round Shrewsbury clouting every lad on suspicion. I’d best do him a good turn and get it back to him, before he twists off an ear or two. He’s had this borrowed once before, but at least they brought it back that time. Well, my lord, here it ends. Are you satisfied?”
“Bitterly unsatisfied,” said Hugh ruefully, “but I take your meaning. Downstream, we agreed! Well, somewhere downstream from the bridge and upstream from here, it seems, Mistress Perle was put ashore and laid in safe-keeping. Too safe by far! For still I have no notion where.”
With the aid of a trailing mooring rope, which had been frayed to suggest that it had parted of itself, they took the stolen boat in tow, and turned to the hard pull upstream, Cadfael taking an oar, and settling himself solidly on the thwart to try and match Madog’s experienced skill. But when they drew level with the fuller’s workshop they were hailed from the bank, and down to the water’s edge came two of Hugh’s officers, dusty and tired, with three or four volunteers from among the townsmen holding off respectfully at a little distance. Among them, Cadfael observed, was that same weaver Bertred, all brawn and brag, as Hugh had called him, bestriding the greensward with the large confidence of a man who likes himself well, and by the look of him not at all downcast at fetching up empty-handed at the end of his voluntary search. Cadfael had seen him occasionally in attendance on Miles Coliar, though he knew little of him but his appearance. Which was eminently presentable, fresh-coloured and healthy and beautifully built, with the kind of open face which may be just what it seems, or may be well adapted to conceal the fact that there is an inner chamber which is very firmly closed. Something slightly knowing about the apparently candid eyes, and a smile just a little too ready. And what was there to smile about in failing to find Judith Perle, close to the end of this second day of searching for her?
“My lord,” said the older sergeant, laying a hand to hold the boat still and inshore, “we’ve been over well-nigh every tuft of grass between these two reaches of the river, both sides, and nothing to be found, nor a soul who owns to knowing anything.”
“I’ve done no better,” said Hugh resignedly, “except that this must be the boat that carried her off. It was caught in thorn-branches, a little way downstream from here, but it belongs at the bridge. No need to look beyond here, unless the poor woman’s been moved and moved again, and that’s unlikely.”
“Every house and garden along the road we’ve searched. We saw you making down-river, my lord, so we took yet another look round here, but you see everything’s open as the day. Master Fuller made us free of all his holding.”
Hugh looked about him in a long, sweeping, none too hopeful glance. “No, small chance of doing anything here unperceived, at least by daylight, and it was early in the day she vanished. Someone has looked in Master Hynde’s warehouse there?”
“Yesterday, my lord. His wife gave us the key readily, I was there myself, so was my lord Herbard. Nothing within but his baled fleeces, the loft all but full of them, floor to roof. He had a good clip this year, seemingly.”
“Better than I did,” said Hugh. “But I don’t keep above three hundred sheep, small coin to him. Well, you’ve been at it all day, as well take a rest and be off home.” He set foot lightly to the thwart and stepped ashore. The boat rocked softly to the motion. “There’s nothing more we can do here. I’d best get back to the castle, and see if by chance someone else has had better luck. I’ll go in here by the eastern gate, Madog, but we can lend you two rowers, if you like, and help you back upstream with both boats. Some of these lads who’ve been on the hunt with us could do with a voyage back to the bridge.” He cast a glance round the group that held off respectfully, watching and listening. “Better than walking, lads, after all the walking you’ve done this day. Who’s first?”
Two of the men came forward eagerly to uncouple the boats and settle themselves on the thwarts. They shoved gently off into the stream ahead of Madog, and set a practised pace. And it might well be, Cadfael thought, noting how Bertred the weaver hung well back from offering his own stout arms, that his walk home from the nearby castle gate into the town was barely longer than it would have been from the bridge gate after disembarking, so that he saw small gain in volunteering. It might even be that he was no expert with an oar. But that did not quite account for the small, bland smile and the look of glossy content on his comely young face as he withdrew himself discreetly from notice behind his companions. And it certainly did not account for the last glimpse Cadfael had of him, as he glanced back over his shoulder from midstream. For Bertred had lagged behind Hugh and his henchmen as they set off briskly towards the road and the eastern gate of the town, had halted a moment to watch them as they breasted the rise, and then had turned his back and made off at a purposeful but unhurried pace in the opposite direction, towards the nearest stand of woodland, as though he had important business there.
Bertred came home for his supper only with the early dusk, to a distracted household which had lost its routine and limped through the day forgetful of work, meal-times, and every other factor that served to mark the hours in an orderly and customary fashion. Miles fretted from workshop to street a dozen times an hour, and ran out to accost any passing soldier of the garrison for news, of which there was none. In two days he had grown so tense and brittle that even his mother, for once daunted into comparative silence, tended to slip aside out of his way. The girls in the spinning room whispered and wondered far more than they worked, and foregathered with the weavers to gossip as often as his back was turned.
“Who’d have thought he cared so much for his cousin!” Branwen marvelled, awed by his strained and anxious face. “Of course a man feels for his own kin, but—you’d have thought it was his bride he’d lost, not his cousin, he goes so grieved.”
“He’d be a sight less concerned for his Isabel,” said a cynic among the weavers. “She’ll bring him a passable dowry, and he’s well enough satisfied with his bargain, but there are as good fish in the sea if she slipped off the hook. Mistress Judith is his keep and future and all. Besides, the two get on well enough, for all I could ever see. He’s got every call to worry.”
And worry he did, in a nail-biting, brow-furrowing frenzy of concern and anxiety that continued unbroken through the day, and at night, when search was perforce abandoned, subsided into a mute, resigned dejection, waiting for morning to renew the hunt. But by this second twilight it seemed every corner of the town had been ransacked, and every house and garden and pasture in the suburbs at least visited, and where were they to look next?
“She can’t be far,” Dame Agatha insisted strenuously. “They’ll surely find her.”
“Far or near,” said Miles wretchedly, “she’s too well hidden. And some villain holding her, for certain. And how if she’s forced to give way and take him? Then what’s to become of you and me, if she lets a master into the house?”
“She never would, and she so set against marrying. No, that she won’t do. Why, if a man uses her so ill, more like by far, once she’s free of him—as she will be!—to do what she’s thought of doing so long, and go into a nunnery. And only two days now to the day of the rent!” Agatha pointed out. “Then what’s to be done, if that passes and she still lost?”
“Then the bargain’s broken, and there’s time to think again and think better, but only she can do it. Until she’s found there’s nothing to be done, and no comfort. Tomorrow I’ll go out again myself,” Miles vowed, shaking an exasperated head over the failure of the king’s sheriff and all his men.
“But where? Where is there left they haven’t searched already?”
A hard question indeed, and one without an answer. And into this waiting and frustrated household Bertred came sidling in the dusk, discreetly quiet and solemn about the continuing failure to find any trace of his mistress, and yet looking so sleek and bright-eyed that Miles was brutally short with him, not at all his usual good-tempered self, and followed him with a long, glowering stare when Bertred wisely made off into the kitchen. On warm summer evenings it was pleasanter to be outdoors than there in the dim, smoky room with the heat of the fire, even when it was turfed down for the night or raked out until morning, and the rest of the household had gone out on their own ploys. Only Bertred’s mother Alison, who cooked for the family and its workers, was waiting there none too patiently for her truant son, with a pot still warming over the naked fire.
“Where have you been till this time?” she wanted to know, turning on him with the ladle in her hand as he tramped briskly in at the door and went to his place at the long trestle table. He gave her a casual kiss in passing, brushing her round red cheek lightly. She was a plump, comfortable figure of a woman with some worn traces still of the good looks she had handed on to her son. “All very well,” she said, setting the wooden bowl before him with a crash, “after keeping me waiting here so late. And much good you must have done all day, or you’d be telling me now you’ve brought her home, and preening yourself like a peacock over it. There were some of the men came home two hours ago and more. Where have you been loitering since then?”
In the dim kitchen his small, self-satisfied smile could barely be seen, but the tone of his voice conveyed the same carefully contained elation. He took her by the arm and drew her down to the bench beside him.
“Never mind where, and leave it to me why! There was a thing I had to wait for, and it was worth the waiting. Mother…” He leaned close, and sank his voice to a confidential whisper. “… how would you like to be more than a servant in this house? A gentlewoman, an honoured dowager! Wait a little while, and I mean to make my fortune and yours, too. What do you say to that?”
“Great notions you always had,” she said, none too impressed, but too fond to mock him. “And how do you mean to do that?”
“I’m telling nothing yet, not till I can say it’s done. There’s not one of those busy hounds out hunting all this day knows what I know. That’s all I’m saying, and not a word to any but you. And… Mother, I must go out again tonight, when it’s well dark. Never you worry, I know what I’m about, only wait, and you’ll be glad of it. But tonight you mustn’t say a word, not to anyone.”
She held him off doubtfully to get a better look at his smiling, teasing face. “What are you up to? I can keep as close a mouth as any where there’s need. But don’t you go running your head into trouble. If there’s ought you know, why haven’t you told?”
“And spend the credit along with my breath? No, leave all to me, Mother, I know what I’m about. Tomorrow you’ll see for yourself, but not a word tonight. Promise it!”
“Your sire was just such another,” she said, relaxing into smiles, “always full of great plans. Well, if I spend the night wakeful out of pure curiosity, so be it. Would I ever stand in your way? Not a word out of me, I promise.” And instantly she added, with a brief blaze of unease and foreboding: “Only take care! There may be more than you out about risky business in the night.”
Bertred laughed, and hugged her impulsively in long arms, and went away whistling into the dusk of the yard.
His bed was in the weaving-shed with the looms, and there he had no companion to wake and hear him rise and do on his clothes, more than an hour after midnight. Nor was it any problem to slip out from the yard by the narrow passage to the street, without so much as risking being seen by any other member of the household. He had chosen his time with care. It must not be too soon, or there would still be people stirring. It must not be too late, or the moon would be up, and darkness suited his purpose better. And it was dark indeed in the narrow lanes between the overhanging houses and shops, as he threaded the mass of streets between Maerdol-head and the castle. The town gate there on the eastern side was a part of the castle defences, and would be closed and guarded during the night hours. For the past few years Shrewsbury had been safe enough from any threat on the eastern approach, only the occasional brief Welsh raid from the west had troubled the peace of the shire, but Hugh Beringar maintained the routine watchfulness without a break. But the most easterly wicket, giving access to the river under the very towers of the fortress, was there to be used freely. Only in times of possible danger were all the wickets closed and barred, and sentries set on the walls. Horsemen, carts, market wagons, all must wait for the gates to be opened at dawn, but a solitary man might pass through at any hour.
Bertred knew his way in the dark as well as by day, and could tread as lightly and move as silently as a cat. He stepped through the wicket into the slope of grass and bushes above the river, and drew the wooden door closed after him. Below him the flow of the Severn made fleeting ribbons and glints of moving light, just perceptible as tremors in the darkness. The sky was lightly veiled and showed no stars, and was just sufficiently less dark than the solid masses of masonry, earth and trees to show their outlines in deeper black. When the moon came up, more than an hour later than this, the heavens would probably clear. He had time to stand for a moment and think out what he had to do. There was little wind, but he had better take it into consideration, it would not do to approach the watchman’s mastiff at the fulling works downwind. He wet a finger and tested. The slight, steady breeze was blowing from the south-west, from upstream. He would have to move round the bulk of the castle virtually to the fringes of the gardens along the high road, and come about from downwind in a cautious circle to reach the back of the wool warehouse.
He had taken a good look at it in the afternoon. So had they all, the sheriff and his sergeants and the townsmen helping them in the search. But they had not, like Bertred, been in and out two or three times at that warehouse, when fetching away fleeces for Mistress Perle. Nor had they been present in Mistress Perle’s kitchen on the night before her disappearance, to hear Branwen declare her mistress’s intent to go to the abbey early in the morning and make a new charter, rendering her gift of property unconditional. So they had not seen, as Bertred had, Hynde’s man Gunnar drink up his ale and pocket his dice shortly afterwards, and take himself off in some haste, though he had seemed to be comfortably rooted for the evening. That was one more creature besides Bertred who had known of that intent, and surely had slipped so promptly away to disclose it to yet one more. Which one, the old or the young, made no matter. The strange thing was that it had taken Bertred himself so long to grasp the possibilities. The sight of the old counting-house hatch, that afternoon, securely shuttered and barred on the outer side, and probably also made fast within, had been all that was needed to enlighten him. If he had then waited patiently in the cover of the trees until dusk, to see who slipped out from the wicket in the town wall, and exactly where he headed with his rush basket, it had been only a final precaution, to render certainty even more certain.
Heavy against his side, in the great pocket stitched inside his coat, he had a long chisel and a hammer, though he would have to avoid noise if he could. The outer bar across the hatch need only be drawn back out of the socket, but he suspected the shutter was also nailed fast to its frame. A year ago a bale of fleeces had been stolen by entry through this hatch, and as the small counting-house within was already disused, old Hynde had had the window sealed against any further attempt. That was one more thing the sheriff did not know.
Bertred came down softly along the meadow beyond the warehouse, with the gentle wind in his face. By then shapes of things showed clearly, black against faded black. The bulk of the building was between him and Godfrey Fuller’s workshops, the very faint shimmer of the river a little way off on his left hand. And double his own height above him was the square of the shuttered hatch, just perceptible to his night eyes.
The climb presented no problems, he had made sure of that. The building was old, and due to this rear wall backing into the slope, the base of the wall of vertical planks had suffered wet damage over the years, and rotted, and old Hynde, never one to spend lavishly, had reinforced it with split logs fastened across horizontally on top of the massive sill-beam, affording easy toe-holds high enough for him to reach up and get a grip on the rough sill under the hatch, which was just wide enough to lend him a secure resting-place with an ear to the shutters.
He drew himself up carefully, got a hand firmly on the bar that sealed the hatch, and a thigh along the sill, and drew breath and cautiously held it, wary of the first strange and unexpected thing. The shutters fitted together well, but not quite perfectly. For about a hand’s-length down the centre, where the two leaves met, a hairline of light showed, too fine to give a view of anything within, a mere quill-stroke of faint gold. Perhaps not so strange, after all. Perhaps they had had the grace at least to let her have a candle or a lamp in her prison. It would pay, surely, to accommodate her in as many harmless ways as possible, while trying to break down her resistance. Force need only be tried if all else failed. But two days without gain began to look very like failure.
The chisel inside his coat was jabbing him painfully in the ribs. He worked a hand cautiously into the pocket and drew out the tools, laying them beside him on the sill, so that he could ease himself a little nearer to the sliver of light, and lay his ear to the crack.
The sudden start he made all but toppled him from his perch. For a voice spoke up, firmly and clearly, quite close on the inner side of the shutters:
“No, you will not change me. You should have known it. I am your problem. You brought me here, now get me hence as best you can.”
The voice that answered was more distant, perhaps at the far side of the room, in hopeless retreat, and the words did not come over clearly, but the tone was of desperate complaining and abject pleading, and the speaker was a man, though so unrecognisable that Bertred could not be sure whether he was old or young, master or servant.
His own plan was already awry. At best he must wait, and if he had to wait too long the moon would be up, and the risks more than doubled. The place was right, his judgement confirmed, the woman was there. But the time was ill-guessed, for her gaoler was there with her.
« ^ »
You brought me here,” she said, “now get me hence as best you can.”
In the narrow, bare room which had once been Hynde’s counting-house, the small flame of the saucer lamp barely showed them to each other. He had flung away from her, and stood in the far corner, his back turned, his head bowed into the forearm he had braced against the wall, his other fist driving uselessly and painfully against the timber. His voice emerged muffled, its helpless rage degraded into a feeble wail: “How can I? How can I? There is no way out now!”
“You could unlock the door,” she said simply, “and let me go. Nothing could be easier.”
“For you!” he protested furiously, and swung about to glare at her with all the venom of which his nature was capable. It did not amount to much more than self-pity. He was not a venomous man, only a vain and foolish one. He wearied her, but he did not frighten her. “All very well for you! And I should be finished, damned… thrown into prison to rot. Once out, you’d denounce me and take your revenge.”
“You should have thought of that,” she said, “before you snatched me away, you and your rogue servant. You brought me here to this sordid hole, locked in behind your wool bales, without comfort, without decency, subject to your man’s rough handling and your insolent pestering, and do you expect gratitude? Or even mercy? Why should I not denounce you? You had best think hard and fast. You will have to release me or kill me at last, and the longer the delay, the worse will be your own plight. Mine,” she said bitterly, “is already bad enough. What has become by now of my good name? What will my situation be when I go back to my own house and family?”
Vivian came back to her with a rush, flinging himself on his knees beside the rough bench where she had taken what rest she could, and where she sat now erect and pale, her hands gripped together in her lap, her skirts drawn close about her as though to avoid not only his touch, but the very dust and desolation of her prison. There was nothing else in the room but the broken desk where once the clerk had worked over his figures, and a stone ewer with a chipped lip, and a pile of dust and debris in the corner. The lamp stood on the end of the bench beside her, its light now full on Vivian’s dishevelled hair and woeful face. He clutched at her hands imploringly, but she withdrew them so sharply that he sat back on his heels with a great gulp of despair.
“I never meant such mischief, I swear it! I thought you had a fondness for me, I thought I had only to get you to myself a while, and it would all be agreed between us… Oh, God, I wish I’d never begun it! But indeed, indeed, I did believe you could love me…”
“No! Never!” She had said it many times in these past two days, and always with the same irrevocable coldness. He should have recognised from the first utterance that his cause was hopeless. But he had not even been deceiving himself into the conviction that he loved her. What he coveted was the security and comfort she could bring him, the payment of his debts and the prospect of an easy life. Perhaps even the pleasure of cocking a snook at his parsimonious father—parsimonious at least in Vivian’s eyes, because he had finally tired of bailing his heir out of debt and trouble. Oh, no doubt the young man had found the prospect of marriage with her pleasurable in itself, but that was not the reason he had chosen that particular morning for his bid. Why let half a fortune slip through your fingers, when with one bold stroke you might have the whole?
“How have they accounted for my vanishing?” she asked. “Is the worst said of me already? Have they been looking for me at all? Am I thought dead?”
One faint spasm of defiance and spite passed over Vivian’s face. “Looking for you? The whole town’s turned upside-down looking for you, the sheriff and all his men, your cousin and half your workmen. Not a house but they’ve visited, not a barn but they’ve searched. They were here yesterday, towards evening. Alan Herbard and three of the garrison with him. We opened the doors to them, and showed the baled fleeces, and they went away satisfied. Why did you not cry out to them then, if you wanted rescue from me?”
“They were here?” Judith stiffened, chilled by this spurt of malice. But it was the last, he had done his worst, and could not maintain it long. “I never heard them!” she said with resigned bitterness.
“No.” He said it quite simply now, all his resistance spent. “They were easily satisfied. The room is quite forgotten, and all those bales shut out sound. They never questioned. They were here again this afternoon, but not asking for the keys. They’d found the boat… No, you might not hear them. Would you have cried out to them if you had?”
It was a meaningless question, and she did not answer it, but she gave it some thought. Would she have wished to be heard calling for help, and haled out of this mean prison, unprepared, dusty and stained, compromised, piteous? Might it not have been better to be silent, and make her own way out of this predicament? For the truth was that after the first confusion, indignation and alarm she had never been afraid of Vivian, nor in any danger of giving way to him, and now she would welcome as much as he would a solution which would smooth out of sight all that had happened, and leave her her dignity and integrity independent of any other soul. In the end he would have to release her. She was the stronger of the two.
He ventured a hand to clutch at a fold of her skirt. The face he lifted to her, seen clearly thus close and lit by the yellow flame of the wick, was strangely vulnerable and young, like a guilty boy pleading in extenuation of some heinous fault and not yet resigned to punishment. The brow he had braced against the wall was smeared with dust, and with the back of his hand, sweeping away tears or sweat or both, he had made a long black stain down his cheek. There was a trail of cobweb in the bright, fair, tangled hair. The wide brown eyes, dilated with stress, glinted gold from the spark of the lamp, and hung in desperate appeal upon her face.
“Judith, Judith, do me right! I could have used you worse… I could have taken you by force—”
She shook her head scornfully. “No, you could not. You have not the hardihood. You are too cautious—or perhaps too decent—both, it may be! Nor would it have benefited you if you had,” she said starkly, and turned herself away to evade the desperate and desolate youth of his face, with its piercing reflections of Brother Eluric, who had agonised in silence and without hope or appeal. “And now here we are, you and I both, and you know as well as I know that this must end. You have no choice but to let me go.”
“And you’ll destroy me!” he said in a whisper, and sank his corn-gold head into his hands.
“I wish you no harm,” she said wearily. “But it was you brought us to this, not I.”
“I know it, I own it, God knows I wish it undone! Oh, Judith, help me, help me!”
It had come to that, the bleak acknowledgement that he had lost, that he was now her prisoner, not she his, even that he was dependent upon her to save him from the trap he himself had set. He laid his head in her lap and shook as though with cold. And she was so tired and so astray that she had lifted a resigned hand to lay upon his head and quiet him, when the sudden tearing, rushing slither of sound outside the shutters at her back caused them both to start and freeze in alarm. Not a loud sound, merely like some not very heavy weight sliding down and ending in a dull fall into grass. Vivian started to his feet, quivering.
“For God’s sake, what was that?”
They held their breath, straining into a silence as sudden as the sound, and as brief. Then, more distant from the direction of the riverside fulling-works, came the loud, savage alarm-baying of the chained mastiff; and after a few moments this changed abruptly into the deeper, more purposeful note of the chase, as he was loosed from his chain.
Bertred had trusted too confidently to old, worn, neglected wood, left too long uncared for on the weather side of the warehouse. The sill on which he was perched had been fixed in position with long nails, but at the more exposed end the nails had rusted in many rains, and the wood round them had rotted. When he shifted his weight further forward to ease an uncomfortable cramp, and get an ear more avidly to the crack, the wood splintered and parted, and the sill swung down before him, scraping the planks of the wall, and sent him slithering and clawing to the ground. Not a great fall nor a very loud sound, but loud enough in that depth of the night to carry to the fulling-works.
He was on his feet as he reached the ground, and leaned for a moment against the wall to get his breath back and steady his legs under him after the shock of the fall. The next moment he heard the mastiff give tongue.
Bertred’s instinct was to run uphill towards the houses along the high road, and he set off in that direction, alerted to terror, only to check a moment later in the despairing knowledge that the hound was far faster than he could be, and would overhaul him long before he reached any shelter. The river was nearer. Better by far make for that, and swim across to the open spur of woodland at the end of the Gaye. In the water he could more than match the hound, and surely the watchman would call the dog off rather than let it pursue further.
He turned, and began to run in wild hare-leaps downhill across the tussocky grass, full tilt towards the river-bank. But both dog and man were out after him now, roused to a thief-hunt in the small hours, when all honest folk should be in their beds, and only malefactors could be abroad. They had traced the sound of his fall only too accurately; they knew someone had been clambering round the warehouse, and surely with no good intent. A detached part of Bertred’s mind somehow had time to wonder, even as his legs and lungs strained for the speed of terror, how young Hynde managed to go back and forth by night without raising the same alarm. But of course the mastiff knew him, he was one of the guarded, an ally in the protection of property here, not an enemy and a threat.
Flight and pursuit made strangely little noise in the night, or disturbance in the darkness, and yet he felt, rather than saw, man and hound converging upon his path, and heard the rush of movement and the purposeful in-and-out of breath drawing close from his right flank. The watchman lunged at him with a long staff, and caught him a glancing blow on the head that half-stunned him, and sent him hurtling forward out of balance to the very edge of the river-bank. But he was past the man now, and could leave him behind, it was the dog, close on his heels, that terrified him, and gave him the strength for the last great leap that carried him out from the grass spur overhanging the water.
The bank was higher than he had realised, and the water somewhat lower, exposing shelving faces of rock. Instead of clearing these into deep water, he fell with a crash among the tilted stones, though his outflung arm raised a splash from the shallows between. His head, already ringing from the watchman’s blow, struck hard against a sharp edge of stone. He lay stunned where he had fallen, half-concealed beneath the bushy overhang, wholly shrouded in the darkness. The mastiff, no lover of water, padded uneasily along the grassy shelf and whined, but went no further.
The watchman, left well behind and out of breath, heard the splash, caught even a brief shimmer in the fitful pallor of the river’s surface, and halted well short of the bank to whistle and call off his dog. The would-be thief must be half across the river by now, no use troubling further. He was reasonably sure that the felon had not succeeded in making an entry anywhere, or the dog would have raised the alarm earlier. But he did walk round the warehouse and the dye-sheds to make sure all was in order. The dangling sill under the dark shutters hung vertically, like the planks against which it rested, and the watchman did not observe it. In the morning he would have a thorough look round, but it seemed no harm had been done. He went back contentedly to his hut, with the dog padding at his heels.
Vivian stood rigid, listening, until the dog’s baying grew more distant, and finally ceased. He stirred almost painfully out of his stillness.
“Someone was prowling! Someone guesses—or knows!” He wiped sweat from his forehead with a dirty hand, prolonging the smears already there. “Oh, God, what am I to do? I can’t let you go free, and I can’t keep you here any longer, not another day. If someone suspects…”
Judith sat silent, steadily watching him. His soiled and disillusioned beauty moved her against her will, as he could never have moved her at his most decorative and elated, the finest cock on the midden. Afraid to go on with his over-bold scheme, unable to retreat from it, frenziedly wishing he had never embarked upon it, he was like a fly in a cobweb, tangling himself ever more inextricably.
“Judith…” He was on his knees again at her feet, clinging to her hands, pleading, cajoling, but passionately, like a child, quite forgetful of his charm and stripped naked of his vanity. “Judith, help me! Help me out of this! If there is a way, help me to find it. If they come and find you, I’m ruined, disgraced… If I let you go, you’ll destroy me just the same—”
“Hush!” she said wearily. “I don’t wish you harm, I want no revenge, only to be free of you on the best terms I may.”
“How does that help me? Do you think they’ll let you reappear, and ask no questions? Even if you hold your peace, how am I helped? There’ll be no respite until you tell them all, and that’s my undoing. Oh, if I knew which way to turn!”
“It would suit me no less than you,” said Judith, “if we could smooth away this scandal peacably, but it needs a miracle to account for these two lost days. And I must protect myself, if that’s possible. You must fend for yourself, but I’d as lief you went unharmed, too, if that may be. What now? What ails you?”
He had started and stiffened, quick to alarm, and was listening with stretched sinews. “Someone outside,” he said in a whisper. “Again—didn’t you hear? Someone is spying… Listen!”
She fell silent, though she was not convinced. He was so tense and frightened by this time that he could have conjured enemies out of the air. Through a long, hushed moment she heard no sound at all, even the very slight sigh of the breeze in the shutters had ceased.
“There’s no one; you imagined it. Nothing!” She gripped his hands suddenly, asserting her mastery, where hitherto she had merely suffered his touch without response. “Listen to me! There might be a way! When Sister Magdalen visited me, she offered me a place of retreat at Godric’s Ford with her, if ever I reached the end of my tether and needed a refuge and a pause for breath. As God knows I have needed both, and still do. If you will take me there by night, secretly, then I can return later and say where I have been, and why, and how this turmoil and hunt for me never came to our ears there. As I hope may be true. I will say that I fled from my life for a while, to get courage to take it up again to better purpose. And I hope to God that may also be true. I will not name you, nor betray what you have done to me.”
He was staring up at her wide-eyed, hesitant to hope but unable to resist, glowing only to doubt again the possibility of salvation. “They’ll press you hard, they’ll ask why did you say no word, why go away and leave everyone to fear for you. And the boat—they know about the boat, they must know—”
“When they ask,” she said starkly, “I’ll answer, or refuse them an answer. Fret as you may, you must needs leave all that to me. I am offering you a way of escape. Take it or leave it.”
“I daren’t go all the way with you,” he said, writhing. “If I were seen it would all come out in spite of you.”
“You need not come all the way. You may leave me to go the last piece of the way alone, I am not afraid. No one need see you.”
He was flushing into hope with every word. “My father is gone back to his flocks today, he’ll stay two nights or more up there with the shepherds, and there’s one good horse still in the stable, stout enough to carry two, if you’ll ride pillion with me. I could bring him out of the town before the gate’s closed. Best not pass through the town together, but set out this way. There’s a ford a little way downstream from here, we can make our way south on the other side and get to the road to Beistan. At dusk—if we start at dusk tomorrow… Oh, Judith, and I’ve done you such wrong, and can you so far forgive me? I have not deserved!”
It was something new, she thought wryly, for Vivian Hynde to suppose that his deserts were small, or that there was anything to which he was not entitled. He might yet be all the better for this one salutary fright which he had brought upon himself. He was no great villain, only a weak and self-indulgent boy. But she did not answer his question. There was one thing at least she found it hard to forgive him, and that was that he had exposed her to the rough handling of Gunnar, who had taken palpable delight in the close embrace of her body and the strength which had held her helpless. She had no fear of Vivian, but of Gunnar, if ever she encountered him without Vivian, she might be very much afraid.
“I do this for myself as much as for you,” she said. “I’ve given my word and I’ll keep it. Tomorrow at dusk. Agreed, it’s too late to move tonight.”
He had recoiled again into doubt and fear, recalling the noises without, and the baying of the mastiff. “But how if someone has suspicions of this place? How if they come again tomorrow demanding the keys? Judith, come back with me now, come to our house, it’s not far from the wicket, no one will see us now. My mother will hide you and help us, and be grateful to you for sparing me. And my father’s away in the hills, he’ll never know. And there you may have rest and a bed, and water for washing, and all you need for your comfort.”
“Your mother knows of what you’ve done?” she demanded, aghast.
“No, no, nothing! But she’ll help us now, for my sake.” He was at the narrow door which had lain hidden behind the baled fleeces, turning the key, drawing her after him, feverish in his haste to be out of here and safe in his own home. “I’ll send Gunnar to make all innocent here. If they come they must find the place bare and deserted.”
She blew out the wick of the lamp and went with him, backwards down the ladder from the loft, out through the lower door and into the night. The moon was just rising, bathing the slope in pale-green light. The air was sweet and cool on her face after the close, musty smell of dust and the smoke of the lamp in the enclosed space. It was no very long walk to the shadows of the castle towers, and the wicket in the wall.
A darker shadow made its way round the spreading plane of moonlight, by the shortest route from behind the warehouse to the cover of trees, and so roundabout to the river-bank, rapid and silent. The overhang where Bertred had made his leap to evade the mastiff was still in shadow. He lay as he had fallen, still out of his senses, though he was beginning to stir and groan, and draw the laborious breath of one quickening to the consciousness of pain. The deeper shadow that fell across his body just as the edge of the moonlight reached the river did not penetrate his dazed mind or trouble his closed eyes. A hand reached down and took him by the hair, turning his face up to view it closely. He lived, he breathed, a little patching and a few hours to recover, and he would be able to account for himself and confess everything he knew.
The shadow stooping over him straightened and stood a moment looking down at him dispassionately. Then he thrust a booted toe into Bertred’s side, levered him towards the edge of the stones on which he lay, and heaved him out into deep water, where the current curled fast, bearing the body out across midstream towards the further shore.
The twentieth of June dawned in a series of sparkling showers, settling by mid-morning into a fine, warm day. There was plenty of work waiting to be done in the orchards of the Gaye, but because of the morning rain it was necessary to wait for the midday heat before tackling them. The sweet cherries were ready for picking, but needed to be gathered dry, and there were also the first strawberries to pick, and there it was equally desirable to let the sun dry off the early moisture. On the open, sunlit expanse of the vegetable plots the ground dried out earlier, and the brothers on duty were busy sowing lettuces for succession, and hoeing and weeding, before noon, but it was after dinner that the orchard party began work at the extreme end of the abbey grounds.
There was no particular need for Brother Cadfael to go out with them, but neither was there anything urgently needing his attention in the herbarium, and the mounting uneasiness of the three-day vain hunt for Judith Perle would not let him rest or settle to any routine occupation. There had been no further word from Hugh, and nothing to tell Niall when he came anxiously enquiring. The entire affair stood still, the very hours of the day held their breath, making time endless.
To fill it at least with some physical movement, Cadfael went out to the orchards with the rest. As so often in a late season, nature had set out to make good the weeks that had been lost to the spring cold, and contrived to bring on, almost at the usual time, both strawberries and the first of the little hard gooseberries on their thorny bushes. But Cadfael’s mind was not on fruit-picking. The orchards lay just opposite the level where the young archers shot at the butts on fair-days, under the sweep of the town wall and in the lee of the castle towers. Only a little way beyond, through the first belt of woodland, and he would be gazing straight across the water at the fulling-works, and just downstream at William Hynde’s jetty.
Cadfael worked for a while, so distractedly that he collected more than his share of scratches. But after a while he straightened his back, sucked out of his finger the latest of many thorns, and walked on along the riverside into the belt of trees. Through their leaning branches the sweeping coronal of the town wall unrolled beside him across the water, and the steep green slope beneath the wall. Then the first jutting bastion of the castle, with the narrower level of meadow under it. Cadfael walked on, through the trees and out to a broad greensward beyond, dotted with low bushes close to the bank, and here and there a bed of reeds where the shallows ran gently and the fast current sped out into midstream. Now he was opposite the tenterground, where Godfrey Fuller’s men were working, and a length of brown cloth was stretched taut between the frames to dry.
He reached a spot directly opposite the overhanging bushes where they had found the stolen boat abandoned. Along the bank beyond, a small boy was pasturing goats. Sunlit and peaceful, the Severn landscape lay somnolent in the afternoon light, denying the existence of murder, malice and abduction in so lovely a world.
Cadfael had gone but a hundred or so paces further, and was about to turn back, when he reached a curve where the bank opposite was undercut and the water beneath it deep, while on his side it shallowed into a sandy shoal, and subsided into soft, innocent ripples, barely moving. One of those places Madog knew well, where whatever had gone into the river upstream might fetch up again on land.
And something had indeed fetched up here in the night just past. It lay almost submerged, at rest on the sand but barely breaking the surface, a mass of darker colour washed over by the silvery shimmer of water, and lodged in the dull gold of the sand beneath. It was the small, languid pallor, which swung lightly with the flow but was no fish, that first caught Cadfael’s eye. A man’s hand, at the end of a dark sleeve that buoyed it up just enough to set it swaying. A man’s brown head, the back of it just dimpling the surface, all its curling locks stretching out with the ripples and stirring like drowsy living things.
Cadfael slid down the shelving bank in haste, and waded into the shallow water to get a double grip on the sodden clothing under the trailing arms, and drag the body ashore. Dead beyond doubt, probably several hours dead. He lay on his face in the sand just clear of the water, and tiny rivulets ran out of him from every fold of clothing and every tangled curl of hair. A young man, very well made and shapely. Far too late to do anything for him but carry him home and provide him a decent burial. It would need more than one man to get him up the bank and bear him back along the Gaye, and Cadfael had better be about getting help as fast as possible.
The build, the common dun-coloured coat and chausses, might have belonged to a hundred young fellows from Shrewsbury, being the common working wear, and the body was not immediately recognisable to Cadfael. He stooped to resume a careful hold under the lax arms, and turned the dead man over to lie on his back, revealing to the indifferent sunlight the smeared, pallid but still comely face of Bertred, Judith Perle’s foreman weaver.
« ^ »
They came in haste at his call, fluttered and dismayed, though a drowned man cast up by the Severn was no such rare matter, and these young brothers knew no more of the affair than that. No doubt whispers of the outer world’s crises made their way in among the elders, but by and large the novices lived in innocence. Cadfael chose the strongest and the least likely to be distressed by the contemplation of death, and sent the others back to their work. With their hoes and rope girdles and scapulars they rigged a makeshift litter, and carried it down the riverside path to where the dead man lay.
In awed silence they took up their sodden burden, and bore him back in dripping procession through the belt of woodland and all along the lush level of the Gaye, to the path that climbed to the Foregate.
“We’d best take him to the abbey,” said Cadfael, halting a moment to consider. “That’s the quickest means of getting him decently out of the public view, and we can send for his master or his kin from there.” There were other reasons for the decision, too, but he did not think fit to mention them at this point. The dead man came from Judith Perle’s household, and what had befallen him surely could not be entirely disconnected from all the other disasters which seemed to be haunting the house and the heiress of the Vestier business. In which case Abbot Radulfus had a direct interest and a right to be informed, and even more surely, so had Hugh Beringar. Not only a right, but a need. Two deaths and a disappearance, all circling round the same lady and her dealings with the abbey, demanded very close attention. Even young, strong men in the most exuberant of health can drown. But Cadfael had already seen the broken bruise on the dead man’s right temple, washed white and bleached of blood by the water of the river. “Run on ahead, lad,” he said to Brother Rhun, the youngest of the novices, “and let Father Prior know what manner of guest we’re bringing.”
The boy bowed his flaxen head in the small gesture of respect with which he received any order from an elder, and was off in an instant, willing and eager. To bid Rhun run was a kindness rather than an imposition, for there was nothing in which he took greater delight than making use of the fleetness and grace he had possessed for barely a year, after coming to Saint Winifred’s festival a cripple and in pain. His year’s novitiate was almost over, and soon he would be admitted as a full brother. No power or persuasion could have induced him to depart from the service of the saint who had healed him. What to Cadfael was still the serious burden and stumbling-block of obedience, Rhun embraced as a privilege, as happily as he accepted the sunlight on his face.
Cadfael turned from watching the bright head and flashing feet ascend the path, and covered the dead man’s face with the corner of a scapular. Water dripped through the saturated cloth as they carried Bertred up to the road, and along the Foregate to the abbey gatehouse. Inevitably there were people abroad to halt at sight of the mournful procession, and nudge and whisper and stare as they passed. It was always a mystery where the urchins of the Foregate sprang from, as soon as there was something unusual to stare at, and how they multiplied at every step, and how the dogs, their inseparable playmates, also halted and dawdled alongside them with much the same expression of alerted curiosity on their faces. Soon guess and counter-guess would be running through the streets, but none of them would yet be able to name the drowned man. The little time before it was common knowledge who he was could be useful to Hugh Beringar, and merciful to the dead man’s mother. One more widow, Cadfael recalled, as they turned in at the gatehouse and left a ring of watchers gathered at a respectable distance outside.
Prior Robert came hastening to meet the procession, with Brother Jerome scurrying at his heels, and Brother Edmund from the infirmary and Brother Denis from the guest-hall converged at the same time upon the bearers and the bier. Half a dozen brothers who had been crossing the great court variously about their own proper business lingered to watch, and to draw closer by degrees to hear and see the better.
“I have sent Brother Rhun to notify the lord abbot,” said Robert, stooping his lofty silver head over the still body on the improvised litter. “This is a very bad business. Where did you find the man? Was it on our ground you took him ashore?”
“No, some way beyond,” said Cadfael, “cast up on the sand. Dead some hours, I judge. There was nothing to be done for him.”
“Was it necessary, then, to bring him here? If he is known, and has family in the town or the Foregate, they will take charge of his burial rites.”
“If not necessary,” said Cadfael, “I thought it advisable he should be brought here. I believe the lord abbot will also think so. There are reasons. The sheriff may have an interest in this matter.”
“Indeed? Why should that be so, if the man died by drowning? Surely an accident not unknown here.” He reached a fastidious hand to turn back the scapular from the bleached and bluish face which in life had glowed with such self-conscious health. But these features meant nothing to him. If he had ever seen the man, it could have been only casually, passing the gates. The house at Maerdol-head lay in the town parish of Saint Chad; neither worship nor commerce would bring Bertred into frequent contact with the Foregate. “Do you know this man?”
“By sight, yes, though little more than that. But he is one of Mistress Perle’s weavers, and lives in her household.”
Even Prior Robert, who held himself aloof from those uncomfortable worldly concerns which sometimes infiltrated into the abbey’s well-ordered enclave and bred disruption there, opened his eyes wide at that. He could not choose but know what untoward things had happened connected with that household, nor quite resist the conviction that any new disaster similarly connected must be a part of the whole deplorable pattern. Coincidences do occur, but they seldom cluster by the dozen round one dwelling and one name.
“Well!” he said on a long breath, cautiously noncommittal. “Yes, the lord abbot should certainly know of this.” And with due relief he added: “He is coming now.”
Abbot Radulfus had emerged from his garden and was approaching briskly, with Rhun attendant at his elbow. He said nothing until he had drawn back the covering from Bertred’s head and shoulders and surveyed him in sombre and thoughtful silence for a long moment. Then he again covered the dead face, and turned to Cadfael.
“Brother Rhun has told me where he was found, and how, but he does not know who the man is. Do you?”
“Yes, Father. His name is Bertred, he is Mistress Perle’s foreman weaver. I saw him yesterday out with the sheriff’s men, helping in the hunt for the lady.”
“Who has not been found,” said Radulfus.
“No. This is the third day of searching for her, but she has not been found.”
“And her man is found dead.” There was no need to point out to him implications which were already plain. “Are you satisfied that he drowned?”
“Father, I need to consider that. I think he did, but also he has suffered a blow to the head. I would like to examine his body further.”
“So, I suppose, would the lord sheriff,” said the abbot briskly. “I’ll send to him at once, and keep the body here for the present. Do you know if he could swim?”
“No, Father, but there are few born here who can’t. His kin or his master will tell us.”
“Yes, we must also send to them. But perhaps later, after Hugh has seen him, and made what you and he between you can of the matter.” And to the bearers of the litter, who had laid it down meanwhile and stood waiting silently, a little apart, he said: “Take him to the mortuary chapel. You had best strip him and lay him decently. Light candles for him. However and for whatever cause he died, he is our mortal brother. I’ll send a groom to look for Hugh Beringar. Wait with me, Cadfael, until he comes. I want to know everything you have gathered concerning this poor girl who is lost.”
In the mortuary chapel they had laid Bertred’s naked body on the stone bier, and covered him with a linen cloth. His sodden clothes lay loosely folded aside, with the boots they had drawn from his feet. The light being dim in there, they had also provided candles on tall holders, so that they could be placed wherever they gave the best light. They stood close about the slab, Abbot Radulfus, Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar. It was the abbot who drew down the linen and uncovered the dead, who lay with his hands duly crossed on his breast, drawn out very straight and dignified. Someone had reverently closed the eyes Cadfael remembered as half-open, like someone just waking, too late ever to complete the awakening.
A youthful body and a handsome, perhaps slightly over-muscled