9781439146071

The Lute Player; A Novel of Richard the Lionhearted

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  • ISBN13:

    9781439146071

  • ISBN10:

    1439146071

  • Edition: Original
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-12-08
  • Publisher: Touchstone
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Summary

The bestselling author of "The King's Pleasure" and "Here Was a Man" returns with this latest title in her Richard the Lionhearted series.

Excerpts

Part One
God's Pauper

This fragment of the lute player's story is told by himself. He was called by his given name, Edward, and was a novice of the Abbey of Gorbalze in Burgundy. The incident of which he tells took place in the early spring of the year A.D. 1188.

I

ANOTHER PACK OF WOLVES," BROTHER Lawrence said as we rounded a curve in the track and sighted the little group of beggars. And I thought how much I would have preferred to meet actual four-legged wolves. One's attitude toward a wolf pack is so simple; one hates, one fears; one attacks and scatters it or one flees in terror before it. No pity is involved. And I, for three days now, had been so wrenched by pity, so appalled by my own lack of power to help those I pitied, that now, seeing the beggars on the path, I thought that I could far more easily have stood still and let a wolf pack tear me to pieces than face a repetition of the scenes at Vibray and Amiche.

"Wake up, boy," said Brother Lawrence, and moved his left leg so that his stirrup struck me on the upper arm. "Listen and kindly bear in mind what I say. No more hysteria, if you please. It serves no purpose and has a very ill effect. I shall give them what is left in the alms bag and pass straight on. I want no more of your nonsense. Remember, hungry men are dangerous."

I turned my head and looked at him, and as I did so he twisted his head and looked straight ahead; but I had seen the expression -- almost of gloating -- with which he had been regarding me. And I wondered how far my behavior during these three days had been responsible for his. Once in the old days I had watched a bearbaiting and I had seen, on the faces of several spectators, that very look. A gloating compounded of amusement, ruthlessness, and a kind of speculation: What will this provoke? I made up my mind that this time I would betray no feeling, give him no satisfaction. He pulled the alms bag into an easily accessible position at the front of his girdle and set his face into lines of grave, remote contemplation. So we moved towards the knot of beggars; I limping on account of the blister on my heel and bending forwards a little to ease the ache in my empty belly, while my mind ran backwards and forwards, remembering the events of the last three days and dreading the moment that was approaching.

It was very strange to find myself hating Brother Lawrence. Only three days before I had accorded him the admiration, the hero worship which a young man must extend to an older man extremely skilled in an art to which he himself aspires. To me, on the morning after Lady Day, Brother Lawrence had been the man who had devoted four years of his life to making an incomparable copy of the Gospel of St. John. The manuscript now lay in the library at Gorbalze and was at once the inspiration and the despair of all ambitious young penmen. A visiting cardinal had once said that nothing in Rome or Cassino could equal it, and even that seemed not too high a compliment. There was one page -- the opening of the third chapter -- upon which it seemed a living spray of wild roses had been carelessly laid. So perfect each petal, each stamen, each thorn; the strong yet slender stems seeming to lift, to make a link between the earth from which they sprang and the heavens of which they hinted; the flowers so fragile, so vital, touched here and there with colors not of this world, colors whose names were known only in Paradise.

Fresh from brooding over this loveliness wrought by pen andbrush wielded by human hand, I would see Brother Lawrence pass along the cloister or take his place in the refectory, a solemn, quiet, rather fattish man in no way noticeable or distinguished: yet I looked upon him with awe and admiration and knew that if ever he should speak to me I should sweat and stammer.

On the afternoon of Lady Day I was at work in the South Cloister, painstakingly adding word to word of my own humble manuscript, when a shadow fell over the page and, glancing sharply round, I saw, not our novice master, Father Simplon, but Brother Lawrence looking with interest over my shoulder. I shook out my sleeve to screen my unworthy work from his eyes. He reached over and took up my quill and studied it.

"A trifle too sharply cut," he said, and laid it back. "You are the one they call Edward, are you not?" I nodded. "Then I have a message for you. I am to ride out tomorrow to bring in the manorial dues from Amiche and Vibray; you come with me to keep the reckoning. We shall be gone three days. We leave immediately after Prime and carry food for the journey. I shall take the gray palfrey."

I nodded again and gulped and stammered, overcome with elation. Brother Lawrence glanced once more at my manuscript and said gravely, "You have the makings of a penman." Then he walked away, leaving me dazzled by his cool judicious compliment and by the prospect of spending three days in his company. Perhaps, I thought, I should eventually pluck up courage and lure him into talking about that wonderful copy of the Gospel of St. John.

There wasn't a happier boy in Burgundy, in France, in Christendom, than I when on the morning after Lady Day we set off through the cold brightness of the spring morning. Even Brother Lawrence's choice of mount seemed fortunate to me; I loved Grys, the gray palfrey, and he knew and was fond of me. I was even pleased, God help me, at the thought of the food we carried in the saddlebags; we were to enjoy travelers' indulgence and the meat and roast fowl thus conceded were, for me at least, a rare and special treat, for Father Simplon was a strict adherent to the rule of our founder and never allowed to us novices the evasions and dispensations often openly enjoyed by our superiors.

Brother Lawrence; Grys; good food. All doomed to be the instruments of pain rather than pleasure.

During the past year the seasons had gone awry; there had been a drought in the spring at the time of seed sowing and in many fields the unsprouted corn had blown away with the dust on the easterly wind. August and September had been wet, so that the surviving crops and the fruit in the orchards had rotted as they ripened. Now, at the end of the long winter, there was famine on the land. And beggars on the road.

I was almost eighteen years old, but I had never before seen men and women and children gaunt and wild-eyed from hunger. Until I was sixteen I had lived in my father's castle, dividing my time between a small room where my tutor ruled me and the great hall where food was always plentiful. At sixteen I had entered my novitiate, and though under Father Simplon's rule food was coarse, simple, and sometimes unappetizing, no novice ever went hungry.

Brother Lawrence carried, as was apparently customary on these occasions, a small alms bag of copper coins. To the first little group who accosted us, a man, two women, and a child, he offered his ritual charity, and even as the clawlike hands were extended I heard the man mutter that money was of no use, there was nothing to buy; had we no bread? At that I impulsively reached down into my bag of food and handed out the bread and the lump of meat, and I was appalled by the savage eagerness with which the beggars tore and devoured it.

Brother Lawrence said, "Well, there goes your dinner, boy. And I hope that, having squandered your own, you won't count upon eating mine."

I swear that no such thought was in my mind. I was quite certain that I could, at a pinch, spend three days without eating at all.

Throughout the first day I had indeed no appetite; the sight of so many starving had sickened me. And I had been sickened, too, by the protests of the debtors at Vibray and by Brother Lawrence's ruthless insistence upon the monastery's dues.

By midday on the second day I was hungry. My bag was empty and so was my stomach, and I found that I could not watch Brother Lawrence eat his meal. I had never realized before how gross men are when they eat, how the crumbs fall about, how lips grow shiny with grease. I went away from him and fed the palfrey, thinking of the prodigal son who would have eaten the swine's husks, thinking of the long fasts recorded in the lives of the saints, thinking of our Lord's sojourn in the wilderness and His resistance to the devil's offer of bread. I actually took and nibbled a few grains from the palfrey's nose bag and he nuzzled me, ungrudging, and I felt bound to remind myself that Grys could never have made that lovely manuscript.

The third day was worse. There was an ache in my belly, my head felt swollen and noisy, my legs shook. And my mind rotted. Instead of thinking of the forty days in the wilderness, or the fastings of the saints, or what a good penman Brother Lawrence was, I found myself concentrating upon the capon that was still intact in his bag, and thinking that a kind man, a Christian, would give me a piece to eat and even offer me, because of my blistered heel, an hour's relief upon Grys's back. Outside Vibray, faced with another mass of misery, I had thought, I merely hunger, they starve; this pain which is so sharp after only three days has been theirs for a long time. Then I had broken down and cried, "Is there nothing we can do to relieve them?" And the beggars had taken up the cry and pressed close, perhaps in hope, and clawed us with their hands. Brother Lawrence, with the capon, a piece of cheese, and the better part of a loaf safe in his saddlebag, had urged Grys forward, chiding me for making a scene.

Now, late in the afternoon of the third day, we were moving towards another group of beggars, the biggest group we had yet seen, and Brother Lawrence was saying, "No more hysteria, if you please."

There were between fifteen and twenty of them, and several were children. Some part of my mind, dissociating itself from their misery and mine, noted that in each group we had encountered the women had outnumbered the men. Did women more easily leave their homes and throw themselves upon the charity of the road, or did women, accustomed to denying themselves in the interests of their menfolk and their children, more easily survive in a time of shortage?

They were all quite horrible to look at, clad in tatters, skeletonthin, their faces touched with an earthly pallor. As they surged about us I found myself staring at one of the women, a tall, emaciated creature, the mother of two children. The little things, pale and thin and dirty, clung to her skirts, and though they looked as no human children should, they had, by contrast with the rest of the group, something of liveliness, of hope. It went through my mind that whatever, in these starving days, had been given to the woman had been passed on to the children, and that was why they looked better and she looked worse than the rest of the mob. I regretted passionately at that moment that I had emptied my food bag on the first day.

Brother Lawrence checked Grys, opened his alms bag, and distributed the few coppers which it held. I saw, I shared, the deadly disappointment of those who had asked for bread and been given an inedible coin. I touched his arm, stretched up, and whispered in his ear, "Brother Lawrence, the children -- give them what remains in your bag."

He hissed at me, "No, no! That would cause trouble. Will you be quiet, as I bade you?" Raising his voice, he said, "Good people, I have nothing more. Kindly make way for me." Then out of the side of his mouth he said to me, "Take Grys's bridle and clear me a path."

"They are hungry," I said.

Brother Lawrence turned upon me savagely. "You young fool," he said, "will my hunger mend theirs? Clear me a path before we have trouble." Raising his voice again, he said unctuously, "Good people, I have nothing more to give you save my prayers. Kindly make way there." He jerked Grys's rein, and the meek old horse stood weaving from side to side for a moment, for now the beggars were thick about us. Maybe they drew some faint hope from our argument and delay; maybe they had seen the bag.

At that moment there was no thought in my mind save that Brother Lawrence had eaten fully already that day and would find supper awaiting him when we reached Gorbalze and that there was enough food in the bag to give the children of the party a mouthful or two, enough to ease for a little while that gnawing in the belly about which I was learning. I reached out and laid my hand on the bag, and Brother Lawrence slapped out at me pettishly, like a child defending some treasured bit of rubbish. "You fool," he cried, "what is that amongst so many?"

Through the strange buzzing that had been in my ears all day I heard a great bell, louder and clearer than the St. Denis bell at Gorbalze, ring out. Weren't those the very words which Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, had spoken to Christ just before the feeding of the five thousand? Couldn't I remember the page where those words were written in Brother Lawrence's own copy of the Gospel? It was edged with bluebells, set in a pattern, formal, stylized, beautiful, each bloom a trumpet blown to the glory of God. God, who had fed five thousand upon five barley loaves and two small fishes, could feed twenty on a roast capon, half a loaf, and a piece of cheese.

A mad elation seized me. I snatched again at the bag, and when Brother Lawrence again fended me off I struck at him. Taken completely by surprise, he rolled from the palfrey's back and lay supine on the bleached winter grass by the roadside. Grys turned his head questioningly, saw me, and stood steady. The beggars pressed a little closer.

I began to pray as I had never prayed in all my life before. Incoherent, passionate, muddled petitions poured through my mind as I fumbled with the string of the bag and plunged in my hand. And I felt something -- a vibration, a connection, a surety -- something we have no word for, something I had never felt before when I prayed, something that made me certain that God had heard me and would work His miracle.

The capon came out first. It had been trussed and roasted whole,but the skewer had been removed and the flesh was tender, easily broken. Praying, calling, drawing upon God and feeling the deep, calm certainty of His presence, I tore off the leg and thigh of the fowl and held it out to the woman with the two children. She took it, broke it again, and held a piece to each child. The gesture was beautiful; it held all the self-abnegation and tenderness in the world. God saw it too; I felt the throb of His perception. I was dizzy with love for her, for all these gaunt, hungry people, and for God, who was working this miracle. I heard my own voice, thin, high, exalted, cry:

"Wait, wait, there will be enough for all."

It was answered by a low moaning cry with something of despair, of savagery, and yet of patience in it.

Were they conscious of the miracle? I only know that they stood quietly, watching, waiting. No one pushed farther forward, no hand snatched the portion meant for another. Those to whom I proffered the pieces began to eat with ferocity, each solitary and wary.

The fowl was not multiplied in my hands, but I was not discouraged. At the end, when all was spent, the miracle would come. I broke the bread and the piece of cheese and distributed them, all the time with a faith which, if it were not the perfect faith commended in Holy Writ, was genuine and vigorous and expectant. I did expect that the last piece of cheese would go on, being divided, and even when my hands were empty and the bag dangled limp between my fingers I only prayed more urgently and waited. Now, now is the moment when heaven leans towards earth and the veil of sense and reason is rent; now is the moment of the miracle.

Nothing happened. The confidence, the sense of power, the expectancy drained out of me like lifeblood from a mortal wound. I heard a low, despairing "Ah-h-h" sigh through the crowd; saw, through a mist that seemed to redden before my eyes, the pale, thin, disappointed faces. Two or three -- one of them the mother of the two children -- had received nothing; and nobody had had more than a crumb to tantalize and mock his famine. I had loved them and pitied them and hurt them. A blundering, credulous fool who believed in miracles.

I threw the bag from me. I began to cry. I sobbed out:

"I am sorry, sorry. I thought there would be enough for all. If God had listened there would have been enough for all."

Grys turned his patient head at the sound of my voice and I went forward, meaning to lay my face on his smooth warm neck; but Brother Lawrence's face came up at me from the other side of the horse's shoulder and glared at me through the mist. His face was full of fear and hatred and fury; the mouth in it opened and he cursed me, using words even the roughest archers speak sparingly, words no monk should know. I looked at him across Grys's gray shoulder and said, "God failed me, I tell you. I'd have done better to ask the devil. God can no longer work even a little miracle..."

And then I died and went straight to hell.

II

I knew where I was before I opened my eyes. I could smell the thick, acrid odor of charring flesh, the greasy smoke of the fire, and knew that I was in the place where the damned roast forever and forever upon the devil's unconsuming grid. And I could hear the wild, jubilant cry of the fiends.

I was not surprised to find myself in hell; I had died with blasphemous words on my lips and rebellion against God in my heart; my sins were unshriven, my soul unhouseled. I was surprised to find that I remembered everything so clearly and that my general feeling was one of calm acceptance. During my lifetime I had several times known, at a vivid description, written or spoken, of hell, an overmastering sense of terror; I did not feel it now. Nor -- and this was also surprising -- was I repentant. I remember that St. Anthony of Tours, in his Analysis of the Seventeen Worst Pains of Hell, had laid great emphasis upon "that agony of mind arising from the consciousness of sin when the time for confession and absolution is past."

Certainly I had died in a state of grievous sin, but now, lying here on the edge of the pit, I was not tormented by any sense of guilt. My mind acknowledged that I had been presumptuous, violent, and blasphemous, but in my heart I could still think: God abandoned me first; He failed me while I was believing and praying to Him.

At that -- as had been my habit on earth when visited by a dubious or unorthodox thought -- my hand moved to make the sign over my breast, my lips to mutter, "God forgive me!" But I remembered that here there was no need for that. One of the pains of hell is that God has no cognizance of it.

Then it occurred to me that in this indeterminate moment, while I was not racked by torment, or maddened with fear, or torn by pangs of ineffectual repentance, I should look about me and see how near the saints and mystics had been in their forecasts of the exact nature of damnation. The whole idea of hell -- the description of which had been so terrifying -- was, I realized, constructed upon singularly little evidence. Now I would open my eyes and see how it was that a man whose body had been rendered insentient by death and laid away to rot in the cool moist earth could yet, in his actual flesh and bones, suffer the pains of the undying worm, the unquenched fire.

With a considerable effort I opened my eyes and raised my head a little.

Every single thing that had been written about hell was true. It was all in darkness, save where it was lighted by the glow of the pit in which burned a fire the like of which was never seen on earth; it was at once clear and murky, foul and bright. And outlined against the glow, in a black frieze, were the figures of the fiends, leaping and prancing and yelling, raking with long rods in the fire, turning over the bodies of the damned, so that their pains might increase infinitely. Over all there hung the horrible stench of fire, charred flesh, blood.

I closed my eyes and let my head drop back: Presently one of the fiends would notice me and toss me into the fire. And there I should be in the company of all those men and women whose memories had been preserved because of their iniquity. Judas Iscariot, Herod, Pontius Pilate, all wizards and witches and warlocks, all heretics; Crispin of Chalus, whose fire had started during his lifetime because he had denied the possibility of transubstantiation; Peter Abelard, outcast and maimed for love of Héloïse.

At that thought I raised my head again and looked towards the fire. This time I recognized one of the dark figures with the long rods. It was the thin, skeleton-thin, woman whose piteous plight had, in the final issue, been partly responsible for my last earthly action. So she was dead too. Of course she had been dying of hunger when she made that beautiful life-giving gesture and divided the food between her children. What was she doing in hell? That same old feeling of rebellion moved in my heart and, forgetting that I was now far beneath the notice of God, I thought: O God, whatever she had done before, couldn't that self-denial have been counted to her for virtue?

Then I saw that, to a degree, it had been. For she had been early promoted to fiendship. She was free; she was moving around the edge of the pit, sedulously attending to the business of turning the damned, and when the light from the fire leaped and illumined her face I saw that she looked far happier than I remembered. And the children were with her, still clinging to her skirt as she moved through the murk and the glare and the stench.

Perhaps there were degrees in hell; a social order undreamed of by the mystics.

While I watched, the woman used her rod vigorously and then threw it aside. She pushed the children back a little and took the hem of her ragged skirt in her hand and stooped over the pit. Then, carrying something which I could not identify, she moved away, drawing the children within the curve of her unencumbered arm. Gentleness, happiness in hell, I thought, amazed.

Her movement had left a clear space in front of me. I could stare straight out towards the other side of the pit. And on the other side I could see Grys -- or what was left of him. The lurid light of the fire shone on the white, bloodied bones, sharp, distorted, horrible, and on the silky flow of tail and mane, the gentle, unmolested beauty of his head. His ribs were a cage of horror out of which the writhing, bloody mess of entrails spilled; his haunches and shoulders were stripped of flesh -- even the neck against which I had leaned my sorrow.

The sight of him brought me back to my senses. I realized that I was still on earth and that earth has horrors hell never dreams of.

I do pray to Almighty God for forgiveness of that thought. He had wrought the miracle for which I had prayed, and at first sight of it I recoiled in horrified repudiation. Dear, loving, omniscient Father, forgive me for grudging Grys to Thy poor, as Brother Lawrence grudged the capon.

It was only that I had loved the gray horse and he had been fond of me, and his sudden transformation into a mass of bones and filth lying in a pool of blood was horrible and shocking.

The woman came and sat down near me. Still protecting her hands with her skirt, she wrenched the joint into pieces, blew on them to cool them a little, handed each child a share, and then fell on her own like a wolf. The meat had been blackened and charred on the outside but was still raw within, and as she ate the melted fat, the blood, the very life juices of the palfrey, spurted out and splashed over her hands, her chin, her clothing. The other beggars were following her example and dragging out their portions of meat; the fire burned up more brightly, and the fierce Eckering glare lighted the strange, macabre scene.

I had prayed that there should be enough for all, and indeed, here was plenty and to spare -- I did briefly wonder whether the miracle as I had desired it, the increase of the bag's contents, would not have been cleaner and neater and less horrible, but I put that thought away; even Christ had been content to say, "Not as I will but as Thou willest."

Then it occurred to me to wonder what had happened to Brother Lawrence. I struggled into a sitting position and looked about. I saw no sign of him and after a moment's searching stare I found my eyes resting again on the woman who sat nearest me. She stopped eating, and her hand with the meat in it fell to her lap. I saw confusion and uncertainty come upon her. Perhaps she credited me with some share in the ownership of the horse, or was conscious of the way she was eating. I tried to smile at her reassuringly. She stared back unsmiling for a moment and then rose and, walking jerkily, as though moved by some compulsion which she resented, came towards me. As she did so she pulled savagely at the meat and when she reached me had succeeded in tearing it into two parts. She held one out to me without a word -- indeed, she held it out with her face averted; she was looking back over her shoulder to see that no one pounced upon her children's meat during her brief absence.

Even as I leaned away from that dreadful dripping bit of carrion a small quiet voice spoke in my mind, saying that here was a real miracle; that this human creature who had starved through so many yesterdays and knew that hunger awaited her tomorrow, who had borne and must go on bearing the pangs of hunger other than her own -- that she should be willing to share this chance-come bit of food was a miracle; straight from the hand of God. I saw the glory of her soul shine over her rags and ugliness and filth, making her one with the angels.

I said, "I thank you from my heart, but my supper awaits me. Keep what you have."

"There is plenty for all tonight," she said gruffly. "And you look hungry."

"I can eat later," I said. She glanced back at her children who were happily worrying away at their meat like puppies; then she looked at me again. Her hands with their burden of meat dropped to her sides. Her eyes took on a most curious look, sly, wary, apologetic, desperate. And I knew that she wanted to speak about Grys; that she thought that I had refused the meat out of distaste; that I was resentful. But she said nothing, nor did I, and after a second she walked back to her children.

I got to my feet, feeling weak and exhausted. I looked out across the mass of gobbling beggars, the fire, the dreadful remains of Grys. And as before my eyes came back to the woman. She was gnawing her meat again; one of the children, satiated, had dropped his head into her lap and lay sleeping, his fist still clenched about an unsightly bone. And suddenly I thought of a way in which I could answer all those things she had not said and at the same time profit her a little. I moved towards her and leaned down as though to tell her a secret.

"There is the tongue," I said quietly. "Smoked over the fire, it would last for a day or two. The tongue -- in the horse's head."

Bewilderment gave way to understanding. She was radiant again. "God bless you, God bless you," she said. She shifted the sleeping child, patted the other, and shot me one more glowing, grateful look. Then, furtive and crafty as a wolf, she went sidling towards the carcass. I saw her bend, grim, purposeful, over the supine gray head, the head which had nuzzled me softly while I had nibbled the corn grains. Had I been obedient and laid my hand to the bridle instead of the saddlebag, Grys would now have been safe in his stable. And the beggars -- the woman and the children among them -- would still be hungry! Oh, it was all too hard to understand; too complicated; too puzzling.

I suddenly remembered Father Simplon's words when I had told him that I had been chosen to accompany Brother Lawrence. "Good," he had said, "it will be a valuable experience for you."

A valuable experience, I said to myself; and, limping away in the direction of Gorbalze, I compared the state of mind and body which I had set out with to that in which I was returning. If I had really died and been resurrected I could hardly have felt more changed.

III

I ARRIVED BACK AT GORBALZE JUST at midnight, when the bell was ringing for matins; Father Simplon had not gone to bed but was waiting for me in the porter's lodge with a blanket draped over his shoulders. The sight of him told me that Brother Lawrence had reached home safely (I later learned that he had managed to borrow a horse along the road), and the expression with which I was greeted warned me that the story of my behavior had lost nothing in the telling.

I think that if on my arrival I had been given food and allowed to go to bed I might, by the morning, have recovered some measure of sanity. I expected rebuke and punishment. A novice does not, with impunity, strike his superior and precipitate a situation which loses his monastery a good palfrey. I expected, as I reeled and stumbled back to Gorbalze, that there was a beating in store for me, a stern rebuke from the chapter, and some days on bread-and-water diet. Father Simplon was a great believer in the last-named method of cooling hot heads and hot tempers. I even carried my gloomy anticipations a little farther and visualized some more subtle method of punishment, being forbidden to work on my manuscript, or set to perform some task known to be distasteful. I swear that I was prepared to accept such penances in the proper meek spirit, for I had smitten Brother Lawrence and I had been responsible for Grys's end.

But I had underrated Brother Lawrence's anger and his cunning. He had made a report about me which had created an atmosphere in which, with very little help from me, in my hysterical, exhausted state, far more serious charges flourished.

The first ominous note was struck by Father Simplon when, on his return from matins, he began to question me.

"And what exactly was your intention when you snatched the bag?"

"To feed the beggars, Father."

"Knowing their numbers and how little food was left?" I nodded.

"How then could you hope to carry out your intention?"

"I hoped," I said, "for a miracle."

And Father Simplon said, "That smacks of heresy."

Later in my life, on the rare occasions when I remembered the ensuing six days, I tried to be tolerant and to remind myself that most of the men with whom I had then to deal were old, were professionally religious, bringing to matters of doctrine all the interest and passion and prejudice which men of the outer world devote to a number of diffuse ends; were all, or most of them, celibate, a state which I now see is not conducive to cool judgment, but rather to hysteria easily provoked and tempers easily exacerbated.

I can forgive them now -- can see, in fact, that there was little save stupidity for which to blame them; but when at the end of six days I lay in the punishment cell at Gorbalze, beaten black and blue, empty-bellied, filthy, and despondent, I hated them all.

I could see even then that I had managed badly. I had allowed myself to be provoked into making reckless statements on the one hand and endeavoring to explain the inexplicable on the other. My interview with Brother Gaspard, who, as steward, was responsible for the business of buying a new horse and who was furious with me, opened with a pious lecture upon the estates of man, during which he informed me that since God had laid starvation upon the beggars it was presumptuous and blasphemous to interfere with that state; and it ended somehow with me shouting that it was very wrong for the monastery to demand the full manorial dues during a time of famine and, further, that the whole economy of our community was in direct opposition to the rule of poverty laid down by our Founder.

But to the sub-prior, who came to me quietly and talked in a sympathetic manner, I tried to explain that there was a miracle. Not by the multiplication of small viands, not by the fall of manna from heaven, but by the upspring of an idea of killing the palfrey. The sub-prior was smooth, infinitely deceptive; to talk to him after the others was like the ease that follows a bout of toothache. I told him, poor fool that I was, about the other miracle -- the woman's holding out of the meat to me. I told him how, for a moment, she looked like an angel.

No lunatic set on self-destruction ever hanged himself more thoroughly. By the end of six days the charges of striking Brother Lawrence and inciting the mob to devour Grys had been most almost forgotten. I was charged was heresy, blasphemy, and devil worship.

Dirk, the lay brother who attended to such matters, had laid on the stripes with enthusiasm; it was now nine days since I had eaten a proper meal; the blister on my heel had festered until my leg as far as the knee was purple and puffy, and on the evening when my lord abbot, Guibert of Gorbalze, summoned me to his presence, I was as miserable a creature as any overlord could wish to own.

IV

I HAD BEEN AN INMATE OF Gorbalze for almost two years, but I had never set eyes upon its abbot. He was confined, by reasons of his lameness, to his own apartments, and there had hitherto been no reason why I, a novice, should enter his presence. This remoteness, combined with the story of his past -- exciting even to our cloistered youth -- made him more of a legendary figure than an actual human being; yet his influence and authority were vital and permeating and everybody in Gorbalze regarded him with awe.

The story told of him was that in his youth he had been a famous knight, remarkable for skill and valor. He had gone to the Holy Land, acquitted himself superbly, and been one of the most favored nominees for the crown of Jerusalem. But in an affray near Joppa he had been set upon by five Saracens, and though he had fought them single-handed, left three dead and two wounded on the field, and ridden back in triumph, he had been wounded, it was thought mortally. A spear had pierced his thigh and broken off, leaving the head in the wound, too deeply embedded in the bone for any surgeon to remove. He had lain for weeks in the care of the Knights Hospitallers and then, emerging crippled, had taken himself and the moderate fortune gained from looting the Saracens to Cassino in Italy and remained there, an obscure monk, for some years. Legend attributed his sudden promotion to the abbacy of Gorbalze to his indiscreet sponsoring, in the presence of a visiting dignitary, of the claims of Matilda to the throne of England. Matilda, regarded as a better Christian than her cousin Stephen, was secretly favored in high places, and Guibert's unorthodox opinion, though sternly rebuked by his own community, resulted in his promotion. He was now in the seventh decade of his age and immobile. The spearhead was still embedded in his thigh, and splinters of the bone were said to work out beside it at intervals. It was also said that he suffered perpetual pain and resorted to the use of strange Eastern drugs for its relief.

On the evening when my lord abbot sent for me I wished heartily amidst all my awe and apprehension that I had been able to meet the subject of this interesting history in more favorable circumstances. At this moment my lively curiosity, my tendency to hero worship were, like most other things about me, at a very low ebb.

The cell in which I had been lying was semi-dark even at noonday, and the passages through which I limped on my way to the abbot's parlor were black tunnels in which here and there the sparingly placed candles behind their horn shields cast a flickering, intermittent glow. By contrast the parlor was dazzlingly bright, and for a moment or two after my entry I was blinded and blinking like a bat disturbed at midday. It was a small room, circular in shape, and the stone walls, recently whitened, caught and reflected the yellow light of the many candles, the red light of the fire.

There was a smell of food in the room too -- fish, hot butter, fresh bread -- and I felt my shrunken stomach move, half tantalized, half nauseated. I stood squinting, violently willing myself not to be sick. And out of the glare a cool hard voice said:

"You had better sit down. There is a stool within reach of your left hand."

I reached out, found the stool, and sat down, wincing on account of my bruised buttocks. Once I was seated, the sickness left me; my eyes adjusted themselves to the light and in a moment I was able to look about me.

My lord abbot sat in a high-backed chair, his lame leg supported on a stool and covered with a rug of wolfskins. On his right stood a table bearing books, an inkpot and several quills, and a litter of parchments; on his left its fellow bore a flagon, some goblets, and a covered dish or two. I saw so much before I ventured to raise my eyes and look into his face.

Save for its color, a reddish-brown, and the fact that the eyes were open and lively, it might have been a death mask, so harsh and deep and final were its lines. The bones of the brow, the cheek, the jaw, stood out sharply, separated by deep hollowed shadows. Under the bony, jutting nose the mouth was thin, the lips closely folded. Only the eyes, set far back in sunken sockets and yet prominent, were alive, movable, acutely aware. They made me think inconsequently, uncomfortably, of an animal looking out of a den or rock. Altogether a formidable face. I made up my mind that this time I would attempt no explanation, commit myself to nothing. I was briefly thankful for my experience with Father Simplon, Brother Gaspard, and the chapter. This time I would confine myself to expressions of penitence. Even to the question which had tripped me into volubility before, "Do you believe that the devil answers prayer?" I would say, "I am sorry. I expressed myself ill."

In that resolve I faced my abbot, waiting. We looked at one another for what seemed an embarrassingly long time. At last he said, "Well, you seem to have set this whole place by the ears pretty thoroughly."

And I, adhering to my resolve, said, "I am sorry, my lord."

"For your behavior or its result?"

"Just generally sorry, my lord."

I saw him glance towards the table on his right. I knew at once that somewhere there, amongst the litter of parchments, written in the sub-prior's vile crabbed hand, was a full account of my offenses.

"I should like to hear your own story of the whole episode," he said. "Begin at the beginning and omit nothing."

That was very much akin to the opening used by the sub-prior. Compared with Father Simplon's staccato questions and Brother Gaspard's angry denunciations, it had a friendly sound; but I had been caught on that hook once and was now wary.

"My Lord," I said, "the full account would weary you, and only confirm the charges laid against me. I am very sorry that I struck Brother Lawrence and led to the death of Grys, and for the other ancillary offenses which I committed without full knowledge."

"You talk like a lawman, boy. And the information that you are responsible for a death is news to me. Who was this unfortunate Grys?"

"The gray palfrey, my lord."

"Oh. Of course. Grys...The report merely mentioned a palfrey. I remember Grys. He must have been all of eighteen years old. A toughish dish, I would say. For one moment I imagined that you were referring to one of the beggars either killed in the melee or dead from sudden overeating. That was a very real danger, you know. I have known men, after the relief of sieges, to die from repletion. I suppose you didn't think of that."

"No, my lord."

He sat silent for a little, and I thought, He is old, his mind may be a little vague; that mention of sieges may have sent his thoughts running backwards. He may forget that he asked me to retell the story and so I shall have escaped from further involvement.

"And now," he said, "tell me -- why are you so reluctant to give me your own account?"

Startled into frankness, I told him: "Because, my lord, each time I tell the story I worsen matters. Each time something is seized upon and twisted and -- "

"Do you think that I am likely to twist anything you say?" The harsh voice was menacing; so was the piercing stare with which he fixed me. I felt cold suddenly and remembered that within the Church a man accused of murder had the benefit of clergy and the "neck sentence" in his favor, while heresy was another matter. I knew that now in my mind; I might shortly know it through my shrinking flesh...

"Answer me," he said.

"Not wittingly, my lord, any more than I wittingly intended to do more than give a few starving people something to eat, but -- "

"It may be that by age and experience I am enabled to judge better than you, child. Go on, tell me your story."

So for the fourth or fifth time I recounted all that had happened on the road between Chateautour and Gorbalze. My other listeners had interrupted, either with questions or comments, and contrived to make me angry, or emphatic, or wild headed. Guibert listened in silence, never taking his eyes from my face; and, oddly enough, this time parts of my story sounded -- there was no other word for it -- silly.

"I see," he said when I had done. "And now tell me honestly, do you believe that you worked a miracle?" A trap straightaway, I thought despairingly.

"My lord, I never claimed -- "

"Of course not. How suspicious you are! I beg your pardon. Are you still of the opinion that a miracle occurred?"

"At the time," I said cautiously, "and sometimes since. Until now, in fact. Now I am not so sure."

"Naturally. Credulity in one's listener, even though it be tinctured with horror and superstition, is very stimulating to the imagination. I do not believe in your miracle, but then neither do I believe that you are a heretic, a blasphemer, or a worshipper of the devil. I think you're a softhearted, pumpkin-headed boy who has led too sheltered a life and been somewhat suddenly confronted with the problem of suffering. Even your extremely ill-advised outburst to Brother Gaspard upon the immorality of monastic property I can see for what it is -- a youthful impatience with a state of society in which things happen to affront your feelings." He paused for a moment to allow these comforting, if rather contemptuous, words to sink in and then went on, "And I'll wager my dinner tomorrow that if Father Simplon and the rest of them hadn't taught you the wisdom of keeping your mouth shut you would now proceed to blurt out to me all that is in your mind. You would demand to know why, if God be merciful, He lets folks starve; and why men like Brother Lawrence and the sub-prior, who have spent their lives in His service, should show themselves in a crisis to be greedy, uncharitable, and even a little cruel. Am I not right?"

He was so exactly right -- he had reduced all the dark confusion of my mind to two such simple questions that I gaped at him in wonder.

"Don't look so moon-struck," he said. "Do you think you're the first to ask these unanswerable questions?"

"They are -- unanswerable?"

"They are answered every day by arrogant fools who juggle words as tricksters juggle plates at fairs. If we had time and if my memory still serves me I could quote you the whole of St. Blaise's Thoughts on the Subject of Human Pain, not to mention a dozen other authorities. But the questions remain unanswerable. Even Christ never attempted to explain. Certainly He said that not a sparrow falls without God's knowledge -- not concern, mark you, knowledge; but that reflection must have been of little comfort to all the blind in Palestine who didn't happen to be blind Bartimaeus; or to the hundreds who doubtless went hungry to bed on the night when five thousand were fed by the lakeside; or to the fathers whose little daughters were dead, not sleeping; or to all the widows who chanced not to live in Nain and so must perforce bury their dead sons. Christ never asked why men are hungry, afflicted, bereaved. Within the scope of His attention He relieved distress when He met it and for the rest accepted or ignored it. An example I commend to you."

"But Brother Lawrence -- "

"Bless you, child, Brother Lawrence was just a hungry old man who wanted to get home and realized that you can't feed nineteen people on one capon. By the time you are his age you'll know that,too, and also that if God were concerned with empty bellies He'd have made figs grow on thistles, or so constructed us that we would find oak leaves appetizing and nourishing. The fact remains that He didn't and we must accept it without making futile protests which can only result in charges of unorthodoxy."

Both glance and voice had softened into something approaching kindliness. I should have been cheered by that and by his tolerant summing up of my behavior; yet every cool, reasonable sentence seemed to add weight to my depression. Father Simplon sentencing me to bread and water, Dirk laying on the stripes with good will, Brother Gaspard arguing hotly about manorial dues had, after all, been acting in a known and approved pattern, implying that God was good and that I was a sinner to have entertained even a moment's doubt. But Guibert, under the kindliness, was saying in effect that God was, at best, an enigma, and that I was a fool not to have seen that and kept quiet about it. It was rather as though a physician called in to treat me for a mild form of some disease had suggested no medicine but, baring his own breast, had said, "See I ail the same thing but I survive, so will you."

"What we must now consider," Guibert said in a brisker voice, "is the practical side of the question. Before we embark upon that, pour me some wine and take a measure yourself.... Thank you. Now what I have to say is this. I think it would be very unwise for you to remain here. Brother Lawrence will doubtless do his duty and forgive you for striking him, Brother Gaspard will one day outlive the loss of the palfrey and your revolutionary remarks about church property, but something will remain and for many years, in a community of this size, everything you do or say will be, in a measure, suspect. You agree? I understand that you are a penman of some promise, so I propose sending you to Arcelles, where they will welcome you. In twenty years they have never succeeded in breeding a penman of their own. You should do well there. And certainly the manorial dues will concern you very little; it is the poorest foundation in Burgundy, and as a rest from writing you will doubtless till your own field and fish for your own eels." The mockery of the last words was mitigated by a smile which altered his whole face, making it friendly and conspiratorial. And one small corner of my mind put forth the thought, Oh, I'd like to have known you as a young man, seen that understanding, merry look come into your face as we sat in a pennanted tent planning an assault on the infidel ...But the main trend of my thoughts ran another way: This is the moment when I must speak; I must say it now, but what words can I find?

"And now, I suppose," he said, "you will proceed to tell me that you don't want to go to Arcelles or anywhere else; that you don't want to be a monk at all; that you have lost your faith and with it your vocation and propose to rush away into the world and commit all the seven deadly sins at once." He smiled at me again, and I found myself smiling back.

"I hadn't thought yet of the sins, my lord. But -- but the rest is what I have been thinking for the past few days." He became serious immediately.

"Have you taken any orders yet?"

"No, my lord."

"Why did you enter in the first place?"

"My father -- "

"Oh yes! Something to do with a vow, wasn't it? A son, and a manor out of his many for Holy Church if his leg -- was it his leg? -- mended. Why were you chosen?"

"I was the youngest and, as a child, small. In his opinion I had not the makings of a knight."

"Come here, show me your hands."

I stood up stiffly. The wine I had drunk -- sweet and strong -- had gone to my head a little, and the floor seemed a long way away. I thrust out my hands, regretting their slight unsteadiness and their more than slight uncleanliness; there was no provision for washing in the punishment cell. Guibert took them in his own, which were thin but of steely strength, and bent back my thumbs and flexed my wrists.

"Your father was right," he said, giving me back my hands as though they were something he had borrowed. "A born penman's hands; useless for anything heavier than a dagger. Did you play any instrument?"

"The lute -- a little," I said humbly.

"Would you be welcomed at home? Would your father -- "

"He would crack my skull for me and then, if I survived, send me back." That was the truth, innocent of exaggeration. My father was a terrible, fierce man. I remembered my three sisters, packed off one by one as soon as they had reached marriageable age, to marry men they had never seen; they had been terrified, weeping, and, save by my brother William and me, completely unpitied. I remembered William himself, thrown from an unmanageable horse and then savagely beaten for allowing himself to be thrown; and my other brother, whom fat nauseated, condemned to eat fat and fat only for a week, "to teach him to master his belly." More than once in the past I had been grateful that Father had dedicated me to the Church, for my training was left to a tutor, and so long as I minded my book and remained unobtrusive I escaped notice. I had been beaten twice; once for trying, in a moment of madness, to ride the horse which had thrown William, and again when the curtain wall was being repaired at our castle and I had slipped away to watch the masons at work. Horses and buildings had always been a passion with me, but Father considered that interest in either was unsuitable to one destined to be a monk; and a beating from him was a powerful argument. I knew that if I went home now, with some muddled explanation about lack of vocation, my shrift would be very short indeed.

"A cracked skull would complicate, rather than simplify, the problem of your future," my abbot said. "And it may be a problem. A few years ago I could have thought of a dozen noblemen to whom I could have recommended you as scribe and musician, but these are bad times. The idea of a new crusade hangs in the air, and even the greatest are beginning to count mouths at table and practice economy. Also, there are too many young men -- and quite a few women -- who can handle a pen after a fashion." There was another significant little pause. "It would be rather a pity, don't you think, if your sympathy with the starving poor resulted in your joining their numbers? At the moment you are angry with God for letting some peasants starve, angry with Brother Lawrence for not sharing your anger, angry with me for talking cold sense instead of hot theory. But I would quite seriously advise you not to let these angers -- which will pass -- ruin your whole career. There is a difference, you know, between a career and a vocation. Inside the Church a good penman has an assured future; outside it he may starve. I would advise you against making a hasty decision."

I knew that he was looking at me with kindly earnestness, but for the first time I found myself unable to meet his eyes. I was afraid that my own sudden knowledge might show in mine. For the course he was suggesting to me, I realized, was the one which he had chosen and pursued successfully. Disabled, frustrated, he had taken refuge in the Church, and to the same refuge he advised me to take my feeble penman's hands.

I looked beyond him, at the wall behind him, which was covered by a large piece of tapestry held out from the curve of the wall by a stretchered frame. It portrayed in horrible and realistic detail the scene upon Calvary; nothing of pain and terror and brutality was lacking. Looking at it, seeing the writhing, tortured limbs, the blood, the crown of thorns, the pierced side of Christ, the broken legs of the felons, the women weeping, and the Roman soldiers detachedly casting dice for the pitiful pieces of raiment, I thought of the heat of the Eastern sun, the flies which would swarm, the thirst, the consciousness of failure, of being ranked with common malefactors, and that final despairing sense of abandonment which had found voice in that inexpressibly desolate cry, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

And I knew why I had always known an unadmitted revulsion towards all the stories and pictures and crucifixes. That Good Friday represented the very nadir of human experience; as His idealism and kindness and perception were superior to other men's, so His final despair and disillusionment were fiercer. And the Church which bore His name had taken this unbearable moment for its very center -- was founded upon the theory of the scapegoat, the universal whipping boy. It advised, prescribed contemplation of this scene of horror. It gloated!

Small wonder, I thought, that a religion founded upon such human catastrophe breeds on the one hand Brother Lawrence, who can watch other men starve, and on the other Abbot Guibert, who can commend the Church as a career.

Guibert's voice reached me. "Well," he said, "you think things over. I shall tell Father Simplon that I think you have been punished enough and you had better return to your ordinary routine. Meanwhile I will communicate with Arcelles."

With fluency and courage owing in some measure to the effect of the good wine upon my empty stomach, I told him that I had no need to think anymore, my mind was made up: I didn't want to be a churchman, either as a votary or a careerist. I heard my own voice, as if from a distance, giving cogent if rather incoherent reasons. And finally, with a sense of horror I heard myself thanking my lord abbot for his tolerance and kindness, ending, "But then, of course, you shouldn't have been a churchman at all. You should have been King of Jerusalem."

Guibert was startled but unperturbed.

"Small wonder they think you uncanny, boy! Well, what of it? I should have been better than that bag of sawdust they crowned. I could have held -- " He broke off. A glint of self-mockery shone in his eyes. "There again, you young rebel, you have an instance of God's inscrutability of purpose. Countless good knights have spent their fortunes, shed their blood, starved, and suffered pestilence in attempts to free the holy places from the defiling hand of the infidel. Yet -- and I've seen this myself a dozen times -- even the wind will work against them. And when at last, despite everything, victory is obtained, fools and poltroons are permitted to fritter it away and all's to do again. And a new mass of poverty-stricken, hungry, plague-stricken enthusiasts will fling themselves forward, crying as we did, 'Deus vult' -- God wills it -- and having said that, you have said all." He shifted his leg an inch, wincing at the movement. "And it may be that God wills you should cast yourself upon the world. Who am I to gainsay it? The world may have need of you." His voice briskened again. "But I am not dismissing you. I want no trouble with your father. If you obey me you will go from this room and across to the infirmary, where Brother Ambrose will find you useful employment. So you understand?"

I did, perfectly. At Gorbalze the infirmary lay separate and at some distance from the main building and had its own entrance. Brother Ambrose, the infirmarian, was as deaf as the biblical adder and took no notice of anything or anybody outside his own province. I could walk out by the infirmary gateway where there was no porter's lodge. Father Simplon would hear that I had been ordered to the infirmary, Brother Ambrose would never know that I was sent there; it might be weeks or months before the community at Gorbalze woke up to the fact that it was one novice short. I was going to drop away as unnoticed and unmissed as a leaf from a heavily foliaged tree.

Looking back, I realize that Guibert taught me, without homily, without stripes, a profound lesson in humility.

Copyright © 1951 by Norah Lofts
Copyright renewed © 1975 by Norah Lofts

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