Read Brother Cadfael's Penance Online

Authors: Ellis Peters

Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical

Brother Cadfael's Penance (2 page)

BOOK: Brother Cadfael's Penance
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Brother Cadfael was standing in the middle of his walled herb-garden, looking pensively about him at the autumnal visage of his pleasance, where all things grew gaunt, wiry and sombre. Most of the leaves were fallen, the stems dark and clenched like fleshless fingers holding fast to the remnant of the summer, all the fragrances gathered into one scent of age and decline, still sweet, but with the damp, rotting sweetness of harvest over and decay setting in. It was not yet very cold, the mild melancholy of November still had lingering gold in it, in falling leaves and slanting amber light. All the apples were in the loft, all the corn milled, the hay long stacked, the sheep turned into the stubble fields. A time to pause, to look round, to make sure nothing had been neglected, no fence unrepaired, against the winter.

He had never before been quite so acutely aware of the particular quality and function of November, its ripeness and its hushed sadness. The year proceeds not in a straight line through the seasons, but in a circle that brings the world and man back to the dimness and mystery in which both began, and out of which a new seed-time and a new generation are about to begin. Old men, thought Cadfael, believe in that new beginning, but experience only the ending. It may be that God is reminding me that I am approaching my November. Well, why regret it? November has beauty, has seen the harvest into the barns, even laid by next year's seed. No need to fret about not being allowed to stay and sow it, someone else will do that. So go contentedly into the earth with the moist, gentle, skeletal leaves, worn to cobweb fragility, like the skins of very old men, that bruise and stain at the mere brushing of the breeze, and flower into brown blotches as the leaves into rotting gold. The colours of late autumn are the colours of the sunset: the farewell of the year and the farewell of the day. And of the life of man? Well, if it ends in a flourish of gold, that is no bad ending.

Hugh, coming from the abbot's lodging, between haste to impart what he knew, and reluctance to deliver what could only be disturbing news, found his friend standing thus motionless in the middle of his small, beloved kingdom, staring rather within his own mind than at the straggling, autumnal growth about him. He started back to the outer world only when Hugh laid a hand on his shoulder, and visibly surfaced slowly from some secret place, fathoms deep in the centre of his being.

"God bless the work," said Hugh, and took him by the arms, "if any's been done here this afternoon. I thought you had taken root."

"I was pondering the circular nature of human life," said Cadfael, almost apologetically, "and the seasons of the year and the hours of the day. I never heard you come. I was not expecting to see you today."

"Nor would you have seen me, if Robert Bossu's intelligencers had been a little less busy. Come within," said Hugh, "and I'll tell you what's brewing. There's matter concerning all good churchmen, and I've just come from informing Radulfus. But there's also an item that will come close home to you. As indeed," he owned, thrusting the door of Cadfael's workshop open with a gusty sigh, "it does to me."

"You've heard from Leicester?" Cadfael eyed him thoughtfully from the threshold. "Earl Robert Bossu keeps in touch? He views you as one of his hopefuls, Hugh, if he's keeping that road open. What's he about now?"

"Not he, so much, though he'll be in it to the throat, whether he quite believes in it or not. No, it's certain of the bishops have made the first move, but there'll be some voices on either side, like Leicester's, to back their efforts."

Hugh sat down with him under the dangling bunches of drying herbs, stirring fragrantly along the beams in the draught from the open door, and told him of the proposed meeting at Coventry, of the safe conducts already being issued on either part, and of such prospects as existed of at any rate partial success.

"God he knows if either of them will so much as shift a foot. Stephen is exalted at having got Chester on his side, and Gloucester's own son into the bargain, but Maud knows her menfolk have made very sure of Normandy, and that will sway some of our barons who have lands over there to safeguard, as well as here. I can see more and more of the wiser sort paying mouth allegiance still, but making as little move in the martial kind as they can contrive. But by all means let's make the attempt. Roger de Clinton can be a powerful persuader when he's in good earnest, and he's in good earnest now, for his real quarry is the Atabeg Zenghi in Mosul, and his aim the recovery of Edessa. And Henry of Winchester will surely add his weight to the scale. Who knows? I've primed the abbot," said Hugh dubiously, "but I doubt if the bishops will call on the monastic arm, they'd rather keep the reins in their own hands."

"And how does this, however welcome and however dubious, concern me closely?" Cadfael wondered.

"Wait, there's more." He was carrying it carefully, for such news is brittle. He watched Cadfael's face anxiously as he asked: "You'll recall what happened in the summer at Robert of Gloucester's newly built castle of Faringdon? When Gloucester's younger son turned his coat, and his castellan gave over the castle to the king?"

"I remember," said Cadfael. "The men-at-arms had no choice but to change sides with him, their captains having sealed the surrender. And Cricklade went over with Philip, intact to a man."

"But many of the knights in Faringdon," said Hugh with deliberation, "refused the treason, and were overpowered and disarmed. Stephen handed them out to various of his allies, new and old, but I suspect the new did best out of it, and got the fattest prizes, to fix them gratefully in their new loyalty. Well, Leicester has been employing his agents round Oxford and Malmesbury to good effect, to ferret out the list of those made prisoner, and discover to whom they were given. Some have been bought out already, briskly enough. Some are on offer, and for prices high enough to sell very profitably. But there's one name, known to have been there, listed with no word of who holds him, and has not been seen or heard of since Faringdon fell. I doubt if the name means anything to Robert Bossu, more than the rest. But it does to me, Cadfael." He had his friend's full and wary attention; the tone of his voice, carefully moderate, was a warning rather than a reassurance. "And will to you."

"Not offered for ransom," said Cadfael, reckoning the odds with careful moderation in return, "and held very privately. It argues a more than ordinary animosity. That will be a price that comes high. Even if he will take a price."

"And in order to pay what may be asked," said Hugh ruefully, "Laurence d'Angers, so Leicester's agent says, has been enquiring for him everywhere without result. That name would be known to the earl, though not the names of the young men of his following. I am sorry to bring such news. Olivier de Bretagne was in Faringdon. And now Olivier de Bretagne is prisoner, and God knows where."

After the silence, a shared pause for breath and thought, and the mutual rearrangement of the immediate concerns that troubled them both, Cadfael said simply: "He is a young man like other young men. He knows the risks. He takes them with open eyes. What is there to be said for one more than the rest?"

"But this was a risk, I fancy, that he could not foresee. That Gloucester's own son should turn against him! And a risk Olivier was least armed to deal with, having so little conception of treachery. I don't know, Cadfael, how long he had been among the garrison, or what the feeling was among the young knights there. It seems many of them were with Olivier. The castle was barely completed, Philip filled it and wanted it defended well, and when it lay under siege Robert failed to lift a finger to save it. There's bitterness there. But Leicester will go on trying to find them all, to the last man. And if we're all to meet soon at Coventry, at least there may be agreement on a release of prisoners on both sides. We shall all be pressing for it, men of goodwill from both factions."

"Olivier ploughs his own furrow, and cuts his own swathe," said Cadfael, staring eastward through the timber wall before him, far eastward into drought and sand and sun, and the glittering sea along the shores of the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem, now menaced and in arms. The fabled world of Outremer, once familiar to him, where Olivier de Bretagne had grown up to choose, in young manhood, the faith of his unknown father. "I doubt," said Cadfael slowly, "any prison can hold him long. I am glad you have told me, Hugh. Bring me word if you get any further news."

But the voice, Hugh thought when he left his friend, was not that of a man fully confident of a good ending, nor the set of the face indicative of one absolute in faith and prepared to sit back and leave all either to Olivier or to God.

When Hugh was gone, with his own cares to keep him fully occupied, and his errand in friendship faithfully discharged, Cadfael damped down his brazier with turves, closed his workshop, and went away to the church. There was an hour yet to Vespers. Brother Winfrid was still methodically digging over a bed cleared of beans, to leave it to the frosts of the coming winter to crumble and refine. A thin veil of yellowed leaves still clung to the trees, and the roses were grown tall and leggy, small, cold buds forming at the tips, buds that would never open. In the vast, dim quiet of the church Cadfael made amicable obeisance to the altar of Saint Winifred, as to an intimate but revered friend, but for once hesitated to burden her with a charge for another man, and one even she might find hard to understand. True, Olivier was half Welsh, but that, hand in hand with all that was passionately Syrian in his looks and thoughts and principles, might prove even more confusing to her. So the only prayer he made to her was made without words, in the heart, offering affection in a gush of tenderness like the smoke of incense. She had forgiven him so much, and never shut him out. And this same year she had suffered flood and peril and contention, and come back safely to a deserved rest. Why disturb its sweetness with a trouble which belonged all to himself?

So he took his problem rather to the high altar, directly to the source of all strength, all power, all faithfulness, and for once he was not content to kneel, but prostrated himself in a cross on the cold flags, like an offender presenting his propitiatory body at the end of penance, though the offence he contemplated was not yet committed, and with great mercy and understanding on his superior's part might not be necessary. Nevertheless, he professed his intent now, in stark honesty, and besought rather comprehension than forgiveness. With his forehead chill against the stone he discarded words to present his compulsion, and let thoughts express the need that found him lucid but inarticulate. This I must do, whether with a blessing or a ban. For whether I am blessed or banned is of no consequence, provided what I have to do is done well.

At the end of Vespers he asked audience of Abbot Radulfus, and was admitted. In the private parlour they sat down together.

"Father, I believe Hugh Beringar has acquainted you with all that he has learned in letters from the Earl of Leicester. Has he also told you of the fate of the knights of Faringdon who refused to desert the empress?"

"He has," said Radulfus. "I have seen the list of names, and I know how they were disposed of. I trust that at this proposed meeting in Coventry some agreement may be reached for a general release of prisoners, even if nothing better can be achieved."

"Father, I wish I shared your trust, but I fear they are neither of them in any mind to give way. Howbeit, you will have noted the name of Olivier de Bretagne, who has not been located, and of whom nothing is known since Faringdon fell. His lord is willing and anxious to ransom him, but he has not been offered the opportunity. Father, I must tell you certain things concerning this young man, things I know Hugh will not have told you."

"I have some knowledge of the man myself," Radulfus reminded him, smiling, "when he came here four years ago at the time of Saint Winifred's translation, in search of a certain squire missing from his place after the conference in Winchester. I have not forgotten him."

"But this one thing," said Cadfael, "is still unknown to you, though it may be that I should have told you long since, when first he touched my life. I had not thought that there was any need, for I did not expect that in any way my commitment to this place could be changed. Nor did I suppose that I should ever meet him again, nor he ever have need of me. But now it seems meet and right that all should be made plain. Father," said Cadfael simply, "Olivier de Bretagne is my son."

There was a silence that fell with surprising serenity and gentleness. Men within the pale as without are still men, vulnerable and fallible. Radulfus had the wise man's distant respect for perfection, but no great expectation of meeting it in the way.

"When first I came to Palestine," said Cadfael, looking back without regret, "an eighteen-year-old boy, I met with a young widow in Antioch, and loved her. Long years afterwards, when I returned to sail from Saint Symeon on my way home, I met with her again, and lingered with her in kindness until the ship was ready to sail. I left her a son, of whom I knew nothing, until he came looking for two lost children, after the sack of Worcester. And I was glad and proud of him, and with good reason. For a short while, when he came the second time, you knew him. Judge if I was glad of him, or no."

"You had good reason," said Radulfus readily. "However he was got, he did honour to his getting. I dare make no reproach. You had taken no vows, you were young and far from home, and humanity is frail. No doubt this was confessed and repented long since."

"Confessed," said Cadfael bluntly, "yes, when I knew I had left her with child and unfriended, but that is not long ago. And repented? No, I doubt if ever I repented of loving her, for she was well worth any man's love. And bear in mind, Father, that I am Welsh, and in Wales there are no bastards but those whose fathers deny their paternity. Judge if I would ever deny my right to that bright, brave creature. The best thing ever I did was to cause him to be brought forth into a world where very few can match him."

BOOK: Brother Cadfael's Penance
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