Read Brother Cadfael's Penance Online

Authors: Ellis Peters

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

Brother Cadfael's Penance (32 page)

BOOK: Brother Cadfael's Penance
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Now, whether he himself had any rights remaining here or not, for very charity they must take in Hugh's tired horse, and allow him the shelter of the stables until he could be returned to the castle wards. If the broad doors opening from the horse fair into the burial ground had been unbarred, Cadfael would have entered the precinct that way, to reach the stables without having to ride round to the gatehouse, but he knew they would be fast closed. No matter, he had the length of the enclave wall to tell over pace by pace like beads, in gratitude, from the corner of the horse-fair to the gates, with the beloved bulk of the church like a warmth in the winter night on his left hand within the pale, a benediction all the way.

The interior was silent, the choir darkened, or he would have been able to detect the reflected glow from upper windows. So Matins and Lauds were past, and only the altar lamps left burning. The brothers must be all back in their beds, to sleep until they rose for Prime with the dawn. As well! He had time to prepare himself.

The silence and darkness of the gatehouse daunted him strangely, as if there would be no one within, and no means of entering, as though not only the gates, but the church, the Order, the embattled household within had been closed against him. It cost him an effort to pull the bell and shatter the cloistered quiet. He had to wait some minutes for the porter to rouse, but the first faint shuffle of sandalled feet within and the rattle of the bolt in its socket were welcome music to him.

The wicket opened wide, and Brother Porter leaned into the opening, peering to see what manner of traveller came ringing at this hour, his hair around the tonsure rumpled and erected from the pillow, his right cheek creased from its folds and his eyes dulled with sleep. Familiar, ordinary and benign, an earnest of the warmth of brotherhood within, if only the truant could earn reentry here.

"You're late abroad, friend," said the porter, looking from the shadow of a man to the shadow of a horse, breathing faint mist into the cold air.

"Or early," said Cadfael. "Do you not know me, brother?"

Whether it was the voice that was known, or the shape and the habit as vision cleared, the porter named him on the instant. "Cadfael? Is it truly you? We thought we had lost you. Well, and now so suddenly here on the doorsill again! You were not expected."

"I know it," said Cadfael ruefully. "We'll wait the lord abbot's word on what's to become of me. But let me in at least to see to this poor beast I've overridden. He belongs at the castle by rights, but if I may stable and tend him here for the night, he can go gently home tomorrow, whatever is decreed for me. Never trouble beyond that, I need no bed. Open the door and let me bring him in, and you go back to yours."

"I'd no thought of shutting you out," said the porter roundly, "but it takes me a while to wake at this hour." He was fumbling his key into the lock of the main gates, and hauling the half of the barrier open. "You're welcome to a brychan within here, if you will, when you're done with the horse."

The tired chestnut roan trod in delicately on the cobbles with small, frosty, ringing sounds. The heavy gate closed again behind them, and the key turned in the lock.

"Go and sleep," said Cadfael. "I'll be a while with him. Leave all else until morning. I have a word or so to say to God and Saint Winifred that will keep me occupied in the church the rest of the night." And he added, half against his will: "Had they scored me out as a bad debt?"

"No!" said the porter strenuously. "No such thing!"

But they had not expected him back. From the time that Hugh had returned from Coventry without him they must have said their goodbyes to him, those who were his friends, and shrugged him out of their lives, those who were less close, or even no friends to him. Brother Winfrid must have felt himself abandoned and betrayed in the herb garden.

"Then that was kind," said Cadfael with a sigh, and led the weary horse away over the chiming cobbles to the stables.

In the strawy warmth of the stall he made no haste. It was pleasant to be there with the eased and cossetted beast, and to be aware of the stirring of his contented neighbours in the other stalls. One creature at least returned here to a welcome. Cadfael went on grooming and polishing longer than there was any need, leaning his head against a burnished shoulder. Almost he fell asleep here, but sleep he could not afford yet. He left the living warmth of the horse's body reluctantly, and went out again into the cold, and crossed the court to the cloisters and the south door of the church.

If it was the sharp, clear cold of frost outside, it was the heavy, solemn cold of stone within the nave, near darkness, and utter silence. The similitude of death, but for the red-gold gleam of the constant lamp on the parish altar. Beyond, in the choir, two altar candles burned low. He stood in the solitude of the nave and gazed within. In the night offices he had always felt himself mysteriously enlarged to fill every corner, every crevice of the lofty vault where the lights could not reach, as if the soul shed the confines of the body, this shell of an ageing, no, an old man, subject to all the ills humanity inherits. Now he had no true right to mount the one shallow step that would take him into the monastic paradise. His lower place was here, among the laity, but he had no quarrel with that; he had known, among the humblest, spirits excelling archbishops, and as absolute in honour as earls. Only the need for this particular communal peace and service ached in him like a death-wound.

He lay down on his face, close, close, his overlong hair brushing the shallow step up into the choir, his brow against the chill of the tiles, the absurd bristles of his unshaven tonsure prickly as thorns. His arms he spread wide, clasping the uneven edges of the patterned paving as drowning men hold fast to drifting weed. He prayed without coherent words, for all those caught between right and expedient, between duty and conscience, between the affections of earth and the abnegations of heaven: for Jovetta de Montors, for her son, murdered quite practically and coldly to clear the way for a coup, for Robert Bossu and all those labouring for peace through repeated waves of disillusion and despair, for the young who had no clear guidance where to go, and the old, who had tried and discarded everything: for Olivier and Yves and their like, who in their scornful and ruthless purity despised the manipulations of subtler souls: for Cadfael, once a brother of the Benedictine house of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury, who had done what he had to do, and now waited to pay for it.

He did not sleep; but something short of a dream came into his alert and wakeful mind some while before dawn, as though the sun was rising before its hour, a warmth like a May morning full of blown hawthorn blossoms, and a girl, primrose-fair and unshorn, walking barefoot through the meadow grass, and smiling. He could not, or would not, go to her in her own altar within the choir, unabsolved as he was, but for a moment he had the lovely illusion that she had risen and was coming to him. Her white foot was on the very step beside his head, and she was stooping to touch him with her white hand, when the little bell in the dortoir rang to rouse the brothers for Prime.

Abbot Radulfus, rising earlier than usual, was before his household in entering the church. A cold but blood-red sun had just hoisted its rim above the horizon to eastward, while westward the sharp pricking of stars still lingered in a sky shading from dove-grey below to blue-black in the zenith. He entered by the south door, and found a habited monk lying motionless like a cross before the threshold of the choir.

The abbot checked and stood at gaze for a long moment, and then advanced to stand above the prone man and look down at him with a still and sombre face. The brown hair round the tonsure had grown longer than was quite seemly. There might even, he thought, be more grey in it than when last he had looked upon the face now so resolutely hidden from him.

"You," he said, not exclaiming, simply acknowledging the recognition, without implications of either acceptance or rejection. And after a moment: "You come late. News has been before you. The world is still changing."

Cadfael turned his head, his cheek against the stone, and said only: "Father!" asking nothing, promising nothing, repenting nothing.

"Some who rode a day or so before you," said Radulfus reflectively, "must have had better weather, and changes of horses at will along the way. Such word as comes to the castle Hugh brings also to me. The Earl of Gloucester and his younger son are reconciled. There have been fighting men at risk who have been spared. If we cannot yet have peace, at least every such mercy is an earnest of grace." His voice was low, measured and thoughtful. Cadfael had not looked up, to see his face. "Philip FitzRobert on his sickbed," said Radulfus, "has abjured the quarrels of kings and empresses, and taken the cross."

Cadfael drew breath and remembered. A way to go, when he despaired of princes. Though he would still find the princes of this world handling and mishandling the cause of Christendom as they mishandled the cause of England. All the more to be desired was this order and tranquillity within the pale, where the battle of heaven and hell was fought without bloodshed, with the weapons of the mind and the soul.

"It is enough!" said Abbot Radulfus. "Get up now, and come with your brothers into the choir."

BOOK: Brother Cadfael's Penance
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