Setting out for the Saint Giles leper colony outside Shrewsbury, Brother Cadfael has more pressing matters on his mind than the grand wedding coming to his abbey. But as fate would have it, Cadfael arrives at Saint Giles just as the nuptial party passes the colony’s gates.
He sees the fragile bride looking like a prisoner between her two stern guardians and the bridegroom—an arrogant, fleshy aristocrat old enough to be her grandfather. And he quickly discerns this union may be more damned than blessed. Indeed, a savage murder will interrupt the May–December marriage and leave Brother Cadfael with a dark, terrible mystery to solve. For the key to the killing—and a secret—are hid among the lepers of Saint Giles. Now Brother Cadfael’s skills must ferret out a sickness, not of the body, but of a twisted soul.
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About the Author
Pargeter won an Edgar Award in 1963 for Death and the Joyful Woman, and in 1993 she won the Cartier Diamond Dagger, an annual award given by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. She was appointed officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1994, and in 1999 the British Crime Writers’ Association established the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, later called the Ellis Peters Historical Award.
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The Leper of St Giles
The Fifth Chronicle Of Brother Cadfael, Of The Benedictine Abbey Of Saint Peter And Saint Paul, At Shrewsbury
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1981 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
Brother Cadfael set out from the gatehouse, that Monday afternoon of October, in the year 1139, darkly convinced that something ominous would have happened before he re-entered the great court, though he had no reason to suppose that he would be absent more than an hour or so. He was bound only to the hospital of Saint Giles, at the far end of the Monks' Foregate, barely half a mile from Shrewsbury abbey, and his errand was merely to replenish with oils, lotions and ointments the medicine cupboard of the hospital.
They were heavy on such remedies at Saint Giles. Even when there were few lepers, for whose control and assistance the hospice existed, there were always some indigent and ailing souls in care there, and the application of Cadfael's herbal remedies soothed and placated the mind as well as the skin. He made this pilgrimage on an average every third week, to replace what had been used. These days he made it with all the better will because Brother Mark, his much-prized and dearly-missed assistant in the herbarium, had felt it to be his destiny to go and serve with the unfortunate for a year, and a visit to Saint Giles was now a blessed reminder of peaceful days departed.
For to make all plain, Cadfael's forebodings had nothing whatever to do with the momentous events soon to be visited upon the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul of Shrewsbury, no reference to marrying and giving in marriage, no omens of sudden and violent death. He was expecting, rather, that in his absence some vessel full of precious liquid would be broken, some syrup left to boil over, some pan to burn dry, in his workshop in the herb-gardens, or else that his brazier would be fed too generously, and set light to the parcels of dried herbs rustling overhead and, in the worst case, to the whole workshop.
Mark had been gentle, dutiful and neat-handed. In his place Cadfael had been given, for his sins, the most cheerful, guileless, heedless and handless of cherubs, eternally hopeful, never chastened, a raw novice of nineteen fixed for ever at the age of a happy child of twelve. His fingers were all thumbs, but his zest and confidence were absolute. He knew he could do all, his will being so beneficent, and fumbled at the first balk, for ever astonished and aghast at the results he produced. To complete the problem he presented, he was the most good-humored and affectionate soul in the world. Also, less fortunately, the most impervious, since hope was eternal for him. Under reproof, having broken, wrecked, mismanaged and burned, he rode the tide serenely, penitent, assured of grace, confident of avoiding all repetition of failure. Cadfael liked him, as he was infuriated by him, out of all measure, and gloomily made large allowance for the damage the lad was almost certain to do whenever left to follow instructions unsupervised. Still, he had virtues, besides his sweetness of nature. For rough digging, the chief challenge of autumn, he had no peer; he plunged into it with the vigor others devoted to prayer, and turned the loam with a love and fellow-feeling Cadfael could not but welcome. Only keep him from planting what he dug! Brother Oswin had black fingers!
So Brother Cadfael had no thought to spare for the grand wedding which was to take place in the abbey church in two days' time. He had forgotten all about it until he noted, along the Foregate, how people were gathering in voluble groups outside their houses, and casting expectant looks away from town, along the London road. The day was cloudy and chill, a faint mist of rain just perceptible in the air, but the matrons of Shrewsbury were not going to be done out of a spectacle on that account. By this road both wedding parties would enter, and word had evidently gone before them that they were already approaching the town. Since they would not actually enter the walls, a good number of the burgesses had come forth to join the people of the Foregate parish. The stir and hum were almost worthy of a minor fair-day. Even the beggars gathered about the gatehouse had an air of holiday excitement about them. When the baron of an honor scattered over four counties arrived to marry the heiress to lands as great as his own, there must be lavish largesse to be hoped for in celebration.
Cadfael rounded the corner of the precinct wall, by the open green of the horse-fair, and continued along the highroad, where the houses thinned out, and fields and woods began to reach green fingers to touch the rim of the road in between. Here, too, the women stood before their doors, waiting to glimpse bride and groom when they came, and in front of the large house halfway to Saint Giles a knot of interested gazers had gathered to watch the bustle of activity through the open gates of the courtyard. Servants and grooms flickered to and fro between house and stables, flashes of bright liveries crossed the yard. This was where the bridegroom and his retinue were to lodge, while the bride and her party would lie at the abbey guest-hall. Recalled to mild human curiosity, Cadfael loitered for a moment to stare with the rest.
It was a large house, well walled round, with garden and orchard behind, and it belonged to Roger de Clinton, bishop of Coventry, though he rarely used it himself. The loan of it to Huon de Domville, who held manors in Shropshire, Cheshire, Stafford and Leicester, was partly a friendly gesture towards Abbot Radulfus, and partly a politic compliment to a powerful baron whose favor and protection, in these times of civil war, it would be wise to cultivate. King Stephen might be in firm control of much of the country, but in the west the rival faction was strongly established, and there were plenty of lords ready and willing to change sides if fortune blew the opposite way. The Empress Maud had landed at Arundel barely three weeks previously, with her half-brother Robert, earl of Gloucester, and a hundred and forty knights, and through the misplaced generosity of the king, or the dishonest advice of some of his false friends, had been allowed to reach Bristol, where her cause was impregnably installed already. Here in the mellow autumn countryside everything might seem at peace, but for all that men walked warily and held their breath to listen for news, and even bishops might need powerful friends before all was done.
Beyond the bishop's house the road opened between trees, leaving the town well behind; and at the fork, a bow-shot ahead, the long, low roof of the hospice appeared, the wattled fence of its enclosure, and beyond again, the somewhat higher roof of the church, with a small, squat turret above. A modest enough church, nave and chancel and a north aisle, and a graveyard behind, with a carven stone cross set up in the middle of it. The buildings were set discreetly back from both roads that converged towards the town. Lepers, as they may not go among the populous streets of towns, must also keep their distance even to do their begging in the countryside. Saint Giles, their patron, had deliberately chosen the desert and the solitary place for his habitation, but these had no choice but to remain apart.
It was plain, however, that they had their fair share of human curiosity like their fellows, for they, too, were out watching the road. Why should not the unfortunate at least be free to stare at their luckier brethren, to envy them if they could manage no better than that, to wish them well in marriage if their generosity stretched so far? A shifting line of dark-gowned figures lined the wattle fence, as animated if not as agile as their healthy fellow men. Some of them Cadfael knew, they had settled here for life, and made the best of their cramped lives among familiar helpers. Some were new. There were always new ones, the wanderers who made their way the length of the land from lazarhouse to lazarhouse, or settled for a while in some hermitage on the charity of a patron, before moving on to new solitudes. Some went on crutches or leaned hard on staves, having feet maimed by the rot of disease or painful with ulcers. One or two pushed themselves along on little wheeled carts. One hunched shapeless against the fence, bloated with sores and hiding a disfigured face within his cowl. Several, though active, went with veiled faces, only the eyes uncovered.
Their numbers varied as the restless wandered on, shunning the town as they must shun all towns, to some other hospice looking out over another landscape. By and large, the hospital here sheltered and cared for twenty to thirty inmates at a time. The appointment of the superior rested with the abbey. Brothers and lay brothers served here at their own request. It was not unknown that attendant should become attended, but there was never want of another volunteer to replace and nurse him.
Cadfael had done his year or more in this labor, and felt no recoil, and only measured pity, respect being so much greater an encouragement and support. Moreover, he came and went here so regularly that his visits were a part of a patient and permanent routine like the services in the church. He had dressed more and viler sores than he troubled to remember, and discovered live hearts and vigorous minds within the mottled shells he tended. He had seen battles, too, in his time in the world, as far afield as Acre and Ascalon and Jerusalem in the first Crusade, and witnessed deaths crueller than disease, and heathen kinder than Christians, and he knew of leprosies of the heart and ulcers of the soul worse than any of these he poulticed and lanced with his herbal medicines. Nor had he been greatly surprised when Brother Mark elected to follow in his steps. He was well aware that here was one step beyond, which Mark was predestined to take without his example. Brother Cadfael knew himself too well ever to aim at the priesthood, but he recognized a priest when he saw one.
Brother Mark had seen him approaching, and came trotting to meet him, his plain face bright, his spiky, straw-colored hair erected round his tonsure. He had a scrofulous child by the hand, a skinny little boy with old, drying sores in his thin fair hair. Mark teased aside the hairs that clung to the one remaining raw spot, and beamed down fondly at his handiwork.
"I'm glad you're come, Cadfael. I was running out of the lotion of pellitory, and see how much good it's done for him! The last sore almost healed. And the swellings in his neck are better, too. There, Bran, good boy, show Brother Cadfael! He makes the medicines for us, he's our physician. There, now, run to your mother and keep by her, or you'll miss all the show. They'll be coming soon."
The child drew his hand free, and trotted away to join the sad little group that yet would not be sad. There was chattering there, a morsel of song, even some laughter. Mark looked after his youngest charge, watched the ungainly, knock-kneed gait that stemmed from undernourishment, and visibly grieved. He had been here only a month, his skin was still tissue-thin.
"And yet he is not unhappy," he said, marveling. "When no one is by, and he follows me about, his tongue never stops wagging."
"Welsh?" asked Cadfael, eyeing the child thoughtfully. He must surely have been named for Bran the Blessed, who first brought the gospel to Wales.
"The father was." Mark turned to look his friend earnestly and hopefully in the face. "Do you think he can be cured? Fully cured? At least he's fed, now. The woman will die here. In any case—she has grown indifferent, kind enough, but glad to have him off her hands. But I do believe he may yet go back whole into the world."
Or out of it, thought Cadfael; for if he follows you so assiduously he cannot but get the savor of church or cloister, and the abbey is close at hand. "A bright child?" he asked.
"Brighter than many that are brought up to the Latin, and can reckon and read. Brighter than many a one who goes in fine linen, and with a nurse coddling him. I shall try to teach him somewhat, as I can."
They walked back together to the doorway of the hospital. The hum of expectant voices had risen, and along the highroad other sounds were gradually drawing near, compounded of the jingling of harness, the calls of falconers, conversation, laughter, the muffled beat of hooves using the grassy verge in preference to the naked road. One of the bridal processions was approaching.
"They say the bridegroom will be the first to come," said Mark, stepping from the open porch into the dimness of the hall, and leading the way through to the corner where the medicine cupboard was kept. Fulke Reynald, a steward of the abbey and superior of the hospital, had one key; Brother Cadfael held the other. He opened his scrip, and began to stow away the preparations he had brought. "Do you know anything about them?" asked Mark, succumbing to curiosity.
"Them?" murmured Cadfael, preoccupied with his review of the gaps in the shelves.
"These gentlefolk who are coming to marry here. All I know is their names. I should not have paid so much heed," said Mark, shame-faced, "except that our people here, who have nothing but their sores and maimings, have learned more of it than I have, only God knows how, and it is like a spark warming them. As though anything bright that shines on them is more aid than I can give. Yet all it is, is a wedding!"
"A wedding," said Cadfael seriously, stacking away jars of salves and bottles of lotion made from alkanet, anemone, mint, figwort, and the grains of oats and barley, most of them herbs of Venus and the moon, "a wedding is the crux of two lives, and therefore no mean matter." He added the fruits of mustard, which belongs rather to Mars, but provides formidable pastes and poultices to fight malignant ulcers. "Every man and woman who has faced the ordeal," he said thoughtfully, "must feel concern for those about to face it. Even those who have not, may speculate with sympathy."
Matrimony was one joust he had never attempted, wide as his experience had been before he entered the cloister; but he had brushed fingertips with it once, and circumvented it more than once. He felt some astonishment, once he began remembering.
"This baron has a famous name, but I know no more of him, except that he's in good odor, they say, with the king. I think I may once have known an old kinsman of the lady. But whether she's from the same line is more than I know."
"I hope she may be beautiful," said Mark.
"Prior Robert would be interested to hear you say so," said Cadfael drily, and closed the cupboard door.
"Beauty is a very healing thing," said Brother Mark, earnest and unabashed. "If she is young and lovely, if she smiles on them and inclines her head as she rides by, if she does not shrink at seeing them, she will do more for those people of mine out there than I can do with probing and poulticing. Here I begin to know that blessedness is what can be snatched out of the passing day, and put away to think of afterwards." He added, recoiling into deprecation: "Of course it need not be someone else's wedding feast. But how can we waste that, when it offers?"
Cadfael flung an arm about Mark's still thin and waiflike shoulders, and hauled him away, out of the dimness within, to the gathering excitement and brightening light without. "Let's hope and pray," he said heartily, "that it may be the source of blessedness even to the pair caught up in it. By the sound of it, one of them is due here this moment. Come and let's see!"
* * *
The noble bridegroom and his retinue approached in a shimmer of bright colors, with horn-calls and soft, continuous clamor of harness bells, a cortège stretching fifty paces, and fringed with running servants leading the pack ponies, and two couples of tall deerhounds on leashes. The sorry little straggle of outcasts shuffled forward eagerly the few paces they dared, to see the better those fine fabrics and splendid dyes they could never possess, and set up a muted, awed murmur of admiration as the procession drew level with their wattle fence.
In front, on a tall black horse, his own accoutrements and his mount's very splendid in scarlet and gold, rode a broad-built, gross, fleshy man, inelegant but assured in the saddle, and accorded a station well ahead of all his train, so that his pre-eminence should be seen to be absolute. Behind him came three young squires abreast, keeping a close and wary watch on their lord, as though he might at any moment turn and subject them to some hazardous test. The same tension, just short of fear, passed down the hierarchies that followed, through valet, chamberlain, groom, falconer, down to the boys who were towed along by the hounds. Only the beasts, horse and hound alike, and the hawks on the falconer's frame, went sleek and complacent, in no awe of their lord.
Excerpted from The Leper of St Giles by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1981 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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