August, 1143. During the ploughing of Abbey land, the hastily buried remains of a woman's body are unearthed. Uneasiness pushes Brother Cadfael to find the whole truth behind this unexpected discovery.
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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 Potter's Field
The Seventeenth Chronicle Of Brother Cadfael, Of The Benedictine Abbey Of Saint Peter And Saint Paul, At Shrewsbury
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1989 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
Saint Peter's fair of that year, 1143, was one week past, and they were settling down again into the ordinary routine of a dry and favourable August, with the corn harvest already being carted into the barns, when Brother Matthew the cellarer first brought into chapter the matter of business he had been discussing for some days during the Fair with the prior of the Augustinian priory of Saint John the Evangelist, at Haughmond, about four miles to the north-east of Shrewsbury. Haughmond was a FitzAlan foundation, and FitzAlan was out of favour and dispossessed since he had held Shrewsbury castle against King Stephen, though rumour said he was back in England again from his refuge in France, and safe with the Empress's forces in Bristol. But many of his tenants locally had continued loyal to the king, and retained their lands, and Haughmond flourished in their patronage and gifts, a highly respectable neighbour with whom business could be done to mutual advantage at times. This, according to Brother Matthew, was one of the times.
"The proposal for this exchange of land came from Haughmond," he said, "but it makes good sense for both houses. I have already set the necessary facts before Father Abbot and Prior Robert, and I have here rough plans of the two fields in question, both large and of comparable quality. The one which this house owns lies some mile and a half beyond Haughton, and is bounded on all sides by land gifted to Haughmond Priory. Clearly it will advantage them to add this piece to their holdings, for economy in use and the saving of time and labour in going back and forth. And the field which Haughmond wishes to exchange for it is on the hither side of the manor of Longner, barely two miles from us but inconveniently distant from Haughmond. Clearly it is good sense to consider this exchange. I have viewed the ground, and the bargain is a fair one. I recommend that we should accept."
"If this field is on the hither side of Longner," said Brother Richard, the sub-prior, who came from a mile or so beyond that manor and knew the outlines of the land, "how does it lie with regard to the river? Is it subject to flooding?"
"No. It has the Severn along one flank, yes, but the bank is high, and the meadow climbs gradually from it to a headland and a windbreak of trees and bushes along the ridge. It is the field of which Brother Ruald was tenant until some fifteen months ago. There were two or three small claypits along the river bank, but I believe they are exhausted. The field is known as the Potter's Field."
A slight ripple of movement went round the chapterhouse, as all heads turned in one direction, and all eyes fastened for one discreet moment upon Brother Ruald. A slight, quiet, grave man, with a long, austere face, very regular of feature, of an ageless, classical comeliness, he still went about the devout hours of the day like one half withdrawn into a private rapture, for his final vows were only two months old, and his desire for the life of the cloister, recognised only after fifteen years of married life and twenty-five of plying the potter's craft, had burned into an acute agony before he gained admittance and entered into peace. A peace he never seemed to leave now, even for a moment. All eyes might turn on him, and his calm remained absolute. Everyone here knew his story, which was complex and strange enough, but that did not trouble him. He was where he wanted to be.
"It is good pasture," he said simply. "And could well be cultivated, if it is needed. It lies well above any common floodline. The other field, of course, I do not know."
"It may be a little greater," said Brother Matthew judicially, contemplating his parchments with head on one side, measuring with narrowed eyes. "But at that distance we are spared time and labour. I have said, I judge it a fair exchange."
"The Potter's Field!" said Prior Robert, musing. "It was such a field that was bought with the silver of Judas's betrayal, for the burial of strangers. I trust there can be no ill omen in the name."
"It was only named for my craft," said Ruald. "Earth is innocent. Only the use we make of it can mar it. I laboured honestly there, before I knew whither I was truly bound. It is good land. It may well be better used than for a workshop and kiln such as mine. A narrow yard would have done for that."
"And access is easy?" asked Brother Richard. "It lies on the far side of the river from the highroad."
"There is a ford a little way upstream, and a ferry even nearer to the field."
"That land was gifted to Haughmond only a year ago, by Eudo Blount of Longner," Brother Anselm reminded them. "Is Blount a partner to this exchange? He made no demur? Or has he yet been consulted?"
"You will remember," said Brother Matthew, patiently competent at every point, as was his way, "that Eudo Blount the elder died early this year at Wilton, in the rearguard that secured the king's retreat. His son, also Eudo, is now lord of Longner. Yes, we have talked with him. He has no objection. The gift is Haughmond's property, to be used to Haughmond's best advantage, which manifestly this exchange serves well. There is no obstacle there."
"And no restriction as to the use we in our turn may make of it?" demanded the prior acutely. "The agreement will be on the usual terms? That either party may make whatever use it wishes of the fields? To build, or cultivate, or keep as pasture, at will?"
"That is agreed. If we want to plough, there is no bar."
"It seems to me," said Abbot Radulfus, casting a long glance around at the attentive faces of his flock, "that we have heard enough. If anyone has any other point to raise, do so now, by all means."
In the considering silence that followed many eyes turned again, mildly expectant, to the austere face of Brother Ruald, who alone remained withdrawn and unconcerned. Who should know better the qualities of that field where he had worked for so many years, or be better qualified to state whether they would be doing well in approving the proposed exchange? But he had said all he had to say, in duty bound, and felt no need to add another word. When he had turned his back upon the world and entered into his desired vocation, field and cottage and kiln and kin had vanished for him. He never spoke of his former life, probably he never thought of it. All those years he had been astray and far from home.
"Very well!" said the abbot. "Clearly both we and Haughmond gain by the exchange. Will you confer with the prior, Matthew, and draw up the charter accordingly, and as soon as a day can be fixed we will see it witnessed and sealed. And once that is done, I think Brother Richard and Brother Cadfael might view the ground, and consider its most profitable use."
Brother Matthew rolled up his plans with a brisk hand and a satisfied countenance. It was his part to keep a strict eye upon the property and funds of the house, to reckon up land, crops, gifts and legacies in the profits they could bring to the monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and he had assessed the Potter's Field with professional shrewdness, and liked what he saw.
"There is no other business?" asked Radulfus.
"Then this chapter is concluded," said the abbot, and led the way out of the chapter-house into the sun-bleached August grasses of the cemetery.
* * *
Brother Cadfael went up into the town after Vespers, in the cooling sunlight of a clear evening, to sup with his friend Hugh Beringar, and visit his godson Giles, three and a half years old, long and strong and something of a benevolent tyrant to the entire household. In view of the sacred duty such a sponsor has towards his charge Cadfael had leave to visit the house with reasonable regularity, and if the time he spent with the boy was occupied more often in play than in the serious admonitions of a responsible godparent, neither Giles nor his own parents had any complaint to make.
"He pays more heed to you," said Aline, looking on with smiling serenity, "than he does to me. But he'll tire you out before you can do as much for him. Well for you it's near his bedtime."
She was as fair as Hugh was black, primrose-fair, and fine-boned, and a shade taller than her husband. The child was built on the same long, slender lines, and flaxen like her. Some day he would top his father by a head. Hugh himself had foretold it, when first he saw his newborn heir, a whiter child, come with the approach of Christmas, the finest of gifts for the festival. Now at three years old he had the boisterous energy of a healthy pup, and the same wholehearted abandonment to sleep when energy was spent. He was carried away at length in Aline's arms to his bed, and Hugh and Cadfael were left to sit down companionably together over their wine, and look back over the events of the day.
"Ruald's field?" said Hugh, when he heard of the morning's business at chapter. "That's the big field the near side of Longner, where he used to have his croft and his kiln? I remember the gift to Haughmond, I was a witness to it. Early October of last year, that was. The Blounts were always good patrons to Haughmond. Not that the canons ever made much use of that land when they had it. It will do better in your hands."
"It's a long time since I passed that way close," said Cadfael. "Why is it so neglected? When Ruald came into the cloister there was no one to take over his craft, I know, but at least Haughmond put a tenant into the cottage."
"So they did, an old widow woman, what could she do with the ground? Now even she is gone, to her daughter's household in the town. The kiln has been looted for stone, and the cottage is falling into decay. It's time someone took the place over. The canons never even bothered to take the hay crop in, this year, they'll be glad to get it off their hands."
"It suits both sides very well," said Cadfael thoughtfully. "And young Eudo Blount at Longner has no objection, so Matthew reports. Though the prior of Haughmond must have asked his leave beforehand, since the gift came from his father in the first place. A pity," he said ruefully, "the giver is gone to his maker untimely, and isn't here to say a word for himself in the matter."
Eudo Blount the elder, of the manor of Longner, had left his lands in the charge of his son and heir only a few weeks after making the gift of the field to the priory, and gone in arms to join King Stephen's army, then besieging the Empress and her forces in Oxford. That campaign he had survived, only to die a few months later in the unexpected rout of Wilton. The king, not for the first time, had underestimated his most formidable opponent, Earl Robert of Gloucester, miscalculated the speed at which the enemy could move, and ridden with only his vanguard into a perilous situation from which he had extricated himself safely only by virtue of a heroic rearguard action, which had cost the king's steward, William Martel, his liberty, and Eudo Blount his life. Stephen, in honour bound, had paid a high price to redeem Martel. No one, in this world, could ransom back Eudo Blount. His elder son became lord of Longner in his place. His younger son, Cadfael recalled, a novice at the abbey of Ramsey, had brought his father's body home for burial in March.
"A fine, tall man he was," Hugh recalled, "no more than two or three years past forty. And handsome! There's neither of his lads can match him. Strange how the lot falls. The lady's some years older, and sick with some trouble that's worn her to a shadow and gives her no rest from pain, yet she lingers on here, and he's gone. Does she ever send to you for medicines? The lady of Longner? I forget her name."
"Donata," said Cadfael. "Donata is her name. Now you mention it, there was a time when her maid used to come for draughts to help her with the pain. But not for a year or more now. I thought she might have been on the mend, and felt less need of the herbs. Little enough I could ever do for her. There are diseases beyond any small skill of mine."
"I saw her when they buried Eudo," said Hugh, gazing sombrely out through the open hall door at the summer dusk gathering blue and luminous above his garden. "No, there's no remission. So little flesh she has between her skin and bone, I swear the light shone through her hand when she raised it, and her face grey as lavender, and shrunken into deep lines. Eudo sent for me when he made up his mind to go to Oxford, to the siege. I did wonder how he could bear to leave her in such case. Stephen had not called him, and even if he had, there was no need for him to go himself. His only due was an esquire, armed and mounted, for forty days. Yet he saw his affairs in order, made over his manor to his son, and went."
"It may well be," Cadfael said, "that he could no longer bear to stay, and look on daily at a distress he could neither prevent nor help."
His voice was very low, and Aline, re-entering the hall at that moment, did not hear the words. The very sight of her, radiantly content in her fulfilment, happy wife and mother, banished all such thoughts, and caused them both to shake off in haste all trace of a solemnity that might have cast a shadow on her serenity. She came to sit with them, her hands for once empty, for the light was too far gone for sewing or even spinning, and the warm, soft evening too beautiful to be banished by lighting candles.
"He's fast asleep. He was nodding over his prayers. But still he could rouse enough to demand his story from Constance. He'll have heard no more than the first words, but custom is custom. And I want my story, too," she said, smiling at Cadfael, "before I let you leave us. What is the news with you, there at the abbey? Since the fair I've got no further afield than Saint Mary's for Mass. Do you find the fair a success this year? There were fewer Remings there, I thought, but some excellent cloths, just the same. I bought well, some heavy Welsh woollen for winter gowns. The sheriff," she said, and made an impish face at Hugh, "cares nothing what he puts on, but I won't have my husband go threadbare and cold. Will you believe, his best indoor gown is ten years old, and twice relined, and still he won't part with it?"
"Old servants are the best," said Hugh absently. "Truth to tell, it's only habit sends me looking for it, you may clothe me new, my heart, whenever you wish. And for what else is new, Cadfael tells me there's an exchange of lands agreed between Shrewsbury and Haughmond. The field they call the Potter's Field, by Longner, will come to the abbey. In good time for the ploughing, if that's what you decide, Cadfael."
"It may well be," Cadfael conceded. "At least on the upper part, well clear of the river. The lower part is good grazing."
"I used to buy from Ruald," said Aline rather ruefully. "He was a good craftsman. I still wonder—what was it made him leave the world for the cloister, and all so suddenly?"
"Who can tell?" Cadfael looked back, as now he seldom did, to the turning-point of his own life, many years past. After all manner of journeying, fighting, endurance of heat and cold and hardship, after the pleasures and the pains of experience, the sudden irresistible longing to turn about and withdraw into quietness remained a mystery. Not a retreat, certainly. Rather an emergence into light and certainty. "He never could explain it or describe it. All he could say was that he had had a revelation of God, and had turned where he was pointed, and come where he was called. It happens. I think Radulfus had his doubts at first. He kept him the full term and over in his novitiate. His desire was extreme, and our abbot suspects extremes. And then, the man had been fifteen years married, and his wife was by no means consenting. Ruald left her everything he had to leave, and all of it she scorned. She fought his resolve for many weeks, but he would not be moved. After he was admitted among us she did not stay long in the croft, or avail herself of anything he had left behind for her. She went away, only a few weeks later, left the door open and everything in its place, and vanished."
"With another man, so all the neighbours said," Hugh remarked cynically.
"Well," said Cadfael reasonably, "her own had left her. And very bitter she was about it, by all accounts. She might well take a lover by way of revenge. Did ever you see the woman?"
Excerpted from The Potter's Field by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1989 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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