Winter arrived early in 1142, bringing with it a heavy snowfall. The safety of the guest-hall roof at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul comes into jeopardy, and the brothers are called upon to effect repairs. But the icy and treacherous conditions are to prove near fatal for Brother Haluin. He slips from the roof and crashes to the ground, sustaining terrible injuries—grave enough for him to want to make his deathbed confession.
The confession is heard by the abbot and Brother Cadfael; a wicked story, of trespasses hard for God or man to forgive. But Haluin does not die. On his recovery, he determines to make a journey of expiation, with Cadfael as his sole companion. It is an arduous journey, physically and emotionally, and one that leads to some shocking discoveries.
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 Confession of Brother Haluin
The Fifteenth Chronicle Of Brother Cadfael, Of The Benedictine Abbey Of Saint Peter And Saint Paul, At Shrewsbury
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1988 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
The worst of the winter came early, that year of 1142. After the prolonged autumn of mild, moist, elegiac days, December came in with heavy skies and dark, brief days that sagged upon the rooftrees and lay like oppressive hands upon the heart. In the scriptorium there was barely light enough at noon to form the letters, and the colors could not be used with any certainty, since the unrelenting and untimely dusk sapped all their brightness.
The weather-wise had predicted heavy snows, and in midmonth they came, not with blizzard winds, but in a blinding, silent fall that continued for several days and nights, smoothing out every undulation, blanching all color out of the world, burying the sheep in the hills and the hovels in the valleys, smothering all sound, climbing every wall, turning roofs into ranges of white, impassable mountains, and the very air between earth and sky into an opaque, drifting whirlpool of flakes large as lilies. When the fall finally ceased, and the heavy swags of cloud lifted, the Foregate lay half buried, so nearly smoothed out into one white level that there were scarcely any shadows except where the tall buildings of the abbey soared out of the pure pallor, and the eerie, reflected light made day even of night, where only a week before the ominous gloom had made night of day.
These December snows, which covered most of the west, did more than disrupt the lives of country people, starve some isolated hamlets, bury not a few hill shepherds with their flocks, and freeze all travel into enforced stillness; they overturned the fortunes of war, made sport of the preoccupations of princes, and sent history spinning off-course into the new year of 1143.
They also brought about a strange cycle of events in the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury.
* * *
In the five years that King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Maud, had fought for the throne of England, fortune had swung between them like a pendulum many times, presenting the cup of victory to each in erratic turn, only to snatch it away again untasted, and offer it tantalizingly to the other contender. Now, in the white disguise of winter, it chose to turn probability topsy-turvy once again, and deliver the empress out of the king's mailed hands as by a miracle, just as his fist seemed closing securely on his prisoner, and his warfare triumphantly ending. Back to the beginning of the five-year struggle, and all to do again. But that was in Oxford, far away beyond the impassable snows, and some time would elapse before the news reached Shrewsbury.
What was happening in the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul was no more than a small annoyance by comparison, or seemed so at first. An envoy from the bishop, lodged in one of the upper chambers of the guest hall, and already irritated and displeased at being halted here perforce until the roads were passable again, was unpleasantly awakened in the night by the sudden descent of a stream of icy water onto his head, and made very sure that everyone within range of his powerful voice should hear of it without delay. Brother Denis the hospitaler made haste to placate him, and move him to a dry bed elsewhere, but within the hour it became clear that while the first drenching soon slackened, a steady drip continued, and was soon joined by half a dozen more, spanning a circle some yards across. The great weight of snow on the southern roof of the guest hall had somehow worked a passage through the lead and filtered in between the slates, perhaps even caved in a number of them. Pockets of the driven snow had felt the comparative warmth within, and with the mute malice of inanimate things had chosen to baptize the bishop's emissary. And the leak was rapidly getting worse.
There was urgent conference at chapter that morning over what should and could be done. Perilous and unpleasant work on roofs was certainly to be avoided if possible during such weather, but on the other hand, if repairs were delayed until the thaw came, they were in for a flood, and the damage, limited at this point, might be greatly aggravated.
There were several among the brothers who had worked on the building of additions to the enclave, barns and stabling and storehouses, and Brother Conradin, who was still in his fifties and robust as a bull, had been one of the first child oblates, and worked as a boy under the monks of Seez, brought over by the founding earl to supervise the building of his abbey. Where the fabric was concerned, Brother Conradin's advice carried the greatest weight, and having viewed the extent of the leak in the guest hall, he stated firmly that they could not afford to wait, or they might have to replace half the southern slope of the roof. They had timber, they had slates, they had lead. That southern slope overhung the drainage channel drawn off from the mill leat, frozen hard at present, but there would be no great difficulty in raising a scaffolding. True, it would be bitterly cold work up there, shifting the mountain of snow first, to ease away the deforming weight, and then replacing broken or displaced slates and repairing the lead flashings. But if they worked in short spells, and were allowed a fire in the warming room all day as long as the work lasted, the job could be done.
Abbot Radulfus listened, nodded his formidable head with his usual prompt comprehension and decision, and said, "Very well, do it!"
* * *
As soon as the long snowfall ceased, and the skies lifted, the tough inhabitants of the Foregate sallied forth from their houses, well muffled and armed with shovels and brooms and long-handled rakes, and began to clear their way out to the highroad, and between them dig out a passage to the bridge and the town, where no doubt the stout burgesses within the walls were tackling the same seasonal enemy. The frost still held, and day by day fretted away mysteriously into the air the surface fringes of every drift, by infinitely slow degrees lessening the load. By the time a few of the main highways were again passable, and a few travelers, either foolhardy or having no choice, were labouriously riding them, Brother Conradin had his scaffolding up, his ladders securely braced up the slope of the roof, and all hands taking their turn aloft in the withering cold, cautiously shifting the great burden of snow, to get at the fractured lead and broken slates. A moraine of crumpled, untidy snow hills formed along the frozen drainage channel, and one unwary brother, who had failed to hear or heed the warning shout from above, was briefly buried by a minor avalanche, and had to be dug out hurriedly and dispatched to the warming room to thaw out.
By then the way was open between town and Foregate, and news, however hampered and slow its passage, could be carried from Winchester even to Shrewsbury in time to reach the castle garrison and the sheriff of the shire some days before Christmas.
Hugh Beringar came down from the town hotfoot to share it with Abbot Radulfus. In a country debilitated by five years of desultory civil war it behooved state and church to work closely together, and where sheriff and abbot were of like mind they could secure for their people a comparatively calm and orderly existence, and fend off the worst excesses of the times. Hugh was King Stephen's man, and held the shire for him loyally enough, but with even greater goodwill he held it for the folk who lived in it. He would welcome, and this autumn and winter had certainly been expecting, the king's triumph at last, but his chief preoccupation was to hand over to his lord a county relatively prosperous, contented, and intact when the last battle was over.
He came looking for Brother Cadfael as soon as he had left the abbot's lodging, and found his friend busy stirring a bubbling pot over his brazier, in his workshop in the herb garden. The inevitable coughs and colds of winter, the chilblained hands and heels, kept him busy replenishing the medicine cupboard in the infirmary, and thanks to the necessary brazier his timber workshop was somewhat warmer to work in than the carrels of the scriptorium.
Hugh came bursting in upon him in a gust of cold air and a wave of what was for him perceptible excitement, though its outward signs would have escaped anyone who knew him less well than Cadfael did. Only the crisp exasperation of his movements and the abruptness of his greeting caused Cadfael to cease his stirring and fix attentively on the young sheriff's face, the pointed brilliance of his black eyes and the little pulse in his cheek.
"It's all overturned!" said Hugh. "All to do again from the beginning!" And whatever that meant, and Cadfael did not trouble to ask, since he was certainly about to be told, there was no saying whether exasperation and frustration were not outmatched in Hugh's voice and face by amused relief. He flung himself down on the bench against the timber wall, and dangled his hands between his knees in a gesture of helpless resignation.
"A courier got through from the south this morning," he said, raising his eyes to his friend's attentive face. "She's gone! Out of the trap, and fled away to join her brother at Wallingford. The king's lost his prize. Even when he has her between his hands he lets her slip through his fingers. I wonder, I wonder," said Hugh, opening his eyes wide at a new thought, "whether he did not turn a blind eye and let her go, when it came to the point! It would be like him. God knows he wanted her badly enough, but he may have taken fright when it came to puzzling what he could do with her when he had her. It's one question I'd love to ask him—but never shall!" he concluded with an oblique grin.
"Are you telling me," asked Cadfael cautiously, eyeing him across the brazier, "that the empress is escaped out of Oxford, after all? With the king's army all round her, and stores down to starvation level in the castle, from what we last heard? And how did even she contrive it? Tell me next she's grown wings and flown over the king's lines to Wallingford! She could hardly walk through his siege vallations on foot, even if she managed to get out of the castle unseen."
"Ah, but she did, Cadfael! She did both! She got out of the castle unseen, and passed through some part at least of Stephen's lines. To the best they can guess, she must have been let down by a rope from the rear of the tower towards the river, she and two or three of her men with her. There could not have been more. They muffled themselves all in white to be invisible against the snow. Indeed by all accounts it was snowing then, to hide them the better. They crossed the river on the ice, and walked the six miles or so to Abingdon, for it was there they got horses to take them on to Wallingford. Give her her due, Cadfael, this is a rare woman. From all accounts there's no living with her when she's in high feather, but by God I can see how a man could follow her when she's down."
"So she's back with FitzCount, after all," said Cadfael on a long, marveling breath. Barely a month ago it had seemed certain that the empress and her most faithful and devoted ally were irrevocably cut off from each other, and might never meet again in this world.
Ever since September the lady had been under close siege in Oxford castle, the king's armies drawn tightly round her, the town in his hands, and he content to sit back and starve out her battered garrison. And now, all in one bold bid and one snowy night, she was out of her chains, free to remuster her forces and take up the fight again on equal terms. Surely there never had been such a king as Stephen for conjuring defeat out of victory. But it was a quality they shared, perhaps native to their blood, for the empress, too, when she was gloriously installed in Westminster, and her coronation but a few days away, had borne herself so arrogantly and harshly towards the obstinate burgesses of her capital that they had risen in fury and driven her out. It seemed that as often as either of them got within touch of the crown, fortune took fright at the prospect of being in the service of either, and hurriedly snatched the prize away.
"So after all," said Cadfael more placidly as he lifted his bubbling pot to the grid at the side of the brazier, to simmer in peace, "at least Stephen has got rid of his problem. He need worry no longer what to do with her."
"True," agreed Hugh wryly, "he'd never have had the iron in him to put her in chains, as she did to him when she had him prisoner after Lincoln, and she's proved it would take more than stone walls to hold her. I fancy he's been bunking the issue all these months, looking no further than the moment when he would force her surrender. He's eased of all the troubles that would have been no more than beginning the day he made her prisoner. Better, perhaps, if he could winnow away her hopes so far that she'd be forced to go back to Normandy. But we've come to know the lady better," he acknowledged ruefully. "She never gives up."
"And how has King Stephen stomached his loss?" asked Cadfael curiously.
"As I've come to expect of him by this time," said Hugh, with resigned affection. "As soon as the lady was well out of it, Oxford castle surrendered to him. Without her, he'd lost interest in the rest of the starved rats within. Most men would have taken out their rage on the garrison. Once, as you'll remember all too well, he let himself be persuaded to take such a revenge, here at Shrewsbury, God knows against his nature. Never again! As like as not, it was the memory of Shrewsbury that kept Oxford safe. He let them march out untouched, on condition they dispersed to their homes. He's left the castle well garrisoned and supplied for his own cause, and made off to Winchester with his brother the bishop, to keep Christmas. And he's sent to call all his midland sheriffs there to keep it with him. It's long since he was in these parts, no doubt he's anxious to look us over afresh, and make sure that all his defenses hold fast."
"Now?" said Cadfael, surprised. "To Winchester? You'll never make the journey in time."
"Yes, we shall. We have four days, and according to the courier the thaw's well forward, farther south, and the roads clear. I'll be away tomorrow."
"And leave Aline and your boy to keep the feast without you! And Giles just past his third birthday, too!" Hugh's son was a Christmas babe, and had entered the world in the most extreme of winters, in frost and snow and bitter gales. Cadfael was his godfather and most devoted admirer.
"Ah, Stephen won't keep us long," said Hugh confidently. "He needs us where he placed us, to keep an eye on his shire revenues. I shall be home by the year's end, if all goes well. But Aline will be glad if you could pay her a visit or two while I'm gone. Father Abbot won't grudge you leave now and then, and that long lad of yours—Winfrid, is it?—he's getting handy enough with the salves and medicines to be left on his own for an hour or two."
"Very gladly I'll mind your flock for you at home," said Cadfael heartily, "while you're strutting at court. But you'll be missed, all the same. What a turnabout this has been! Five years of it now, and nothing gained on either part. And with the new year, no doubt it must all begin again. All that effort and waste, and nothing is changed."
"Oh, yes, there's something changed, for what it's worth!" Hugh uttered a brief bark of laughter. "There's a new contender on the scene, Cadfael. Geoffrey could spare no more than a meager handful of knights to his wife's aid, but he's sent her something it seems he can part with more willingly. Either that or, as may very well be true, he's taken Stephen's measure shrewdly enough to know past doubt what he dare wager in safety. He's sent over their son in Robert's care, to see if the English will rally to him rather than to his mother. Henry Plantagenet, nine years old—or did they say ten? No more than that! Robert brought him to her at Wallingford. By this time I fancy the boy's been whisked away to Bristol or Gloucester, out of harm's way. But if Stephen laid hold of him, what could he do with him? As like as not, put him on board ship at his own expense, and send him well guarded back to France."
"Do you tell me so?" Cadfael's eyes opened wide in astonishment and curiosity. "So there's a new star on the horizon, is there? And starting young! It seems one soul at least has a blessed Christmas assured, with her liberty won, and her son in her arms again. His coming will give her heart, no question. But I doubt if he'll do much more for her cause."
Excerpted from The Confession of Brother Haluin by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1988 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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