Outside the pale of the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in September of 1140, a priestly emissary for King Stephen has been reported missing. But inside the pale, what troubles Brother Cadfael is a proud, secretive nineteen-year-old novice.
Brother Cadfael has never seen two men more estranged than the Lord of Aspley and Meriet, the son he coldly delivers to the abbey to begin a religious vocation. Meriet, meek by day, is so racked by dreams at night that his howls earn him the nickname “the Devil’s Novice.” Shunned and feared, Meriet is soon linked to the missing priestly emissary’s dreadful fate. Only Brother Cadfael believes in Meriet’s innocence, and only the good sleuth can uncover the truth before a boy’s pure passion, not evil intent, leads a novice to the noose.
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 Devil's Novice
The Eighth Chronicle Of Brother Cadfael, Of The Benedictine Abbey Of Saint Peter And Saint Paul, At Shrewsbury
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1983 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
In the middle of September of that year of Our Lord, 1140, two lords of Shropshire manors, one north of the town of Shrewsbury, the other south, sent envoys to the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul on the same day, desiring the entry of younger sons of their houses to the Order.
One was accepted, the other rejected. For which different treatment there were weighty reasons.
* * *
"I have called you few together," said Abbot Radulfus, "before making any decision in this matter, or opening it to consideration in chapter, since the principle here involved is at question among the masters of our order at this time. You, Brother Prior and Brother Sub-Prior, as bearing the daily weight of the household and family, Brother Paul as master of the boys and novices, Brother Edmund as an obedientiary and a child of the cloister from infancy, to advise upon the one hand, and Brother Cadfael, as a conversus come to the life at a ripe age and after wide venturings, to speak his mind upon the other."
So, thought Brother Cadfael, mute and passive on his stool in the corner of the abbot's bare, wood-scented parlour, I am to be the devil's lawman, the voice of the outer world. Mellowed through seventeen years or so of a vocation, but still sharpish in the cloistered ear. Well, we serve according to our skills, and in the degrees allotted to us, and this may be as good a way as any. He was more than a little sleepy, for he had been outdoors between the orchards of the Gaye and his own herb garden within the pale ever since morning, between the obligatory sessions of office and prayer, and was slightly drunk with the rich air of a fine, fat September, and ready for his bed as soon as Compline was over. But not yet so sleepy that he could not prick a ready ear when Abbot Radulfus declared himself in need of counsel, or even desirous of hearing counsel he yet would not hesitate to reject if his own incisive mind pointed him in another direction.
"Brother Paul," said the abbot, casting an authoritative eye round the circle, "has received requests to accept into our house two new devotionaries, in God's time to receive the habit and the tonsure. The one we have to consider here is from a good family, and his sire a patron of our church. Of what age, Brother Paul, did you report him?"
"He is an infant, not yet five years old," said Paul.
"And that is the ground of my hesitation. We have now only four boys of tender age among us, two of them not committed to the cloistral life, but here to be educated. True, they may well choose to remain with us and join the community in due time, but that is left to them to decide, when they are of an age to make such a choice. The other two, infant oblates given to God by their parents, are already twelve and ten years old, and are settled and happy among us, it would be ill-done to disturb their tranquillity. But I am not easy in my mind about accepting any more such oblates, when they can have no conception of what they are being offered or, indeed, of what they are being deprived. It is joy," said Radulfus, "to open the doors to a truly committed heart and mind, but the mind of a child barely out of nurse belongs with his toys, and the comfort of his mother's lap."
Prior Robert arched his silver eyebrows and looked dubiously down his thin, patrician nose. "The custom of offering children as oblates has been approved for centuries. The Rule sanctions it. Any change which departs from the Rule must be undertaken only after grave reflection. Have we the right to deny what a father wishes for his child?"
"Have we—has the father—the right to determine the course of a life, before the unwitting innocent has a voice to speak for himself? The practice, I know, is long established, and never before questioned, but it is being questioned now."
"In abandoning it," persisted Robert, "we may be depriving some tender soul of its best way to blessedness. Even in the years of childhood a wrong turning may be taken, and the way to divine grace lost."
"I grant the possibility," agreed the abbot, "but also I fear the reverse may be true, and many such children, better suited to another life and another way of serving God, may be shut into what must be for them a prison. On this matter I know only my own mind. Here we have Brother Edmund, a child of the cloister from his fourth year, and Brother Cadfael, conversus after an active and adventurous life and at a mature age. And both, as I hope and believe, secure in commitment. Tell us, Edmund, how do you look upon this matter? Have you regretted ever that you were denied experience of the world outside these walls?"
Brother Edmund the infirmarer, only eight years short of Cadfael's robust sixty, and a grave, handsome, thoughtful creature who might have looked equally well on horseback and in arms, or farming a manor and keeping a patron's eye on his tenants, considered the question seriously, and was not disturbed. "No, I have had no regrets. But neither did I know what there might be worth regretting. And I have known those who did rebel, even wanting that knowledge. It may be they imagined a better world without than is possible in this life, and it may be that I lack that gift of imagination. Or it may be only that I was fortunate in finding work here within to my liking and within my scope, and have been too busy to repine. I would not change. But my choice would have been the same if I had grown to puberty here, and made my vows only when I was grown. I have cause to know that others would have chosen differently, had they been free."
"That is fairly spoken," said Raduifus. "Brother Cadfael, what of you? You have ranged over much of the world, as far as the Holy Land, and borne arms. Your choice was made late and freely, and I do not think you have looked back. Was that gain, to have seen so much, and yet chosen this small hermitage?"
Cadfael found himself compelled to think before he spoke, and beneath the comfortable weight of a whole day's sunlight and labour thought was an effort. He was by no means certain what the abbot wanted from him, but had no doubt whatever of his own indignant discomfort at the notion of a babe in arms being swaddled willy-nilly in the habit he himself had assumed willingly.
"I think it was gain," he said at length, "and moreover, a better gift I brought, flawed and dinted though it might be, than if I had come in my innocence. For I own freely that I had loved my life, and valued high the warriors I had known, and the noble places and great actions I had seen, and if I chose in my prime to renounce all these, and embrace this life of the cloister in preference to all other, then truly I think I paid the best compliment and homage I had to pay. And I cannot believe that anything I hold in my remembrance makes me less fit to profess this allegiance, but rather better fits me to serve as well as I may. Had I been given in infancy, I should have rebelled in manhood, wanting my rights. Free from childhood, I could well afford to sacrifice my rights when I came to wisdom."
"Yet you would not deny," said the abbot, his lean face lit briefly by a smile, "the fitness of certain others, by nature and grace, to come in early youth to the life you discovered in maturity?"
"By no means would I deny it! I think those who do so, and with certainty, are the best we have. So they make the choice of their own will, and by their own light."
"Well, well!" said Radulfus, and mused with his chin in his hand, and his deep-set eyes shadowed. "Paul, have you any view to lay before us? You have the boys in charge, and I am well aware they seldom complain of you." For Brother Paul, middle-aged, conscientious and anxious, like a hen with a wayward brood, was known for his indulgence to the youngest, for ever in defence of mischief, but a good teacher for all that, instilling Latin without pain on either part.
"It would be no burden to me," said Paul slowly, "to care for a little lad of four, but it is of no merit that I should take pleasure in such a charge, or that he should be content. That is not what the Rule requires, or so it seems to me. A good father could do as much for a little son. Better if he come in knowledge of what he does, and with some inkling of what he may be leaving behind him. At fifteen or sixteen years, well taught ..."
Prior Robert drew back his head and kept his austere countenance, leaving his superior to make up his own mind as he would. Brother Richard the sub-prior had held his tongue throughout, being a good man at managing day-today affairs, but indolent at attempting decisions.
"It has been in my mind, since studying the reasonings of Archbishop Lanfranc," said the abbot, "that there must be a change in our thoughts on this matter of child dedication, and I am now convinced that it is better to refuse all oblates until they are able to consider for themselves what manner of life they desire. Therefore, Brother Paul, it is my view that you must decline the offer of this boy, upon the terms desired. Let his father know that in a few years time the boy will be welcome, as a pupil in our school, but not as an oblate entering the order. At a suitable age, should he so wish, he may enter. So tell his parent." He drew breath and stirred delicately in his chair, to indicate that the conference was over. "And you have, as I understand, another request for admission?"
Brother Paul was already on his feet, relieved and smiling. "There will be no difficulty there, Father. Leoric Aspley of Aspley desires to bring to us his younger son Meriet. But the young man is past his nineteenth birthday, and he comes at his own earnest wish. In his case, Father, we need have no qualms at all."
* * *
"Not that these are favourable times for recruitment," owned Brother Paul, crossing the great court to Compline with Cadfael at his side, "that we can afford to turn postulants away. But for all that, I'm glad Father Abbot decided as he did. I have never been quite happy about the young children. Certainly in most cases they may be offered out of true love and fervour. But sometimes a man must wonder ... With lands to keep together, and one or two stout sons already, it's a way of disposing profitably of the third."
"That can happen," said Cadfael drily, "even where the third is a grown man."
"Then usually with his full consent, for the cloister can be a promising career, too, But the babes in arms—no, that way is too easily abused."
"Do you think we shall get this one in a few years, on Father Abbot's terms?" wondered Cadfael.
"I doubt it. If he's placed here to school, his sire will have to pay for him." Brother Paul, who could discover an angel within every imp he taught, was nevertheless a sceptic concerning their elders. "Had we accepted the boy as an oblate, his keep and all else would be for us to bear. I know the father. A decent enough man, but parsimonious. But his wife, I fancy, will be glad enough to keep her youngest."
They were at the entrance to the cloister, and the mild green twilight of trees and bushes, tinted with the first tinge of gold, hung still and sweet-scented on the air. "And the other?" said Cadfael. "Aspley—that should be somewhere south, towards the fringes of the Long Forest, I've heard the name, but no more. Do you know the family?"
"Only by repute, but that stands well. It was the manor steward who came with the word, a solid old countryman, Saxon by his name—Fremund. He reports the young man lettered, healthy and well taught. Every way a gain to us."
A conclusion with which no one had then any reason to quarrel. The anarchy of a country distracted by civil war between cousins had constricted monastic revenues, kept pilgrims huddled cautiously at home, and sadly diminished the number of genuine postulants seeking the cloister, while frequently greatly increasing the numbers of indigent fugitives seeking shelter there. The promise of a mature entrant already literate, and eager to begin his novitiate, was excellent news for the abbey.
Afterwards, of course, there were plenty of wiseacres pregnant with hindsight, listing portents, talking darkly of omens, brazenly asserting that they had told everyone so. After every shock and reverse, such late experts proliferate.
* * *
It was only by chance that Brother Cadfael witnessed the arrival of the new entrant, two days later. After several days of clear skies and sunshine for harvesting the early apples and carting the new-milled flour, it was a day of miserable downpour, turning the roads to mud, and every hollow in the great court into a treacherous puddle. In the carrels of the scriptorium copiers and craftsmen worked thankfully at their desks. The boys kicked their heels discontentedly indoors, baulked of their playtime, and the few invalids in the infirmary felt their spirits sink as the daylight dimmed and went into mourning. Of guests there were few at that time. There was a breathing-space in the civil war, while earnest clerics tried to bring both sides together in agreement, but most of England preferred to stay at home and wait with held breath, and only those who had no option rode the roads and took shelter in the abbey guest-halls.
Cadfael had spent the first part of the afternoon in his workshop in the herbarium. Not only had he a number of concoctions working there, fruit of his autumn harvest of leaves, roots and berries, but he had also got hold of a copy of Aelfric's list of herbs and trees from the England of a century and a half earlier, and wanted peace and quiet in which to study it. Brother Oswin, whose youthful ardour was Cadfael's sometime comfort and frequent anxiety in this his private domain, had been excused attendance, and gone to pursue his studies in the liturgy, for the time of his final vows was approaching, and he needed to be word-perfect.
The rain, though welcome to the earth, was disturbing and depressing to the mind of man. The light lowered; the leaf Cadfael studied darkened before his eyes. He gave up his reading. Literate in English, he had learned his Latin laboriously in maturity, and though he had mastered it, it remained unfamiliar, an alien tongue. He went the round of his brews, stirred here and there, added an ingredient in a mortar and ground until it blended into the cream within, and went back in scurrying haste through the wet gardens to the great court, with his precious parchment in the breast of his habit.
He had reached the shelter of the guest-hall porch, and was drawing breath before splashing through the puddles to the cloister, when three horsemen rode in from the Foregate, and halted under the archway of the gatehouse to shake off the rain from their cloaks. The porter came out in haste to greet them, slipping sidelong in the shelter of the wall, and a groom came running from the stable-yard, splashing through the rain with a sack over his head.
So that must be Leoric Aspley of Aspley, thought Cadfael, and the son who desires to take the cowl here among us. And he stood to gaze a moment, partly out of curiosity, partly out of a vain hope that the downpour would ease, and let him cross to the scriptorium without getting wetter than he need.
A tall, erect, elderly man in a thick cloak led the arrivals, riding a big grey horse. When he shook off his hood he uncovered a head of bushy, grizzled hair and a face long, austere and bearded. Even at that distance, across the wide court, he showed handsome, unsmiling, unbending, with a high-bridged, arrogant nose and a grimly proud set to his mouth and jaw, but his manner to porter and groom, as he dismounted, was gravely courteous. No easy man, probably no easy parent to please. Did he approve his son's resolve, or was he accepting it only under protest and with displeasure? Cadfael judged him to be in the mid-fifties, and thought of him, in all innocence, as an old man, forgetting that his own age, to which he never gave much thought, was past sixty.
Excerpted from The Devil's Novice by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1983 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The monastery receives a new novice Meriet Aspley. He appears meek but his nights are punctuated by screams, waking the other monks and earning him the nickname of Devil's Novice. Cadfael isn't sure why he wants to become a monk and isn't sure that it's for the right reasons.Interesting and involved, though occasionally my brain did stray that may have been with the astonishment that there was some sun.
8th in the Brother Caedfel series.A young man, Meiret Aspley, who is obviously on tense terms with his father, is received into the abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul as a candidate for the community. Meanwhile, there is a missing cleric from the house of the powerful bishop of Winchester, one who was an envoy to the Northern baron, the Earl of Chester, whom bishop Henry, the King¿s brother, is courting as an ally for Stephen in his war with the Empress Maude for the English crown; no one has seen the canon since he left the manor of Aspley, the family home of the young new novice.While fervent in his desires to rush the usual procedure and take committing vows early, Meiret is not the world¿s most suitable candidate for monkhood. In addition to personality characteristics such as aloofness, Meiret has troubling dreams at night, which are so loud and so disturbing that the other novices become afraid, fearing he is possessed by demons, calling him the Devil¿s novice. Meiret¿s cause is not advanced when he attacks the officious Brother Jerome for taking and burning a keepsake that Meiret had under his mattress.Caedfel journeys to Aspley to find out more about Meiret, and comes across a young heiress who has her cap set for Meiret despite his oblivion to her presence in any capacity more than a former playmate. Caedfel and Isouda become co-conspirators to find out what is troubling Meiret. Then the horse belonging to the missing envoy is found; that and other discoveries throw suspicion squarely on Meiret.Another good book in the series of the late-to-vocation Brother Caedfel, Benedictine lay brother and master of herbs at the abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul. This is not a heavyweight series, but rather a gentle excursion into the Police procedural genre set in the 12th century. Peters¿ writing is never hurried, and her characters are not complex although well-drawn. What makes the series interesting is the political history that is seamlessly interwoven into each of the stories. It was a terrible time, of civil war, in England, and the ordinary people were, as usual, the ones who suffered. More than most, this book depends on the shifting alliances of that war for its main story-telling impetus. Peters does an excellent, although understated, job of depicting how the actions of high lords influenced events on the local level.Highly recommended.
I have finally found an Ellis Peters, Brother Cadfael mystery story that didn't quite measure up to the high standard she has set and achieved in the other Brother Cadfael mysteries. I believe the answer lies in the rather unsympathetic ancillary characters that not only don't ring true, but also do not inspire our interest. We still have the tried and true Brother Cadfael, resident monk and herbalist at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Medieval Shrewsbury, England as well as Hugh Beringar, the no nonsense sheriff of the shire plus the gentle monk, Mark, who cares for the lepers and maimed at nearby St. Giles. We also have the excellent descriptions of medieval life and wonderful use of the English language from Ellis Peters to give pleasure to one of her lesser offerings.
The prose is very enjoyable in the early half of the book. The mystery solution seems to become apparent as the story unfolds, but the conclusions for it are a little forced, perhaps needing another clue or two.
A novice is wracked by nightmares. His nightly screams named him as the Devil's Novice. It is Brother Cadfael who uncovers the hidden hurts he has witnessed and uncover a crime in Shrewsburry. Good read. I love Brother Cadfael mysteries. He has a certain flair in a medieval world.