In a mild December in the year of our Lord 1141, a new priest comes to the parishioners of the Foregate outside the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Father Ailnoth brings with him a housekeeper and her nephew—and a disposition that invites murder.
Brother Cadfael quickly sees that father Ailnoth is a harsh man who, striding along in his black cassock, looks like a doomsaying raven. The housekeeper’s nephew, Benet, is quite different—a smiling lad, a hard worker in Cadfael’s herb garden, but, as Brother Cadfael soon discovers, an impostor. And when Ailnoth is found drowned, suspicion falls on Benet, though many in the Foregate had cause to want this priest dead. Now Brother Cadfael is gathering clues along with his medicinals to treat a case of unholy passions, tragic politics, and perhaps divine intervention.
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 Raven in the Foregate
The Twelfth Chronicle Of Brother Cadfael, Of The Benedictine Abbey Of Saint Peter And Saint Paul, At Shrewsbury
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1986 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
Abbot Radulfus came to chapter, on this first day of December, with a preoccupied and frowning face, and made short work of the various trivialities brought up by his obedientiaries. Though a man of few words himself, he was disposed, as a rule, to allow plenty of scope to those who were rambling and loquacious about their requests and suggestions, but on this day, plainly, he had more urgent matters on his mind.
"I must tell you," he said, when he had swept the last trifle satisfactorily into its place, "that I shall be leaving you for some days to the care of Father Prior, to whom, I expect and require, you shall be as obedient and helpful as you are to me. I am summoned to a council to be held at Westminster on the seventh day of this month, by the Holy Father's legate, Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester. I shall return as soon as I can, but in my absence I desire you will make your prayers for a spirit of wisdom and reconciliation in this meeting of prelates, for the sake of the peace of this land."
His voice was dry and calm to the point of resignation. For the past four years there had been precious little inclination to reconciliation in England between the warring rivals for the crown, and no very considerable wisdom shown on either side. But it was the business of the Church to continue to strive, and if possible to hope, even when the affairs of the land seemed to have reverted to the very same point where the civil war had begun, to repeat the whole unprofitable cycle all over again.
"I am well aware there are matters outstanding here," said the abbot, "which equally require our attention, but they must wait for my return. In particular there is the question of a successor to Father Adam, lately vicar of this parish of Holy Cross, whose loss we are still lamenting. The advowson rests with this house. Father Adam has been for many years a much valued associate with us here in the worship of God and the cure of souls, and his replacement is a matter for both thought and prayer. Until my return, Father Prior will direct the parish services as he thinks fit, and all of you will be at his bidding."
He swept one long, dark glance round the chapter house, accepted the general silence as understanding and consent, and rose.
"This chapter is concluded."
* * *
"Well, at least if he leaves tomorrow he has good weather for the ride," said Hugh Beringar, looking out from the open door of Brother Cadfael's workshop in the herb garden over grass still green, and a few surviving roses, grown tall and spindly by now but still budding bravely. December of this year of Our Lord 1141 had come in with soft-stepping care, gentle winds and lightly veiled skies, treading on tiptoe. "Like all those shifting souls who turned to the Empress when she was in her glory," said Hugh, grinning, "and are now put to it to keep well out of sight while they turn again. There must be a good many holding their breath and making themselves small just now."
"Bad luck for his reverence the papal legate," said Cadfael, "who cannot make himself small or go unregarded, whatever he does. His turning has to be done in broad daylight, with every eye on him. And twice in one year is too much to ask of any man."
"Ah, but in the name of the Church, Cadfael, in the name of the Church! It's not the man who turns, it's the representative of Pope and Church, who must preserve the infallibility of both at all costs."
Twice in one year, indeed, had Henry of Blois summoned his bishops and abbots to a legatine council, once in Winchester on the seventh of April to justify his endorsement of the Empress Maud as ruler, when she was in the ascendant and had her rival King Stephen securely in prison in Bristol, and now at Westminster on the seventh of December to justify his swing back to Stephen, now that the King was free again, and the city of London had put a decisive end to Maud's bid to establish herself in the capital, and get her hands at last on the crown.
"If his head is not going round by now, it should be," said Cadfael, shaking his own grizzled brown tonsure in mingled admiration and deprecation. "How many spins does this make? First he swore allegiance to the lady, when her father died without a male heir, then he accepted his brother Stephen's seizure of power in her absence, thirdly, when Stephen's star is darkened he makes his peace—a peace of sorts, at any rate!—with the lady, and justifies it by saying that Stephen has flouted and aggrieved Holy Church ... Now must he turn the same argument about, and accuse the Empress, or has he something new in his scrip?"
"What is there new to be said?' asked Hugh, shrugging. "No, he'll wring the last drop from his stewardship of Holy Church, and make the best of it that every soul there will have heard it all before, no longer ago than last April. And it will convince Stephen no more than it did Maud, but he'll let it pass with only a mild snarl or two, since he can no more afford to reject the backing of Henry of Blois than could Maud in her day. And the bishop will grit his teeth and stare his clerics in the eyes, and swallow his gall with a brazen face."
"It may well be the last time he has to turn about-face," said Cadfael, feeding his brazier with a few judiciously placed turves, to keep it burning with a slow and tempered heat. "She has thrown away what's likely to be her only chance."
A strange woman she had proved, King Henry's royal daughter. Married in childhood to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, she had so firmly ingratiated herself with her husband's people in Germany that when she was recalled to England, after his death, the populace had risen in consternation and grief to plead with her to stay. Yet here at home, when fate threw her enemy into her hands and held the crown suspended over her head, she had behaved with such vengeful arrogance, and exacted such penalties for past affronts, that the men of her capital city had risen just as indignantly, not to appeal to her to remain, but to drive her out and put a violent end to her hopes of ever becoming their ruler. And it was common knowledge that though she could turn even upon her own best allies with venom, yet she could also retain the love and loyalty of the best of the baronage. There was not a man of the first rank on Stephen's side to match the quality of her half-brother, Earl Robert of Gloucester, or her champion and reputed lover, Brian FitzCount, her easternmost paladin in his fortress at Wallingford. But it would take more than a couple of heroes to redeem her cause now. She had been forced to surrender her royal prisoner in exchange for her half-brother, without whom she could not hope to achieve anything. And here was England back to the beginning, with all to do again. For if she could not win, neither could she give up.
"From here where I stand now," said Cadfael, pondering, "these things seem strangely distant and unreal. If I had not been forty years in the world and among the armies myself, I doubt if I could believe in the times we live in but as a disturbed dream."
"They are not so to Abbot Radulfus," said Hugh with unwonted gravity. He turned his back upon the mild, moist prospect of the garden, sinking gently into its winter sleep, and sat down on the wooden bench against the timber wall. The small glow of the brazier, damped under the turf, burned on the bold, slender bones of his cheeks and jaw and brows, conjuring them out of deep shadows, and sparkling briefly in his black eyes before the lids and dark lashes quenched the sparks. "That man would make a better adviser to kings than most that cluster round Stephen now he's free again. But he would not tell them what they want to hear, and they'd all stop their ears."
"What's the news of King Stephen now? How has he borne this year of captivity? Is he likely to come out of it fighting, or has it dimmed his ardour? What is he likely to do next?"
"That I may be better able to answer after Christmas," said Hugh. "They say he's in good health. But she put him in chains, and that even he is not likely to forgive too readily. He's come out leaner and hungrier than he went in, and a gnaw in the belly may well serve to concentrate the mind. He was ever a man to begin a campaign or siege all fire the first day, weary of it if he got no gain by the third, and go off after another prey by the fifth. Maybe now he's learned to keep an unwavering eye fixed on one target until he fetches it down. Sometimes I wonder why we follow him, and never look round, then I see him roaring into personal battle as he did at Lincoln, and I know the reason well enough. Even when he has the woman as good as in his hands, as when she first landed at Arundel, and gives her an escort to her brother's fortress instead of having the good sense to seize her, I curse him for a fool, but I love him while I'm cursing him. What monumental folly of mistaken chivalry he'll commit next, only God knows. But I'll welcome the chance to see him again, and try to guess at his mind. For I'm bidden forth, Cadfael, like the abbot. King Stephen means to keep Christmas at Canterbury this year, and put on his crown again, for all to see which of two heads is the anointed monarch here. And he's called all his sheriffs to attend him and render account of their shires. Me among the rest, seeing we have here no properly appointed sheriff to render account."
He looked up with a dark, sidelong smile into Cadfael's attentive and thoughtful face. "A very sound move. He needs to know what measure of loyalty he has to rely on, after a year in prison, or close on a year. But there's no denying it may bring me a fall."
For Cadfael it was a new and jolting thought. Hugh had stepped into the office of sheriff perforce, when his superior, Gilbert Prestcote, had died of his battle wounds and the act of a desperate man, at a time when the King was already a prisoner in Bristol castle, with no power to appoint or to demote any officer in any shire. And Hugh had served him and maintained his peace here without authority, and deserved well of him. But now that he was free to make and break again, would Stephen confirm so young and so minor a nobleman in office, or use the appointment to flatter and bind to himself some baron of the march?
"Folly!" said Cadfael firmly. "The man is a fool only towards himself. He made you deputy to his man out of nowhere, when he saw your mettle. What does Aline say of it?"
Hugh could not hear his wife's name spoken without a wild, warm softening of his sharp, subtle face, nor could Cadfael speak it without relaxing every solemnity into a smile. He had witnessed their courtship and their marriage, and was godfather to their son, two years old this coming Christmastide. Aline's girlish, flaxen gentleness had grown into a golden, matronly calm to which they both turned in every need.
"Aline says that she has no great confidence in the gratitude of princes, but that Stephen has the right to choose his own officers, wisely or foolishly."
"And you?" said Cadfael.
"Why, if he gives me his countenance and writ I'll go on keeping all his borders for him, and if not, then I'll go back to Maesbury and keep the north, at least, against Chester, if the earl tries again to enlarge his palatinate. And Stephen's man must take charge of west, east and south. And you, old friend, must pay a visit or two over Christmas, while I'm away, and keep Aline company."
"Of all of us," said Cadfael piously, "that makes me the best blessed at this coming feast. I'll pray good joy to my abbot in his mission, and to you in yours. My joy is assured."
* * *
They had buried old Father Adam, seventeen years vicar of the parish of Holy Cross in the Foregate of Shrewsbury, only one week before Abbot Radulfus was summoned to the legatine council at Westminster. The advowson of the living was vested in the abbey, and the great church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul was equally the parish church of Holy Cross, the nave open to the people living here outside the town gates, in this growing suburb which almost considered itself a borough like the borough within the walls. The reeve of the Foregate, Erwald the wheelwright, publicly if unofficially used the title of provost, and abbey, church and town humoured his harmless flourish, for the Monks' Foregate was a relatively law-abiding, respectable district, and gave barely any trouble to the properly constituted authorities of the town itself. An occasional squabble between seculars and abbey, a brief tangle between the high-spirited young of Foregate and town, what was there in that to worry anyone beyond the day?
Father Adam had been there so long that all the young had grown up under his easy-going shadow, and all the old had known him as one of themselves, hardly set apart by his office. He had lived alone in his little house up a narrow alley opposite the church, looking after himself, with only an elderly freeman to take care of his glebe and his strip fields in the country part of the parish, for Holy Cross spread wide outside the main street of the Foregate. A big parish, a population made up equally of the craftsmen and merchants of the suburb and the cottars and villagers in the countryside. It was a matter of importance to them all what manner of priest they got in succession to Father Adam. The old man himself, from whatever gentle purgatory now contained him, would be keeping an anxious eye on his own.
Abbot Radulfus had presided at Adam's funeral, and Prior Robert at his most dignified and elegiac, tall and silvery and consciously patrician, had pronounced his eulogy, perhaps with a slight touch of condescension, for Adam had been barely literate, and a man of humble origins and no pretentions. But it was Cynric, the verger of Holy Cross, who had been with the priest through most of his years of office, who had best spoken his epitaph, and that privately, over the trimming of the candles on the parish altar, to Brother Cadfael, who had halted in passing through to say a word of personal sympathy to the man who would surely miss the dead most deeply.
"A sad, kind man," said Cynric, his deep-sunk eyes narrowed on the wick he was trimming, and his low voice as grainy and grudging as ever, "a tired man, with a soft spot for sinners."
It was rare enough for Cynric to utter thirteen words together, except by way of the responses learned by heart in the holy office. Thirteen words of his own had the force of prophecy. A sad man, because he had been listening to and bearing with the perpetual failures of humankind for seventeen years, a tired man because endless consoling and chiding and forgiving takes it out of any man by the time he's sixty, especially one with neither malice nor anger in his own make-up. A kind man, because he had somehow managed to preserve compassion and hope even against the tide of human fallibility. Yes, Cynric had known him better than anyone. He had absorbed, in the years of his service, something of the same qualities without the authority.
"You'll feel the want of him," said Cadfael. "So shall we all."
"He'll not be far," said Cynric, and snipped the dead wick with thumb and finger.
The verger was a man past fifty, but there was no knowing by how many years, for he himself did not know the exact year of his birth, though he knew the day and month. He was dark of hair and eyes, and sallow-skinned, and went in a rusty black gown somewhat frayed at the hems from long years of wear, and he lived in the tiny upper room over the north porch where Father Adam robed and kept his church furnishings. A taciturn, grave, durable man, built upon long, strong bones, but very meagre in flesh, as much by reason of the hermit's forgetfulness as any want of means. He came of a country family of free folk, and had a brother somewhere north of the town with a grown family, and very occasionally at feast or holiday he visited there, but that happened very rarely now, his whole life being centred here in the great church and the small upper room. So spare, silent and dark a form and face might have aroused awe and avoidance, but did not, since what the darkness and the silence covered was known to all, even the mischievous boys of the Foregate, and inspired no fear or revulsion at all. A good man, with his own preferences and peculiarities, and certainly no talker, but if you needed him, he was there, and like his master, would not send you away empty.
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