Read The Confession of Brother Haluin Online

Authors: Ellis Peters

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General

The Confession of Brother Haluin




Brother Haluin

Fifteenth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter
and Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury

Ellis Peters




















Chapter One


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.

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.

also brought about a strange cycle of events in the abbey of Saint Peter and
Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Radulfus listened, nodded his formidable head with his usual prompt
comprehension and decision, and said, “Very well, do it!”

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 laboriously
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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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