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It began at the normal daily chapter in the Benedictine monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, of Shrewsbury, on the thirtieth day of July, in the year of Our Lord 1139. That day being the eve of Saint Peter ad Vincula, a festival of solemn and profitable importance to the house that bore his name, the routine business of the morning meeting had been devoted wholly to the measures necessary to its proper celebration, and lesser matters had to wait.
The house, given its full dedication, had two saints, but Saint Paul tended to be neglected, sometimes even omitted from official documents, or so abbreviated that he almost vanished. Time is money, and clerks find it tedious to inscribe the entire title, perhaps as many as twenty times in one charter. They had had to amend their ways, however, since Abbot Radulfus had taken over the rudder of this cloistral vessel, for he was a man who brooked no slipshod dealings, and would have all his crew as meticulous as himself.
Brother Cadfael had been out before Prime in his enclosed herb-garden, observing with approval the blooming of his oriental poppies, and assessing the time when the seed would be due for gathering. The summer season was at its height, and promising rich harvest, for the spring had been mild and moist after plenteous early snows, and June and July hot and sunny, with a few compensatory showers to keep the leafage fresh and the buds fruitful. The hay harvest was in, and lavish, the corn looked ripe for the sickle. As soon as the annual fair was over, the reaping would begin. Cadfael's fragrant domain, dewy from the dawn and already warming into drunken sweetness in the rising sun, filled his senses with the kind of pleasure on which an ascetic church sometimes frowns, finding something uneasily sinful in pure delight. There were times when young Brother Mark, who worked with him this delectable field, felt that he ought to confess his joy among his sins, and meekly accept some appropriate penance. He was still very young, there were excuses to be found for him. Brother Cadfael had more sense, and no such scruples. The manifold gifts of God are there to be delighted in, to fall short of joy would be ingratitude.
Having put in two hours of work before Prime, and having no office in connection with the abbey fair, which was engaging all attention, Cadfael was nodding, as was his habit, behind his protective pillar in the dimmest corner of the chapter-house, perfectly ready to snap into wakefulness if some unexpected query should be aimed in his direction, and perfectly capable of answering coherently what he had only partially heard. He had been sixteen years a monk, by his own considered choice, which he had never regretted, after a very adventurous life which he had never regretted, either, and he was virtually out of reach of surprise. He was fifty-nine years old, with a world of experience stored away within him, and still as tough as a badger—according to Brother Mark almost as bandy-legged, into the bargain, but Brother Mark was a privileged being. Cadfael dozed as silently as a closed flower at night, and hardly ever snored; within the Benedictine rule, and in genial companionship with it, he had perfected a daily discipline of his own that suited his needs admirably.
It is probable that he was fast asleep when the steward of the grange court, with an appropriate apology, ventured into the chapter-house and stood waiting the abbot's permission to speak. He was certainly awake when the steward reported: "My lord, here in the great court is the provost of the town, with a delegation from the Guild Merchant, asking leave to speak with you. They say the matter is important."
Abbot Radulfus allowed his steely, level brows to rise a little, and indicated graciously that the fathers of the borough should be admitted at once. Relations between the town of Shrewsbury on one side of the river and the abbey on the other, if never exactly cordial—that was too much to expect, where their interests so often collided—were always correct, and their skirmishes conducted with wary courtesy. If the abbot scented battle, he gave no sign. But for all that, thought Cadfael, watching the shrewd, lean hatchet-face, he has a pretty accurate idea of what they're here for.
The worthies of the guild entered the chapter-house in a solid phalanx, no less than ten of them, from half the crafts in the town, and led by the provost. Master Geoffrey Corviser, named for his trade, was a big, portly, vigorous man not yet fifty, clean-shaven, brisk and dignified. He made some of the finest shoes and riding-boots in England, and was well aware of their excellence and his own worth. For this occasion he had put on his best, and even without the long gown that would have been purgatory in this summer weather, he made an impressive figure, as clearly he meant to do. Several of those grouped at his back were well known to Cadfael: Edric Flesher, chief of the butchers of Shrewsbury, Martin Bellecote, master-carpenter, Reginald of Aston, the silversmith—men of substance every one. Abbot Radulfus did not know them, not yet. He had been only half a year in office, sent from London to trim an easy-going provincial house into more zealous shape, and he had much to learn about the men of the borders, as he himself, being no man's fool, was well aware.
"You are welcome, gentlemen," said the abbot mildly. "Speak freely, you shall have attentive hearing."
The ten made their reverences gravely, spread sturdy feet, and stood planted like a battle-square, all eyes alert, all judgments held in reserve. The abbot was concentrating courteous attention upon them with much the same effect. In his interludes of duty as shepherd, Cadfael had once watched two rams level just such looks before they clashed foreheads.
"My lord abbot," said the provost, "as you know, Saint Peter's Fair opens on the day after tomorrow, and lasts for three days. It's of the fair we come to speak. You know the conditions. For all that time all shops in the town must be shut, and nothing sold but ale and wine. And ale and wine are sold freely here at the fairground and the Foregate, too, so that no man can make his living in the town from that merchandise. For three days, the three busiest of the year, when we might do well out of tolls on carts and pack-horses and man-loads passing through the town to reach the fair, we must levy no charges, neither murage nor pavage. All tolls belong only to the abbey. Goods coming up the Severn by boat tie up at your jetty, and pay their dues to you. We get nothing. And for this privilege you pay no more than thirty-eight shillings, and even that we must go to the trouble to distrain from the rents of your tenants in the town."
"No more than thirty-eight shillings!" repeated Abbot Radulfus, and elevated the iron-grey brows a shade higher, but still with an urbane countenance and a gentle voice. "The sum was appointed as fair. And not by us. The terms of the charter have been known to you many years, I believe."
"They have, and often before now have been found burdensome enough, but bargains must be kept, and we have never complained. But bad years or good, the sum has never been raised. And it falls very hard on a town so pressed as we are now, to lose three days of trade, and the best tolls of the year. Last summer, as you must know, though you were not then among us, Shrewsbury was under siege above a month, and stormed at last with great damage to the town walls, and great neglect of the streets, and for all our efforts there's still great need of work on them, and it's costly labour, after all last summer's losses. Not the half of the dilapidations are yet put right, and in these troublous times, who knows when we may again be under attack? The very traffic of your fair will be passing through our streets and adding to the wear, while we get nothing to help make good the damage."
"Come to the point, Master Provost," said the abbot in the same tranquil tone. "You are come to make some demand of us. Speak it out plainly."
"Father Abbot, so I will! We think—and I speak for the whole guild merchant and borough gathering of Shrewsbury—that in such a year we have the best possible case for asking that the abbey should either pay a higher fee for the fair, or, better by far, set aside a proportion of the fair tolls on goods, whether by horse-load or cart or boat, to be handed over to the town, and spent on restoring the walls. You benefit by the protection the town affords you; you ought, we think, to bear a part with us in maintaining its defences. A tenth share of the profits would be welcomed, and we should thank you heartily for it. It is not a demand, with respect, it is an appeal. But we believe the grant of a tenth would be nothing more than justice."
Abbot Radulfus sat, very erect and lean and lofty, gravely considering the phalanx of stout burgesses before him. "That is the view of you all?"
Edric Flesher spoke up bluntly: "It is. And of all our townsmen, too. There are many who would voice the matter more forcibly than Master Corviser has done. But we trust in your fellow-feeling, and wait your answer."
The faint stir that went round the chapter-house was like a great, cautious sigh. Most of the brothers looked on wide-eyed and anxious; the younger ones shifted and whispered, but very warily. Prior Robert Pennant, who had looked to be abbot by this time, and been sorely disappointed at having a stranger promoted over his head, maintained a silvery, ascetic calm, appeared to move his lips in prayer, and shot sidelong looks at his superior between narrowed ivory lids, wishing him irredeemable error while appearing to compassionate and bless. Old Brother Heribert, recently abbot of this house and now degraded to its ranks, dozed in a quiet corner, smiling gently, thankful to be at rest.
"We are considering, are we not," said Radulfus at length, gently and without haste, "what you pose as a dispute between the rights of the town and the rights of this house. In such a balance, should the judgment rest with you, or with me? Surely not! Some disinterested judge is needed. But, gentlemen, I would remind you, there has been such a decision, now, within the past half-year, since the siege of which you complain. At the beginning of this year his Grace King Stephen confirmed to us our ancient charter, with all its grants in lands, rights and privileges, just as we held them aforetime. He confirmed also our right to this three-day fair on the feast of our patron Saint Peter, at the same fee we have paid before, and on the same conditions. Do you suppose he would have countenanced such a grant, if he had not held it to be just?"
"To say outright what I suppose," said the provost warmly, "I never supposed for a moment that the thought of justice entered into it. I make no murmur against what his Grace chose to do, but it's plain he held Shrewsbury to be a hostile town, and most like still does hold it so, because Fitz Alan, who is fled to France now, garrisoned the castle and kept it over a month against him. But small say we of the town ever had in the matter, and little we could have done about it! The castle declared for the Empress Maud, and we must put up with the consequences, while Fitz Alan's away, safe out of reach. My lord abbot, is that justice?"
"Are you making the claim that his Grace, by confirming the abbey in its rights, is taking revenge on the town?" asked the abbot with soft and perilous gentleness.
"I am saying that he never so much as gave the town a thought, or its injuries a look, or he might have made some concession."
"Ah! Then should not this appeal of yours be addressed rather to the Lord Gilbert Prestcote, who is the king's sheriff, and no doubt has his ear, rather than to us?"
"It has been so addressed, though not with regard to the fair. It is not for the sheriff to give away any part of what has been bestowed on the abbey. Only you, Father, can do that," said Geoffrey Corviser briskly. It began to be apparent that the provost knew his way about among the pitfalls of words every bit as well as did the abbot.
"And what answer did you get from the sheriff?"
"He will do nothing for us until his own walls at the castle are made good. He promises us the loan of labour when work there is finished, but labour we could supply, it's money and materials we need, and it will be a year or more before he's ready to turn over even a handful of his men to our needs. In such a case, Father, do you wonder that we find the fair a burden?"
"Yet we have our needs, too, as urgent to us as yours to you," said the abbot after a thoughtful moment of silence. "And I would remind you, our lands and possessions here lie outside the town walls, even outside the loop of the river, two protections you enjoy that we do not share. Should we, men, be asked to pay tolls for what cannot apply to us?"
"Not all your possessions," said the provost promptly. "There are within the town some thirty or more messuages in your hold, and your tenants within them, and their children have to wade in the kennels of broken streets as ours do, and their horses break legs where the paving is shattered, as ours do."
"Our tenants enjoy fair treatment from us, and considerate rents, and for such matters we are responsible. But we cannot be held responsible for the town's dilapidations, as we can for those here on our own lands. No," said the abbot, raising his voice peremptorily when the provost would have resumed his arguments, "say no more! We have heard and understood your case, and we are not without sympathy. But Saint Peter's Fair is a sacred right granted to this house, on terms we did not draw up; it is a right that inheres not to me as a man, but to this house, and I in my passing tenure have no authority to change or mitigate those terms in the smallest degree. It would be an offence against the king's Grace, who has confirmed the charter, and an offence against those my successors, for it could be taken and cited as a precedent for future years. No, I will not set aside any part of the profits of the fair to your use, I will not increase the fee we pay you for it, I will not share in any proportion the tolls on goods and stalls. All belong here, and all must be gathered here, according to the charter." He saw half a dozen mouths open to protest against so summary a dismissal, and rose in his place, very tall and straight, and chill of voice and eye. "This chapter is concluded," he said.
There were one or two among the delegation who would still have tried to insist, but Geoffrey Corviser had a better notion of his own and the town's dignity, and a shrewder idea of what might or might not impress that self-assured and austere man. He made the abbot a deep, abrupt reverence, turned on his heel, and strode out of the chapter-house, and his defeated company recovered their wits and marched as haughtily after him.
* * *
There were booths already going up in the great triangle of the horse-fair, and all along the Foregate from the bridge to the corner of the enclosure, where the road veered right towards Saint Giles, and the king's highway to London . There was a newly-erected wooden jetty downstream from the bridge, where the long riverside stretch of the main abbey gardens and orchards began, the rich lowland known as the Gaye. By river, by road, afoot through the forests and over the border from Wales, traders of all kinds began to make their way to Shrewsbury . And into the great court of the abbey flocked all the gentry of the shire, and of neighbouring shires, too, lordlings, knights, yeomen, with their wives and daughters, to take up residence in the overflowing guest-halls for the three days of the annual fair. Subsistence goods they grew, or bred, or brewed, or wove, or span for themselves, the year round, but once a year they came to buy the luxury cloths, the fine wines, the rare preserved fruits, the gold and silver work, all the treasures that appeared on the feast of Saint Peter ad Vincula, and vanished three days later. To these great fairs came merchants even from Flanders and Germany, shippers with French wines, shearers with the wool-clip from Wales, and clothiers with the finished goods, gowns, jerkins, hose, town fashions come to the country. Not many of the vendors had yet arrived, most would appear next day, on the eve of the feast, and set up their booths during the long summer evening, ready to begin selling early on the morrow. But the buyers were arriving in purposeful numbers already, bent on securing good beds for their stay.
When Brother Cadfael came up from the Meole brook and his vegetable-fields for Vespers, after a hard and happy afternoon's work, the great court was seething with visitors, servants and grooms, and the traffic in and out of the stables flowed without cease. He stood for a few minutes to watch the pageant, and Brother Mark at his elbow glowed as he gazed, dazzled by the play of colours and shimmer of movement in the sunlight.
"Yes," said Cadfael, viewing with philosophical detachment what Brother Mark contemplated with excitement and wonder, "the world and his wife will be here, either to buy or sell." And he eyed his young friend attentively, for the boy had seen little enough of the world before entering the order, being thrust through the gates willy-nilly at sixteen by a stingy uncle who grudged him his keep even in exchange for hard work, and he had only recently taken his final vows. "Do you see anything there to tempt you back into the secular world?"
"No," said Brother Mark, promptly and serenely. "But I may look and enjoy, just as I do in the garden when the poppies are in flower. It's no blame to men if they try to put into their own artifacts all the colours and shapes God put into his."
Excerpted from Saint Peter's Fair by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1981 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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