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The Miracle at St. Bruno's
By Philippa Carr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Philippa Carr
All rights reserved.
The Jeweled Madonna
I was born in the September of 1523, nine months after the monks had discovered the Child in the crib on that Christmas morning. My birth was, my father used to say, another miracle. He was not young at the time, being forty years of age; he had recently married my mother who was more than twenty years his junior. His first wife had died giving birth to a stillborn son after having made several attempts to bear children all of which had failed; and because my father at last had a child, he called that a miracle.
It is not difficult to imagine the rejoicing in the household. Keziah, who was my nurse and mentor in those early days, was constantly telling me about it.
"Mercy me!" she said. "The feasting. It was like a wedding. You could smell the venison and sucking pig all over the house. And there was tansy cake and saffron cake with mead to wash it down for all who cared to call for it. The beggars came from miles around. What a time of plenty! Poor souls! Up to St. Bruno's for a night's shelter, a bite to eat and a blessing and then to the Big House for tansy and saffron. And all on account of you."
"And the Child," I reminded her, for I had very quickly become aware of the miracle of St. Bruno's.
"And the Child," she agreed; and whenever she spoke of the Child, a certain smile illumined her face and made her beautiful.
My mother, whose great pleasure was tending her gardens, called me Damask, after the rose which Dr. Linacre, the King's physician, had brought into England that year. I began to grow up with a sense of my own importance, for my mother's attempts to bear more children were frustrated. There were three miscarriages in the five years that followed. I was cosseted, watched over, cherished.
My father was a good and gentle man, who went into the city to do his business. Each day one of the boats at our privy steps would be untied and a servant in dark-blue livery would row him upriver. Sometimes my mother would carry me down to the steps to watch him go; she would tell me to wave so that my father would gaze lovingly at me until he was carried too far away to see me.
The big house with its timber frame and gables had been built by my father's father; it was commodious with its great hall, its numerous bedchambers and reception rooms, its winter parlor and its three staircases. At the east wing a stone spiral one led to the attic bedrooms occupied by our servants; and in addition there was the buttery, the scalding house, the washhouse, the bake-house and the stables. My father owned many acres which were farmed by men who lived on his estate; and there were animals too—horses, cows and pigs. Our land adjoined that of St. Bruno's Abbey and my father was a friend of several of the lay brothers for he had once been on the point of becoming a monk.
Between the house and the river were the gardens by which my mother set such store. There she grew flowers most of the year round—irises and tiger lilies; lavender, rosemary, gillyflowers and of course roses. The damask rose was always her favorite though.
Her lawns were smooth and beautiful; the river kept them green and both she and my father loved animals. We had our dogs and our peacocks too; how often we laughed at the strutting birds flaunting their beautiful tails while the far less glorious peahens followed in the wake of their vainglorious lords and masters. One of my first memories was feeding them with the peas they so loved.
To sit on the stone wall and look at the river always delighted me. When I see it now it suggests serenity and perfect peace more than anything else I know. And in those days in my happy home I believed I was not altogether unconscious of the deep satisfying sense of security, although I didn't appreciate it then; I was not wise enough to do so, but took it for granted. But I was quickly to be jerked out of my complacent youth.
I remember a day when I was four years old. I loved to watch the craft moving along the river and because my parents could not deny themselves the pleasure of indulging me, my father would often take me to the river's edge—I was forbidden to go there alone because they were terrified that some accident would befall their beloved only child. There he would sit on the low stone wall while I stood on it. He would keep his arm tightly about me, he would point out the boats as they passed, and sometimes he would say: "That is my lord of Norfolk." Or, "That is the Duke of Suffolk's barge." He knew these people slightly because sometimes in the course of his business he met them.
On this summer's day as the strains of music came from a grand barge which was sailing down the river my father's arm tightened about me. Someone was playing a lute and there was singing.
"Damask," he said speaking quietly as though we could be overheard, "it's the royal barge."
It was a fine one—grander than any I had ever seen. A line of silken flags adorned it; it was gaily colored and I saw people in it; the sun caught the jewels on their doublets so that they glittered.
I thought my father was about to pick me up and go back to the house.
"Oh, no," I protested.
He did not seem to hear me, but I was aware of his hesitation and he seemed different from his usual strong and clever self. Young as I was, I sensed a certain fear.
He stood up, holding me even more firmly. The barge was very near now; the music was quite loud; I heard the sound of laughter and then I was aware of a giant of a man—a man with red-gold beard and a face that seemed enormous and on his head was a cap that glittered with jewels; on his doublet gems shone too. Beside him was a man in scarlet robes, and the giant and the man in red stood very close.
My father took off his hat and stood bareheaded. He whispered to me: "Curtsy, Damask."
I hardly needed to be told. I knew I was in the presence of a godlike creature.
My curtsy appeared to be a success for the giant laughed pleasantly and waved a glittering hand. The barge passed on; my father breathed more easily but he still stood with his arms tightly about me staring after it.
"Father," I cried, "who was that?"
He answered: "My child, you have just been recognized by the King and the Cardinal."
I had caught his excitement. I wanted to know more of this great man. So he was the King. I had heard of the King; people said his name in hushed tones. They revered him; they worshiped him as they were supposed to worship God alone. And more than anything they were afraid of him.
My parents, I had already noticed, were wary when they spoke of him, but this encounter had caught my father off his guard. I was quick to realize this.
"Where are they going?" I wanted to know.
"They are on their way to Hampton Court. You have seen Hampton Court, my love."
Beautiful Hampton! Yes, I had seen it. It was grand and imposing, even more so than my father's house.
"Whose house is it, Father?" I asked.
"It is the King's house."
"But his house is at Greenwich. You showed me."
"The King has many houses and now he has yet another. Hampton Court. The Cardinal has given it to him."
"Why, Father? Why did he give the King Hampton Court?"
"Because he was forced to."
"The King ... stole it?"
"Hush, hush, my child. You speak treason."
I wondered what treason was. I remembered the word but I did not ask then because I was more interested in knowing why the King had taken that beautiful house from the Cardinal. But my father would tell me no more.
"The Cardinal did not want to lose it," I said.
"You have too old a head on those shoulders," said my father fondly.
It was a fact of which he was proud. He wanted me to be clever. That was why even at such an age I already had a tutor and knew my letters and could read simple words. Already I had felt the burning desire to know—and this was applauded and encouraged by my father so I suppose I was precocious.
"But he was sad to lose it," I insisted. "And, Father, you are sad too. You do not like the Cardinal to lose his house."
"You must not say that, my dearest," he said. "The happier our King is the happier I as a true subject must be and you must be...."
"And the Cardinal must be," I said, "because he is the King's subject too."
"You're a clever girl," he said fondly.
"Laugh, Father," I said. "Really laugh with your mouth and your eyes and your voice. It is only the Cardinal who has lost his house.... It is not us."
He stared at me as though I had said something very strange and then he spoke to me as though I were as old and wise as Brother John who came to visit him sometimes from St. Bruno's.
"My love," he said, "no one stands alone. The tragedy of one could well be the tragedy of us all."
I did not understand the words. I did know what tragedy was and silently puzzled over what he had said. But I did remember it later and I thought how prophetic were his words that day by the river.
Then he diverted my attention. "Look how pretty the loosestrife is! Shall we gather some for your mother?"
"Oh, yes," I cried. For I loved gathering flowers and my mother was always so pleased with what I found for her; so as I made a nosegay of purple loosestrife with the flowers we called cream-and-codlings I forgot the sadness the sight of the King and the Cardinal in the royal barge together had wrought in my father.
That had been a terrible summer. News came to us that the plague was raging through Europe and that thousands had died in France and Germany.
The heat was terrible and the fragrance of the flowers of the garden was overlaid by the stench that came off the river.
I heard what was happening from Keziah. I had discovered that I could learn far more from her than from my parents, who were always cautious in my hearing and a little afraid, while they were immensely proud, of my precocity.
She had been along to the Chepe and found that several of the shops were boarded up because their owners had fallen victim to the sweating sickness.
"The dreaded sweat." she called it and rolled her eyes upward when she spoke of it. It carried off people in the thousands.
Keziah went to the woods to see Mother Salter whom everyone was afraid of offending; at the same time she was said to have cures for every kind of ailment. Keziah was on very good terms with her. She would proudly toss her thick fair curly hair, her eyes would crinkle with merriment and she would smile knowingly when she talked of Mother Salter. "She's my old Granny," she told me once in sudden confidence.
"Then are you a witch, Kezzie?" I asked.
"There's some that have called me so, little 'un." Then she made claws of her hands and prowled toward me. "So you'd better be a good girl or I'll be after you." I squealed with the delight Keziah could arouse in me and pretended to be afraid. With her laughter, sometimes sly, sometimes warm and loving, Keziah was for me the most exciting person in the household. She it was who first told me of the miracle and one day when we were out walking she said that if I were a good girl she might be able to show me the Child.
We had come to that wall where our lands joined those of the Abbey. Keziah hoisted me up. "Sit still," she commanded. "Don't dare move." Then she climbed up beside me.
"This is his favorite place," she said. "You may well see him today."
She was right. I did. He came across the grass and looked straight up at us perched on the wall.
I was struck by his beauty although I did not realize it then; all I knew was that I wanted to go on looking at him. His face was pale; his eyes the most startling dark blue I had ever seen; and his fair hair curled about his head. He was taller than I and even at that age there was an air of superiority about him which immediately overawed me.
"He don't look holy," whispered Keziah, "but he's too young for it to show."
"Who are you?" he asked, giving me a cold direct stare.
"Damask Farland," I said. "I live at the big house."
"You should not be here," answered the Child.
"Now, darling, we've a right to be here," replied Keziah.
"This is Abbey land," retorted the boy.
Keziah chuckled. "Not where we are. We're on the wall."
The boy picked up a stone and looked about him as though to see if he would be observed throwing it at us.
"Oh, that's wicked," cried Keziah. "You wouldn't think he was holy, would you? He is though. Only holiness don't show till they get older. Some of the saints have been very naughty boys. Do you know that, Dammy? It's in some of the stories. They get their halos later on."
"But this one was born holy, Keziah," I whispered.
"You are wicked," cried the boy; and at that moment one of the monks came walking across the grass.
"Bruno," called the monk; and then he saw us on the wall.
Keziah smiled at him rather strangely, I thought, because after all he was a monk, and I knew by his robes that he was not one of the lay brothers who left the Abbey and mingled with the world.
"What are you doing here?" he cried; and I thought Keziah would jump down, lift me down and run, for he was clearly very shocked to see us.
"I'm looking at the Child," said Keziah. "He's a bonny sight."
The monk appeared to be distressed by our wickedness.
"It's only me and my little 'un," said Keziah in that comfortable easy way which made everything less serious than others were trying to make it out to be. "He was going to throw a stone at us."
"That was wrong, Bruno," said the monk.
The boy lifted his head and said: "They shouldn't be here, Brother Ambrose."
"But you must not throw stones. You know that Brother Valerian teaches you to love everybody."
"Not sinners," said the Child.
I felt very wicked then. I was a sinner. He had said so and he was the Holy Child.
I thought of Jesus who had been in His crib on Christmas Day and how different He must have been. He was humble, my mother told me, and tried to help sinners. I could not believe that He would ever have wanted to throw stones at them.
"You're looking well, Brother Ambrose," said Keziah. She might have been talking to Tom Skillen, one of our gardeners to whom she did talk very often. There was a little trill at the end of her sentence which was not quite a laugh but served the same purpose since it betrayed her refusal to admit anything was very serious in any situation.
The Child was watching us intently, but strangely enough I found my attention becoming fixed on Keziah and the monk. The Child might become a prophet, I had heard, but at this time he was simply a child, though an unusual one, and I accepted the fact that he had been found in the Christmas crib as I accepted the stories of witches and fairies which Keziah told me; but grown-up people interested me because they often seemed to be hiding something from me and to discover what was a kind of challenge which I could not resist meeting.
We saw the lay brothers now and then in the lanes, but not the monks who lived the enclosed life; and I had heard that in the last years when the fame of St. Bruno's had spread the number of lay brothers had increased. Sometimes they went into the city because there were the products of the Abbey to be disposed of and business to discuss; but they always went into the world outside the Abbey in twos. Wealthy parents sent their sons to the Abbey to be educated by the monks; men seeking work often found it in the Abbey farm, mill or bake and brew houses. There was a great deal of activity, for not only was there the monastic community but mendicants, and poor travelers would always be given a meal and a night's shelter for it was a rule that none who lacked these should be turned away.
But although I had seen the brothers in pairs walking along the lanes, usually silent, their eyes averted from worldly sights, I had never before seen a monk and a woman together. I did not know then what kind of woman Keziah was, but in spite of my youth I was very curious on this occasion and surprised by the challenging and the jocular disrespect which Keziah seemed to show toward Brother Ambrose. I could not understand why he did not reprove her.
All he did say was: "You should not look on what you are not meant to see."
Then he took the Child firmly by the hand and led him away. I hoped the boy would look around but he did not.
When they had gone Keziah jumped down and lifted me off the wall.
I chattered excitedly about our adventure.
"His name's Bruno."
"Yes, after the Abbey."
"How did they know that was his name?"
"They gave it to him, and right and proper it is."
"Is he Saint Bruno?"
"Not yet—that's to come."
"I don't think he liked us."
Keziah did not answer. She seemed to be thinking of something else.
As we were about to enter the house she said: "That was our adventure, wasn't it? Our secret, eh, Dammy? We won't tell anyone, will we?"
"Oh, better not. Promise."
Sometimes John and James, two of the lay brothers, came to see my father, who told me that once, long ago, he had lived at St. Bruno's Abbey.
"I thought I would be a monk and I lived there for two years. After that I came out into the world."
"You would have made a better monk than Brothers John and James."
"You should not say that, my love."
Excerpted from The Miracle at St. Bruno's by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1972 Philippa Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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