In this “enchanting” historical mystery, “medieval England comes marvelously alive” as Brother Cadfael investigates a woman’s baffling disappearance (The Washington Post).
In the year of our Lord 1141, August comes in golden as a lion, and two monks ride into the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul bringing with them disturbing news of war—and a mystery.
The strangers tell how the strife between the Empress Maud and King Stephen has destroyed the town of Winchester and their priory. Now Brother Humilis, who is handsome, gaunt, and very ill, and Brother Fidelis, youthful, comely—and totally mute—must seek refuge at Shrewsbury. From the moment he meets them, Brother Cadfael senses something deeper than common vows binds these two good brothers. What the link is he can only guess. What it will lead to is beyond his imagining. As Brother Humilis’s health fails—and nothing can stop death’s lengthening shade—Brother Cadfael faces a poignant test of his discretion and his beliefs as he unravels a secret so great it can destroy a life, a future, and a holy order.
“Unflagging tension which builds to a swift, satisfying climax. Peters never disappoints [with] her absorbing, superbly crafted stories.” —Kirkus Reviews
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Ellis Peters (the pen name of Edith Pargeter, 1913-1995) is a writer beloved of millions of readers worldwide and has been widely adapted for radio and television. Ellis Peters was awarded an OBE for her services to literature in 1994.
Ellis Peters (the pen name of Edith Pargeter, 1913–1995) is a writer beloved of millions of readers worldwide and has been widely adapted for radio and television. Ellis Peters was awarded an OBE for her services to literature in 1994.
Read an Excerpt
An Excellent Mystery
The Eleventh Chronicle Of Brother Cadfael, Of The Benedictine Abbey Of Saint Peter And Saint Paul, At Shrewsbury
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1985 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
August came in, that summer of 1141, tawny as a lion and somnolent and purring as a hearthside cat. After the plenteous rains of the spring the weather had settled into angelic calm and sunlight for the feast of Saint Winifred, and preserved the same benign countenance throughout the corn harvest. Lammas came for once strict to its day, the wheat-fields were already gleaned and white, ready for the flocks and herds that would be turned into them to make use of what aftermath the season brought. The loaf-Mass had been celebrated with great contentment, and the early plums in the orchard along the riverside were darkening into ripeness. The abbey barns were full, the well-dried straw bound and stacked, and if there was still no rain to bring on fresh green fodder in the reaped fields for the sheep, there were heavy morning dews. When this golden weather broke at last, it might well break in violent storms, but as yet the skies remained bleached and clear, the palest imaginable blue.
"Fat smiles on the faces of the husbandmen," said Hugh Beringar, fresh from his own harvest in the north of the shire, and burned nut-brown from his work in the fields, "and chaos among the kings. If they had to grow their own corn, mill their own flour and bake their own bread they might have no time left for all the squabbling and killing. Well, thank God for present mercies, and God keep the killing well away from us here. Not that I rate it the less ill-fortune for being there in the south, but this shire is my field, and my people, mine to keep. I have enough to do to mind my own, and when I see them brown and rosy and fat, with full byres and barns, and a high wool tally in good quality fleeces, I'm content."
They had met by chance at the corner of the abbey wall, where the Foregate turned right towards Saint Giles, and beside it the great grassy triangle of the horse-fair ground opened, pallid and pockmarked in the sun. The three-day annual fair of Saint Peter was more than a week past, the stalls taken down, the merchants departed. Hugh sat aloft on his raw-boned and cross-grained grey horse, tall enough to carry a heavyweight instead of this light, lean young man whose mastery he tolerated, though he had precious little love for any other human creature. It was no responsibility of the sheriff of Shropshire to see that the fairground was properly vacated and cleared after its three-day occupation, but for all that Hugh liked to view the ground for himself. It was his officers who had to keep order there, and make sure the abbey stewards were neither cheated of their fees nor robbed or otherwise abused in collecting them. That was over now for another year. And here were the signs of it, the dappling of post-holes, the pallid oblongs of the stalls, the green fringes, and the trampled, bald paths between the booths. From sun-starved bleach to lush green, and back to the pallor again, with patches of tough, flat clover surviving in the trodden paths like round green footprints of some strange beast.
"One good shower would put all right," said Brother Cadfael, eyeing the curious chessboard of blanched and bright with a gardener's eye. "There's nothing in the world so strong as grass."
He was on his way from the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul to its chapel and hospital of Saint Giles, half a mile away at the very rim of the town. It was one of his duties to keep the medicine cupboard there well supplied with all the remedies the inmates might require, and he made this journey every couple of weeks, more often in times of increased habitation and need. On this particular early morning in August he had with him young Brother Oswin, who had worked with him among the herbs for more than a year, and was now on his way to put his skills into practice among the most needy. Oswin was sturdy, well-grown, glowing with enthusiasm. Time had been when he had cost plenty in breakages, in pots burned beyond recovery, and deceptive herbs gathered by mistake for others only too like them. Those times were over. All he needed now to be a treasure to the hospital was a cool-headed superior who would know when to curb his zeal. The abbey had the right of appointment, and the lay head they had installed would be more than proof against Brother Oswin's too exuberant energy.
"You had a good fair, after all," said Hugh.
"Better than ever I expected, with half the south cut off by the trouble in Winchester. They got here from Flanders," said Cadfael appreciatively. East Anglia was no very peaceful ground just now, but the wool merchants were a tough breed, and would not let a little bloodshed and danger bar them off from a good profit.
"It was a fine wool clip." Hugh had flocks of his own on his manor of Maesbury, in the north, he knew about the quality of the year's fleeces. There had been good buying in from Wales, too, all along this border. Shrewsbury had ties of blood, sympathy and mutual gain with the Welsh of both Powys and Gwynedd, whatever occasional explosions of racial exuberance might break the guarded peace. In this summer the peace with Gwynedd held firm, under the capable hand of Owain Gwynedd, since they had a shared interest in containing the ambitions of Earl Ranulf of Chester. Powys was less predictable, but had drawn in its horns of late after several times blunting them painfully on Hugh's precautions.
"And the corn harvest the best for years. As for the fruit ... It looks well," said Cadfael cautiously, "if we get some good rains soon to swell it, and no thunderstorms before it's gathered. Well, the corn's in and the straw stacked, and as good a hay crop as we've had since my memory holds. You'll not hear me complain."
But for all that, he thought, looking back in mild surprise, it had been an unchancy sort of year, overturning the fortunes of kings and empresses not once, but twice, while benignly smiling upon the festivities of the church and the hopeful labours of ordinary men, at least here in the midlands. February had seen King Stephen made prisoner at the disastrous battle of Lincoln, and swept away into close confinement in Bristol castle by his arch-enemy, cousin and rival claimant to the throne of England, the Empress Maud. A good many coats had been changed in haste after that reversal, not least that of Stephen's brother and Maud's cousin, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and papal legate, who had delicately hedged his wager and come round to the winning side, only to find that he would have done well to drag his feet a little longer. For the fool woman, with the table spread for her at Westminster and the crown all but touching her hair, had seen fit to conduct herself in so arrogant and overbearing a manner towards the citizens of London that they had risen in fury to drive her out in ignominious flight, and let King Stephen's valiant queen into the city in her place.
Not that this last spin of the wheel could set King Stephen free. On the contrary, report said it had caused him to be loaded with chains by way of extra security, he being the one formidable weapon the empress still had in her hand. But it had certainly snatched the crown from Maud's head, most probably for ever, and it had cost her the not inconsiderable support of Bishop Henry, who was not the man to be over-hasty in his alliances twice in one year. Rumour said the lady had sent her half-brother and best champion, Earl Robert of Gloucester, to Winchester to set things right with the bishop and lure him back to her side, but without getting a straight answer. Rumour said also, and probably on good grounds, that Stephen's queen had already forestalled her, at a private meeting with Henry at Guildford, and got rather more sympathy from him than the empress had succeeded in getting. And doubtless Maud had heard of it. For the latest news, brought by latecomers from the south to the abbey fair, was that the empress with a hastily gathered army had marched to Winchester and taken up residence in the royal castle there. What her next move was to be must be a matter of anxious speculation to the bishop, even in his own city.
And meantime, here in Shrewsbury the sun shone, the abbey celebrated its maiden saint with joyous solemnity, the flocks flourished, the harvest whitened and was gathered in exemplary weather, the annual fair took its serene course through the first three days of August, and traders came from far and wide, conducted their brisk business, took their profits, made their shrewd purchases, and scattered again in peace to return to their own homes, as though neither king nor empress existed, or had any power to hamper the movements or threaten the lives of ordinary, sensible men.
"You'll have heard nothing new since the merchants left?" Cadfael asked, scanning the blanched traces their stalls had left behind.
"Nothing yet. It seems they're eyeing each other across the city, each waiting for the other to make a move. Winchester must be holding its breath. The last word is that the empress sent for Bishop Henry to come to her at the castle, and he has sent a soft answer that he is preparing himself for the meeting. But stirred not a foot, so far, to move within reach of her. But for all that," said Hugh thoughtfully, "I dare wager he's preparing, sure enough. She has mustered her forces, he'll be calling up his before ever he goes near her—if he does!"
"And while they hold their breath, you may breathe more freely," said Cadfael shrewdly.
Hugh laughed. "While my enemies fall out, at least it keeps their minds off me and mine. Even if they come to terms again, and she wins him back, there's at least a few weeks' delay gained for the king's party. If not—why, better they should tear each other than save their arrows for us."
"Do you think he'll stand out against her?"
"She has treated him as haughtily as she does every man, when he did her good menial service. Now he has half-defied her he may well be reflecting that she takes very unkindly to being thwarted, and that a bishop can be clapped in chains as easily as a king, once she lays hands on him. No, I fancy his lordship is stocking his own castle of Wolvesey to withstand a siege, if it comes to that, and calling up his men in haste. Who bargains with the empress had better bargain from behind an army."
The queen's army?" demanded Cadfael, sharp-eyed.
Hugh had begun to wheel his horse back towards the town, but he looked round over a bare brown shoulder with a flashing glint of black eyes. "That we shall see! I would guess the first courier ever he sent out for aid went to Queen Matilda."
* * *
"Brother Cadfael ..." began Oswin, trotting jauntily beside him as they walked on towards the rim of the town, where the hospital and its chapel rose plain and grey within their long wattle fence.
"Would even the empress really dare lay hands on the Bishop of Winchester? The Holy Father's legate here?"
"Who can tell? But there's not much she will not dare."
"But ... That there could be fighting between them ..."
Oswin puffed out his round young cheeks in a great breath of wonder and deprecation. Such a thing seemed to him unimaginable. "Brother, you have been in the world and have experience of wars and battles. And I know that there were bishops and great churchmen went to do battle for the Holy Sepulchre, as you did, but should they be found in arms for any lesser cause?"
Whether they should, thought Cadfael, is for them to take up with their judge in the judgement, but that they are so found, have been aforetime and will be hereafter, is beyond doubt. To be charitable," he said cautiously, "in this case his lordship may consider his own freedom, safety and life to be a very worthy cause. Some have been called to accept martyrdom meekly, but that should surely be for nothing less than their faith. And a dead bishop could be of little service to his church, and a legate mouldering in prison little profit to the Holy Father."
Brother Oswin strode beside for some moments judicially mute, digesting that plea and apparently finding it somewhat dubious, or else suspecting that he had not fully comprehended the argument. Then he asked ingenuously: "Brother, would you take arms again? Once having renounced them? For any cause?"
"Son," said Cadfael, "you have the knack of asking questions which cannot be answered. How do I know what I would do, in extreme need? As a brother of the Order I would wish to keep my hands from violence against any, but for all that, I hope I would not turn my back if I saw innocence or helplessness being abused. Bear in mind even the bishops carry a crook, meant to protect the flock as well as guide it. Let princes and empresses and warriors mind their own duties, you give all your mind to yours, and you'll do well."
They were nearing the trodden path that led up a grassy slope to the open gate in the wattle fence. The modest turret of the chapel eyed them over the roof of the hospice. Brother Oswin bounded up the slope eagerly, his cherubic face bright with confidence, bound for a new field of endeavour, and certain of mastering it. There was probably no pitfall here he would evade, but none of them would hold him for long, or damp his unquenchable ardour.
"Now remember all I've taught you," said Cadfael. "Be obedient to Brother Simon. You will work for a time under him, as he did under Brother Mark. The superior is a layman from the Foregate, but you'll see little of him between his occasional visitations and inspections, and he's a good soul and listens to counsel. And I shall be in attendance every now and again, should you ever need me. Come, and I'll show you where everything is."
Brother Simon was a comfortable, round man in his forties. He came out to meet them at the porch, with a gangling boy of about twelve by the hand. The child's eyes were white with the caul of blindness, but otherwise he was whole and comely, by no means the saddest sight to be found here, where the infected and diseased might find at once a refuge and a prison for their contagion, since they were not permitted to carry it into the streets of the town, among the uncorrupted. There were cripples sunning themselves in the little orchard behind the hospice, old, pox-riddled men, and faded women in the barn plaiting bands for the straw stooks as they were stacked. Those who could work a little were glad to do so for their keep, those who could not were passive in the sun, unless they had skin rashes which the heat only aggravated. These kept under the shade of the fruit-trees, or those most fevered in the chill of the chapel.
"As at present," said Brother Simon, "we have eighteen, which is not so ill, for so hot a season. Three are able-bodied, and mending of their sickness, which was not contagious, and they'll be on their way within days now. But there'll be others, young man, there'll always be others. They come and go. Some by the roads, some out of this world's bane. None the worse, I hope, for passing through that door in this place."
He had a slightly preaching style which caused Cadfael to smile inwardly, remembering Mark's lovely simplicity, but he was a good man, hard-working, compassionate, and very deft with those big hands of his. Oswin would drink in his solemn homilies with reverence and wonder, and go about his work refreshed and unquestioning.
I'll see the lad round myself, if you'll let me," said Cadfael, hitching forward the laden scrip at his girdle. "I've brought you all the medicaments you asked for, and some I thought might be needed, besides. We'll find you when we're done."
"And the news of Brother Mark?" asked Simon.
"Mark is already deacon. I have but to save my most fearful confession a few more years, then, if need be, I'll depart in peace."
"According to Mark's word?" wondered Simon, revealing unsuspected depths, and smiling to gloss them over. It was not often he spoke at such a venture.
"Well," said Cadfael very thoughtfully, "I've always found Mark's word good enough for me. You may well be right." And he turned to Oswin, who had followed this exchange with a face dutifully attentive and bewilderedly smiling, earnest to understand what evaded him like thistledown. "Come on, lad, let's unload these and be rid of the weight first, and then I'll show you all that goes on here at Saint Giles."
They passed through the hall, which was for eating and for sleeping, except for those too sick to be left among their healthier fellows. There was a large locked cupboard, to which Cadfael had his own key, and its shelves within were full of jars, flasks, bottles, wooden boxes for tablets, ointments, syrups, lotions, all the products of Cadfael's workshop. They unloaded their scrips and filled the gaps along the shelves. Oswin enlarged with the importance of this mystery into which he had been initiated, and which he was now to practise in earnest.
Excerpted from An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1985 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.