When the late-Gothic, oak door is returned to its rightful place at Mottisham village church, there is a body to go with it
A news photographer is found dead at the threshold of the church of Saint Eata, his hand extended to the door’s great cast-iron knocker. Surely it is not a coincidence when a second victim is discovered in eerily similar circumstances?
Legend holds that sinners who seize the knocker have their hands burned by the cold iron, but Gerry Bracewell didn’t die of burns, and neither did the second victim. Did they knock on death’s door, or is a more down-to-earth killer at large? Detective Chief Inspector George Felse watched the ceremony to rededicate the door, but little did he know that he would be called back to Mottisham to investigate murder. . . .
The Knocker on Death’s Door is the 10th book in the Felse Investigations, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Ellis Peters is a pseudonym of Edith Mary Pargeter (1913–1995), a British author whose Chronicles of Brother Cadfael are credited with popularizing the historical mystery. Cadfael, a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey in the first half of the twelfth century, has been described as combining the curious mind of a scientist with the bravery of a knight-errant. The character has been adapted for television, and the books drew international attention to Shrewsbury and its history.
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.
Read an Excerpt
The Knocker on Death's Door
The Felse Investigations: Book 10
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1970 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
The door was of oak, roughly five feet wide by more than seven feet high, with a top in the form of a flattened late-Gothic arch. The timbers from which it had been made, with loving care, some five hundred or more years ago, were nearly six inches thick, and carved on the outer side into crude vertical folds, and with the wear and tear of centuries, and the rigours of recent cleaning to remove the gloss of dirt from accumulated time and the touch of many hands, the colour of the wood had clarified into an exquisite matt brown fading away into pure grey, the colour of subdued light at the onset of evening after a clear day, and the grain to a veining of liquid silver, so that the carved folds were no longer related in any way to anything so solid as linen, but appeared rather as shot silk of a cobweb fineness. In certain lights the door seemed almost translucent, so that you might have tried to walk through it in the belief that it was mere mirage, and no more palpable than mist. Actually it weighed an inconscionable amount, and had elicited fervent curses from the modern workmen who had had the job of moving it. They were accustomed to the gimcrack soft-woods of today, and only one of them had so far forgotten himself as to stroke the silken meshes with a loving and wondering hand, and feel for a moment deprived and born out of time. He was an old man, of course, reared in the trade. The others thought it was simply a quarter of a ton of over-valued junk.
The crowning arch of the door had a carved border of leaves, undercut so deeply that they could almost have been plucked at will, though only by Titans. Beneath this canopy two elongated angels, hieratic and crude and modern now as Modigliani, though certainly years out of date when they were carved, spread large hands and rigid wings over the entering worshipper. Or, of course, butler, depending on the period in question, but reverence was always equally implied.
For the door had hung for centuries on the massive hinges of the wine-cellar in the house known as the Abbey, in the village of Mottisham, in West Midshire. It was now being restored to its ancient place (hypothetically, at least, for the actual evidence was slim and ambiguous) in the south porch of the church of Saint Eata in the above-named village. A very rare dedication indeed, and territorially limited, and if there was a person in the parish who had any very clear idea of who St. Eata was, it certainly was not the vicar, the Reverend Andrew Bright, who was thirty-one, and devoted to Rugby, God (or his extremely simple idea of God), rock-climbing, youth-clubs and his own advancement, in that order. He was himself, however, solid, worthy and real, and knew a real, solid, worthy work of art when he saw one. He had jumped at the offer of the door, and ruthlessly adapted the nineteenth-century south porch, the latest of many renovations to St. Eata's longsuffering fabric, to accommodate it. With the effect achieved he was more than content. It was a very beautiful, thought-provoking and virtually permanent door. That it had other and more disquieting properties was not yet apparent.
As for the knocker, it was of antique iron, rustproof practically for ever, of a lovely, crude texture that gave acute tactile pleasure to anyone handling it. The surface was not quite smooth, being very slightly pitted all over, so that it clung to the hand with a live, bracing contact. It was made in the form of a beast's head, wreathed in leaves that never grew on any tree, as the beast had never roamed in any jungle but that of Apocalypse; and in the wide, generous, patently amiable jaws was proffered, rather than gripped, a large, twisted ring of iron, thick enough to fill the palm.
Through this door the bishop emerged, radiant and serene, beautifully robed and crozier in hand, at the conclusion of the service, with the Reverend Andrew and the living representatives of the Macsen-Martel family at his heels, on his way to the vicarage for tea with muffins, scones and fruit cake, suitable to an English Sunday. Traffic on the B road through the village was halted to allow his procession to make its way across the green with becoming dignity and deliberation, which took some time. The village itself looked on from a discreet distance, tolerantly unsmiling and unfrowning, missing not a trick. Comparatively few of the inhabitants had been among the congregation inside St. Eata's. Mottisham was a reassuringly normal English village.
Motorists, impatient but resigned, sat back and waited for the magnificently aesthetic old man, less ingenuous than he appeared, to withdraw his train inside the confines of the vicarage grounds, a manoeuvre over which he took his time. Who knows when the arrested mind will open and the light dawn?
Detective Chief Inspector George Felse and his wife Bunty were on their way back from a week-end by the Welsh coast; probably the last of the year, for it was mid-October and the best of the weather was already gone. They had left immediately after lunch, to avoid the normal concerted rush back to the Midlands, only to find that even more people than usual had been visited by the same idea. The trouble with mid-Wales is that the mountains render whole tracts of it impossible for major, or indeed any, roads, and confine the motorist to the few main arteries. The inevitable boring, irritating, nose-to-tail procession home was something George detested, but for many miles could not escape. But towards the Midshire border he swung thankfully off to the right, and took the minor road that threaded the long cleft of Middlehope, between the hills. It was longer, and probably a few of the regular commuters to the Welsh coast had discovered its advantages by now, but even so it was a relief after the main road.
Through the few stark villages, with their half-Welsh, half-English names, they made better time, and had something better to look at than the butt-end of the car in front. Road and river wound inextricably along the valley, crossing and re-crossing in an antique dance of their own. In some of those bridges there was Roman masonry. There was even a short stretch of Roman causeway still exposed at the approach to one of them, perhaps twelve yards of huge stones laid like crazy paving, none too smooth even now, after centuries of weathering. Those who knew the road slowed to a crawl and shambled over them with respect; the unwary from the cities hit them at speed, and banged their heads on their car roofs at the first bound. Strangers, hearing they were Roman, assumed they had been carefully preserved for archeological purposes. The truth was that in Middlehope things survived; no one preserved them. They had always been there, and were still serviceable, why move them?
Outside the narrow ribbon of level fields that fringed the road, this was sheep country, and the pastures rose steeply into rough slopes of grass and heather, broken at the crests by a few outcrops of rock. Gradually the red and white brick chapels of Wales gave place to the small, squat-towered stone churches of England. The bracken along the hills was already russet, the heather a brownish purple so dark as to match the occasional patch of bare, peaty soil. Sheep minced along the contours with slow, delicate movements, heads down, as deliberately as though they possessed the whole of time, the elders still showing the shapeliness of their summer clipping, the yearlings fat rolls of wool. Life did not change much in Middlehope. Why should it? The basic way of living here, in a hard but beautiful solitude, had been evolved long ago, and only minor adaptations had been made to them since.
Until they drew near to the village of Mottisham, that is. Along with several other similarly attractive places scattered round the rim of a ten-mile circle surrounding the county town of Comerbourne, Mottisham was just beginning to feel the effect of the progressive withdrawal of the wealthier townspeople from their town. The latest ripple of the expanding ring had only just reached them; but there in the opening bowl were the first two new estates, one of council houses but the other, more significantly, of that curious modern phenomenon, the "executive-type" dwelling. A few of the older houses at the edge of the village had also been taken over and done up by new and obviously well-to-do owners. And in the thin copse behind the churchyard half a dozen artfully deployed "desirable residences" — one step higher up the social scale — were just being built, so carefully arranged that no one should look into anyone else's windows, or, indeed, see anyone else's roof, and most of the trees should be retained in what would certainly be advertised as "picturesque wooded grounds".
The road made a great loop all round the churchyard, shrinking between old buildings; and there, stationed at the curve by "The Sitting Duck", was a white-gloved police sergeant, waving all traffic to a standstill with a palm the size of a spade. George pulled in obediently to the side and stopped. Within seconds there were three more cars drawn up behind him.
"Now what's going on?" he wondered aloud, and wound down the window to peer ahead. The sergeant, having secured the desired effect, rolled ponderously alongside and stooped to the obvious inquiry. The car was new, along with George's recent promotion, and country members of the constabulary had as yet no reason to associate a pale grey VW 1500 with the deputy head of the County C.I.D.
"Shan't be keeping you more than a few minutes, sir ..." He did a double take with admirable equanimity, and continued in the same tone and the same tempo: "Well, well, I see I caught a big one. How are you, George? And Mrs. Felse, ma'am ... we haven't seen you up this way for quite some time. How's the boy?" Sergeant Moon was a very old acquaintance, and but for the remoteness of his chosen solitude, now apparently becoming rapidly less remote, he would have ranked as a close friend.
"Fine, thanks, Jack!" Dominic was away in France with his fiancée, as it happened, recovering, he said, from post-examination exhaustion and pre-life cold feet, and considering for the first time entirely seriously and for the first time with trepidation, what he was to do with himself and his career. "How about your own family? Well, I hope?"
Sergeant Moon acknowledged the inquiry gravely; his wife and daughter were well. "You don't find us much to do up here, or you'd see more of us," George said. At the time this was a strictly truthful statement, but somebody somewhere was certainly listening, and took malicious note.
"Ah, that's right," acknowledged Sergeant Moon, leaning a sharp blue elbow on the VW's roof. "Crime, by and large, we don't go in for. A bit of riotous behaviour now and again, that's about it. Sin, now, sin's more in our line." The distinction was clear, thoughtful and comforting. The sins of Middlehope were time-honoured, the contrivances of an enclosed community still governed by pre-feudal sanctions, and generally speaking the sinners were disciplined by their own society and did not totally shirk responsibility for their acts. The sergeant knew where the law ought to restrain its hand and leave older laws to function, with profounder humanity and sounder common sense. "Today," he said, "we should be whiter than snow. We've got company."
"So I see," said George. "What exactly is going on?"
"You haven't been reading the ecclesiastical news and notes, have you? We've got the bishop, no less. Look out, here he comes!"
And here he came. The church, a square-towered conglomeration of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century renovations on the poor remnants of a very ancient foundation, lay on the left of the road, half-screened by old trees and ringed by its crowded graves. To the right, on the other side of the road, was the nineteenth-century vicarage, three-coloured brick with dozens of gables and mock-Gothic windows, a pretentious and unmanageable mess. It had, however, a generous and well-stocked garden with plenty of fruit trees. Towards this green shade the bishop took his unhurried way. He was undoubtedly impressive. All the women watching from windows, doorways and pavement touched their hair and smoothed their dresses at the sight of him. The word that entered George's head was "bridled". The word that entered Bunty's was "blossomed". Six feet tall and something over, fragile and ascetic as a primitive saint (and every bit as durable), with a fleshless face honed into an incredible refinement of benevolence and beauty, and longish silvery hair framing it, the bishop paced slowly along the flagged path, his frilled sleeves falling back from emaciated hands, posed exquisitely in the frame of the lych-gate for half a dozen photographers who materialised surprisingly out of nowhere in particular, and flowed majestically across the road towards his promised vicarage tea.
"If you're going to do a thing," observed Sergeant Moon approvingly, "I like to see it done well. These hearty modern clerics don't know they're born."
"But what's he been up to?" George wanted to know.
"Re-dedicating our south door. Hadn't you heard? It's been hung somewhere in the cellars of the Abbey ever since the dissolution of the monasteries, and now they've been clearing up the old place in the hope that the National Trust will take it over, they wanted to put back the things that were pinched, and get everything in order. Done a very nice restoration job on that door, so they tell me."
The vicar, walking behind his bishop, was half a head shorter and about three times as wide, a burly young man with a round, ingenuous face and muscles befitting a wing three-quarter. A late shaft of sun bounced from his red hair like singed fingers recoiling from a burning bush.
"You've got the press on the run," said George. "I never thought a door could bring in so many cameras!"
"It's said to be something special, all right. The experts got the word, apparently. The thing's never been on view before, you see. Nobody writes up the Abbey, not these days."
"Nor the family?" said George curiously. "I take it that's the squire following on?"
"Don't mention that word here, George, we're allergic to it. Even if they used it at all, it would be about old Thwaites who bought up the Court fifty years ago — and if they used it about him it would have inverted commas round it, and nasty implications. We're tribal, not feudal. And even the old princes of Powis didn't venture to show their faces here unless they were invited."
"The lords of shop and bank are coming, by the look of your housing plans," said Bunty.
"Let 'em come, they'll learn. But, yes," he said, returning to the little procession which had just reached the vicarage gate, "that's Robert Macsen-Martel and his mother. Don't see her often these days. He works for Poole, Reed and Poole, in the estate office — talking of historical ironies, though I know we weren't. Sells expensive little gimcrack houses all round what's left of his own — and after all, they've been there best part of nine centuries. God knows how they stuck it out, they never were wealthy. Probably the best they ever did was out of that dissolution business, when the monks got kicked out. Count for nothing now. Never will again. Never did, for all that much."
It was an epitaph; and there was something about the two figures now vanishing into the vicarage garden that suggested that even the epitaph was an afterthought, long after the event of dissolution.
The old woman was exceedingly tall and ramrod erect, a residue of desiccated flesh shrunk tightly to attenuated bones, and draped with old-fashioned and shapeless tweeds of no particular colour. Under an ancient felt hat, worn dead straight on lank grey hair drawn into a bun on her neck, the long, narrow, aristocratic face looked out with chill disapproval at the world, as though she had ceased to expect anything good from present or future.
"She looks," said Bunty thoughtfully, "like that bronze bishop at Augsburg — the one with the bad smell under his nose."
"Bishop Wolfhart Roth," said Sergeant Moon understandingly. "Now you come to mention it, so she does." And it was entirely typical of him that he should be able to haul out of his capacious memory not only the face but even the name of a German bishop some unknown artist had caricatured in bronze in the fourteenth century.
Her son was like her, but not yet mummified. Tall, thin, with long, narrow bones and a long, narrow face, withdrawn, distrustful, austere. An uncomfortable family, Bunty thought, watching them disappear under the vicar's trees, but too faded now to discomfort the populace of Mottisham overmuch.
Excerpted from The Knocker on Death's Door by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1970 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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