A Chorus of Innocents: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery #7

A Chorus of Innocents: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery #7

Thursday, 12th October, 1592. Eighteen days after the action closes in An Air of Treason, courtier Sir Robert Carey and Carey’s surly, larcenous, and loyal henchman Henry Dodd, Land Sergeant ...

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P F Chisholm

P.F. Chisholm is a pseudonym of a well-known writer of historical thrillers, childrens’ books, and nonfiction blogs and ebooks. Previous ...

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It was a small chapel, stone built and once dedicated to some Papist saint. Since then it had been whitewashed, had its superstitious coloured windows broken with stones and the head knocked off the saint, although her cow was left in peace. The old altar had been broken up as the reign of the King’s scandalous mother came to its riotous end, the relics hidden in it levered out and thrown on a bonfire to burn as superstitious trash. By the early 1570s there was a respectably plain altar table, well away from the eastern end so as not to be idolatrous and a very well-made plain and solid high pulpit for preaching. Mostly by visiting preachers, though, because who would choose to live in the village so close to the Border with England and the bastard English raiders?

Once upon a time, memorably, the Reverend Gilpin had come there after the mermaid Queen was safely locked up in England. This was very unusual. The reverend’s summer journeys kept him on the southern side of the Faery Wall, among the God- cursed English, but a laird had heard him there and invited him to come and preach and paid his expenses forebye, and everyone for miles about had gone to listen. They still tutted about it.

They had heard some very strange things from the pulpit that day. For a start, Gilpin didn’t read the Bible texts they knew and liked, the good ones about smiting the Philistines or the book of Joshua or an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, which was good sense they wholeheartedly agreed with. Nor did he talk about the wickedness of starched ruffs, or vestments, even. He read them some unfamiliar parts of the Gospels: nothing useful about Jesus bringing a sword, no. Strange unaccustomed things he read them about making peace with your brother before you laid your sacrifice on the altar and some outrageous stuff about loving your enemy.

The men and women shifted their feet where they stood and looked at each other sidelong. Did Christ really say that? Really? Loving your enemy? Was the English reverend sure? It sounded…well, it sounded Papistical.

Love everybody? What? The English, too? Jesus never said that, did he?

And the Reverend had smiled with a twinkle in his small grey eyes and closed the Bible with a snap, then leaned his arms familiarly on the rail of the pulpit as if he was leaning on a fence. “Did you ever in all your lives hear anything so mad?”  he asked in reasonable Scotch and they all laughed with relief.

He must have been reading one of those wicked Papistical Bibles the Jesuits spread about, that must be it. Jesus couldn’t have said that about enemies. What you did with enemies was you hunted them down and killed them and all their kin, which made far better sense. Honestly, the idea!

But as the Reverend had spoken on, they felt uneasy again. It seemed Jesus had said those mad things. He had actually said, right out, that they must love each other, not just their own surnames—which was just about doable, mostly—but everybody. Even the English.

It seemed Jesus had said the thing about enemies too; he really had. There it was, in the Bible, which was as true and good as gold, golden words from God, incorruptible, like blasts of the trumpet against the ungodly. The foolish Papists had hidden the glorious words of Jesus in Latin black as pitch so only priests could know them; now the words were Englished and turned to Scotch as well, so anybody could read them, yes, even women.

So what were they to think? What should they think—that Jesus was mad? Crazy?

Everyone had goggled at such…surely it was blasphemy?

A stout woman spoke up from the back of the church where she was standing with the other women. “That’s blasphemy!” she shouted. “You can’t say Our Lord was mad…”

The English Reverend’s long finger stabbed the air as he pointed at her.

“That’s right, goodwife!” he bellowed. “You are the truest Christian here! It’s blasphemy to say or even to think that Jesus Christ was mad because he was the Son of God!”

He was standing up straight now, leaning over the rail. “And if he was the Son of God, then how dare we listen to his words in the Bible and not follow his orders? How dare we hate our enemies? How dare we feud and kill and raid and burn? For if we do, shall we not burn in Hell?”

And from there the sermon had turned both familiar and frightening. Familiar in the loud words and gestures, but frightening in the meaning. For the Reverend was not inveighing against the Papists nor the French nor the courtiers. He was preaching against themselves. Against any of them who went up against an enemy to fight him, steal his cows and sheep and burn his steadings—which meant pretty much every man there of fighting age. He bellowed against those who cooked and brewed ale for the fighting men or quilted their jacks in the old surname patterns—which meant every woman and girl there.

He told them that they were wrong and damned, that keeping a boychild’s right hand covered with a cloth at baptism so it was unblessed and could kill without sin was a wicked Papist superstition. That the whole of them, body and soul, was blessed in baptism, so that they could rise up, soul and body both, at the Judgement Day—which might be very soon.

Yet because they had not obeyed their true headman, Jesus Christ, then they would be damned just as infallibly as the Papists or the wicked Anabaptists.

Many of the men were scowling and putting their hands on their knives or swords. The women were gasping with outrage while the children stared in astonishment at the small man’s daring. What was an Anabaptist? Did it have a tail?

He quieted for a while, playing them like a violin. It was all right. Jesus was a just and kindly headman, unlike many of the lairds hereabouts (that got a small titter). They could make things right anytime they wanted: All they had to do was love their enemies, make peace with those they were at feud with, and… “Die?” sneered the laird at the front, who had his arms folded across his barrel chest and his henchmen in a tight knot around him. As he was the one who had paid for the Reverend to preach he was understandably angry. “That’s what will happen if we make peace with the bastard English. We’ll die and our families with us!” “You will not die,” said the Reverend Gilpin, pointing at the

laird. “You will receive eternal life.”

The headman spat on the stones. “I didna pay your expenses for ye to preach this shite,” said the headman. “Get on wi’ yer job and curse the ungodly, man!”

“I am,” said Gilpin, seeming blithely unaware that every man there was on the point of drawing steel. Or perhaps he believed God would protect him. Or perhaps he didn’t care. “If you fail to do what our Lord Jesus ordered—love God and love each other—you are the ungodly! You and the English both. All of you, both sides of the Border, are the ungodly.”

The laird drew his sword and shouldered to the front. “I paid ye!” he bellowed. “Now do whit I paid ye to do!”

A purse full of money flew through the air and bounced off the headman’s doublet with a thump.

“I don’t need yer money,” said Gilpin. “Thanks to God and mine own weakness, I am a wealthy man. Ye’ve got a free sermon here. Now will ye listen to the Word of God, or not?”

There was a moment of total silence. Then the woman who had spoken before (against all scripture) started laughing.

“Och,” she shouted, “he’s a brave man at least, not an arselicker like the last one. You let him preach, Jock o’ the Coates.”

“So,” said Gilpin after a pause, with a friendly smile to all of them as some hands relaxed from the hilts of their weapons, “we have a problem. If the Lord Jesus wisnae a madman, then ye all are mad for ignoring his orders.”

There was a growl from some of the men and more laughter from the women, sniggers from the children. You had to say this: It was a more exciting sermon than the last preacher who had had a lot to say about the wickedness of vestments, whatever they were.

Over the next hour the Reverend Gilpin proved that Jesus had actually said they should love their enemies and that He had actually done that very thing when the Romans had nailed Him to a cross, which must have hurt. And then, to show them all what they were dealing with, hadn’t He risen from the dead, come back to life, not like a ghost or the curs’d knight in the ballad, but as a living, breathing man who ate grilled fish and drank with his friends?

There was no possible question that He had said it and meant it and done it.

Now they had to forgive their enemies, too, and live in peace with them. That was all there was to it. And once they set their minds to it, they would find it easier than they expected; for wouldn’t the Lord Jesus be right there at their side, helping them all the way?

By the end of the sermon some of the more impressionable had been weeping. One of the Burn grandsons was staring transfixed into space, as if he could see something marvellous there instead of just a smashed Papist window.

Gilpin left them all with the blessing, the full blessing from the evening service: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

Then he went calmly to his horse that was tethered outside and, with his servant behind him, mounted up and trotted slowly away so the laird could catch him if he wanted.

It was so memorable a sermon that the laird sent a message to an Edinburgh minister, in case Jesus really had said that about enemies.

He had, apparently. He really had, though according to the Edinburgh minister, that didn’t count for Papists and a number of other people—including, of course, the English.

So that was all right then.

Strangely, the laird invited Reverend Gilpin again and, even more strangely, he came, riding a solid ordinary hobby with his silent deacon behind him on a long-legged mare.

However as he came to unlock the wooden chapel door, he found a gauntlet nailed to it with a badly penned paper that said whoever took it down would be the Burns’ blood-enemy for life. Gilpin looked at it for a moment and then ripped it down.

He carried the gauntlet into the church with him where he explained to the assembled people why feud was wrong, challenges to single combat were wrong, and the headman who had challenged him was not only wrong but stupid. He was risking not only a lightning bolt, not only the wrath of God, but also an eternity in Hell, which was no laughing matter.

Foolishly, the headman wouldn’t leave it be. He sent to Gilpin to ask where he proposed to meet and what his weapon would be. Gilpin replied that it would be at the tower of his Lord with the sword and shield of God.

The headman arrived at the chapel the next day with his sword and buckler and a crowd of his surname who came to see him beat up the preacher who had defied him, or to laugh at him when he didn’t arrive.

They found Gilpin standing there in his plain cassock, hold- ing a large Bible.

“Och,” Jock o’ the Coates said disgustedly. That wasn’t fair. The book looked heavy enough to do some damage if he threw it, but what if he made a lightning bolt come out of it?

“Well?” said Gilpin, coming forward with the Bible open and his thumb set in one of the end chapters. “Will you draw and strike, Jock Burn?”

“Ye’re not…ye’re not armed,” growled Jock, horribly suspecting some of his grandsons and nephews were laughing at him inside, which indeed they were.

“I am armed,” said the mad preacher. “I am armed with the sword of God’s Truth and the shield of God’s Word. Will ye not strike? Perhaps yer sword will not wither like a twig in the fire nor your whole surname go to dust and ashes with you left alone until your enemies catch ye. For those who live by the sword shall die by it.”

Jock Burn backed off, paling. No more was ever said about the challenge and the gauntlet.

That was the Reverend Gilpin. He helped broker the deal between the Dodds and the Elliots in the late 1570s, which calmed upper Tynedale no end, and saw to it that the worst offenders left the area. He kept coming every summer, at first with his quiet young manservant and then, after the man died of a fever, he came on his own, sadder, gentler now. He preached at several Warden Days, on the invitation of Sir John Forster, the English Middle March Warden. He carried no more than an eating knife and a Bible, he slept wherever he could find shelter, and he ate whatever the poor people he lodged with could give him. He preached from his Bible whenever anyone asked him to and always on Sundays.

Nobody had ever seen or heard of such a strong minister, such a mad churchman, who had said publicly that he gave not a feather for vestments and as for the Papists—well, hadn’t he been a Papist himself once, before he read the Bible and under- stood God’s Word better? And surely most of them were good men misguided, with only a few actively serving the Evil One.

What was more he never laid a hand on girl or boy, though he had no wife either. Many were the snares and traps set for him by cunning mothers with girls who would have liked to be mistress of his rumoured large and comfortable living in the south. When a gentlewoman twitted him on his wifeless state across her dinner table, with her daughters on either side of him, he smiled and toasted her and her daughters.

“You see,” he told her, “I swore before the altar of God to keep chastity and although I was certainly a sinner when I was young and hot-blooded, now I am old and tired and no use whatever to a woman.” He smiled and bowed to both the girls who blushed. The mother found herself wondering about his deacon who had died of the fever but she said nothing and nor did he. All the girls who had hopes of his rumoured magnificent house at Houghton le Spring were sadly disappointed.

He only came to the Borders in summer. For the rest of the year he kept a school at Houghton le Spring, boarded likely boys at his own expense, and paid for some of them to go to Oxford where he himself had studied Divinity and sung the Masses with the rest of the young men before Henry VIII’s divorce.

Slowly, little by little, some of the men of the surnames came to like him, the women too, despite his obstinate refusal to wed any of them. The children had loved him from the start and the lads ran to meet him when they saw his solitary silhouette with his soft flat churchman’s cap and warm cloak over a ridge along the road from Berwick.

Then in 1583 sad word came. He had been trampled by  an escaped ox in Houghton market, lay wounded for a month and died of lungfever on the fourth of March. Both sides of the Border were stricken at the news and Jock o’ the Coates Burn and some of the headmen from south of the Border as well went to pay their respects in the south at Houghton le Spring, and with them they brought some of the boys Gilpin had taught, the bigger ones, to sing for him at his funeral. Jock died a few months later, leaving his grown son Ralph as headman and the grandsons grown as well—a lucky life Jock never admitted he attributed to not cutting Gilpin’s head off when they had met at the chapel in the early 1570s.

And the seeds that Gilpin had sown, dangerous and revolutionary seeds that they were, lay in the soil of the people’s minds, and here and there they set down their roots.


thursday  afternoon 12th october  1592

The men had been riding for two days, and were now into the broad fat lands of the East March of Scotland where the Humes held sway. They had instructions but those had been vague on the important point of position.

“Och, we’ll never find him,” complained the younger one. “A’ the villages look the same.”

The older one shook his head. “We ainly need his kirk,” he said. “Ay, one kirk in hundreds.”

It was surprising and the older one thought a little shocking that there were so many kirks, and not all of them burnt or in ruins like in the Low Countries. Some old Catholic churches had been torn down and a new one put up, but more often they were just altered with the heads of the saints knocked off and the paintings whitewashed. Not every village had a kirk, by a long way, but a lot did.

They came over the top of a shallow hill and saw another little scatter of cottages and the kirk on the next hill, with a nice tower on it to keep an eye out for raids. It was October, so only a few women were out in the gardens, mostly tidying up for winter or planting winter cabbages. The surviving cattle and sheep were scattered over the infield and most of the pigs had gone to make sausages now so there wasn’t a lot of noise. There was ploughing going on nearby, with the village plow and its oxen struggling through some new Earth that might grow some wheat next year, while the children followed it gathering up the stones. The harvest had been poor thanks to the bad weather in July, and no doubt the people were hoping to grow a bit more on the new field next year.

The two of them didn’t need to talk much. They knew what they were about, had done it before, and so they decided to make for the church alehouse. That was a small thatched building next to the church in the old way and the church was one of those that had been altered, not demolished.

It was cold and damp and the men were out of their own country. They rode into the village, tethered their horses by the duck pond and walked up to the alehouse. They weren’t very many miles north of Berwick itself and hoped to get to the city that night and find lodgings there. They didn’t expect to find any in this village, any more than they had in the last two or three.

The village alehouse was no longer run by the church. A young man stood behind the bar and the usual people were there, despite it being afternoon. Two men sat in the corner playing dice, a third was hunched over his quart by the fire, a fourth was asleep. The fifth and sixth were standing by the bar, arguing over whether a billy goat could beat a ram in a fight, if you could get them to fight and how would you do that anyway. The seventh was a travelling barber surgeon, obvious from his pack, sitting in the corner, reading a book. As they came in, he stood up and stretched his back, put his book carefully in his large pack, and said in a London voice, “I’ll pay you now, shall I, Tim?”

“Nae need, Mr Anricks, ye paid for more than your tab when ye drew my tooth for me.”

“Are you sure? You paid me for it at the time.”

“Ay, but I never lost a tooth before so nice and easy. I’ll be telling ma dad about ye, that’s sure, he’s got a bad tooth too.”

“Well thank you, I appreciate it. I’m for Edinburgh now and after I think I’ll head west and see if there are any bad teeth in Dumfriesshire or even Carlisle.”

“Bound to be, Mr Anricks. Me dad’ll be waiting for when ye come back.”

“Now mind what I tell you, the invisible worms that eat your teeth, they love sugar and honey and so if you scrub your teeth with a cloth and salt, that’ll keep them away.”

“Ay, and I’ll keep the charm ye sold me too, that’s even better.” “Hm. Good day to you.”

“Clem!” bellowed Tim. “Bring Mr Anricks’ pony round for him.”

A boy leapt out from under the counter and pelted out the door and the tooth-drawer followed him out, moving a little stiffly, as if his back hurt.

“Ehm…” said the older traveller, “good day to you.” Every- body turned and looked. “That’ll be two quarts, please.”

This was an event. Two strangers coming into the alehouse. A smaller boy was staring from where he’d been whittling under the counter. The older man hated the feeling of being conspicuous, but you couldn’t help it.

The quarts were drawn from the only barrel and the younger man paid, twice as much as usual on account of them being foreigners of course. That was all right, they had plenty of money.

After both had taken a drink, the older one said, “What’s the name of this village?”

Several people answered and it seemed you could choose between Lesser Wendron or Minor or the old one of Wendron St Cuthberts.

“Ah. St Cuthberts,” said the older man wisely, “would the minister here be a Mr Burn? A Mr James Burn?”

“Why?” asked the man at the bar, with narrow suspicious eyes. “Well,” said the older one, not looking at the younger one, “we’re from a printer in Edinburgh to see about the printing of his sermons and selling them too.”

This was what he had been told to say by his principal and he was happy to see it worked like a charm. The man might well have been suspicious, after all, and it would be so much easier if they could get him alone.

“Yes,” said the barman, “that’d be the pastor.” He wasn’t at the alehouse which was a little odd for a pastor. What was more, he was at the manse and teaching the children.

The younger man choked on his beer. “Teaching?” he asked. “Why?”

This touched off a dispute. The dice players looked around and said it was all this new-fangled religion, the arguers agreed and sniggered about it, the barman said it was all very well learning your letters but then what could you do with it, the sleeper said nothing because he stayed asleep, and the man who was hunched over his quart straightened up and told them all that they were fools because the truth was in the Bible and the children would be able to read it for themselves, whereas they couldn’t. One of the dice players snorted and said that was all very well and the truth might be in the Bible at that, but what was the use of it?

The older man cut through the talk and asked where the manse might be, and learned it was right behind the alehouse from the days when the alehouse was the church’s and ran church ales.

Both men finished their ales, parried a couple of questions about where they came from. No need to send the boy with them, they could find the manse themselves from the sound of it. They went out the door and round the back of the place and there, sure enough, was the manse, a handsome building of stone like the church, though perhaps older. It looked like part of it had once been something else, maybe a little house for monks or something.

The door flung open and twelve boys came pouring out, shouting and pummeling each other, two of them fell wrestling at the feet of the men. They stepped around the boys and spoke to the man standing at the door, smiling at them.

He bowed slightly and led them inside. The boys all scattered to their homes except for three who had planned a fishing expedition at the stream. A woman arrived in a hurry, and went in smiling. There was a quiet sound of talking, a woman’s voice, a man’s voice.

A pause. Then a sudden grunt, like a pig being stuck with a lance, a thump, then a sound like a cabbage being cut. Then the sound of a stifled scream, thumping and bumping and some muffled groans, going on for a while.

The two men walked out of the house, grinning and rear- ranging their hose and round the duck pond to where their horses were tethered. Unhurriedly they untied them, mounted and trotted away to the little copse nearby where they had some remounts and a boy guarding them.

Then they changed horses and went to a canter out of the copse and round by the little lanes that threaded across the countryside, although they could have crossed the ploughed fields in a straight line. As it happened they went north first on an errand and to throw anyone off the trail, and then they went south and west. The boy took the West March-branded horses straight south to a horse-trader.

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