It seemed at first mere eccentricity, as with all such things in England. Soon it became a murderous obsession that would span more than six hundred years, and inflict on its victims a terrible fate.
The key to understanding the tragedy was an innocent visit to the village of Shere in the summer of 1967. The season was warm and gentle. The rains had caressed the Surrey woodlands, where the ash, oak and cherry flaunted their freedom in the fertile hollows.
Marda Stewart stopped and impulsively plucked a stalk of honeysuckle, savouring its fragrance before tucking it behind her ear, perhaps because wearing flowers in your hair was considered fashionable. After an eight-mile hike she realised she was thirsty—until then she had been much too engrossed in her thoughts to consider food or drink. The energetic young woman marched along the last leg of the footpath etched in the sandstone escarpment, heading towards a seventeenth-century free house. She stood a little self-consciously in the bar, quickly drank a glass of white wine, and left the pub. Marda had not noticed, sitting in a corner seat, a powerfully built man, in his late forties, who had scrutinised her every movement.
Heading back through the woods, Marda walked briskly; when she had hiked there regularly with her brother, their intense conversations necessitated taking a slower pace. Nowadays Mark was too busy affecting the role of fashionable subaltern in Her Majesty’s armed forces. He had left the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and his sister, far behind.
So she was alone on her walk, and to her the woods were a retreat. True, in the deeper parts of the Hurtwood she would sometimes sense, or imagine she felt, a frisson of fear, but that afternoon the combination of sun, exertion and now wine made her light-headed. Humming the tune of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” she tried not to dwell on the last volcanic argument with Mark, or to decipher its origins. There was no real substance to their recent antagonism; it had sprung from a clash of moods, perhaps from some subtle shift in their temperaments, but its intangibility made it no less disturbing. Marda resolved to put the acrimony aside, willing herself to luxuriate in the last heat of the day. From the long sloping hill that spilled into the water-meadows of the Tillingbourne river, she surveyed the village which she tried to visit at least once a month in the summer.
Shere was green and wet, brooding in antique loveliness. From its heart, the spire of St. James’s church peeped above the tree cover, forbidding and yet enticing at the same time. The church had been built of wood when the Normans undertook the laborious survey of their new lands; a hundred years after the Conquest, stone had replaced humble timber.
Marda was instinctively drawn to this ancient shrine which hung back from the bustle of the village square and the worldliness of the small shops. Assuming an air of conscious modesty, she walked through the lych-gate and then paused to admire the intricate play of shadows and sunlight which stroked the stonework.
Marda pressed her ear against the large oak door to confirm that she was not interrupting a service. Hearing no sound from the inside, she lifted the stiff latch, pushed the door open a few inches, and slipped inside.
For a moment she trembled as the dankness assailed her nostrils and the cool air swept across her bare arms and legs. A handful of curious tourists were whispering their way along the aisle, but they ignored her. To the left of the entrance, framed in the door of the vestry, an elderly man nodded a restrained greeting. She assumed he was the verger. She was inclined to apologise to the man for her casual attire, but it was a hot summer, and if her clothing was not correct, at least her demeanour and intentions were.
The elderly man did not miss her hesitation. He intuitively knew that, despite her T-shirt and shorts, the girl had deliberately chosen a place of worship. Despite himself, he observed the unmuscled athleticism of her body, particularly the strength of her lightly tanned legs, but her obvious sensuality also reminded him of his age, and of his position. With an audible sigh of regret, he returned to stacking the prayer books.
Marda felt the man’s admiring gaze on her back as she walked carefully into the chancel, adorned by the twin apertures of a cell that once belonged to a fourteenth-century anchoress. She peered into the quatrefoil and the squint, even though she knew that the interior of the cell had been blocked for decades, maybe even centuries, but this timelessness helped her regain a better perspective on her own inner turmoil.
She sat in the second pew, bowing her head slightly. Marda was not religious in the conventional sense. She would sometimes announce, “I am an atheist, thank God”; but the ensuing tinge of doubt suggested an altogether different kind of spiritual sensitivity. Marda considered herself modern, a child of the sexual emancipation of the sixties. Like her peers she had adopted the Pill as a symbol of the new libertarianism, but she had not dissipated this freedom in bouts of casual sex: she had chosen her two lovers with care, while ensuring a respectable distance of time between the relationships. Her mind spiralled back to the most recent lover in France. The emotions had been too intense, because she had loved him with her mind as much as her body. Perhaps that was too much to give to one man. With all the brittle wisdom of her twenty-three years, Marda appreciated that she was attractive to men, but she rarely allowed her friendliness to descend into blatant flirtation.
And now her thoughts were focused again on her brother, a man who was, in this case, impervious to such devices. His anger had troubled her on the walk, and had brought her to the church in Shere. It was her anger too: she both loved and hated Mark. In their childhood, just eighteen months apart in age, they had never inflicted the customary sibling rivalry on each other. They had bonded in defiance of their parents’ polite distance. But recently, from nowhere, their amity had been ripped apart. Mark had apparently been transformed by military life. Yet Marda was prepared to concede that she, too, had changed. She wondered whether her recent relationship in France had affected her more than she had realised—perhaps some of her frustrations with the Frenchman had been transferred to her brother.
She hoped that the tranquillity of the church would soothe her anger and hurt, that she would recall something of the near-telepathic rapport that she and her brother had once enjoyed. With an inner eye she perceived that this church could become part of the resolution. Fleeting visions impinged on her consciousness. In one tableau she pictured Mark attending her wedding, dressed in all his regimental finery. Maybe they would sing a hymn in French. She imagined Mark struggling his way through the words.
A bud of a smile came over her face. In that moment she experienced an epiphany, although a full understanding of the revelation would take many years. Then and there Marda made a small vow to herself, and she said it aloud, albeit softly: “Some day—no, soon—I will live in Shere.” Vocalising the intention transformed the wish into a commitment. The next month she moved into Shere, adopting a tiny flat with high Gothic windows and a leafy view of the Tillingbourne.
No one could know that this decision would savagely trans- form both her own life and that of the entire village.
The year of our Lord 1329
The bishop’s gilded crosier shot into the air like the fist of God. It came down with a thump on cold stone, alongside his mud- splattered boots. John Stratford, Bishop of Winchester, shuffled as he completed the final blessing of the girl’s enclosure.
“Nomine patre, filii et spiritus sancti,” he intoned.
The bells of St. James’s church accompanied the dying echoes of the hallowed words as nature itself seemed to applaud the oc- casion. The beaten earth of the nave offered up a sudden surge of dampness and the early morning sunlight paid court to the eastern window, proudly haloing the rich, if crude, stained-glass impression of the patron saint. Even St. James himself nodded his assent, as three villagers later confirmed on oath.
The final stone was placed and mortared into the northern wall of the chancel. All the months of instruction and years of devotion had at last converged in this final proof of God’s grace. Christine had spent most of her eighteen years in the open air, working in the fields, but now she would see the world through two small holes. For the rest of her natural life the girl would live behind the stones. And it could be a long life, because she had been told that anchoresses in other shires of England had survived for thirty years or more.
To dwell in the small medieval church was now her destiny. Gone was her previous life, a busy world of light and shade compared with her new inner life in her enclosure, utterly dark, except for two slim shafts of light. The squint and quatrefoil were cut on each side of an extended protrusion in the wall, like the bow of a ship. The squint permitted a sacred view of the altar while the carved clover of the quatrefoil enabled her to participate in the communion. These tiny stone windows would be the focus of her existence, the means of her immersion in total contemplation. She knew that a curtain, decorated with a raised golden cross, had been lifted temporarily to let her share this holy ceremony. Through the quatrefoil, to her right, she saw Father Peter, the priest of the parish of Shere. Pressing her face against the exterior wall, she sensed that she had caught his eye, and he smiled a little through his formal mask of piety, as kindness and weakness danced together in his small brown eyes. Her eyes had been closed in prayer, so had his, but just for a second, in the brief visual exchange, they had celebrated a little of the earthly friendship, that of student and teacher, which had fortified their spiritual endeavours.
As the bishop completed the mass, Christine recited the words she had been taught, the words of St. Gregory: “In order to attain the Citadel of Contemplation you must begin by exercising yourself in the field of labour.” She realised clearly that she had not yet cast off all the physical world for, when the chantry priest had reached the top note of the Magnificat, she thought—very fleetingly—of her favourite secular song, “Summer is a-coming in,” which she had sung so often to her sister Margaret. She suffered a pang of doubt—but she had a lifetime to exile such baubles of her past. She would be enraptured by heavenly choirs, and her old songs would be like the croaking in the marshes of toads and frogs. Through the quatrefoil she watched the bishop lead a cowled procession from the altar along the nave of the church, incense cloying the atmosphere. Despite her sense of spiritual elation, she was angry with herself that she should feel frustrated by a column which partially obscured the last view of her family. Behind Father Peter, the girl could just see her mother, tired and fearful. Her father, William the Carpenter, stood absolutely still, betraying no emotion.
The external curtain was dropped and her cell became completely black.
She knelt to begin her initial twenty-eight hours of fasting and constant devotions. Except for a few sips of water, she prayed dutifully throughout all the canonical hours, from Terce to the following Sext. Christine had prepared herself, fully she believed, but she still felt the stiffness in her legs when she stood up after her hours of kneeling at prayer. She was also suddenly aware of the cold. Faintness began to creep over her, and she sat back on her rough stone bench.
She remained sitting to regain her strength, which she tested by rising after a few minutes. The cell was just large enough to allow her to stand fully upright to explore her new domain. As she traced the walls with her hands, she cut her right forearm on the rough masonry, although the hurt was something she would train herself to ignore. She put her left hand over the gash and felt blood with her fingertips, raising them to her mouth to taste the blood now dedicated to her Saviour.
“Bear in your heart the words of Christ, sprinkled with His blood,” she quoted from the prayer.
And, without thinking, she ran her bloodied hand over her head. Once she had worn her blond hair down to her waist, but now it was cropped close to the scalp as part of her preliminary penance. She had been proud of her hair, though that pride had been banished.
Despite her vocation, Christine was still the practical daughter of a practical father, the best craftsman for many miles around, so she wanted to establish the precise details of her stone universe. Four feet from the bench, on the opposite outer wall, stood a heavy wooden trapdoor, opened only from the outside but inset with a small sliding iron grille, which she had licence to open and close. During her preparation she had been instructed how the parish priest, in silence, would bring her each week a large pitcher of water and bless it in front of her. She could drink sparingly and keep a little to wash herself. Every day, after Matins, her family would be allowed to donate food, sufficient for that day, and occasionally furnish her with a fresh robe. They would also take out and empty her night-soil bucket.
Some weeks before, the bishop had loaned her a treasured copy of the Gospels. She could barely read the first line in the dim light, but the book had twelve gaudy illuminations of the saints, pictures to nourish her soul. When the curtain was lifted and she held the book to the shafts of daylight coming through her grille, she could see the words and pictures plainly. Except for her robe, her sandals, her bedding and her rosary, she had no other worldly goods in the cell, but that pleased her: she needed few earthly artefacts, for before her lay the immeasurable bounty of serving Jesus Christ. God loved prayers, she reminded herself, and these prayers would ascend to heaven, be stored in a treasury and later returned to her as part of her immortal glory. Her Heavenly Father would not only make her solitude bearable. Birth and death were solitary, so were thought and growth, and spiritual reward. Her single purpose now was to experience a foretaste of eternal sweetness, the mystical union with God, the crown of life on earth. It was the eleventh of August in the year of our Lord 1329. On the seventeenth of September, the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, she would receive an extra woollen blanket for the winter cold.
Christine was assured that God would protect His anchoress.
# # #
The telephone rang. The hands paused at the keyboard and reached for the phone. A wrong number. Cursing this intrusion of modern life, Father Michael Duval mumbled to himself about the casual caller who disturbed Coleridge when he was writing the story of Kubla Khan. The poet, he recalled, never returned to his unfinished masterpiece.
“I will finish mine,” he muttered defiantly. Stroking the sides of his old typewriter like a prize cat, Duval looked up at the plain wooden crucifix above his sparse, immaculately tidy desk. Focusing on the nine-inch Christ, he spoke to it as he did a hundred times a day: “I can do it; I can prove that God can still act through mankind.”
His first task was to complete his interpretative history of Christine Carpenter, the Anchoress of Shere. God had told Father Duval that He would guide him. Duval’s quest was the pursuit of truth, not a mere collation of historical facts. His story would reveal the inner workings of God and, although he rejected the very idea of female priests, he knew God could speak to and through women, just as God whispered to him. All creation was a book which God had written and Duval’s own work would follow His literary precedent.
The priest returned to his work, his love. From deep within the almost suppressed memory of his childhood, he recalled, despite himself, the anguished look on his sister’s face when their father ordered her, after a trivial misdemeanour, to “remove yourself to the broom cupboard until you are ready to rejoin civilised society.” Duval imagined his sister trembling in the darkness. Involuntarily shaking his head to remove the unwelcome flash of memory, Duval pulled the page out of the typewriter, rolled it into a ball, and threw it very precisely into a wicker basket beside his desk.
He ran both his strong hands through his abundant greying hair, and then placed them on the desk, flat and palm down, as if in Muslim prayer. He stared at the inch of bone and flesh missing from his right index finger. That had been a wound in the service of his mission, but he had also been a little too careless, too confident in himself.
Trying to expunge doubts about his own faith, despite bouts of absolute certainty, the priest’s mind swirled with conflicting thoughts. He went back to wrestling with the central issue of the biography of Christine Carpenter: to understand precisely why she opted for permanent entombment in the wall of the church. Was it a depth of asceticism— fanaticism—peculiar to the late Middle Ages? No. Duval calculated that it had to be a peculiarly personal decision. Such utter devotion to Christ could not be dismissed as a helpless sacrifice to the spirit of the age.
He addressed his crucifix again: “Christine had to choose freely, because that is why God granted us free will. But why,” he asked himself, “did she choose as she did?”
The priest as writer needed to invent a tormentor, an agency which would provide the motive for Christine’s entombment. He felt impelled to create the embodiment of evil, because he had become convinced that Christine’s purity required an antithesis. If she came to love Christ in heaven, who better to hate than her earthly lord—to cast him as the central villain of the tale?
Duval had scrupulously investigated the nature of evil. History had taught him that great leaders could dispense with God, but never a satanic scapegoat; the mass movements of recent history—communism, fascism, and for that matter capitalism—could flourish without a belief in God, but not without a belief in a devil. And even for those who presumed to eschew all “isms,” nuclear destruction beckoned as a convenient symbol for all that was truly wicked. Evil was innate, the natural condition of man; what fascinated the priest was the really extraordinary facet of the human condition, the origin of goodness.
Duval fingered his typewriter slowly, lovingly, as if it were a venerated church organ. Then he started to type furiously.
Sir Richard FitzGeoffrey, despite his relatively humble estates, was an aggressive warrior, and renowned in his county as a crusader in the last doomed efforts to regain a foothold in the Holy Land. His demesne included all of Shere, Gomshall and Peaslake in the shire of Surrey. Sir Richard proudly traced his forebears directly to the Conqueror, and believed his French to be pure Norman, although his curses were base Anglo-Saxon. He saw himself as a warrior of Christ, just as long as the actual battles advanced his favour with his earthly king and increased his landed possessions.
His two foreign forays had been careful: very bloody, but comparatively short for the long distances he had travelled. He had served his king in France and in the Levant, but slyly returned as soon as he could in order to secure his holdings at home. Jerusalem he regarded as a tool, not a vision.
Sir Richard’s men followed him in fear and awe. At home in his favourite tavern, Sir Richard’s squire, Phillip of Gomshall, would often hold court, regaling pilgrims and local villagers with tales of his master’s ingenious treatment of captured Saracens.
“It were near Antioch,” the squire would always start. He would scratch his mop of red hair, wait for perfect silence, and then continue: “We had been ridin’ since the break of day. Ten of us there were, two knights, two squires and six men but lightly armed. We sojourned briefly at a well. Bare slaked our thirst when we were surprised by the enemy—at least a score there were.
“Sir Richard and his son Edward flew at the intruders. Sir Richard, still mounted, killed two with his long-sword. Edward—on foot—sundered one unbeliever’s head with his axe. Most of the enemy then took flight, run they did like frightened hares, but we seized four, with the grace of Almighty God. Sir Richard said we should feast there and honour our Saviour with a toast.
“Then my master ordered us to render naked the Mussulmen, to shame them before their false god. We bound them fast to trees and whipped them, for an hour, and so, in submission, they did our biddin’. We told them to dig—the earth was sandy—a hole six feet deep and near four feet wide. They did it speedily, too, with their hands and metalled scabbards, despite the heat and bloodied backs, though they knew it to be their grave. When it was done, Sir Richard bade the Saracens descend into the hole. Pricked by our swords, in fear, they did so.
“Sir Richard then told us: ‘Bury these men, but leave their heads above. We are Christian knights so we shall leave these men to pray to the true God. Place their heads a foot apart, facing east, west, south and north, so they can see that our one true God is everywhere.’
“And so it was. Their heads were like the round hide-balls we throw on feast-days, but resting there in the sand.”
The squire would pause for a deep draught of his ale, and savour the wide-eyed look of expectancy in his audience. He would time his drinking actions to tally with his words: “We drank a little of the wine we had, and Sir Richard bade us share some water with the living heads afore us. The first head, desperate was he for the drops we gave, but the second Saracen—even though his eyes were wide with fear—took the drops and then spat at his provider—that were Thomas, my cousin from Netley. You all know him.”
The audience would murmur a rapid assent, eager for him to proceed with his tale. The squire would hesitate just a second or so longer than he ought, to tease his captivated listeners. “Ah, yes,” he continued, as though he had lost his way for a moment, “Sir Richard saw this impudence, but said naught. He fell to joking with his son about domestic matters. When the sun was dyin’ in the sky, Sir Richard instructed us to light a fire, and we collected some of the wood that lay scattered around. One of our soldiers made to start a fire in the lee of some rocks, but my master said he wanted the Saracens to feel the fires of Hell.
“‘Light the fire between their heads,’ he commanded.
“I could see that the soldier was not willin’, though he did what he had been bidden. The man—Gilbert from London town—lit a small fire that did but heat the Mussulmen a little.
“Sir Richard strode over to the fire and shouted, ‘By the Holy Cross I wear, we will teach these Saracens the price of scornin’ our Holy Father the Pope.’ Those were truly his words.”
At this Sir Richard’s squire would drink deep of his ale until his leather jug was empty. He would upturn the empty vessel and stay silent until a member of the rapt audience bought him more. Adopting a patrician smile as they rushed to satisfy his thirst, and with a softer—almost conspiratorial—voice, he would return to his tale: “Thereupon, my lord threw stout faggots on to the stuttering fire. As the flames rose, the Mussulmen’s hair caught fire and they screamed to Allah. Their eyes bulged and popped out like corks from a jug of shaken ale. I must confess I could not bear the sight nor smell of burnin’ human flesh. Just like the smell of roasted pig after Lent, exceptin’ that the stench of burning beard and hair was stronger than the pork…but Sir Richard was not discountenanced at all.
“He used the black gargoyles with gaping mouths that before were heads as hearth-stones for the roasting of our meat. I felt I could not eat, but we had ridden long and hard, and hunger was on us, despite our battle and the smell of flesh. We feasted on the fireplace of the Saracens.”
The squire was always content with the utter silence that would fall on the tavern, no matter that it was the twentieth telling of his tale.
# # #
Michael Duval was also content with the power of his sadistic invention, or “selective reinterpretation” as he would term it. He would now work this episode into his story of Christine.
The historical evidence for Christine’s story was meagre: essentially three letters, written in Church Latin between 1329 and 1332. Duval had researched related histories of the lives of anchorites and anchoresses as well as local records. But nothing had told him why the most well-formed girl in the valley—the priest was fusing spiritual and earthly splendour—had chosen a life of total enclosure in a cell in the wall of St. James’s church in the hamlet of Shere. Nevertheless, her story had seized his imagination and fired his intellectual curiosity, finally consuming him as though it were a literary transubstantiation: he could feel Christine’s flesh and blood coming alive through him. If evil was caused by the flesh, he asked himself, how could the Devil be explained, the fallen angel who had no flesh? Better to explain evil as integral to man’s nature, but goodness, yes, that could be generated by flesh, especially flesh as perfect as mortality would allow. A young girl’s flesh. The life of Christine was not so much a history as his own creation, a rebirth of his faith, perhaps even the Eucharist of his soul; he had become a consecrated writer.
When he picked up his pen to make notes before he typed, he imagined the blood flowing down through his hands into the pen and on to the pure white paper.
Edward II had taken up the Cross fourteen years before, and for a century to come the kings of England were to be absorbed in squabbles abroad, for God in the Holy Land and for Mammon in France. When Christine was born in Shere in the year of our Lord 1311, her village had been racked by famine. Harvests failed and murrain infected the oxen and sheep. Plague, taxes and revolt were to lay waste an England often deserted by her lords, her kings and perhaps even by God.
Very near St. James’s, her parish church, Christine dwelled in Ashe Cottage, a house with three large crucks—curved tree trunks—forming a series of arches, with a ridge pole to hold the steep thatched roof. The walls were wattle and daub, strengthened with a solid wooden frame. William the Carpenter had built a screen to divide the cottage into a small open room and a bower, or bedroom. In the main room stood an open fire for cooking and heat, with a space in the roof to let out the smoke. In addition, the cottage boasted four windows with skilfully fashioned wooden shutters. William had also built a small lean-to for his two cows and his goat because, very unusually, he did not hold with ani- mals sharing the house, as was the custom among the English peasantry. His well-crafted cottage was home to his wife, Helene, and his three children: Christine, Margaret, younger by two years, and the last-born, a son also called William.
William the elder, although bonded to the FitzGeoffrey family, also worked as a journeyman carpenter, employing an apprentice of nineteen, a runaway serf who had been caught and branded on the forehead, but who had reformed his character under the stern, albeit fair, tutelage of the craftsman. Recently, William’s status in the village had been secured by his election as the headman of his tithing group. Except at harvest time, he paid his obligation in kind or coin. His garden provided some staple vegetables, but his defence against starvation was his mastery of wood. Despite the years of anguish and hunger in the village William had survived, even prospered, and so his salt box was always full. Through the dexterity of his hands he provided whey, cheese, buttermilk, peas and beans, daily bread of mixed barley and oats, and—on high days—wheaten bread, washed down with spicy nut-brown ale. He could even treat his family to salted beef or smoked bacon, too, on many a Sunday.
William sat contemplating his lot in this August of 1327. This year the harvest had been fruitful and he had completed his boon work for his lord and paid his tithes. The reeve had collected all, even the wood-silver for coppicing the lord’s timber for his carpentry and for his fire. There was, however, one small debt to be paid: the merchet due to Sir Richard. His Christine was to be betrothed to Simon, the tailor’s son. The priest had agreed and all that remained was for William to ask his lord for permission. It was the old tradition, although William knew that in the towns such niceties were being forgotten. It was a relatively small fee, normally six pence, an equivalent in groats or marks, or a gift in kind. So William had fashioned a chair fit for the lord, who, by the reeve’s intercession, had made it known that such a gift was acceptable.
That particular balmy evening, William sat outside his cottage on a bench, dressed in his best breeches, his serge tunic tucked into a belted waist. And next to him stood the magnificent carved chair, which he stroked almost absent-mindedly. His reverie was partly induced by the jug of ale which had been brought to him by Helene, who smiled indulgently at her husband as he, in turn, looked with love on the face that displayed loyalty in every weathered crease. Sipping at the ale, he pincered a hair-louse between his thumb and the broken nail on his forefinger. He looked up as he flicked the parasite away, and locked his gaze on the in-field, the last to be harvested. The barley and oats had been scythed, the strips of wheat had been sickled, and the binders had gathered the corn into sheaves to stack them into shocks to dry. A few of the old people and younger villagers were gleaning the fields to save the last handfuls of the harvest, while the paupers were foraging in the hedges and end strips. Soon the cattle would be set free amidst the stubble.
The sun nestled in the wooded hills that cloaked the pass to Guldenford as the warm ale settled comfortably in William’s stomach. The carpenter was his own man, devout, yet possessed of a fine sense of justice, usually tempered by humour. He was unlettered, it was true, but he had memorised many of the chapters from the Gospel by sheer diligence and attendance at the church of St. James three times each Sunday.
As the trees in the Hurtwood began to turn pink in the scented sunset, he saw Christine walking from the in-field where she had been helping to glean the corn. William noticed that Simon, her betrothed, kept his distance from her, but the young man’s eyes followed Christine as the small group of villagers filed out of the main field.
William thought that her blond hair outdid the glory of even the richest cornfield. She was tall for a village girl and her limbs so perfectly proportioned that even a father could decently note her fair looks. He loved his first-born and had planned her marriage into a respectable tailoring family with considerable care, and not without a little consultation with his wife and Christine, although, ultimately, he was a man who heeded his own counsel.
As she entered their gate, William beamed a toothless grin at her and said, “See, Christine, I have finished your chair. All be agreed with the reeve. This gift be better than a handful of groats—not that I couldn’t be payin’ in coin, what with the good harvest an’ all.”
Christine kneeled by the chair and touched it as though it were a sacred relic. “I thank you, father,” she said, “for all the work. This chair be fittin’—aye, more than fittin’—for a lord.”
She suddenly laughed, and added, “And the seat so smooth, no splinters to rip his lordly arse.”
William tried to look stern, but he could not control the wide grin that consumed his face. Nor could he resist his daughter’s impish sense of humour, although her independent attitude troubled him occasionally. She was too much like himself, he knew.
“An arse he might be, but we must bow to him and to the strong arm that keeps the peace here, and the robbers out of our woods.”
William leaned over to kiss her forehead. “Red you are in the sun and after labourin’. Take a sip of this, a little ale will not go amiss.”
Handing Christine his jug, he spoke through the side of his mouth, in a stage whisper, pretending not to offend his wife: “Now that the chair be done, why even I say you can with Simon tarry.” Christine blushed deeply, even though it was the custom for betrothed couples to tryst before their marriage. She had been teased by some of the village girls because she had insisted she would remain a virgin until her marriage day.
Hilda, the miller’s daughter, the girl with the distracting wart on her nose, had shouted at her, “Mistress high and mighty, you are. What makes you better than us girls, then?”
Christine had thought about the remark and wondered whether there really was something wrong with her, or perhaps just something different. They wanted marriage and nothing else while, for her, a husband would be just part of her existence, because she was curious about life beyond the village, beyond England, perhaps beyond this world. These thoughts were half-formed, glimmerings which sprang from her lively intelligence.
But her father would not understand this. “Time enough for tarryin’, father,” she said firmly. “Rest I need after gleanin’, not more rushin’ hither and thither.”
“Enough, daughter, for I am eager to see my liege. The reeve has appointed tonight for my gift to be laid at the master’s door. Then next Sunday, God willin’, your name will be fixed on the church door to declare the banns.”
An hour later William, dressed in his Sunday clothes and carrying the chair, was standing with the reeve outside the gatehouse of Vachery Manor. The reeve, armed with his customary stave, bustled with self-importance. The Manor had once been a small castle, and the moat remained, although the Norman fortifications had been partly demilitarised and transformed into a grand house. It was built for luxury, admittedly, but still could be a stronghold if necessary—all for the glory of Sir Richard. The drawbridge was down. Facing the gatehouse was the entrance to the main hall, where most of the household slept, ate and amused themselves. The hall was open to the roof timbers, and it had a hearth in the centre of the floor and a louvre in the roof through which the smoke was supposed to escape, but the smoke and ash from the fires of many winters had besmirched the fine display of shields. The largest was painted red with diagonal stripes and topped with the sign of a crescent moon.
The reeve pointed to the shield and whispered, “Saracen—captured by our lord.”
William was overawed; he had not been inside the hall since he was a young man.
The two men carefully picked their way through a floor thick with rushes, mixed with basil, sweet fennel, lavender, mint, pennyroyal and violets. And, inevitably, mustard seeds had been sprinkled to ward off the evil spirits. The dead flowers and herbs, however, could not compete with the stench of the grease, bones, spittle and the excrement of dogs and cats that mingled with the rushes.
At the lower end of the hall was an entrance from the courtyard. A large screen, carved with scenes of noble exploits in the Holy Land, shielded the hall from some of the draughts. On the other side of the screened-off gangway were doors into the pantry and the former kitchen, now a small armoury. Over the passage formed by the screen stood a gallery where musical instruments were marshalled, waiting patiently for their masters. As he walked past the gallery, William asked the reeve to tell him what the instruments were.
The reeve wasn’t sure, but his pride and position would never allow such an admission: “That be an Irish harp, that a dulcimer and that be a shawm.”
They stepped through the hall, skirting the dais and high table, past a fine carved oak chest which served as a travelling box, and on to the door of the lord’s antechamber. Here they waited an hour or so upon their lord’s pleasure until, eventually, the chamberlain summoned both reeve and William to Sir Richard’s presence. Even the antechamber seemed a magnificent hall to William, so rich was it in wall hangings and beautifully embroidered cushions, all from France, or so the reeve said, again in a whisper.
The lord sat alone in a large curved stool without a back, but heavy with carvings in the legs. A good piece of work, William thought. The very last light of dusk filtered through a glass window, set in a transportable frame, above his head, and it was the first glass window, outside a church, that William had ever seen. Noticing the remains of an opulent private meal on the main table and on the two long benches that flanked it, William sniffed approvingly at the smell of roast meat that hung about the chamber. Sir Richard did not speak; he seemed distracted by the magpie that had flown in through a rear window to peck at the scraps of food lying on the pewter platters. William and the reeve stood silently, uncertain of their master’s wishes.
“William, the Carpenter,” Sir Richard finally intoned. William bent his head, as was customary.
“William, the Carpenter, my reeve has instructed me that all your boon work and levies are fulfilled. I thank you for the dutiful service to my house. You have asked for this time with me. What is your request?”
William coughed nervously. Sir Richard’s lisp, he thought, seemed more pronounced in the confines of the antechamber. He had heard him speak before, but only at gatherings for all the villagers in the fields.
The carpenter cleared his throat, looked up and recited his prepared speech: “Sir Richard, I thank you for your time. My words will be but brief. I have made with my own hands this chair, a gift for your lordship which Reeve Thomas has said is acceptable as merchet for my Christine’s marriage. I trust that this is so.”
Sir Richard, a big man, dressed in a russet woollen tunic that reached to the heel of his riding boots, stroked his greying beard. As he stood up, he straightened the jewelled dagger on his belt. William approached his lord and, with a slight bow, handed him the chair.
Sir Richard took the chair and, with exaggerated care, examined the exquisite craftsmanship. He set it down on the floor and sat gently on the gift, as William and the reeve smiled at their lord’s gesture of appreciation.
“I thank you, William. Gladly will I accept.” The knight paused. “This child of yours, how old is she?”
“Sire, she be fully grown to wed these two years or more. She was born to us sixteen harvests since.”
“A pleasing girl, she has a healthy ripeness in her face,” said Sir Richard. “I have seen her at work in the fields,” he added, a touch too dismissively.
He returned to his own chair, sat down and raised one hand, as if to dismiss his audience. The reeve tugged at William’s sleeve as a sign to go, but then Sir Richard spoke with unexpected force: “I have a tallage more for you: I wish to speak alone with your Christine before the marriage date.”
William looked at the reeve, who seemed as surprised as he was. “Sire,” he protested. “I have obliged in all my taxes. And I have laboured mightily with fashionin’ this chair. Is this not suffice? An extra tallage, if I dare say, is not meet. It is not our custom.” Sir Richard laughed. “Well spoken, William. I demand no coin from you. In fact I had in mind to give your fair Christine some small token for her nuptials and good Christian advice. Tell our Father Peter to accompany her to this hall, when the reeve so dictates to you the time. Farewell.”
Sir Richard’s eyes narrowed as he watched his servants bow and leave the hall.
# # #
Duval smiled as he punched triumphantly at the final full stop, for he knew what was to come. The priest believed that you had to experience evil fully before you could condemn it wholeheartedly. He relished his role as omnipotent historian who could manipulate not only the protagonists’ past but also their future.