The Devil’s Novice
IN THE MIDDLE OF SEPTEMBER of that year of Our Lord, 1140, two lords of Shropshire manors, one north of the town of Shrewsbury, the other south, sent envoys to the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul on the same day, desiring the entry of younger sons of their houses to the Order.
One was accepted, the other rejected. For which different treatment there were weighty reasons.
“I have called you few together,” said Abbot Radulfus, “before making any decision in this matter, or opening it to consideration in chapter, since the principle here involved is at question among the masters of our order at this time. You, Brother Prior and Brother Sub-Prior, as bearing the daily weight of the household and family, Brother Paul as master of the boys and novices, Brother Edmund as an obedientiary and a child of the cloister from infancy, to advise upon the one hand, and Brother Cadfael, as a conversus come to the life at a ripe age and after wide venturings, to speak his mind upon the other.”
So, thought Brother Cadfael, mute and passive on his stool in the corner of the abbot’s bare, wood-scented parlour, I am to be the devil’s lawman, the voice of the outer world. Mellowed through seventeen years or so of a vocation, but still sharpish in the cloistered ear. Well, we serve according to our skills, and in the degrees allotted to us, and this may be as good a way as any. He was more than a little sleepy, for he had been outdoors between the orchards of the Gaye and his own herb garden within the pale ever since morning, between the obligatory sessions of office and prayer, and was slightly drunk with the rich air of a fine, fat September, and ready for his bed as soon as Compline was over. But not yet so sleepy that he could not prick a ready ear when Abbot Radulfus declared himself in need of counsel, or even desirous of hearing counsel he yet would not hesitate to reject if his own incisive mind pointed him in another direction.
“Brother Paul,” said the abbot, casting an authoritative eye round the circle, “has received requests to accept into our house two new devotionaries, in God’s time to receive the habit and the tonsure. The one we have to consider here is from a good family, and his sire a patron of our church. Of what age, Brother Paul, did you report him?”
“He is an infant, not yet five years old,” said Paul.
“And that is the ground of my hesitation. We have now only four boys of tender age among us, two of them not committed to the cloistral life, but here to be educated. True, they may well choose to remain with us and join the community in due time, but that is left to them to decide, when they are of an age to make such a choice. The other two, infant oblates given to God by their parents, are already twelve and ten years old, and are settled and happy among us, it would be ill-done to disturb their tranquillity. But I am not easy in my mind about accepting any more such oblates, when they can have no conception of what they are being offered or, indeed, of what they are being deprived. It is joy,” said Radulfus, “to open the doors to a truly committed heart and mind, but the mind of a child barely out of nurse belongs with his toys, and the comfort of his mother’s lap.”
Prior Robert arched his silver eyebrows and looked dubiously down his thin, patrician nose. “The custom of offering children as oblates has been approved for centuries. The Rule sanctions it. Any change which departs from the Rule must be undertaken only after grave reflection. Have we the right to deny what a father wishes for his child?”
“Have we—has the father—the right to determine the course of a life, before the unwitting innocent has a voice to speak for himself? The practice, I know, is long established, and never before questioned, but it is being questioned now.”
“In abandoning it,” persisted Robert, “we may be depriving some tender soul of its best way to blessedness. Even in the years of childhood a wrong turning may be taken, and the way to divine grace lost.”
“I grant the possibility,” agreed the abbot, “but also I fear the reverse may be true, and many such children, better suited to another life and another way of serving God, may be shut into what must be for them a prison. On this matter I know only my own mind. Here we have Brother Edmund, a child of the cloister from his fourth year, and Brother Cadfael, conversus after an active and adventurous life and at a mature age. And both, as I hope and believe, secure in commitment. Tell us, Edmund, how do you look upon this matter? Have you regretted ever that you were denied experience of the world outside these walls?”
Brother Edmund the infirmarer, only eight years short of Cadfael’s robust sixty, and a grave, handsome, thoughtful creature who might have looked equally well on horseback and in arms, or farming a manor and keeping a patron’s eye on his tenants, considered the question seriously, and was not disturbed. “No, I have had no regrets. But neither did I know what there might be worth regretting. And I have known those who did rebel, even wanting that knowledge. It may be they imagined a better world without than is possible in this life, and it may be that I lack that gift of imagination. Or it may be only that I was fortunate in finding work here within to my liking and within my scope, and have been too busy to repine. I would not change. But my choice would have been the same if I had grown to puberty here, and made my vows only when I was grown. I have cause to know that others would have chosen differently, had they been free.”
“That is fairly spoken,” said Radulfus. “Brother Cadfael, what of you? You have ranged over much of the world, as far as the Holy Land, and borne arms. Your choice was made late and freely, and I do not think you have looked back. Was that gain, to have seen so much, and yet chosen this small hermitage?”
Cadfael found himself compelled to think before he spoke, and beneath the comfortable weight of a whole day’s sunlight and labour thought was an effort. He was by no means certain what the abbot wanted from him, but had no doubt whatever of his own indignant discomfort at the notion of a babe in arms being swaddled willy-nilly in the habit he himself had assumed willingly.
“I think it was gain,” he said at length, “and moreover, a better gift I brought, flawed and dinted though it might be, than if I had come in my innocence. For I own freely that I had loved my life, and valued high the warriors I had known, and the noble places and great actions I had seen, and if I chose in my prime to renounce all these, and embrace this life of the cloister in preference to all other, then truly I think I paid the best compliment and homage I had to pay. And I cannot believe that anything I hold in my remembrance makes me less fit to profess this allegiance, but rather better fits me to serve as well as I may. Had I been given in infancy, I should have rebelled in manhood, wanting my rights. Free from childhood, I could well afford to sacrifice my rights when I came to wisdom.”
“Yet you would not deny,” said the abbot, his lean face lit briefly by a smile, “the fitness of certain others, by nature and grace, to come in early youth to the life you discovered in maturity?”
“By no means would I deny it! I think those who do so, and with certainty, are the best we have. So they make the choice of their own will, and by their own light.”
“Well, well!” said Radulfus, and mused with his chin in his hand, and his deep-set eyes shadowed. “Paul, have you any view to lay before us? You have the boys in charge, and I am well aware they seldom complain of you.” For Brother Paul, middle-aged, conscientious and anxious, like a hen with a wayward brood, was known for his indulgence to the youngest, for ever in defence of mischief, but a good teacher for all that, instilling Latin without pain on either part.
“It would be no burden to me,” said Paul slowly, “to care for a little lad of four, but it is of no merit that I should take pleasure in such a charge, or that he should be content. That is not what the Rule requires, or so it seems to me. A good father could do as much for a little son. Better if he come in knowledge of what he does, and with some inkling of what he may be leaving behind him. At fifteen or sixteen years, well taught…”
Prior Robert drew back his head and kept his austere countenance, leaving his superior to make up his own mind as he would. Brother Richard the sub-prior had held his tongue throughout, being a good man at managing day-today affairs, but indolent at attempting decisions.
“It has been in my mind, since studying the reasonings of Archbishop Lanfranc,” said the abbot, “that there must be a change in our thoughts on this matter of child dedication, and I am now convinced that it is better to refuse all oblates until they are able to consider for themselves what manner of life they desire. Therefore, Brother Paul, it is my view that you must decline the offer of this boy, upon the terms desired. Let his father know that in a few years time the boy will be welcome, as a pupil in our school, but not as an oblate entering the order. At a suitable age, should he so wish, he may enter. So tell his parent.” He drew breath and stirred delicately in his chair, to indicate that the conference was over. “And you have, as I understand, another request for admission?”
Brother Paul was already on his feet, relieved and smiling. “There will be no difficulty there, Father. Leoric Aspley of Aspley desires to bring ...