THE Cantor of St. Illod’s being far too enthusiastic a musician to concern himself with its Library, the Sub–Cantor, who idolised every detail of the work, was tidying up, after two hours’ writing and dictation in the Scriptorium. The copying-monks handed him in their sheets — it was a plain Four Gospels ordered by an Abbot at Evesham — and filed out to vespers. John Otho, better known as John of Burgos, took no heed. He was burnishing a tiny boss of gold in his miniature of the Annunciation for his Gospel of St. Luke, which it was hoped that Cardinal Falcodi, the Papal Legate, might later be pleased to accept.
‘Break off, John,’ said the Sub–Cantor in an undertone.
‘Eh? Gone, have they? I never heard. Hold a minute, Clement.’
The Sub–Cantor waited patiently. He had known John more than a dozen years, coming and going at St. Illod’s, to which monastery John, when abroad, always said he belonged. The claim was gladly allowed, for, more even than other Fitz Othos, he seemed to carry all the Arts under his hand, and most of their practical receipts under his hood.
The Sub–Cantor looked over his shoulder at the pinned-down sheet where the first words of the Magnificat were built up in gold washed with red-lac for a background to the Virgin’s hardly yet fired halo. She was shown, hands joined in wonder, at a lattice of infinitely intricate arabesque, round the edges of which sprays of orange-bloom seemed to load the blue hot air that carried back over the minute parched landscape in the middle distance.
‘You’ve made her all Jewess,’ said the Sub–Cantor, studying the olive-flushed cheek and the eyes charged with foreknowledge.
‘What else was Our Lady?’ John slipped out the pins. ‘Listen, Clement. If I do not come back, this goes into my Great Luke, whoever finishes it.’ He slid the drawing between its guard-papers.
‘Then you’re for Burgos again — as I heard?’
‘In two days. The new Cathedral yonder — but they’re slower than the Wrath of God, those masons — is good for the soul.’
‘Thy soul?’ The Sub–Cantor seemed doubtful.
‘Even mine, by your permission. And down south — on the edge of the Conquered Countries–Granada way — there’s some Moorish diaper-work that’s wholesome. It allays vain thought and draws it toward the picture — as you felt, just now, in my Annunciation.’
‘She — it was very beautiful. No wonder you go. But you’ll not forget your absolution, John?’
‘Surely.’ This was a precaution John no more omitted on the eve of his travels than he did the recutting of the tonsure which he had provided himself with in his youth, somewhere near Ghent. The mark gave him privilege of clergy at a pinch, and a certain consideration on the road always.
‘You’ll not forget, either, what we need in the Scriptorium. There’s no more true ultramarine in this world now. They mix it with that German blue. And as for vermilion —’
‘I’ll do my best always.’
‘And Brother Thomas’ (this was the Infirmarian in charge of the monastery hospital) ‘he needs —’
‘He’ll do his own asking. I’ll go over his side now, and get me re-tonsured.’
John went down the stairs to the lane that divides the hospital and cook-house from the back-cloisters. While he was being barbered, Brother Thomas (St. Illod’s meek but deadly persistent Infirmarian) gave him a list of drugs that he was to bring back from Spain by hook, crook, or lawful purchase. Here they were surprised by the lame, dark Abbot Stephen, in his fur-lined night-boots. Not that Stephen de Sautre was any spy; but as a young man he had shared an unlucky Crusade, which had ended, after a battle at Mansura, in two years’ captivity among the Saracens at Cairo where men learn to walk softly. A fair huntsman and hawker, a reasonable disciplinarian, but a man of science above all, and a Doctor of Medicine under one Ranulphus, Canon of St. Paul’s, his heart was more m the monastery’s hospital work than its religious. He checked their list interestedly, adding items of his own. After the Infirmarian had withdrawn, he gave John generous absolution, to cover lapses by the way; for he did not hold with chance — bought Indulgences.
‘And what seek you this journey?’ he demanded, sitting on the bench beside the mortar and scales in the little warm cell for stored drugs.
‘Devils, mostly,’ said John, grinning.
‘In Spain? Are not Abana and Phar-par —?’
John, to whom men were but matter for drawings, and well-born to boot (since he was a de Sanford on his mother’s side), looked the Abbot full in the face and —‘Did you find it so?’ said he.
‘No. They were in Cairo too. But what’s your special need of ’em?’
‘For my Great Luke. He’s the masterhand of all Four when it comes to devils.’
‘No wonder. He was a physician. You’re not.’
‘Heaven forbid! But I’m weary of our Church-pattern devils. They’re only apes and goats and poultry conjoined. ‘Good enough for plain red-and-black Hells and Judgment Days — but not for me.’
‘What makes you so choice in them?’
‘Because it stands to reason and Art that there are all musters of devils in Hell’s dealings. Those Seven, for example, that were haled out of the Magdalene. They’d be she-devils — no kin at all to the beaked and horned and bearded devils-general.’
The Abbot laughed.
‘And see again! The devil that came out of the dumb man. What use is snout or bill to him? He’d be faceless as a leper. Above all — God send I live to do it! — the devils that entered the Gadarene swine. They’d be — they’d be — I know not yet what they’d be, but they’d be surpassing devils. I’d have ’em diverse as the Saints themselves. But now, they’re all one pattern, for wall, window, or picture-work.’
‘Go on, John. You’re deeper in this mystery than I’
‘Heaven forbid! But I say there’s respect due to devils, damned tho’ they be.’
‘My meaning is that if the shape of anything be worth man’s thought to picture to man, it’s worth his best thought.’
‘That’s safer. But I’m glad I’ve given you Absolution.’
‘There’s less risk for a craftsman who deals with the outside shapes of things — for Mother Church’s glory.’
‘Maybe so, but, John’— the Abbot’s hand almost touched John’s sleeve —‘tell me, now, is — is she Moorish or — or Hebrew?’
‘She’s mine,’ John returned.
‘Is that enough?’
‘I have found it so.’
‘Well — ah well! It’s out of my jurisdiction, but — how do they look at it down yonder?’
‘Oh, they drive nothing to a head in Spain — neither Church nor King, bless them! There’s too many Moors and Jews to kill them all, and if they chased ’em away there’d be no trade nor farming. Trust me, in the Conquered Countries, from Seville to Granada, we live lovingly enough together — Spaniard, Moor, and Jew. Ye see, we ask no questions.’
‘Yes — yes,’ Stephen sighed. ‘And always there’s the hope she may be converted.’
‘Oh yes, there’s always hope.’
The Abbot went on into the hospital. It was an easy age before Rome tightened the screw as to clerical connections. If the lady were not too forward, or the son too much his father’s beneficiary in ecclesiastical preferments and levies, a good deal was overlooked. But, as the Abbot had reason to recall, unions between Christian and Infidel led to sorrow. None the less, when John with mule, mails, and man, clattered off down the lane for Southampton and the sea, Stephen envied him.
* * * *
He was back, twenty months later, in good hard case, and loaded down with fairings. A lump of richest lazuli, a bar of orange-hearted vermilion, and a small packet of dried beetles which make most glorious scarlet, for the SubCantor. Besides that, a few cubes of milky marble, with yet a pink flush in them, which could be slaked and ground down to incomparable background-stuff. There were quite half the drugs that the Abbot and Thomas had demanded, and there was a long deep-red cornelian necklace for the Abbot’s Lady–Anne of Norton. She received it graciously, and asked where John had come by it.
‘Near Granada,’ he said.
‘You left all well there?’ Anne asked. (Maybe the Abbot had told her something of John’s confession.)
‘I left all in the hands of God.’
‘Ah me! How long since?’
‘Four months less eleven days.’
‘Were you — with her?’
‘In my arms. Childbed.’
‘The boy too. There is nothing now.’
Anne of Norton caught her breath.
‘I think you’ll be glad of that,’ she said after a while.
‘Give me time, and maybe I’ll compass it. But not now.’
‘You have your handiwork and your art, and — John — remember there’s no jealousy in the grave.’
‘Ye-es! I have my Art, and Heaven knows I’m jealous of none.’
‘Thank God for that at least,’ said Anne of Norton, the always ailing woman who followed the Abbot with her sunk eyes. ‘And be sure I shall treasure this’— she touched the beads —‘as long as I shall live.’
‘I brought — trusted — it to you for that,’ he replied, and took leave. When she told the Abbot how she had come by it, he said nothing, but as he and Thomas were storing the drugs that John handed over in the cell which backs on to the hospital kitchen-chimney, he observed, of a cake of dried poppy juice: ‘This has power to cut off all pain from a man’s body.’
‘I have seen it,’ said John.
‘But for pain of the soul there is, outside God’s Grace, but one drug; and that is a man’s craft, learning, or other helpful motion of his own mind.’
‘That is coming to me, too,’ was the answer.
John spent the next fair May day out in the woods with the monastery swineherd and all the porkers; and returned loaded with flowers and sprays of spring, to his own carefully kept place in the north bay of the Scriptorium. There, with his travelling sketch-books under his left elbow, he sunk himself past all recollections in his Great Luke.
Brother Martin, Senior Copyist (who spoke about once a fortnight), ventured to ask, later, how the work was going.
‘All here!’ John tapped his forehead with his pencil. ‘It has been only waiting these months to — ah God! — be born. Are ye free of your plain-copying, Martin?’
Brother Martin nodded. It was his pride that John of Burgos turned to him, in spite of his seventy years, for really good page-work.
‘Then see!’ John laid out a new vellum — thin but flawless. ‘There’s no better than this sheet from here to Paris. Yes! Smell it if you choose. Wherefore — give me the compasses and I’ll set it out for you — if ye make one letter lighter or darker than its next, I’ll stick ye like a pig.’
‘Never, John!’ The old man beamed happily. ‘But I will! Now, follow! Here and here, as I prick, and in script of just this height to the hair’s-breadth, yell scribe the thirty-first and thirty-second verses of Eighth Luke.’
‘Yes, the Gadarene Swine! “And they besought him that he would not command them to go out into the abyss. And there was a herd of many swine”’—— Brother Martin naturally knew all the Gospels by heart.
‘Just so! Down to “and he suffered them.” Take your time to it. My Magdalene has to come off my heart first.’
Brother Martin achieved the work so perfectly that John stole some soft sweetmeats from the Abbot’s kitchen for his reward. The old man ate them; then repented; then confessed and insisted on penance. At which, the Abbot, knowing there was but one way to reach the real sinner, set him a book called De Virtutibus Herbarum to fair-copy. St. Illod’s had borrowed it from the gloomy Cistercians, who do not hold with pretty things, and the crabbed text kept Martin busy just when John wanted him for some rather specially spaced letterings.
‘See now,’ said the Sub–Cantor improvingly. ‘You should not do such things, John. Here’s Brother Martin on penance for your sake —’
‘No — for my Great Luke. But I’ve paid the Abbot’s cook. I’ve drawn him till his own scullions cannot keep straight-faced. He’ll not tell again.’
‘Unkindly done! And you’re out of favour with the Abbot too. He’s made no sign to you since you came back — never asked you to high table.’
‘I’ve been busy. Having eyes in his head, Stephen knew it. Clement, there’s no Librarian from Durham to Torre fit to clean up after you.’
The Sub–Cantor stood on guard; he knew where John’s compliments generally ended.
‘But outside the Scriptorium —’
‘Where I never go.’ The Sub–Cantor had been excused even digging in the garden, lest it should mar his wonderful book-binding hands.
‘In all things outside the Scriptorium you are the master-fool of Christendie. Take it from me, Clement. I’ve met many.’
‘I take everything from you,’ Clement smiled benignly. ‘You use me worse than a singing-boy.
They could hear one of that suffering breed in the cloister below, squalling as the Cantor pulled his hair.
‘God love you! So I do! But have you ever thought how I lie and steal daily on my travels — yes, and for aught you know, murder — to fetch you colours and earths?’
‘True,’ said just and conscience-stricken Clement. ‘I have often thought that were I in the world — which God forbid! — I might be a strong thief in some matters.’
Even Brother Martin, bent above his loathed De Virtutibus, laughed.
* * * *
But about mid-summer, Thomas the Infirmarian conveyed to John the Abbot’s invitation to supper in his house that night, with the request that he would bring with him anything that he had done for his Great Luke.
‘What’s toward?’ said John, who had been wholly shut up in his work.
‘Only one of his “wisdom” dinners. You’ve sat at a few since you were a man.’
‘True: and mostly good. How would Stephen have us —?’
‘Gown and hood over all. There will be a doctor from Salerno — one Roger, an Italian. Wise and famous with the knife on the body. He’s been in the Infirmary some ten days, helping me — even me!’
‘‘Never heard the name. But our Stephen’s physicus before sacerdos, always.’
‘And his Lady has a sickness of some time. Roger came hither in chief because of her.’
‘Did he? Now I think of it, I have not seen the Lady Anne for a while.’
‘Ye’ve seen nothing for a long while. She has been housed near a month — they have to carry her abroad now.’
‘So bad as that, then?’
‘Roger of Salerno will not yet say what he thinks. But —’
‘God pity Stephen! . . . Who else at table, besides thee?’
‘An Oxford friar. Roger is his name also. A learned and famous philosopher. And he holds his liquor too, valiantly.’
‘Three doctors — counting Stephen. I’ve always found that means two atheists.’
Thomas looked uneasily down his nose. ‘That’s a wicked proverb,’ he stammered. ‘You should not use it.’
‘Hoh! Never come you the monk over me, Thomas! You’ve been Infirmarian at St. Illod’s eleven years — and a lay-brother still. Why have you never taken orders, all this while?’
‘I— I am not worthy.’
‘Ten times worthier than that new fat swine — Henry Who’s-his-name — that takes the Infirmary Masses. He bullocks in with the Viaticum, under your nose, when a sick man’s only faint from being bled. So the man dies — of pure fear. Ye know it! I’ve watched your face at such times. Take Orders, Didymus. You’ll have a little more medicine and a little less Mass with your sick then; and they’ll live longer.’
‘I am unworthy — unworthy,’ Thomas repeated pitifully.
‘Not you — but — to your own master you stand or fall. And now that my work releases me for awhile, I’ll drink with any philosopher out of any school. And, Thomas,’ he coaxed, ‘a hot bath for me in the Infirmary before vespers.’
* * * *
When the Abbot’s perfectly cooked and served meal had ended, and the deep-fringed naperies were removed, and the Prior had sent in the keys with word that all was fast in the Monastery, and the keys had been duly returned with the word, ‘Make it so till Prime,’ the Abbot and his guests went out to cool themselves in an upper cloister that took them, by way of the leads, to the South Choir side of the Triforium. The summer sun was still strong, for it was barely six o’clock, but the Abbey Church, of course, lay in her wonted darkness. Lights were being lit for choir-practice thirty feet below.
‘Our Cantor gores them no rest,’ the Abbot whispered. ‘Stand by this pillar and we’ll hear what he’s driving them at now.’
‘Remember, all!’ the Cantor’s hard voice came up. ‘This is the soul of Bernard himself, attacking our evil world. Take it quicker than yesterday, and throw all your words clean-bitten from you. In the loft there! Begin!’
The organ broke out for an instant, alone and raging. Then the voices crashed together into that first fierce line of the ‘De Contemptu Mundi.’
‘Hora novissima — tempora pessima’— a dead pause till the assenting sunt broke, like a sob, out of the darkness, and one boy’s voice, clearer than silver trumpets, returned the long-drawn vigilemus.
‘Ecce minaciter, imminet Arbiter’ (organ and voices were leashed togethor in terror and warning, breaking away liquidly to the ‘ille supremus’). Then the tone-colours shifted for the prelude to ‘Imminet, imminet, ut mala terminet —’
‘Stop! Again!’ cried the Cantor; and gave his reasons a little more roundly than was natural at choir-practice.
‘Ah! Pity o’ man’s vanity! He’s guessed we are here. Come away!’ said the Abbot. Anne of Norton, in her carried chair, had been listening too, further along the dark Triforium, with Roger of Salerno. John heard her sob. On the way back, he asked Thomas how her health stood. Before Thomas could reply the sharp-featured Italian doctor pushed between them. ‘Following on our talk together, I judged it best to tell her,’ said he to Thomas.
‘What?’ John asked simply enough.
‘What she knew already.’ Roger of Salerno launched into a Greek quotation to the effect that every woman knows all about everything.
‘I have no Greek,’ said John stiffly. Roger of Salerno had been giving them a good deal of it, at dinner.
‘Then I’ll come to you in Latin. Ovid hath it neatly. “Utque malum late solet immedicabile cancer —” but doubtless you know the rest, worthy Sir.’
‘Alas! My school-Latin’s but what I’ve gathered by the way from fools professing to heal sick women. “Hocus-pocus —” but doubtless you know the rest, worthy Sir.’
Roger of Salerno was quite quiet till they regained the dining-room, where the fire had been comforted and the dates, raisins, ginger, figs, and cinnamon-scented sweetmeats set out, with the choicer wines, on the after-table. The Abbot seated himself, drew off his ring, dropped it, that all might hear the tinkle, into an empty silver cup, stretched his feet towards the hearth, and looked at the great gilt and carved rose in the barrel-roof. The silence that keeps from Compline to Matins had closed on their world. The bull-necked Friar watched a ray of sunlight split itself into colours on the rim of a crystal salt-cellar; Roger of Salerno had re-opened some discussion with Brother Thomas on a type of spotted fever that was baffling them both in England and abroad; John took note of the keen profile, and — it might serve as a note for the Great Luke — his hand moved to his bosom. The Abbot saw, and nodded permission. John whipped out silver-point and sketch-book.
‘Nay — modesty is good enough — but deliver your own opinion,’ the Italian was urging the Infirmarian. Out of courtesy to the foreigner nearly all the talk was in table-Latin; more formal and more copious than monk’s patter. Thomas began with his meek stammer.
‘I confess myself at a loss for the cause of the fever unless — as Varro saith in his De Re Rustica — certain small animals which the eye cannot follow enter the body by the nose and mouth, and set up grave diseases. On the other hand, this is not in Scripture.’
Roger of Salerno hunched head and shoulders like an angry cat. ‘Always that!’ he said, and John snatched down the twist of the thin lips.
‘Never at rest, John.’ The Abbot smiled at the artist. ‘You should break off every two hours for prayers, as we do. St. Benedict was no fool. Two hours is all that a man can carry the edge of his eye or hand.’
‘For copyists — yes. Brother Martin is not sure after one hour. But when a man’s work takes him, he must go on till it lets him go.’
‘Yes, that is the Demon of Socrates,’ the Friar from Oxford rumbled above his cup.
‘The doctrine leans toward presumption,’ said the Abbot. ‘Remember, “Shall mortal man be more just than his Maker?”’
‘There is no danger of justice’; the Friar spoke bitterly. ‘But at least Man might be suffered to go forward in his Art or his thought. Yet if Mother Church sees or hears him move anyward, what says she? “No!” Always “No.”’
‘But if the little animals of Varro be invisible’— this was Roger of Salerno to Thomas —‘how are we any nearer to a cure?’
‘By experiment’— the Friar wheeled round on them suddenly. ‘By reason and experiment. The one is useless without the other. But Mother Church —’
‘Ay!’ Roger de Salerno dashed at the fresh bait like a pike. ‘Listen, Sirs. Her bishops — our Princes — strew our roads in Italy with carcasses that they make for their pleasure or wrath. Beautiful corpses! Yet if I— if we doctors — so much as raise the skin of one of them to look at God’s fabric beneath, what says Mother Church? “Sacrilege! Stick to your pigs and dogs, or you burn!”’
‘And not Mother Church only!’ the Friar chimed in. ‘Every way we are barred — barred by the words of some man, dead a thousand years, which are held final. Who is any son of Adam that his one say-so should close a door towards truth? I would not except even Peter Peregrinus, my own great teacher.’
‘Nor I Paul of Aegina,’ Roger of Salerno cried. ‘Listen, Sirs! Here is a case to the very point. Apuleius affirmeth, if a man eat fasting of the juice of the cut-leaved buttercup-sceleratus we call it, which means “rascally”’— this with a condescending nod towards John —‘his soul will leave his body laughing. Now this is the lie more dangerous than truth, since truth of a sort is in it.’
‘He’s away!’ whispered the Abbot despairingly.
‘For the juice of that herb, I know by experiment, burns, blisters, and wries the mouth. I know also the rictus, or pseudo-laughter, on the face of such as have perished by the strong poisons of herbs allied to this ranunculus. Certainly that spasm resembles laughter. It seems then, in my judgment, that Apuleius, having seen the body of one thus poisoned, went off at score and wrote that the man died laughing.’
‘Neither staying to observe, nor to confirm observation by experiment,’ added the Friar, frowning.
Stephen the Abbot cocked an eyebrow toward John.
‘How think you?’ said he.
‘I’m no doctor,’ John returned, ‘but I’d say Apuleius in all these years might have been betrayed by his copyists. They take short-cuts to save ‘emselves trouble. Put case that Apuleius wrote the soul seems to leave the body laughing, after this poison. There’s not three copyists in five (my judgment) would not leave out the “seems to.” For who’d question Apuleius? If it seemed so to him, so it must be. Otherwise any child knows cut-leaved buttercup.’
‘Have you knowledge of herbs?’ Roger of Salerno asked curtly.
‘Only that, when I was a boy in convent, I’ve made tetters round my mouth and on my neck with buttercup juice, to save going to prayer o’ cold nights.’
‘Ah!’ said Roger. ‘I profess no knowledge of tricks.’ He turned aside, stiffly.
‘No matter! Now for your own tricks, John,’ the tactful Abbot broke in. ‘You shall show the doctors your Magdalene and your Gadarene Swine and the devils.’
‘Devils? Devils? I have produced devils by means of drugs; and have abolished them by the same means. Whether devils be external to mankind or immanent, I have not yet pronounced.’ Roger of Salerno was still angry.
‘Ye dare not,’ snapped the Friar from Oxford. ‘Mother Church makes Her own devils.’
‘Not wholly! Our John has come back from Spain with brand-new ones.’ Abbot Stephen took the vellum handed to him, and laid it tenderly on the table. They gathered to look. The Magdalene was drawn in palest, almost transparent, grisaille, against a raging, swaying background of woman-faced devils, each broke to and by her special sin, and each, one could see, frenziedly straining against the Power that compelled her.
‘I’ve never seen the like of this grey shadowwork,’ said the Abbot. ‘How came you by it?’
‘Non nobis! It came to me,’ said John, not knowing he was a generation or so ahead of his time in the use of that medium.
‘Why is she so pale?’ the Friar demanded.
‘Evil has all come out of her — she’d take any colour now.’
‘Ay, like light through glass. I see.’
Roger of Salerno was looking in silence — his nose nearer and nearer the page. ‘It is so,’ he pronounced finally. ‘Thus it is in epilepsy — mouth, eyes, and forehead — even to the droop of her wrist there. Every sign of it! She will need restoratives, that woman, and, afterwards, sleep natural. No poppy juice, or she will vomit on her waking. And thereafter — but I am not in my Schools.’ He drew himself up. ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘you should be of Our calling. For, by the Snakes of Aesculapius, you see!’
The two struck hands as equals.
‘And how think you of the Seven Devils?’ the Abbot went on.
These melted into convoluted flower- or flame-like bodies, ranging in colour from phosphorescent green to the black purple of outworn iniquity, whose hearts could be traced beating through their substance. But, for sign of hope and the sane workings of life, to be regained, the deep border was of conventionalised spring flowers and birds, all crowned by a kingfisher in haste, atilt through a clump of yellow iris.
Roger of Salerno identified the herbs and spoke largely of their virtues.
‘And now, the Gadarene Swine,’ said Stephen. John laid the picture on the table.
Here were devils dishoused, in dread of being abolished to the Void, huddling and hurtling together to force lodgment by every opening into the brute bodies offered. Some of the swine fought the invasion, foaming and jerking; some were surrendering to it, sleepily, as to a luxurious back-scratching; others, wholly possessed, whirled off in bucking droves for the lake beneath. In one corner the freed man stretched out his limbs all restored to his control, and Our Lord, seated, looked at him as questioning what he would make of his deliverance.
‘Devils indeed!’ was the Friar’s comment. ‘But wholly a new sort.’
Some devils were mere lumps, with lobes and protuberances — a hint of a fiend’s face peering through jelly-like walls. And there was a family of impatient, globular devillings who had burst open the belly of their smirking parent, and were revolving desperately toward their prey. Others patterned themselves into rods, chains and ladders, single or conjoined, round the throat and jaws of a shrieking sow, from whose ear emerged the lashing, glassy tail of a devil that had made good his refuge. And there were granulated and conglomerate devils, mixed up with the foam and slaver where the attack was fiercest. Thence the eye carried on to the insanely active backs of the downward-racing swine, the swineherd’s aghast face, and his dog’s terror.
Said Roger of Salerno, ‘I pronounce that these were begotten of drugs. They stand outside the rational mind.’
‘Not these,’ said Thomas the Infirmarian, who as a servant of the Monastery should have asked his Abbot’s leave to speak. ‘Not these — look! — in the bordure.’
The border to the picture was a diaper of irregular but balanced compartments or cellules, where sat, swam, or weltered, devils in blank, so to say — things as yet uninspired by Evil — indifferent, but lawlessly outside imagination. Their shapes resembled, again, ladders, chains, scourges, diamonds, aborted buds, or gravid phosphorescent globes — some well-nigh starlike.
Roger of Salerno compared them to the obsessions of a Churchman’s mind.
‘Malignant?’ the Friar from Oxford questioned.
‘“Count everything unknown for horrible,”’ Roger quoted with scorn.
‘Not I. But they are marvellous — marvellous. I think —’
The Friar drew back. Thomas edged in to see better, and half opened his mouth.
‘Speak,’ said Stephen, who had been watching him. ‘We are all in a sort doctors here.’
‘I would say then’— Thomas rushed at it as one putting out his life’s belief at the stake —‘that these lower shapes in the bordure may not be so much hellish and malignant as models and patterns upon which John has tricked out and embellished his proper devils among the swine above there!’
‘And that would signify?’ said Roger of Salerno sharply.
‘In my poor judgment, that he may have seen such shapes — without help of drugs.’
‘Now who — who,’ said John of Burgos, after a round and unregarded oath, ‘has made thee so wise of a sudden, my Doubter?’
‘I wise? God forbid! Only John, remember — one winter six years ago — the snow-flakes melting on your sleeve at the cookhouse-door. You showed me them through a little crystal, that made small things larger.’
‘Yes. The Moors call such a glass the Eye of Allah,’ John confirmed.
‘You showed me them melting — six-sided. You called them, then, your patterns.’
‘True. Snow-flakes melt six-sided. I have used them for diaper-work often.’
‘Melting snow-flakes as seen through a glass? By art optical?’ the Friar asked.
‘Art optical? I have never heard!’ Roger of Salerno cried.
‘John,’ said the Abbot of St. Illod’s commandingly, ‘was it — is it so?’
‘In some sort,’ John replied, ‘Thomas has the right of it. Those shapes in the bordure were my workshop-patterns for the devils above. In my craft, Salerno, we dare not drug. It kills hand and eye. My shapes are to be seen honestly, in nature.’
The Abbot drew a bowl of rose-water towards him. ‘When I was prisoner with — with the Saracens after Mansura,’ he began, turning up the fold of his long sleeve, ‘there were certain magicians — physicians — who could show —’ he dipped his third finger delicately in the water —‘all the firmament of Hell, as it were, in’ he shook off one drop from his polished nail on to the polished table —‘even such a supernaculum as this.’
‘But it must be foul water — not clean,’ said John.
‘Show us then — all — all,’ said Stephen. ‘I would make sure — once more.’ The Abbot’s voice was official.
John drew from his bosom a stamped leather box, some six or eight inches long, wherein, bedded on faded velvet, lay what looked like silver-bound compasses of old box-wood, with a screw at the head which opened or closed the legs to minute fractions. The legs terminated, not in points, but spoon-shapedly, one spatula pierced with a metal-lined hole less than a quarter of an inch across, the other with a half-inch hole. Into this latter John, after carefully wiping with a silk rag, slipped a metal cylinder that carried glass or crystal, it seemed, at each end.
‘Ah! Art optic!’ said the Friar. ‘But what is that beneath it?’
It was a small swivelling sheet of polished silver no bigger than a florin, which caught the light and concentrated it on the lesser hole. John adjusted it without the Friar’s proffered help.
‘And now to find a drop of water,’ said he, picking up a small brush.
‘Come to my upper cloister. The sun is on the leads still,’ said the Abbot, rising.
They followed him there. Half-way along, a drip from a gutter had made a greenish puddle in a worn stone. Very carefully, John dropped a drop of it into the smaller hole of the compassleg, and, steadying the apparatus on a coping, worked the screw m the compass joint, screwed the cylinder, and swung the swivel of the mirror till he was satisfied.
‘Good!’ He peered through the thing. ‘My Shapes are all here. Now look, Father! If they do not meet your eye at first, turn this nicked edge here, left — or right-handed.’
‘I have not forgotten,’ said the Abbot, taking his place. ‘Yes! They are here — as they were in my time — my time past. There is no end to them, I was told . . . There is no end!’
‘The light will go. Oh, let me look! Suffer me to see, also!’ the Friar pleaded, almost shouldering Stephen from the eye-piece. The Abbot gave way. His eyes were on time past. But the Friar, instead of looking, turned the apparatus in his capable hands.
‘Nay, nay,’ John interrupted, for the man was already fiddling at the screws. ‘Let the Doctor see.’
Roger of Salerno looked, minute after minute. John saw his blue-veined cheek-bones turn white. He stepped back at last, as though stricken.
‘It is a new world — a new world, and — Oh, God Unjust! — I am old!’
‘And now Thomas,’ Stephen ordered.
John manipulated the tube for the Infirmarian, whose hands shook, and he too looked long. ‘It is Life,’ he said presently in a breaking voice. ‘No Hell! Life created and rejoicing — the work of the Creator. They live, even as I have dreamed. Then it was no sin for me to dream. No sin — O God — no sin!’
He flung himself on his knees and began hysterically the Benedicite omnia Opera.
‘And now I will see how it is actuated,’ said the Friar from Oxford, thrusting forward again.
‘Bring it within. The place is all eyes and ears,’ said Stephen.
They walked quietly back along the leads, three English counties laid out in evening sunshine around them; church upon church, monastery upon monastery, cell after cell, and the bulk of a vast cathedral moored on the edge of the banked shoals of sunset.
When they were at the after-table once more they sat down, all except the Friar, who went to the window and huddled bat-like over the thing. ‘I see! I see!’ he was repeating to himself.
‘He’ll not hurt it,’ said John. But the Abbot, staring in front of him, like Roger of Salerno, did not hear. The Infirmarian’s head was on the table between his shaking arms.
John reached for a cup of wine.
‘It was shown to me,’ the Abbot was speaking to himself, ‘in Cairo, that man stands ever between two Infinities — of greatness and littleness. Therefore, there is no end — either to life — or —’
‘And I stand on the edge of the grave,’ snarled Roger of Salerno. ‘Who pities me?’
‘Hush!’ said Thomas the Infirmarian. ‘The little creatures shall be sanctified — sanctified to the service of His sick.’
‘What need?’ John of Burgos wiped his lips. ‘It shows no more than the shapes of things. It gives good pictures. I had it at Granada. It was brought from the East, they told me.’
Roger of Salerno laughed with an old man’s malice. ‘What of Mother Church? Most Holy Mother Church? If it comes to Her ears that we have spied into Her Hell without Her leave, where do we stand?’
‘At the stake,’ said the Abbot of St. Illod’s, and, raising his voice a trifle ‘You hear that? Roger Bacon, heard you that?’
The Friar turned from the window, clutching the compasses tighter.
‘No, no!’ he appealed. ‘Not with Falcodi — not with our English-hearted Foulkes made Pope. He’s wise — he’s learned. He reads what I have put forth. Foulkes would never suffer it.’
‘“Holy Pope is one thing, Holy Church another,”’ Roger quoted.
‘But I— I can bear witness it is no Art Magic,’ the Friar went on. ‘Nothing is it, except Art optical — wisdom after trial and experiment, mark you. I can prove it, and — my name weighs with men who dare think.’
‘Find them!’ croaked Roger of Salerno. ‘Five or six in all the world. That makes less than fifty pounds by weight of ashes at the stake. I have watched such men — reduced.’
‘I will not give this up!’ The Friar’s voice cracked in passion and despair. ‘It would be to sin against the Light.’
‘No, no! Let us — let us sanctify the little animals of Varro,’ said Thomas.
Stephen leaned forward, fished his ring out of the cup, and slipped it on his finger. ‘My sons,’ said he, ‘we have seen what we have seen.’
‘That it is no magic but simple Art,’ the Friar persisted.
‘‘Avails nothing. In the eyes of Mother Church we have seen more than is permitted to man.’
‘But it was Life — created and rejoicing,’ said Thomas.
‘To look into Hell as we shall be judged — as we shall be proved — to have looked, is for priests only.’
‘Or green-sick virgins on the road to sainthood who, for cause any midwife could give you —’
The Abbot’s half-lifted hand checked Roger of Salerno’s outpouring.
‘Nor may even priests see more in Hell than Church knows to be there. John, there is respect due to Church as well as to Devils.’
‘My trade’s the outside of things,’ said John quietly. ‘I have my patterns.’
‘But you may need to look again for more,’ the Friar said.
‘In my craft, a thing done is done with. We go on to new shapes after that.’
‘And if we trespass beyond bounds, even in thought, we lie open to the judgment of the Church,’ the Abbot continued.
‘But thou knowest — knowest!’ Roger of Salerno had returned to the attack. ‘Here’s all the world in darkness concerning the causes of things — from the fever across the lane to thy Lady’s — throe own Lady’s — eating malady. Think!’
‘I have thought upon it, Salerno! I have thought indeed.’
Thomas the Infirmarian lifted his head again; and this time he did not stammer at all. ‘As in the water, so in the blood must they rage and war with each other! I have dreamed these ten years — I thought it was a sin — but my dreams and Varro’s are true! Think on it again! Here’s the Light under our very hand!’
‘Quench it! You’d no more stand to roasting than any other. I’ll give you the case as Church — as I myself — would frame it. Our John here returns from the Moors, and shows us a hell of devils contending in the compass of one drop of water. Magic past clearance! You can hear the faggots crackle.’
‘But thou knowest! Thou hast seen it all before! For man’s poor sake! For old friendship’s sake — Stephen!’ The Friar was trying to stuff the compasses into his bosom as he appealed.
‘What Stephen de Sautre knows, you his friends know also. I would have you, now, obey the Abbot of St. Illod’s. Give to me!’ He held out his ringed hand.
‘May I— may John here — not even make a drawing of one — one screw?’ said the broken Friar, in spite of himself.
‘Nowise!’ Stephen took it over. ‘Your dagger, John. Sheathed will serve.’
He unscrewed the metal cylinder, laid it on the table, and with the dagger’s hilt smashed some crystal to sparkling dust which he swept into a scooped hand and cast behind the hearth.
‘It would seem,’ said he, ‘the choice lies between two sins. To deny the world a Light which is under our hand, or to enlighten the world before her time. What you have seen, I saw long since among the physicians at Cairo. And I know what doctrine they drew from it. Hast thou dreamed, Thomas? I also — with fuller knowledge. But this birth, my sons, is untimely. It will be but the mother of more death, more torture, more division, and greater darkness in this dark age. Therefore I, who know both my world and the Church, take this Choice on my conscience. Go! It is finished.’
He thrust the wooden part of the compasses deep among the beech logs till all was burned.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56