Authors: Norah Lofts
Tree of Life
Published by arrangement with the author’s Estate.
Copyright © Clive Lofts 2013.
Originally published in Great Britain by Michael Joseph Ltd.
Cover illustration ©Jose Luis Munoz Luque
Collection of Sefarad House Museum (Córdoba, Spain)
The moral right of the late Norah Lofts to be identified as the author of this book has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Tree of Life Publishing
Addressed most particularly to those whose youthful hero worship was extended to Richard Plantagenet.
During the four years that it has taken me to gather the information and to write this book I have been asked many times that inevitable question, ‘What is your new book about?’ And when, replying with the inevitable reserve, caution and embarrassment, ‘Mainly about Richard I and the Third Crusade,’ I have been astounded by the warmth and enthusiasm with which people have responded, ‘Oh, Richard I! He was one of my heroes!’
Why do I feel that I owe them, and all those with similar feelings, an apology? Chiefly, I suppose, because I fear that anyone who comes to this book with the pleasurable expectation of renewing acquaintance with the hero of
is bound to suffer disappointment.
When I was at an impressionable age the cinema had not reached the Suffolk countryside and Robert Taylor, even if he were born then, probably had charm only for his mother; but we had our heroes nevertheless. The war, “the last war” or what I once heard a witty drunk call “the penultimate war,” was just beginning and all the girls in my class were in love with Lord Kitchener. Anybody now so young as to doubt that so austere and remote a figure could inspire adolescent passion should read the O. Henry story which tells of a girl who was saved from a fate worse than death by the mere contemplation of his photograph. It was like that. What his pictured features saved my contemporaries from I cannot say; I only know that they were everywhere, rubbed and wrinkled in school satchels, carefully pasted inside books; even, believe it or not, tucked into the taut, youth-bursting tops of gym tunics.
I was immune, salted against this Kitchener fever, for I had just read
and had no room in my heart—or my gym tunic—for the hero of Khartoum. Richard Plantagenet was my hero, though I took care not to reveal this eccentricity. And through the years that intervened, while heroes came and heroes went, I remained, in my fashion, faithful.
So, popular and profitable a pastime as debunking may be, I did not set out to denigrate Richard Plantagenet. One must write as one finds and there is ample evidence, not only in his behaviour to Berengaria but in the comments and homilies of his contemporaries, to show that in some respects he differed from ordinary men as much as, in other respects, he excelled them. I, for one, am not convinced that one flaw necessarily reduces the hero. His valour, his romantic singleness of purpose remain unquestioned; and that one remark to his traitor brother, ‘I forgive you, John, and I wish I could as easily forget your offence as you will my pardon,’ must establish forever both his magnanimity and his wit.
I am told that in this story two things sound very false; they are the reference to the Old Man of the Mountain and the account of Richard halting in the middle of a battle to eat food provided by the Saracens. Both are, oddly enough, as completely vouched for as any incident in the Third Crusade. It must have been a remark of that kind which made Henri Fabre say—with, we are told, a chuckle—
‘They fear lest a page that is read without fatigue should not be the truth.’
Some incidents, of course, are purely fictional and many of the people; Anna Apieta has no existence outside this book and there
to be a gathering doubt about Blondel.
I offer it all, fact and fiction, surmise and story, with the hope that it will be read without too much disappointment and ‘without fatigue.’
This fragment of the lute player’s story is told by himself. He was called by his given name, Edward, and was a novice of the Abbey of Gorbalze in Burgundy. The incident of which he tells took place in the early spring of the year AD 1188.
‘Another pack of wolves,’ Brother Lawrence said as we rounded a curve in the track and sighted the little group of beggars. And I thought how much I would have preferred to meet actual four-legged wolves. One’s attitude toward a wolf pack is so simple; one hates, one fears; one attacks and scatters it or one flees in terror before it. No pity is involved. And I, for three days now, had been so wrenched by pity, so appalled by my own lack of power to help those I pitied, that now, seeing the beggars on the path, I thought that I could far more easily have stood still and let a wolf pack tear me to pieces than face a repetition of the scenes at Vibray and Amiche.
‘Wake up, boy,’ said Brother Lawrence and moved his left leg so that his stirrup struck me on the upper arm. ‘Listen and kindly bear in mind what I say. No more hysteria, if you please. It serves no purpose and has a very ill effect. I shall give them what is left in the alms bag and pass straight on. I want no more of your nonsense. Remember, hungry men are dangerous.’
I turned my head and looked at him and as I did so he twisted his head and looked straight ahead; but I had seen the expression—almost of gloating—with which he had been regarding me. And I wondered how far my behaviour during these three days had been responsible for his. Once in the old days I had watched a bearbaiting and I had seen, on the faces of several spectators, that very look. A gloating compounded of amusement, ruthlessness and a kind of speculation: What will this provoke? I made up my mind that this time I would betray no feeling, give him no satisfaction. He pulled the alms bag into an easily accessible position at the front of his girdle and set his face into lines of grave, remote contemplation. So we moved towards the knot of beggars; I limping on account of the blister on my heel and bending forwards a little to ease the ache in my empty belly while my mind ran backwards and forwards, remembering the events of the last three days and dreading the moment that was approaching.
It was very strange to find myself hating Brother Lawrence. Only three days before I had accorded him the admiration, the hero worship which a young man must extend to an older man extremely skilled in an art to which he himself aspires. To me, on the morning after Lady Day, Brother Lawrence had been the man who had devoted four years of his life to making an incomparable copy of the Gospel of St. John. The manuscript now lay in the library at Gorbadze and was at once the inspiration and the despair of all ambitious young penmen. A visiting cardinal had once said that nothing in Rome or Cassino could equal it and even that seemed not too high a compliment. There was one page—the opening of the third chapter—upon which it seemed a living spray of wild roses had been carelessly laid. So perfect each petal, each stamen, each thorn; the strong yet slender stems seeming to lift, to make a link between the earth from which they sprang and the heavens of which they hinted; the flowers so fragile, so vital, touched here and there with colours not of this world, colours whose names were known only in Paradise.
Fresh from brooding over this loveliness wrought by pen and brush wielded by human hand, I would see Brother Lawrence pass along the cloister or take his place in the refectory, a solemn, quiet, rather fattish man in no way noticeable or distinguished: yet I looked upon him with awe and admiration and knew that if ever he should speak to me I should sweat and stammer.
On the afternoon of Lady Day I was at work in the South Cloister, painstakingly adding word to word of my own humble manuscript, when a shadow fell over the page and, glancing sharply round, I saw not our novice master, Father Simplon, but Brother Lawrence looking with interest over my shoulder. I shook out my sleeve to screen my unworthy work from his eyes. He reached over and took up my quill and studied it.
‘A trifle too sharply cut,’ he said, and laid it back. ‘You are the one they call Edward, are you not?’ I nodded. ‘Then I have a message for you. I am to ride out tomorrow to bring in the manorial dues from Amiche and Vibray; you come with me to keep the reckoning. We shall be gone three days. We leave immediately after Prime and carry food for the journey. I shall take the grey palfrey.’
I nodded again and gulped and stammered, overcome with elation. Brother Lawrence glanced once more at my manuscript and said gravely, ‘You have the makings of a penman.’ Then he walked away, leaving me dazzled by his cool judicious compliment and by the prospect of spending three days in his company. Perhaps, I thought, I should eventually pluck up courage and lure him into talking about that wonderful copy of the Gospel of St. John.
There wasn’t a happier boy in Burgundy, in France, in Christendom than I when, on the morning after Lady Day, we set off through the cold brightness of the spring morning. Even Brother Lawrence’s choice of mount seemed fortunate to me; I loved Grys, the grey palfrey, and he knew and was fond of me. I was even pleased, God help me, at the thought of the food we carried in the saddlebags; we were to enjoy travellers’ indulgence and the meat and roast fowl thus conceded were, for me at least, a rare and special treat, for Father Simplon was a strict adherent to the rule of our founder and never allowed to us novices the evasions and dispensations often openly enjoyed by our superiors.
Brother Lawrence; Grys; good food. All doomed to be the instruments of pain rather than pleasure.
During the past year the seasons had gone awry; there had been a drought in the spring at the time of seed sowing and in many fields the unsprouted corn had blown away with the dust on the easterly wind. August and September had been wet, so that the surviving crops and the fruit in the orchards had rotted as they ripened. Now, at the end of the long winter, there was famine on the land. And beggars on the road.
I was almost eighteen years old but I had never before seen men and women and children gaunt and wild-eyed from hunger. Until I was sixteen I had lived in my father’s castle, dividing my time between a small room where my tutor ruled me and the great hall where food was always plentiful. At sixteen I had entered my novitiate and though under Father Simplon’s rule food was coarse, simple, and sometimes unappetizing, no novice ever went hungry.
Brother Lawrence carried, as was apparently customary on these occasions, a small alms bag of copper coins. To the first little group who accosted us, a man, two women and a child, he offered his ritual charity and even as the clawlike hands were extended I heard the man mutter that money was of no use, there was nothing to buy; had we no bread? At that I impulsively reached down into my bag of food and handed out the bread and the lump of meat and I was appalled by the savage eagerness with which the beggars tore and devoured it.
Brother Lawrence said, ‘Well, there goes your dinner, boy. And I hope that, having squandered your own, you won’t count upon eating mine.’
I swear that no such thought was in my mind. I was quite certain that I could, at a pinch, spend three days without eating at all.
Throughout the first day I had indeed no appetite; the sight of so many starving had sickened me. And I had been sickened, too, by the protests of the debtors at Vibray and by Brother Lawrence’s ruthless insistence upon the monastery’s dues.
By midday on the second day I was hungry. My bag was empty and so was my stomach and I found that I could not watch Brother Lawrence eat his meal. I had never realised before how gross men are when they eat, how the crumbs fall about, how lips grow shiny with grease. I went away from him and fed the palfrey, thinking of the prodigal son who would have eaten the swine’s husks, thinking of the long fasts recorded in the lives of the saints, thinking of our Lord’s sojourn in the wilderness and His resistance to the devil’s offer of bread. I actually took and nibbled a few grains from the palfrey’s nose bag and he nuzzled me, ungrudging, and I felt bound to remind myself that Grys could never have made that lovely manuscript.
The third day was worse. There was an ache in my belly, my head felt swollen and noisy, my legs shook. And my mind rotted. Instead of thinking of the forty days in the wilderness, the fastings of the saints or what a good penman Brother Lawrence was, I found myself concentrating upon the capon that was still intact in his bag and thinking that a kind man, a Christian, would give me a piece to eat and even offer me, because of my blistered heel, an hour’s relief upon Grys’s back. Outside Vibray, faced with another mass of misery, I had thought, I merely hunger, they starve; this pain which is so sharp after only three days has been theirs for a long time. Then I had broken down and cried, ‘Is there nothing we can do to relieve them?’ And the beggars had taken up the cry and pressed close, perhaps in hope, and clawed us with their hands. Brother Lawrence with the capon, a piece of cheese and the better part of a loaf safe in his saddlebag, had urged Grys forward, chiding me for making a scene.
Now, late in the afternoon of the third day, we were moving towards another group of beggars, the biggest group we had yet seen and Brother Lawrence was saying, ‘No more hysteria, if you please.’
There were between fifteen and twenty of them and several were children. Some part of my mind, dissociating itself from their misery and mine, noted that in each group we had encountered the women had outnumbered the men. Did women more easily leave their homes and throw themselves upon the charity of the road or did women, accustomed to denying themselves in the interests of their menfolk and their children, more easily survive in a time of shortage?
They were all quite horrible to look at, clad in tatters, skeleton-thin, their faces touched with an earthly pallor. As they surged about us I found myself staring at one of the women, a tall, emaciated creature, the mother of two children. The little things, pale and thin and dirty, clung to her skirts and, though they looked as no human children should they had, by contrast with the rest of the group, something of liveliness, of hope. It went through my mind that whatever, in these starving days, had been given to the woman had been passed on to the children and that was why they looked better and she looked worse than the rest of the mob. I regretted passionately at that moment that I had emptied my food bag on the first day.
Brother Lawrence checked Grys, opened his alms bag and distributed the few coppers which it held. I saw, I shared, the deadly disappointment of those who had asked for bread and been given an inedible coin. I touched his arm, stretched up and whispered in his ear, ‘Brother Lawrence, the children—give them what remains in your bag.’
He hissed at me, ‘No, no! That would cause trouble. Will you be quiet, as I bade you?’ Raising his voice, he said, ‘Good people, I have nothing more. Kindly make way for me.’ Then out of the side of his mouth he said to me, ‘Take Grys’s bridle and clear me a path,’
‘They are hungry,’ I said.
Brother Lawrence turned upon me savagely. ‘You young fool,’ he said, ‘will my hunger mend theirs? Clear me a path before we have trouble.’ Raising his voice again he said unctuously, ‘Good people, I have nothing more to give you save my prayers. Kindly make way there.’ He jerked Grys’s rein and the meek old horse stood weaving from side to side for a moment, for now the beggars were thick about us. Maybe they drew some faint hope from our argument and delay; maybe they had seen the bag.
At that moment there was no thought in my mind save that Brother Lawrence had eaten fully already that day and would find supper awaiting him when we reached Gorbalze and that there was enough food in the bag to give the children of the party a mouthful or two, enough to ease for a little while that gnawing in the belly about which I was learning. I reached out and laid my hand on the bag and Brother Lawrence slapped out at me pettishly, like a child defending some treasured bit of rubbish. ‘You fool,’ he cried, ‘what is that amongst so many?’
Through the strange buzzing that had been in my ears all day I heard a great bell, louder and clearer than the St. Denis bell at Gorbalze, ring out. Weren’t those the very words which Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, had spoken to Christ just before the feeding of the five thousand? Couldn’t I remember the page where those words were written in Brother Lawrence’s own copy of the Gospel? It was edged with bluebells, set in a pattern, formal, stylised, beautiful, each bloom a trumpet blown to the glory of God. God, Who had fed five thousand upon five barley loaves and two small fishes, could feed twenty on a roast capon, half a loaf and a piece of cheese.
A mad elation seized me. I snatched again at the bag and when Brother Lawrence again fended me off I struck at him. Taken completely by surprise, he rolled from the palfrey’s back and lay supine on the bleached winter grass by the roadside. Grys turned his head questioningly, saw me and stood steady. The beggars pressed a little closer.
I began to pray as I had never prayed in all my life before. Incoherent, passionate, muddled petitions poured through my mind as I fumbled with the string of the bag and plunged in my hand. And I felt something—a vibration, a connection, a surety—something we have no word for, something I had never felt before when I prayed, something that made me certain that God had heard me and would work His miracle.
The capon came out first. It had been trussed and roasted whole but the skewer had been removed and the flesh was tender, easily broken. Praying, calling, drawing upon God and feeling the deep, calm certainty of His presence, I tore off the leg and thigh of the fowl and held it out to the woman with the two children. She took it, broke it again and held a piece to each child. The gesture was beautiful; it held all the self-abnegation and tenderness in the world. God saw it too; I felt the throb of His perception. I was dizzy with love for her, for all these gaunt, hungry people and for God Who was working this miracle. I heard my own voice, thin, high, exalted, cry:
‘Wait, wait, there will be enough for all.’
It was answered by a low moaning cry with something of despair, of savagery, and yet of patience in it.