The Bitter Cross - an excerpt
The Grand Prior cleared his throat and spat accurately into the nearby
pond. From the murky depths a golden carp rose into view, snatched
hopefully at the gob of phlegm on the surface, and then sank back
out of sight. The Prior turned away and looked vaguely towards the
orchard where bare apple trees stood amongst the long grass. His face
was baggy and morose, bordered by unkempt grey hair
I look back on that moment as a turning point in my life. It seems far away now, almost the experience of another person; but it is mine sure enough however strange I find that distant youth standing dutifully beside the Grand Prior, watching the silent conjunction of phlegm and fish. It was that moment when I began to understand the reality of the Order of Saint John rather than just the myth. Now, eking out the remainder of my life in the amiable climate of Italy, nothing of the myth remains to me. Perhaps that is the penalty of maturity: at the very time when you need them all the illusions have finally evaporated.
'Brother Adrian was unwise,' the Prior mumbled at last. As though to convince himself that Brother Adrian had been the topic of discussion he repeated emphatically, 'He was unwise.' But exactly where this lack of wisdom lay was never made clear, although by most standards having your head cleaved from your body implies lack of wisdom somewhere.
I asked ingenuously, 'Was he not a martyr, my Lord?'
Sir William shrugged. That's as maybe.' He summoned his massive body
into action and shambled along the path towards the orchard, his mind
wandering once more. 'These trees give good fruit,
Having nothing better to do I followed him. The skirts of the Prior's habit swept the top of the grass like a broom. The cloth was dark-stained with damp.
'He was a brave man though. Godly.' It was Brother Adrian again, Adrian the saint rather than Adrian the fool, Adrian the Knight of Honour and Devotion who had gone to the block on Tower Hill the previous summer. It occurred to me then, without any great experience of such things, that stupidity and bravery often go together. It occurs to me now, with considerable experience, that they almost always do. 'He went to the block with a smile on his face and a Hail Mary on his lips,' the Prior continued. 'You are right, boy, you are right. A martyr, a glorious martyr for the Holy Religion.'
The garden in which we walked was as unkempt as the Prior's mind.
It had become dangerous to work for the Order of Saint John and the
gardeners had long since fled, deciding for wisdom rather than bravery.
The servitors too. In the Grand Priory only the people with illusions
remained; and one of them, a mere eighteen years of age, and bearing,
I suppose, a superficial likeness to the wreck that I am now, followed
Prior Weston between untrimmed hedges to a space in the
'On condition, my Lord. I am to leave the country and make no claim to lands within the Kingdom.'
Weston sniffed loudly. 'You have good connections, young man. They can be as dangerous as no connections at all.'
'Had I had no connections I would still not have signed the Act. No threat would have forced me.' That is what I said. Quite distinctly in my memory I can hear my voice raised in priggish certainty. I was exactly at the age for stupid heroics. 'I will remain loyal unto death.'
Weston nodded. 'I'm sure you mean it. Thomas meant it. And now I
have lost a second nephew to our Lord and Master the King.' He sat
staring across the blighted garden towards the Priory buildings, his
mind now on Adrian Fortescue, now on his two nephews, Francis Weston
and Thomas Dingley, all three of them careless or courageous enough
- it depends on your point of view - to lose their heads. But at least
you could argue that two had done it for honour: Francis Weston had
no other reason than that he dipped his prick into the Bullen whore,
which by most standards is a poor enough motive for going to the block.
'But as long as I am alive there is hope for the Order. That is certain.
I have the ear of the King. His Majesty respects me, which is why
'I heard, my Lord.'
'The Prior as well.' He nodded gloomily; then turning his great head
towards me he tried a more optimistic note: 'But His Majesty has spared
the order of Saint John. I will save the Order in England, young Paulet,
have no doubt of that. The King will listen to me.' He nodded again.
A broad and innocent smile had materialized within his beard. His
mutilated sword hand drummed on his knee. 'When you return to England
young Paulet you will have a fine commandery, mark my
'Knights of Malta, my Lord,' I reminded him gently.
Sir William glared. The smile had disappeared back into his beard. 'Of Rhodes, boy!' he shouted. 'Of Rhodes! We have not left Rhodes for ever, and certainly not for poxy Malta.' Like a baited bear he heaved himself up and looked wildly round for tormentors. 'We've not left Rhodes for a barren rock! Malta? Mean, impoverished, unworthy of the Holy Religion. A pox on the place!' The voice that had once sounded across the decks of the Order's flagship Santa Anna echoed now round the buildings of the Grand Priory of Clerkenwell. 'Nothing, young man, nothing is good about that place. As dry as a widow's cunt. As withered as her paps. That island is no more the home of the Holy Religion than Saint Peter's is the palace of the Turk!' He glared, his eyes rheumy and bloodshot but alight with anger. 'We will return!' He shook his right fist in my face. I saw the awful waxy slick of scar tissue and three torn and crumpled fingers. 'With a sword in one hand and a crucifix in the other we will return to Rhodes!'
For a dramatic moment the Prior remained motionless, his fists brandishing imaginary sword and imaginary crucifix, presumably as they had on the walls of Rhodes itself when the Turks had tried, and only just failed, to stick him like a pig. Then he looked round self-consciously, in the manner of one who has been surprised while pulling faces in the mirror. His hands dropped to his sides. Memories of the English Bastion at Rhodes vanished. He was back in the unkempt garden of his Priory.