The Bitter Cross - an excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

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
and a dishevelled beard. Heavy eyebrows overhung his small eyes, a heavy nose overhung his mouth. He had forgotten what he had been talking about.

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,
but of course it's not the season now. Not the season.' He shook his head solemnly. 'And who knows who will gather the next crop?'

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
midst of the derelict beds. Weston lowered his bulk onto a stone bench and motioned me to sit beside him. The random waverings of his mind finally came back to the subject we had been discussing. 'So they will allow you not to sign the Act. Is that it?'

'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 he
has not troubled our Order despite what he has done to the others. All of them now: Glastonbury, Colchester, Reading, all our neighbours here as well. Even the Carthusians.' He gestured in the approximate direction of Saint John's Street where the empty buildings of the Charterhouse lay. Sitting close I caught the sour smell of the old man's body, a mixture of vinegar and ammonia. 'All the monks hanged, you know that?'

'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
words. Maybe you will even be Prior one day. The Knights of Rhodes will not die, young man! You have my word for it.'

'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.

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Simon Mawer 2008 - 2015. This website is written and maintained by the author.