Hermitage and the Hostelry
That winter of 1064 was monstrous. A marrow pummelling, air splitting cold circled the land like some frosted carrion bird. Run-of-the-mill hard frosts wandered into the wrong neighbourhood and would be lucky to escape with their lives. Even the snow had second thoughts about going anywhere near the ground, loitering instead inside the nice warm clouds.
There was no muffling of the atmosphere, no softening of the edges of the cold. It sliced through man and beast alike, unconcerned which it left dead in the fields and which ran to get away from it. It was mainly the animals with the sense to run away.
As night fell, the cold intensified and fell from the sky to accumulate in a layer on the ground. It promised death to small animals and a nasty shock to the feet of wandering monks.
Gripped firmly in the maw of the cold and starving hungry to boot, Brother Hermitage remained reluctant to enter the hostelry, even though it was called The Lamb. Or perhaps because it was called The Lamb, it was a rather blasphemous name for such a place after all. His reluctance was partly prompted by the acknowledgement that he had no money. Landlords were picky about people taking up their warmth and space for free, and a picky landlord could be a handful.
The landlords Hermitage had encountered were doubly picky. The expression “as welcome as a monk in a tavern” neatly covered the impact of a habit on a hostelry. It would either put the death on the atmosphere or drink the place dry without offering to pay a penny.
The weight of Hermitage's reluctance rested on the fact he was not far from home. There might be people inside who knew him.
People who knew Hermitage seemed inexorably driven to offer him some criticism or other, very little of it constructive. People who knew him and were also people in hostelries tended to make their criticism raucous and physical.
He knew if he stood outside much longer he would freeze to death. He also knew if he were drenched in beer and thrown into the cold he would freeze to death as well, just more quickly and smelling of beer.
His reluctance was taking a battering from the wind which circumnavigated the inside of his habit with chilling intimacy. When he started to think he was actually feeling a bit warmer, and perhaps a lie down for a little sleep would make him feel better, his survival instinct took over from his all-pervading reason. He staggered through the rough door and into the warmth beyond.
That he wasn’t immediately grabbed and hurled out was a good sign and he closed the door as unobtrusively as he could. Sliding into the seat nearest the entrance but furthest from the fire, he held onto the wildly optimistic hope that he hadn’t been noticed, and would be left alone, at least until the feeling in his feet came back.
The Inn was traditional in every way. The door opened into a room of grubby whitewashed walls flanking a swept flagstone floor some twenty feet square. Its roof was a glowering ceiling of oak beams which provided support for an extensive collection of cobwebs.
Across the wall to Hermitage’s right, an inglenook hosted a log fire which burned half heartedly in an iron basket. The flames seemed to know how cold it was going to be outside and didn’t want to go anywhere near the chimney.
On the far side of the fire, a single, huddled figure sat wrapped in the collection of clothes which was all the fashion just now. Everyone was putting on every single garment they possessed, one on top of another, in the hope that together they would keep the cold at bay. The resulting swaddling meant that if the cold was not kept at bay, and the individual succumbed to it, there was a good chance no one would notice until the spring. This figure held a leathern mug from which it took occasional sips so at least it was still in the world of the living.
The opposite wall of the room was taken up with a table, on which sat three barrels of beer, and a door which obviously led to the kitchen beyond. To Hermitage’s left were a couple of tables which, in warmer times, would be occupied by resting workers, merrymakers and the just plain drunk. As these sat under a draughty and leaking window, Hermitage could see why the lone customer had chosen their place.
Behind the barrels, a man, Hermitage assumed him to be the Inn Keeper, stood leaning with his head in his hands gazing blankly into the middle distance. He seemed unaware that a monk had just appeared in front of him. He was less comprehensively dressed than his customer, as he probably spent most of his time in the main room or the kitchen where the largest supply of heat, probably for many miles around, was to be found.
And that was it. One landlord and one customer. On such a night it was no surprise people decided to stay by their own hearths. Or in bed with as many covers as possible drawn over their heads.
Still, one landlord and one customer was more than enough to throw out one monk. After a few moments Hermitage became puzzled, and Hermitage becoming puzzled was a one way street. Puzzles had to be solved. Stepping smartly away and pretending they had never happened, although favoured by people with a smattering of common sense, simply wasn’t in Hermitage’s nature.
The puzzle had its origins in the fact he hadn’t been physically removed from the Inn as soon as he entered. It grew in stature as he realised no one was taking the blindest bit of notice of him. In principle, others taking no notice of him was a very good thing, but he knew that opening a creaking hostelry door and allowing the icy breath of the devil himself to whip its way around the residents, should be noticed even by the least-conscious drinker.
Something was amiss. He tested the limits of his new found invisibility by sidling slowly up to the fire until he could actually feel the warmth. Eventually he sat right before the reluctantly blazing hearth, next to a sleeping dog which had occupied the hottest spot. Even this creature ignored him and that really was odd. He had no great love for animals either domestic or wild, but neither did he fear them. He assumed he didn’t give off the scent of terror which made them attack, or the aura of love which made them follow.
Thus he consistently failed to understand why every piece of wildlife he came across appeared to take an instant dislike to him. Cats hissed and dogs growled, birds attacked and he had even been bitten by a horse once. That he should be able to sit so close to a dog, albeit an aging and lazy one, without it having a good go at his ankles was a further mystery.
He knew this situation was to his advantage and he should take it. It was patently clear to both his intellect and instinct that the only option was to keep his head down and absorb the life-lifting heat. Never mind intellect, it was plain common sense.
In a situation such as this, common sense should work in harmony with intellect and instinct. Common sense would say, ‘Quite right, you’re getting nice and warm, no one has noticed, stay low and make the most of it’. Intellect and instinct would concur and they’d all start thinking about food.
All of Brother Hermitage's common sense had been replaced by curiosity, and it made him do the most peculiar things. It now shouted in his head, saying ‘What’s going on here? Why haven’t they noticed me? Something strange is happening and I must find out what it is’. Intellect and instinct insisted this was a course which would lead to being out in the cold again, and asked why curiosity wouldn't listen to them for once. Curiosity had stopped listening years ago.
This process, which took place in no time at all as it was pretty much automatic, led Hermitage to take the step which so often resulted in physical harm. No matter how many times intellect and instinct said ‘told you so’ curiosity was having none of it. He let out a small cough.
The rationale was inexorable, if you draw attention to yourself something bad will happen. Asking people questions and butting into their business draws attention to yourself and therefore leads to the happening of bad things. Ah, curiosity insisted, only by drawing attention to yourself will you find things out, and finding things out is the purpose of life. No arguing with that then.
The Inn Keeper looked up from his hands and merely grunted at Hermitage.
'Oh that’s right, rub it in why don’t you.'
Remarkable. No ‘Right you, out’, or ‘We don’t want your sort in here’, not even a simple grab by the habit and a rapid eviction. More than that, what was being rubbed in? Although relatively local, Hermitage had only just arrived, he couldn’t possibly know what ‘it’ was, let alone be capable of rubbing it anywhere. Why would the Inn Keeper think that anything he was doing was making some unknown situation worse? Perhaps opening the door had rubbed the cold in. Perhaps there was little custom in this icy weather and a monk walking in, who would clearly have no money, only emphasised the poor trade?
'I er.' Hermitage’s curiosity was like a second bladder, if it got too full he simply had to let some questions leak out no matter how embarrassing the result. He wasn’t going to be able to hold himself in much longer.
'Look he’s dead alright, just leave it at that.'
How marvellous, someone was dead. All thought of cold and hunger was banished.
'The last thing we want is some bloody monk moping about the place reminding us.'
So that was it. The Inn was in mourning and Hermitage’s presence made the recent departure only more poignant. He knew that sometimes, on occasions such as this, it helped those affected by death to talk about it, and that a monk was just the right person to encourage release.
He also knew that such encouragement, if delivered in an inappropriate manner, could lead to a hearty punch in the face. Unfortunately Hermitage could only do inappropriate, so for once he held his peace.
Curiosity though was having none of it. It wanted to know who was dead, why they were dead and how they had become so. Was there any question mark over the death and if it wasn’t natural causes what was the nature of the accident, and had the authorities been informed?
'You have my sympathy.' Hermitage said with remarkable restraint.
'Well that’s no bloody good is it?' the Inn Keeper retorted and the muffled figure seated by the fire grunted its assent.
'Might I ask who has passed on?' Hermitage risked it. This level of interrogation usually led straight to the nearest dung heap.
'Well Barker of course,' the Inn Keeper snapped back.
The muffled figure tutted as if Hermitage should have known this.
'Ah.' he said, imbuing the two letters with the tone which he hoped said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about and would like further explanation’. Anyone who knew Hermitage would know that the tone added, ‘and if I don’t get further explanation I will probably ask you some more annoying questions very soon’.
'Barker!' The Inn Keeper gestured impatiently towards the fire.
Hermitage looked behind him but the fire offered no illumination. Then he cast his eyes downwards in respect for the departed, and noticed the dog had still not moved. The animal's absence of interest in Hermitage could certainly be explained if it was dead.
Surely the dog was not called Barker?
Curiosity, when coupled with imagination, could be a great force. Brother Hermitage's coupling had broken and imagination had gone the way of common sense. Like some vestigial toe it had withered in the womb, and by the time the infant Hermitage breathed, it had all the potency of watered wine without any wine.
Even with this vacuity of creative thinking Hermitage thought that Barker was not a very good name for a dog. He spent a few more moments staring at the form at his feet and confirmed there was indeed no sign of life. There was no gentle movement of breath going in and out, no tell tale signs of twitching or scratching, no languid raising of eyebrows as the animal checked its surroundings for anything of interest. As Hermitage looked long and hard he realised that Barker was in fact leaking in several places.
'Who killed him?' the Inn Keeper positively howled, 'that’s what we want to know, who killed him.'
Hermitage looked at the animal and then back at the Inn Keeper hoping the look on his face would be enough to communicate the blindingly obvious fact that the dog was incredibly lucky to have lived as long as it did. He didn’t understand why the man couldn’t see that old age took everything, and that the animal gently rotting on the floor was as far beyond old age as it was beyond life.
'Surely he was a dog of great age?' Hermitage prompted as the look was having no effect whatsoever.
'He was happy as a lamb yesterday,' the Inn Keeper forced out through trembling lips, while the figure by the fire shook its head in sympathy.
'How long had you had him?' Hermitage thought that perhaps leading this man to the only obvious conclusion might be more effective than laying it out in front of him.
'Since I was a boy.' The Inn Keeper finally gave in to grief and sobbed raucously.
Hermitage gave the man a closer examination and concluded he had already spent most of his own allotted span. The fact his dog had gone before him surely couldn’t be a surprise.
'Perhaps the erm, I mean perhaps Barker was simply called by the Lord after a long and happy life?'
'He was murdered, murdered,' the Inn Keeper declared loudly and with passion.
'What makes you think so?'
In a rare demonstration of tact Hermitage thought this was not the moment to point out that this reasoning was more full of holes than Hermitage’s habit.
'Barker would have to go sometime,' he offered as sympathetically as he could.
'But not now.' The Inn Keeper had taken to pacing up and down behind his barrels, wringing his hands and staring one moment at the ceiling and the next at the floor, as if his eyes taking rest would allow the fact of the death to get inside him.
'Was he longer lived than other dogs?' Hermitage tried another tack.
'He was the oldest dog in the district,' the Inn Keeper’s voice rose before falling into another torrent of sobs.
It seemed the man considered this to be reason why Barker shouldn’t die, rather than why he should.
'Then surely his time had come? The Lord would have looked down and seen aged Barker alone and would have taken him back to be with the dogs of his childhood.'
Hermitage was really doubtful about the theology behind this, and he was normally a stickler for that sort of thing, but this situation was beyond his experience. He thought the argument might give the man some consolation.
'So God killed him?' The Inn Keeper asked most unreasonably.
'With God there is no death,' Hermitage responded immediately, 'in the house of the Lord Barker still sits before the fire, probably gnawing on a bone.'
'But I want him before my fire.' The Inn Keeper descended into further voluble expressions of grief that would have put the fear of God up a pack of wolves.
Hermitage really didn’t know what to do. There was no reasoning with this man, and he always had trouble with people with whom there was no reasoning. He would reason away very reasonably, and even after the people had resorted to hitting him because their capacity for reason had run dry, he would carry on.
Even that ultimate foundation of reason, scripture, seemed to be of little value here. Hermitage was well read and understood more of the words of the Lord than most of his fellows, but even he couldn’t bring anything to mind which dealt with the matter of dead dogs.
A look of sympathetic hopelessness fell upon his face and he looked away, not really knowing what to do next. The figure at the fire beckoned to him through the muffling.
Leaving the Inn Keeper to his far-from-silent mourning, Hermitage approached and crouched down to get his head near that of the seated shape.
'His wife,' the figure said, and settled back as if that was the sum and total of the explanation required to cover this situation.
Hermitage frowned at the voice coming from within the muffling. Coming from somewhere pretty deep within by the sound of it. The weather was so cold most people did their best to keep their mouths shut and avoided talking at all, if possible. This person sounded like they’d muffled themselves from the inside out.
'What about her?' Hermitage asked, 'is she dead as well?' He thought this might explain the outpouring of emotion that seemed out of all proportion to the shabby corpse of the dog.
'Nah.' the figure’s husky tones grumbled through the layers, once again assuming Hermitage knew all about the wife.
If it was possible, through the all-encompassing clothing that constituted the entire form of the figure, it shuffled in a slightly conspiratorial manner.
'Gone. With the baker.'
'Gone with the baker?' Hermitage wondered if this was another one of those euphemisms for womanly functions that no one liked to talk about, or at least he didn’t like to talk about. Realisation dawned slowly that this was probably factual.
'Oh gone with the baker,' Hermitage responded brightly, this did offer some explanation.
'Yup. And she wants half the Inn.'
'Oh dear. I can see how that would be upsetting. The poor fellow would already be in a fragile state and the departure of his beloved dog so soon after his wife would be too much to bear.'
'Well yes,' the figure said, making it clear there was more to this. 'The man loved only three things in his life; his wife, his Inn and his dog, and not necessarily in that order.'
'Ah?' Hermitage dearly hoped this tale wasn’t going to become unnecessarily personal.
'So his wife ups and goes and says she wants half the inn. He’s only left with the dog. She says he can keep the flea-ridden, mangy cur.'
'Very decent of her.'
'Except as she walks out the door, she says she hopes it dies.'
'Indeed. Especially when that’s exactly what it did. It always did do whatever she told it.'
'And now he thinks…'
'Well of course.'
'But people can’t make things die simply by instructing them.'
This seemed a remarkably theological inn.
'Well yes of course God could if he wanted to. But the Lord would not instruct a dog to die.'
The muffled one did not seem convinced.
'Between you and I,' it was Hermitage’s turn to be conspiratorial and he leaned in closer before realising he didn’t want to get too close to this muffling, which probably hadn’t been changed for three months, 'I think Barker simply died of old age.'
'She told it to die,' the Inn Keeper had recovered enough of his senses to listen in to the conversation, but he soon lost them again when he heard talk of the death of his beloved Barker.
'My son, my son,' Hermitage didn’t really know what he was doing, but he felt simple sympathy for this fellow human being in distress. 'Your poor dog had reached the end of life. He looks like he was of great age and it’s perfectly natural that he should pass away. It is heartbreaking that he should do so at a time when you have so many other travails, but this is often the way of life. The Lord tests us in many ways and the fortitude you show now will do you great credit.'
The Inn Keeper sniffed what sounded like a bucket full of mucus up his nose, and looked at Hermitage through bloodshot eyes which, nonetheless showed a spark of understanding. Hermitage thought if he could fan the spark, the man would soon recover.
'Besides,' he said in gentle tones, 'it simply isn’t possible for anyone to command an animal to give up its life, such power is not granted to mortal man.'
As Hermitage watched, the spark did indeed spring into flamboyant life, and the pall which had weighed down the Inn Keeper’s features lifted as a new realisation dawned on him. He came out from behind the bar, which Hermitage thought was a very good sign.
'Of course,' the man said as he joined Hermitage and the muffled one by the fire.
'I’m glad,' Hermitage smiled and nodded.
'You’d have to be a witch.'
'Er,' this wasn’t what the monk had expected at all, 'No no,' he started.
'I see it all now. She’s cast a spell on the baker, she’s charmed me out of the inn and she killed me dog!'
'I really don’t think,' Hermitage knew what country folk could be like, and he feared this conversation was leading to a very bad place indeed. There was no stopping the Inn Keeper though.
'I’m so glad you come here brother, you’ve made it all clear. The woman was a witch.' He prodded the muffled figure who swayed slightly in agreement.
'It was a matter of old age and simple co-incidence,' Hermitage urged.
'Ha!' The Inn Keeper snorted, 'there ain’t no such thing as old age and co-incidence where witches is involved.'
'In fact it ain’t that she was a witch, she is a witch.'
'Oh dear.' It was at times like this Hermitage usually deferred to someone of more authority and presence, such as his Abbot who would have slapped the man by now. Hermitage had never been on the delivering end of a slap, and once words and reason failed, his armoury was as bare as a baby.
'I must tell the rest of the village.' The Inn Keeper went back to the kitchen to get his own layers of clothing on.
'Oh this is terrible,' Hermitage said pacing up and down.
'Why?' The muffling asked.
Hermitage was incredulous, 'Well he’s going to accuse a woman of witchcraft.'
'Perhaps she is a witch?' The figure thought this was perfectly reasonable.
'Oh really,' Hermitage was exasperated, 'this is the eleventh century for goodness sake, we’re not in the dark ages anymore.'
'Still got witches, or don’t the church believe in witches now?'
'Well of course,' Hermitage had to admit there were many in ecclesiastical circles who did believe in witches, some of them very enthusiastically. Usually they were the ones who searched for witches marks, which they found in the most remarkable places.
Hermitage was not of that ilk and he thought them all a primitive and unworthy lot. He kept these thoughts to himself though, he may not have had any common sense but he wanted to live.
'There you are then. And she’s ensnared the baker, and taken half the inn and there’s a dead dog to be dealt with.' The figure moved some muffles in the direction of the canine corpse.
'But any of these events could have happened anyway.'
'They could have, but what are the chances of that? Unless God really is punishing the Inn Keeper by killing his dog.'
'God doesn’t work like that.'
'A witch it is then.'
Hermitage was only good at reasoning with people who played the game. Someone who was prepared to sit there saying ‘she’s a witch, she’s a witch’ clearly wasn’t capable of engaging in a structured argument. He couldn’t give up though.
'But what if she isn’t a witch, what if it is all coincidence? An aged dog, a marriage which has run its course, all perfectly normal events which people get over. If you go saying it’s witchcraft we’ll see an innocent woman murdered.'
'Oh well if she’s innocent God will save her.'
He was all in favour of simple old country faith, but he drew the line at tying people to piles of sticks and setting light to them. And all that nonsense about dipping people in water and if they drowned they were innocent. Follow that path and there would be women floating in ponds all over the country.
'You cannot seriously believe,' he began but he was cut off by the Inn Keeper barging past him to get out of the door.
'A witch, a witch,' he heard the man cry enthusiastically, as if he were selling hot buns as he ran down the central track of the village.
Hermitage peered out into the still ravaging cold and watched as doors were opened and light streamed out into the night. He had been here before. It wouldn’t be long before the first of them suggested fetching some kindling.
Perhaps the baker would stand up for her, although he knew what the mob could be like once they’d made their mind up. If the baker valued his own life and business he would end up going along with them.
Hermitage knew he would have to do his best alone, even though he also knew no one would take any notice of him and he might end up badly charred.
He stood gazing despondently into the dark as he felt the muffled figure rise and walk up behind him. He turned in time to see it re-arranging its muffling for the journey into the cold, and was completely taken aback to see the face of a woman. Of course women could go to the inn, it was just he had assumed all along this would be a man.
'Who are you?' He asked, as the figure made her way past him.
She took his arm and looked him straight in the eye.
'You can call me Mrs Baker,' she said, then she ran after the Inn Keeper shouting about kindling.
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