by Jesse Halsey
Verulamium the Romans had called their red brick town, but when they had gone and the barbarians had overrun the North Country the name was forgotten and the stately buildings torn down and the bricks and tiles used for menial purposes.
In King Alfred’s time it was rebuilt and houses stood on floors that had been old Roman pavements. Houses, some of brick, some of stone, and in the fen down by the river huts of wattles, little hovels of wood, but each hut with its brick floor and fireplace.
The Romans had left not only bricks but also the name of a Christian martyr, one Alban, a Roman soldier who had died for his faith in the persecutions of Diocletian. The town of later days was (and is unto this day) called after him—St. Alban’s town.
Then had come the Normans—a rough army in conquest, but a cultured people with a new language, new customs, new laws, queer new and fancy usages added to the old religion.
A hundred years now the Normans have reigned; King Williams’s builders have covered England with great churches and a might abbey stands on St. Alban’s hill, built much of it from old Roman bricks. It is a great establishment with a hundred monks, busy about all sorts of things. Great farms are theirs and the whole countryside pays tribute to their larder and cellar and coffer.
Services go on by day and by night—nine of them. In the abbey church a new and strange instrument of many horns and whistles has been installed. Brother Martyn directs a choir of monks, and a choir of men from the town, and a choir of boys from the countryside. These are great new days and business is stirring, the road that the Romans built from London into the North is in repair and is now safe to travel. St. Alban’s borough is fat and prosperous, except that then down in the fen by the river, huts of wattles and hovels of wood remain (still with their tile floors and fireplaces).
Fireplaces, but seldom fire! The Norman lords allow no man to visit their forests, lest the deer be disturbed; wood is scarce and the poor go cold—fireplaces, but little fire!
In one of these hunts by the fen dwelt Gwillum, a boy of twelve, with his mother. Father had gone one night to Earl Reloy’s forest. “Maybe a rabbit might be found.” Maybe—but he had never come back. That often happened to the peasants. Gwillum helped as he might, reeds from the marshes; fish sometimes; sticks and bits of offal that might be burned in the fire, there was plenty to do.
Weekly in summer, more often in winter, he went to the monastery kitchen for a dole of bread and meat handed out to the poor. One day he heard Brother Martyn’s choir and waited until dark before going home. Punishment and no supper, but it was worth it—that music. Often after that he managed to hear the choirs and one day as he waited by the scullery door he began singing it himself—“Venite Adoremeus.” The words were strange but the tune easy to follow. Next time he came he found himself ushered into brother Martyn’s schoolroom. The brother Ishaot, the cook, had heard him sing.
There with a crowd of boys two score maybe—all looking on and listening—Gwillum tried to sing for Brother Martyn. “Venite adoremus,” it came in spite of his fear, and next day the Lord Abbott sends a messenger to fetch Gwillum from his rough hut to live in the monastery school and sing in the choir.
The discipline is severe, the school hard, the services long and tedious, but the music to this his whole soul responds. Twice a week he goes to the hut where his mother lives with food and fuel sent to by the monks, one night in the week he stays to supper. Often it is cold by the tiny fire in the hut and he thinks of the great logs roaring up the great fireplace in the refectory of the monastery where he takes his turn at waiting on table.
December has half frozen the fens, snow is on the hills in great white patches; Christmas is coming, that great festival and all the monastery is astir with preparation. An innovation brought in by the Normans from the continent is just being introduced. It is called a Novena. For nine days before Christmas choir boys and clergy will march through the great church or around it, each day a little farther than the day before till on the last day they will march round the whole city coming into the abbey church just in time to begin the Christmas Eve service.
This is great fun for the boys. Each day a little further marching and signing then back to the church for prayers and good supper afterwards in the kitchen. All this represents, they are told, the Journey to Bethlehem. Let the monks pray, think the boys, they can march and sing, each day a little further.
At last the great day has arrived—tomorrow will be Christmas. The great Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln has come to spend Christmas with the Abbott. That Hugh who fears none, not even the king and told the king his sins in robbing the people of their rights in the land and in the forest; and when the king’s sheriffs have been unjust the old Bishop has excommunicated them. A Norman of the Norman, scholar and a saint, he is the champion of the poor—the Saxon babble, and even the king obeys—when he comes into Hugh of Lincoln’s diocese.
Bishop Hugh has come for Christmas to St. Alban’s abbey! The Novena procession starts out, it is late in the afternoon, a cold wind comes in from the north, the pilgrims must skirt the town. Out they go and on they go singing as they may they must skirt the town and fulfill their vows before the Christmas Eve service.
As the procession passes the huts on the fen-edge, Guillum slips away to see his mother and finds her groaning in pain in a heap of rugs by the cold fireplace. He gathers some twigs, opens the ashes, and blows up the fire to boil some water. He realizes that his mother is very sick; he must go for help. The Novena procession has passed; his vows will be unfulfilled—so brother Martyn has said, and the Abbott has said so, too. Never mind, he must go for help. Never mind the vows, he will be at church in time to sing in the service; he must be, for brother Martyn has chosen him to sing the solo opening of the Venite . . . “Venite Adoremus . . .”
Out he goes into the dark to a neighbor’s hut. No one is there. Then to the next, and the next. No one. All have gone to the Abbey for the Christmas Eve service, following the Novena procession, doubtless, of course . . . Across the fen-bog he sees a light in the big house—big to him—the house of the Earl’s gamekeeper. It is a long way round but he must go for help. Will they help him if he goes? The Church service—what will Brother Martyn say? He must run. Why not cross the bog, it must be frozen. The ice holds, he starts to run across and has almost reached the other side when he stumbles and falls breaking thin ice going up to his waist in mud. He struggles in the mire for footing, the ice breaks as he tries to lift himself by his arms, wet and bespattered, he threshes his wild way toward shore and finally pulls himself out. When he reaches the lodge door vainly he pleads for help. The gamekeeper’s servant berates him and beats him for poaching in the fen-bog.
He must get help. Back toward the monastery he runs, stumbling often in the rutty frozen road. At last he reaches the door of the boys’ dormitory completely winded and muddy from head to foot. Old Peter is there as he expected. “Hurry boy the service has begun!” No need to tell him that he can hear the organ groaning away; presently they will be singing. “They be waitin’ for ye lad, hurry.” “Nay, Peter, me mither do lay sick and like may dead. Come with me.” “Nay, Lad, wash ye, go ye to sing, I’ll go to yer mither.”
Swiftly, the boy obeyed; sousing his face and hands, leaving his muddy rags he slipped into his white cotta and wormed his way into his seat in the choir stall. Brother Martyn is red with anger, the bellows men on the organ have exhausted themselves in jumping up and down to blow the organ, all eyes are turned on him, even the old Abbot looks his impatience, and the Lord Bishop Hugh! Brother Martyn raises his fingere; it is time to start the Venite. Gwillum opens his mouth but no sound comes; he swallows, catches his breath and tries again—no sound. His throat is dumb.
The choir takes up the anthem, there is no solo voice . . . “Venite Adoremus.” Gwillum sobbing slips out of the stall and out through the dormitory, gathers his muddy garments and goes home disgraced. There he finds brother Peter and a monastery servant with a good fire, preparing to take his mother, now comfortable and cared for, to a convent hostelry across the river. The boy refuses to go with them, he has disgraced himself and dare not go back. After the others have gone, he spreads the ragged rugs by the fire and sobs himself to sleep.
How long he had slept he did not know. At the door came a succession of loud raps. Is it the gamekeeper? He thinks of his father. Again the knock—“Open boy, open, it is I . . . Brother Martyn.” No less afraid of the spiritual powers than of the civil, he pushes open the door and there in the rush light that a servant carries stands Brother Martyn the chorister, and just behind him tall and thin another stands. “Come lad, we need thee for the Christmas singing,” not the voice of Martyn this time, but another with a soft foreign accent, gentle and strong, “Come, lad, we need thee.” It is, it must be, Bishop Hugh. None other come to fetch him in spite of the Abbot’s protests and Brother Martyn’s scowls and “worthless wretch,” the Bishop had found out the reasons for the boy’s late coming and his voicelessness and had come himself to fetch him—that was like Bishop Hugh, no one could deny that was just like him.
That boy Gwillum sang in the Christmas Mass next day . . . “Venite Adoremus . . .” and lived to say Mass himself in his own cathedral church. For Bishop Hugh took the boy (after his mother died) to his choir school in Lincoln and sent him to the Grand Chartreuse in France where he learned many things new and old and came back after many years to St. Albans one Christmastide to complete his first Novena.