The Light in Their Eyes
THE LIGHT IN THEIR EYES
A Canterbury Tale
By S P Johnson
Paulus Gregory moved as rapidly as the fallen blocks of masonry would allow, lifting his robe fastidiously as he went. His cowl protected his head from the dust fragments that continuously filled the air. He sighed heavily. This was the third time a collapse had occurred in the second of the western towers of the Cathedral. The voice of the Prior still rang in his ears. ‘We are at the beginning of the fourteenth century now, an era of great learning and achievement, surely it is not too much to ask that one, just one of the two towers should remain intact? Why can you not keep control of all around us as I have asked of you, as you have said you will?’
Dawn was fast giving way to daylight as Paulus moodily contemplated the future here at Canterbury. God help them all when building work finally commenced on the new Bell Tower that was planned. He almost hoped it would not be in his lifetime. There was only so much responsibility one person could bear. Guiltily he crossed himself. He would just have to carry as much as God intended him to. No doubt that was why he was there – to act as a conduit, a bridge between the Prior’s incessant demands and the labourers all too human need for rest and sleep. The dust made him cough and he put out a hand in the deepening dusk to steady himself. He encountered something wet and sticky, at first assuming that perhaps he had disturbed some still sloppy mortar.
‘Jesu’. A shout escaped his lips and echoed eerily around the tower.
He leapt backwards, crossing himself automatically and leaned heavily against the wall as he fought for breath. A feeling of unreality gripped him as he stared at the figure sprawled brokenly amongst the huge stone blocks that stood silently all around. He advanced hesitantly, noting the hand that lay outstretched above the body’s head height encrusted in blood upon a massive rock. Upon that hand he had laid his own. He rubbed at the blood on his fingers with his robe as he took in the scene. A gaping wound to the heart area showed him where life had fled but what drew his horrified gaze was the head of the victim, most specifically the eyes – or rather the lack of them – for where the eyes should have been two dripping bloody holes gaped, staring at him mournfully, or so he imagined.
The Prior paced backwards and forwards, nervously shifting his large, beautifully carved and decorated wooden Crook from hand to hand.
‘The body is removed?’ he asked brusquely.
‘The Sheriff is arranging that now.’
‘Why is this happening to me? Must my time here be plagued by all manner of disasters? God forbid the Archbishop should choose now to visit us.’
‘I don’t suppose Jacob exactly liked it happening to him’ thought Paulus but he did not say this out loud, answering soothingly ‘I have ascertained the victim is Jacob Fastnet, the assistant to Master Builder Garter and it would seem to me that the murder weapon is some sort of knife, possibly with a curved blade that would enable the eyes to be scooped out in one fell swoop.’
The Prior shuddered.
‘Who would want to do such a thing and why here - in the Cathedral of all places? The House of God is now besmirched by murdered blood’ he moaned dramatically placing a hand on his heart.
‘Well it isn’t the first time and surely won’t be the last’ thought Paulus thinking of the many who had died during the ongoing building of the Cathedral, but again, he did not say so.
‘It is surely the act of a mind in madness’ Paulus offered. ‘I have enquired and found there was some argument between Jacob and Alan Larksmith who is in charge of the supply of mortar. It is my intention to question him as soon as I leave you. The Sheriff is pursuing other avenues such as whether relations with his family were of good countenance.’
‘This will not interfere with the placement of the first stained glass window in the Cloister walkway will it?’ the Prior asked as hopefully as a child anticipating a long awaited treat.
Paulus sighed. It was not enough for the Prior that Canterbury should aim to be one of the biggest and best of all Cathedrals. Oh no. It must be unique. It was the Prior’s intention that each grand arch lining the splendid, open- to –the- elements Cloister walkway, should be filled with a stupendous floor to ceiling pane of stained glass, depicting scenes of a biblical nature. ‘None have ever attempted such grandeur’ the Prior had said happily. The Master Glassblower, Grayson Partington although comparatively young being only some thirty years of age, had been commissioned to accomplish this feat. His work was magnificent, stunning in terms of colour and design; the finest of lead encircling each small glass fragment. It would take at least some five years to complete even with the number of carefully picked assistants to aid the glassblower. The stress upon those concerned was immense and Paulus, along with many others, prayed daily for its successful completion. He admitted as a sin only to himself and God, that his prayers painted a desire to end the wretched position of go-between he filled between the Prior and Partington, both of whom had the capacity to drive him to the brink of gibbering inanity with their constant complaints. He could not decide which of the two gave him more headaches although the glassblower’s passion – and spittle as he would gesture his contempt for the understanding of mere mortals of his work - perhaps had the edge over the Prior who could always be placated by a stroking of his vanity . Paulus prayed for more serenity of spirit and perhaps also that he might go deaf.
‘No’ Paulus said calmly, ‘the installation of the first great pane will take place this afternoon and I am sure you will be much pleased – and relieved.’
Reassured the Prior relaxed and waved a hand graciously towards him.
‘You had best be about your business then and see if you and the Sheriff can ascertain quickly who has done this terrible thing. You will miss the ceremony but no doubt you will see the window later.’
Paulus nodded and bowed his head and quietly – and thankfully – left the tiring presence of the Prior.
It was that shadow time between twilight and dusk. The light had that peculiar quality that at once both sharpened and blurred everything within view.
Paulus made his way towards the now silent and deserted Cloister. The frenzied hive of activity that he had heard during the afternoon but had taken no part in had long since ceased. He had spent the last hour in silent prayer and the contemplation of all he knew – which was very little indeed.
Gentle but careful prodding of Larksmith, the mortar maker, had produced little except the disclosure of a long standing but petty feud more in the nature of banter between friends than that of genuine argument. And beside that, it had become apparent that Larksmith had been absent with two companions searching and sourcing materials to try to produce a more superior mortar at the relevant time of death of the poor slain builder. The genuine grief and tears of Larksmith at the news could not be gainsaid moving Paulus almost to weep himself. The Sheriff it seemed had fared no better and both he and Paulus were now at a loss as to how to proceed.
Prayer having produced no startling insights, Paulus had determined now to view the new stained glass window, hoping this might soothe and regenerate both spirit and mind. His measured steps brought him finally to stand in front of what, even to his mind that veered more towards the logical than the inspirational, could see was a work of wondrous art. The scene depicted was that of the Good Samaritan, the subject holding across his lap the body of the victim he had stopped to help. The Samaritan’s serene and beautiful visage stared out of the pane, meeting the gaze of the viewer with the most marvellous and expressive blue eyes Paulus had ever seen. He was struck dumb with amazement at the lifelike achievement of the glassblower. Never had he seen such a rendering in glass. The eyes of the Samaritan, followed him as if to beseech him to emulate the subject of the pane.
‘To save all the world is not within my power’ mused Paulus ‘but oh how this window makes one wish to do so.’
He gave a start and ceased to move, scarcely even to breathe. He could hardly believe what he saw. Such a thing was the stuff of legends and relics possessed by many throughout the world. Never had he thought to be one to witness such a sight. He stepped closer to the masterpiece. The two striking blue eyes, each encased within the most slender of lead frames, seemed to watch his progress. His shaking hand reached out with an uncontrollable trembling to touch the tiny rivulet of blood that ran at an unbearably slow pace across the metal that encased the right eye. ‘No’ he whispered ‘O God say it is not so.’ Before his finger actually made contact with what may have driven him mad, a voice spoke out of the shadows behind him.
‘I can see you appreciate the difficulties. He had such very fine eyes. No matter how I tried I could not capture that brightness of colour, the light that imbued them with such vigour and life. Do you think the eyes reflect the nature of the man?’
Paulus turned slowly, feeling as if he turned upon the fulcrum of time itself. His own eyes met the dark brown ones of the master glassblower. They were almost black, lit only by the light of madness that shone in them.
‘The stress of the work has driven him over the abyss’ Paulus thought, his gaze dropping to the curved blade the glassblower clutched as if his life depended on it.
‘Really Master Partington you should rest now. Give me the knife and we will go in and sit down. You can ease your body and we can pray together for guidance of your soul.’
The glassblower stared at him mournfully.
‘Of course there’s never enough time’ Partington murmured ‘and never enough colours. And’ he continued almost conversationally ‘I shall need more. Look how many there are to fill.’ His arm swept outward gesturing to encompass the silent graceful sweep of the many vacant arches. Paulus watched the blade as it swung to and fro.
The glassblower advanced two steps towards Paulus.
‘You have very fine eyes too. I have often noticed them. Their grey colour contains such calmness. They would do well for Christ himself. After all none of us know what colour his eyes were do we? It would be an honour for you. Come now, let us get to work.’
The glassblower raised the blade above his head and, uttering a strangled cry ran at a rapid pace towards Paulus. Paulus prayed with more fervency than he had ever done before and, at the last moment, neatly sidestepped out of the way. An anguished cry erupted from the glassblower, unable to stop his mad frenzied rush as he crashed with an enormous explosion of sound directly into and through his great creation, a thousand shards impaling themselves within him, slicing through veins and arteries as if with a mind of their own.
He landed sprawled upon his front on the grass directly in front of the arch, Paulus gazing in horror at the huge piece of glass that had pierced his neck all the way from front to back. Blood soaked into the grass around Partington, forming an almost neat edging to his body.
‘Much like one of his own compositions’ Paulus thought inanely.
Paulus plucked a spring of rosemary from the herb garden and held it to his nose. Its sweet fragrance refreshed his senses and his body. His eyes ran upwards, following the towering Cathedral that loomed above him until he felt dizzy. Order and calmness had returned to Canterbury. ‘At least until the next catastrophe or unrealistic demand of the Prior’ he thought.
‘And the next disaster will not be long’ he ruminated. And how could they prepare against that; and how could he deal with it; how could any of them? He was the only one who knew at the moment but such knowledge would soon be widespread.
He stared at the Cloister away to his left. It would never be filled with stained glass now. Such an horrific event had daunted even the Prior’s vaunting ambition. Paulus had not walked there since that night. He might never walk there again. It would not matter. In a year, maybe less, he might not be here at all. Maybe none of them would. He sighed and pressed the rosemary once more to his nostrils. He would not tell them. He would tell no-one. Of what use to alarm them? There was nothing to be done in any event. Nothing except prayer.
He thought again of when he had dropped to one knee to examine the glassblower’s body for a pulse, knowing even as he did so that it was pointless. He had lifted an arm to turn him over and, as he did so, had noticed something where the glassblower’s tunic was slashed to ribbons. Deep within the armpit, almost hidden within the dark hair there, like an evil demon lurks within the shadows, was a purple coloured canker. It was swollen large to the point of bursting and oozed and slimed with pus; a thin trickle of blood mingling to form a colour the glassblower would have longed to achieve.
‘No doubt that accounted for the madness that fired his brain’ Paulus thought. He had covered the armpit once more – and later washed his hands time and time again in the vain hope of ridding himself of contamination.
The Black Death was coming and this would prove to be the greatest killer of all. Thousands upon thousands would fall at its lightest touch.
But for now all one could do was revel in the sunlight, smell the sweet flowers and eat the fruits of summer. ‘Enjoy it while we may’ he mused ‘that is all any of us can do. Enjoy life while we can for we never know when a killer might be lurking in the night.’
Paulus turned his face upwards to the sun, said a brief prayer and then continued on his way.
©S P Johnson