November 8, 1972
Saint Hugh’s Charterhouse, Sussex
Porter broke silence. That was no little thing, but the breaking of his silence was as nothing in comparison with the breaking of that other silence.
Abbot was surprised to see Porter at his door, as the time for Compline was near. A visitor at this hour was out of the ordinary, so he wondered if something was troubling the young man. Abbot decided after his election that he must be available to the brothers, day and night, whenever they needed him. For a contemplative man, it had not been an easy transition. It was still not easy.
“A Mr. Hill would like to see you, Abbot”, Porter said.
Abbot gave him a look that Porter immediately understood.
“He understands our Rule, but he insists.”
Abbot said, “What is his business?”
“He didn’t say.”
Would Porter have asked him? That would depend, Abbot concluded. If the visitor seemed unscrupulous, or desperate, Porter would have seen to it himself; he had the authority to do so. Porter’s presence here meant that the visitor was another sort of person, someone who would not be pressed for an explanation, someone with gravity, someone who warranted disturbing Abbot, and maybe Compline.
Abbot said, “You may show him in.” He experienced a momentary self-incrimination for the anticipation he felt in awaiting the visitor, an anticipation superior to that which he had felt for Compline. Not that this realization bothered Abbot too much. Examination of conscience was a way of life for him, as natural as breathing.
It was cool in the bare room and colder outside than early November ought to be. Frost was on the ground that morning. Fortunately, everything needed for winter was in the stores, and it had been a good season, thank God. He could hear stirring in the corridor; he knew it to be the brothers going to chapel. They would wonder where he and Porter were; they were prayerful men, yes, men of God, but still men. They would wonder what kept their abbot from night prayer.
When Porter showed the visitor into the room, Abbot saw before him an old man, in his seventies, at least, with thinning hair. His features could be described as craggy but not unjovial. He cradled under one arm, carefully it seemed to Abbot—as if it contained a baby, or was filled with eggs—a large wooden box. The visitor was tentative, fingering the weather-beaten hat he held in the other hand.
“Welcome”, Abbot said, with more formality than he intended. Porter started to leave, but Abbot motioned him back.
“Sit, please”, said Abbot to the visitor, who sat in a wooden chair before an age-darkened table that functioned as Abbot’s desk, tea table, and workbench. Porter stepped to one side and stood there, awkwardly it seemed to Abbot, who wondered if Porter was worried that admitting the old man would reflect poorly on his judgment. Abbot concluded that it would be even more awkward to dismiss the young man now. Besides, Porter was observant; he might be helpful. If this matter turned out to be altogether mundane, Abbot said to himself, he would make it a point to put Porter at his ease.
Had he seen this fellow before? Those features, the wry smile on the old man’s face, seemed familiar. Hill . . . that didn’t ring a bell. The visitor looked comfortable enough—that was a good sign—with the box on his lap and the battered hat on top of the box.
On those rare occasions when Abbot met someone from outside the community, he was invariably struck by the other person’s need to move, to talk. Not everyone exhibited this behavior to the same degree, but Abbot observed that constant engagement with the world had a way of producing it. He already suspected that this man was different, for he was at peace, or so it seemed.
The man spoke in a soft voice, so that one had to pay careful attention to comprehend what he was saying. “I am terribly sorry to disturb you.”
Abbot was tempted to wave this apology off but decided to wait.
“My name is Hill. . .”
“May I get you a cup of tea, or a glass of ale, Mr. Hill?” Abbot said in reply.
The visitor’s eyes lit up. “I haven’t had ale for some time, if it isn’t too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all”, Abbot said. “We brew our own.” He didn’t have to say a word to Porter, who silently exited the room.
“I know this is irregular”, Hill said. “The decision was not taken carelessly, I assure you.”
The man’s English was impeccable, though not his oratorical skills, Abbot thought. His guest had a tendency to be less audible, to mumble, as he progressed with an idea. Fortunately, the room was quiet, and Abbot was a patient listener. He wondered what the visitor wanted. It had to be connected to the box—a donation to the Order? The box was about eighteen inches long, more than twelve inches wide, and perhaps six inches in depth—unwieldy. The wood was nothing special: pine, sanded but unvarnished and unpainted, soiled.
Abbot noticed how dark the room had become. The time of year brought with it troubling sensations, even to him, the father of the community. The deficit of light in the house as autumn waned had become a physical challenge as Abbot aged, but the spiritual darkness that accompanied the season was the harder part.
Porter had returned unnoticed, like a ghost, with a glass of ale and a small cake on a tray. Spectral movement was more commonly a trait of the older brothers, who had, in a sense, practiced this skill for years. To discover this aptitude in one so young was disconcerting to Abbot.
“Thank you”, the old man said, with genuine warmth. His smile, incongruous amidst those cracked and creased features, was childlike. “You may set it on the box.”
The visitor sat like a circus performer, with his cumbersome box, the hat, and now the tray with the ale and cake all balanced on his spindly legs. Without being asked, Porter lit another lamp. Now there was more light, and more shadows. The old man leisurely nibbled at the cake; he seemed to be in no hurry, and neither was Abbot, who could hear—faintly—the chanting of the brothers down the hall.
“Your cake is excellent”, the visitor said.
“It’s honey cake. We keep bees.”
The visitor grinned. “I don’t suppose you have to worry about bears.”
“Not for some hundreds of years.”
“Too bad”, the old man observed.
If Abbot was as good a judge of character as he believed himself to be, then this statement by Hill contained not a trace of irony; that is, the man honestly believed that it was too bad bears didn’t frequent these parts.
He set down the cake and put the glass to his lips, muttering something that sounded like “furthering” or “fathering”. “First-class ale”, he said.
“Thank you”, Abbot said, more perfunctorily than he ought to have done, but when he was pondering something he could not help being abrupt. “Is your car in the yard?” The best parking was on the south side, where the ale was stored and sold. It had rained earlier, and the visitor’s car wouldn’t be the first to mire in the mud.
“I do not drive”, the man answered with some enthusiasm. “I hired a car to take me to town and made a hike from there.”
Could this be true? Abbot wondered. The old man was not an invalid, but he did not seem to be in robust health either. From what he’d observed, Abbot would have said he was rickety. That “hike” was every bit of three miles, and it was cold, dark, and damp outside. The box was not massive, but it wasn’t a trifle either. Porter nodded discreetly; he would check to see if a car was in the yard.
Remarkable. Was the man mad? Abbot had known men who made a convincing pretense of sanity but were hopelessly—Abbot tried not to use that word—insane. He resolved to accept this “diagnosis”, if proven accurate, with equanimity and goodwill. Would the ale reveal the man’s true state of mind sooner?
“It was hillier than I imagined it would be.” The visitor grinned again. Was the pun intentional? Abbot thought so but then cautioned himself; some madmen possess a keen sense of humor.
The visitor examined the room while he was eating and drinking. Several times, his eyes locked on Abbot’s as if probing or seeking something. Abbot wasn’t in the least distressed by this. By the time the old man finished his ale and cake, Porter had silently returned. With a shake of his head, he confirmed the absence of a car. He removed the tray and set it on a small corner table. As if a magnet had drawn them, the visitor’s hands went to the sides of the box, so that he presented the image of a supplicant, or one of the Magi.
Without looking at Porter, Hill said, “I mean no offense—none whatsoever—but I would speak with the abbot alone, if I may.”
No offense would be taken by Porter, Abbot reflected, but was it wise to dismiss him, to be alone with this old man who pricked his memory, who had come from nowhere, on foot no less? Porter inclined his head, and Abbot did likewise. He watched Porter leave the room and close the door; he wasn’t going to allow that pup to amaze him with another vanishing act.
“What is your Christian name?” Abbot asked Hill.
Was there hesitation? There was, but very few would have detected it.
Abbot said, “It’s late in the day and late in the year, John Hill, to be wandering the hills of Sussex.”
The old man’s face split into a wide smile, a delighted smile, it seemed. “I suppose it will be my last adventure”, he said.
“Who can say?” said Abbot mechanically, though something told him that the old man had not made this statement frivolously.
“I have a story to tell, if you will indulge me. It is quite a fantastic story, and only one other living person knows it.”
Abbot decided to let the man speak. One could learn much by allowing the other person to speak, by listening without thinking about what one would say next.
“You will not be inclined to believe me, but I know something of your Order and something about its abbot. I made a judgment that I will get a better hearing from you, and a greater probability of a favorable ending, than with anyone else.”
A better hearing? A favorable ending? What could be in that box? Abbot was prepared for anything, even for a heap of sand the old man would claim—no doubt passionately—he could turn into gold.
“You are pondering whether I’m mad”, Hill continued. “I imagine the temptation to dismiss me as a lunatic will grow stronger as I proceed with my story. I’m resigned to that, and am even prepared for it. I said I expected to get a better hearing, but I do not hope for a sympathetic one. You see, my dear Abbot, I am old and desperate; I could not delay. I had to take the risk. Time is short.”
Abbot was tempted to feel flattered, but the old man could also be trying to manipulate him. Or was his visitor so deluded that the reality he had created for himself was girded with something like logical consistency?
“Regardless,” the man continued, “thank you for your courtesy. It was a more difficult journey to your charterhouse than I had expected. This starling no longer follows the flock south and back again. A little exertion and I must rest. The cake and ale were indeed welcome, more so than you can imagine.”
“How may I serve you?” Abbot said with genuine conviction. Mad or no, he liked the old man.
The visitor’s eyes gazed into his. “I appeal—that is not a strong enough word—I entreat you to abandon yourself to Mystery.”
Without an explanation or further embellishment, Abbot knew that the word had been capitalized in the old man’s meaning.
The visitor continued, “It is important that no one knows I am here. That is the reason I traveled after dusk.”
Abbot’s mind was racing. Paranoia? What was in that box? Who was he?
“This is a beautiful place”, Hill said. “Peace pervades it. Perhaps I have not erred in coming.” Abbot could tell that the comment was more self-directed than intended for him. “I have with me an antiquity”, Hill continued. His left hand caressed the box with affection, or maybe the gesture was meant to direct Abbot’s attention to the box, but what did Abbot, or the Charterhouse for that matter, have to do with antiquities? True, there were objects within these walls that might be considered valuable artifacts, but this was not so much a matter of collection or acquisition as it was of ordinary items simply becoming old. The monastery was not a museum, though some outside the premises so considered it. Abbot could feel his emotional heels digging in, as they often did when he sensed that someone considered the Order irrelevant. Was this stranger just seeking a museum for his so-called treasure?
Did the visitor anticipate Abbot’s objection? Whether he did or did not, his next words addressed Abbot’s apprehensions. “If this were an ordinary antiquity, I would not have come here. I daresay the British Museum could find space for it. You may come to agree that this is a priceless antiquity, but I am here for an altogether different reason: this Mystery must remain a secret.”
Abbot chewed on this pronouncement. He was interested now and would be disappointed if the old man turned out to be a lunatic. He said, “Mr. Hill, you traveled by car from”—Abbot gave him time to speak, but the visitor did not offer his place of origin—“and then walked three miles over hills in the cold and wet darkness, carrying this . . . antiquity. Why do this, unless you intend to reveal the secret that will reveal this Mystery?”
The old man extended both hands. “Just that. Why would I reveal the secret that I so desire to remain a secret?”
Abbot could hear the brothers returning from Compline. Porter would not have said a word, not only for the sake of discretion but also for the sake of the Great Silence that descended upon the abbey after night prayer. Abbot had missed the calming effect of the prayer that closes the day, and now the Rule required that brothers and guests alike quietly turn in for the night.
“Will you stay with us tonight?” Abbot asked.
For the first time, the old man looked genuinely troubled. “I never intended to. My car arrived late, and the walk from town took longer than I expected; but I must not impose upon you. I’ll walk back.”
“Nonsense,” Abbot said. “It’s much too late for that. We have a room prepared for guests, and you can’t leave without another glass of ale”, he said cordially, hoping the man was less stubborn than he seemed and calculating that another round of ale would settle the matter. For a moment, distress was displayed on the visitor’s features. Then he bowed to Abbot, who was already making for the door.
Abbot’s long strides took him down three corridors. His sandals made hardly a sound against the worn stone floor. The alehouse was quiet and practically dark, with only a small night lamp burning. After so many years, Abbot could have navigated the place with his eyes closed. He was weary, for his day had begun very early, but the fresh, crisp scent of fermenting hops invigorated him as he filled two glasses with the golden brown liquid.
When he returned to the room, the old man sat as if he hadn’t moved a muscle, as if both box and visitor were inanimate objects. Abbot gave him his glass and then tapped it with his own before taking a drink. People came from Ireland,
Scotland, and the Continent to sample Charterhouse ale, and Abbot never tired of its refreshing bittersweetness.
John Hill said, “The cake and this ale have made a feast.”
“A meager one, I’m afraid”, Abbot rejoined.
But the old man said, “I have reached an age when I would trade ten more-than-ample meals for one morsel or sip of something delightful. Do you understand?”
Abbot nodded and then wondered if this man were so much different from the brothers, in spite of his jacket and hat and town life, but not even he, a man who often looked into hearts, could be certain—not yet.
“Did you bring an overnight bag?” Abbot asked. He had almost forgotten the box in his solicitude for the visitor.
“I’m afraid I came with just what you see. I can manage.”
“Let us see what can be arranged”, Abbot said.
“I’m in your debt.”
“Hardly”, Abbot protested. “You are a guest.”
The old man’s eyes moistened. “Perhaps I have made a wise choice after all.”
Abbot wondered if the old man was referring to the overland hike, or the absence of a night bag, or something else.
“Are you happy here?” the visitor asked him.
Abbot was taken aback, not because he did not know the answer to the question, but because the question was so unexpected. He had not seriously pondered his decision to join the Order for twenty years. What he had missed in the world had been more than compensated for by the life he had chosen.
“Yes, I am happy.”
The old man nodded. His eyes were still moist. “I believe it. I sense it”, he said. “You see, I could never confide this secret to a man who was not happy, a man discontented with his lot in life. Never.”
What a strange man, Abbot thought. What did his happiness have to do with the visitor’s secret, with whether this secret would be revealed? There were many forms of madness, he reminded himself, and some were insidiously subtle. He must not lower his guard completely for all this man’s appreciation for honey cake, ale, and a room for the night.
“Now that it is established that I’m happy,” Abbot said, “what about this antiquity?” He was not in a hurry, in spite of the Rule, and the ale had revived him rather than made him drowsy, but he was concerned that the old man, after so long a walk, was fatigued. Let him open the box and speak his piece. Then the man could retire for the night.
“Are there good lies?” John Hill asked.
There was, apparently, no end to the old man’s surprises.
“I’m not a philosopher”, Abbot answered him, annoyed despite himself. Did the old man’s visit have any purpose at all? Was the box just a prop for the man’s fantasies? He could tell that the visitor was distressed at his answer, so he said, “Some make a distinction between telling a known falsehood and withholding the truth, when the consequences of withholding the truth are less grave than revealing it; it is generally accepted that this mental reservation is not the same thing as a lie. One might call it a good lie, though I’ve never liked that definition.”
“Yes, I see that”, the old man said.
Abbot could not resist. “Why do you ask?”
“It is relevant to this”—the man patted the box. “I have been tortured by this matter of a good lie. I wonder about what has been expressed as ‘They lie, and they worship their lying.’ ”
“About whom do you speak?”
“Myself”, the old man said.
Had the old man come to make a confession? Abbot was about to ask him but suspected that if that were what his visitor wanted, he would ask forthrightly.
“Has it been a good lie?” the man mumbled. “I hope so.” Abbot could see that this conversation was between the man and his conscience, so he left him alone with it for a moment. The visitor’s eyes rested on the box, and his mumbling became unintelligible.
At what seemed to be a propitious moment, Abbot said, “It is not often that a lie rises to the level of malevolence, but it is possible when it does grave harm to another person. Most lies fall short of malevolence, but there is such a thing as evil.” Immediately, Abbot wondered why he’d said it. What did this tired old man have to do with evil? Perhaps the odd lie—yes—and then a stricken conscience, but Abbot could not imagine that the person across the table from him had known willful wickedness. Even he, who had heard thousands of confessions, and not just those of the brothers, had rarely encountered it.
The visitor took his time answering. He fingered the box and looked toward the window. He seemed afraid of being overheard.
“There is such a thing”, the visitor repeated.
“And where do you think evil comes from?” Abbot felt compelled to ask.
“It comes from desiring to be served rather than serving, from lusting after power; it is a choice.”
A choice, Abbot pondered, how true and how terrifying. Where did the old man come by all this? At that moment, Abbot realized something else: the substance and duration of the conversation had made him giddy. He could not remember when he had conversed for so long. He even wondered if he weren’t taking excessive delight in it. This internal debate produced a pang of anxiety. Should he push the old man off to bed and then out the door with the dawn? Hadn’t he given him ample time to tell his story?
These deliberations could not have taken more than a few seconds, but when he looked up he saw that the old man was asleep—not a deep sleep by any means, but his eyes were closed and his head dipped toward his chest.
Of course the visitor was tired. He had endured a fatiguing journey, and the hour was late. He’d had little to eat and had imbibed two glasses of the house’s potent ale. Abbot debated whether to wake him or let him rest for a while. He took the opportunity to observe the man further and was reinforced in his opinion that his visitor possessed kindly features to complement a kindly bearing. He judged the man to be shy by nature, intellectually formidable, without pretension, perhaps tending toward scrupulosity, and probably ascetically disposed; a most remarkable old gentleman, Abbot concluded.
In the distance, he heard the anguished call of an owl—Philomena, he had named her. This bird’s call was so different from that made by other owls as to be readily distinguishable, at least to Abbot’s practiced ear. He could not hear her cry without experiencing a pang of emotion. He imagined it was a sort of antiphonal call, though he hadn’t heard a prompting one. Was she barren, or isolated from others of her kind; was she infected with an avian pathology?
“I’m so sorry”, the man said, his eyes now open and a smile wrinkling his lips. He wiped his lips again with his sleeve and blinked.
“Would you like your bed now?” Abbot asked him.
“No, that wouldn’t do”, the man answered, mumbling something, and then, “. . . work to do.” He sat up straight and took a deep breath. “This box”—he tapped it with both hands—“contains an antiquity of some . . . of great significance.”
Abbot smiled and said, “Tonight I’m admitting to so many things I am not—philosopher, antiquarian, a tolerable host—that it may be hard to fathom what I am. The truth is I am a simple monk, Mr. Hill. I don’t understand how I can help you except for a simple meal and a bed.” There was Philomena again, louder than before. The old man started; he heard her too.
“You have a magnificent owl on the grounds.”
“Philomena.” Abbot had not revealed to anyone else the name he had given her.
The old man laughed out loud. There was a sip of ale left in his cup, and he emptied it.
“The pathos in her cry reminds me of someone—Agnes was her name. But we have business to conduct. I will show you, as I seem to be stumbling badly in explaining”, the visitor said.
Abbot leaned forward. He could not help feeling excited, like a young boy on his birthday, though reason suggested that the contents of the box would be less than remarkable. Still, he could enjoy the anticipation, couldn’t he? Was there harm in that simple human pleasure?
The old man undid a latch on each end of the pine box. Abbot concluded that it must contain something of sentimental attachment, but who was he to crush his visitor’s hopes? Wasn’t this evening, after all, about compassion for the man sitting across from him?
The lid came up toward the old man’s chest, revealing a silver box, which, allowing for a piece of felt around its perimeter, fit snugly in the larger wooden container. This smaller box was another matter altogether. Even in the dim lamplight, it gleamed like nothing Abbot had ever seen before. Its visible surface had been etched with unfamiliar runes and a beautiful abstract pattern. John Hill lifted it gently, even reverently, from its wooden cradle, and Abbot could not help being reminded again of one of the Magi preparing to present his gift to the Infant. The old man’s face, suffused with something like wonder, reinforced this image.
“Would you kindly move the container?” the old man said.
Abbot stood, slid the wooden box from the old man’s lap, and placed it on the floor. “Thank you”, the man said, setting the silver—if that was what it was—box on the table.
“It is beautiful”, Abbot could not help saying.
“I suppose so”, John Hill said, enigmatically.
Abbot could not take his eyes off it. The glow of the metal seemed otherworldly, though this idea struck him as ridiculous at that moment.
“May I?” John Hill said.
Abbot realized that the visitor desired to open the metallic box. He was seeking Abbot’s permission, so as not to startle him.
“By all means”, Abbot whispered, as if in a trance.
The old man placed a thumb on each side of the box, near the top and toward the rear, the side closest to him. Abbot could detect no seam where a cover or lid would be; to his eyes the box seemed to be of a single piece. Before John Hill’s thumbs made contact with the metal, Abbot thought he saw something like the image of a thumbprint on one side of the silver box—or was this something suggested to his imagination by the old man’s actions?
The lid rose slowly to a vertical position. Abbot could see no mechanism inside the box that would account for this movement. He could not have been more absorbed in what was transpiring: the beauty, the wonder, all colored with a sense of drama, even menace. Was this man a magician? Was this a performance?
The box was lined with fabric that shimmered like silk and displayed different colors depending on how the light touched it; one moment green, then red, then a different green, now sky blue . . .
“It is a book”, the old man said needlessly as he lifted the bound pages from the box.
Once Abbot pried his attention from the box, he observed a large volume with a blood-red exterior, absent any markings or defects. He experienced a powerful urge to touch it; only years of discipline prevented him from acting on this impulse.
“I want to leave this with you”, John Hill said matter-of-factly.
Abbot could not look at the man, so astounded was he by his declaration. This object—he considered both box and book all one piece—was the most wondrous thing he had ever seen. “Why?” he said, as calmly as he could.
“It is necessary”, was the answer.
Abbot sat down again. He invited the visitor to sit too. There they were, looking at each other, and perfectly comfortable doing so. Abbot would not have been surprised to learn that they understood each other better than many who had spent a lifetime living or working together. Suddenly it struck him that he had seen that face before . . . Good heavens, he thought, could it be?
“A story must be connected to this”, Abbot said.
The old man’s eyes positively shone. For an instant, one could almost believe that he was fifty years younger. “Actually, there are two stories, one old and one new. Which would you like to hear first?”
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