An Iconic Mystery

Limoges Cathedral, France

February, 1636

 

“Glorious, Master Renoir, simply glorious,” François de Lafayette said, trailing a finger down the palm-sized icon. “Their Majesties cannot help but be pleased when I present your gift to them at the christening.”

Master Renoir bowed, his face hard as he bowed over his worn, but serviceable, workman’s clothes. Renoir was a surprisingly thickset man, given his place as Limoges’s premier artist in a craft that required delicate skill. It was also, Bishop de Lafayette thought, caressing his own fashionable costume, surprising that a head of an important guild had come in work clothes instead of the finery both the artist and his wife affected at Mass.

“If the child is born and lives, Monsieur de Lafayette. And is a Dauphin. Her Majesty has been pregnant before without a live child. What matters most to me, my lord Bishop, is how their Majesties will show their pleasure to Limoges,” Master Renoir said gruffly.

De Lafayette sighed. If I could count the number of times I have tried, he thought, repressing the urge to run his hands through his thinning grey hair. Sighing, he smoothed his doublet over his belly. He was getting too old for this, de Lafayette told himself. Too old to do much of anything in a world that had turned upside down.

“Master Renoir,” de Lafayette said, “I assure you I shall do my utmost for my beloved city . . .”

Master Renoir scowled at the icon, refusing to answer the bishop’s obvious platitude, and tugged on his leather apron. That was deliberate, de Lafayette thought sourly. As representative (purely unofficial) of the town’s enamel workers, Master Renoir should have presented himself in a doublet and pantaloons, the clothes he wore to Sunday Mass. But his worker’s garb (which de Lafayette doubted he actually worked in) felt like a reminder that the Committees of Correspondence, if there were Committees in Limoges (or anywhere in France), were always there to rouse the disaffected.

Sighing, de Lafayette turned to the triptych.

It really was a masterpiece, de Lafayette thought. Not even the Byzantine or Russian masters of the Orthodox Church, or the up-timers of Grantville with their mastery of mechanization, could produce such a work—Saint Anne and Saint Martial on either side of the Virgin and Child, all created by Limoges’s greatest enamel artists.

And the cathedral nave was the perfect place to admire such a treasure, de Lafayette thought. The glorious rose window poured light over the altar, bare at the moment of everything but the golden cross and the icon, as if God Himself was blessing the work of human hands.

No candles though, not during the day, even if it left the rows of benches worn smooth by generations of worshippers lit only by the light coming from the high gothic arches. If he could, de Lafayette thought, he’d replace the rood screen and the frescos on the Romanesque crypt with icons like these, maybe even a gilded iconostasis? But no, he decided for the hundredth time, his parishioners might think it too Byzantine.

“It may have been more appropriate,” de Lafayette thought out loud, “for Saint Louis instead of Saint Martial.”

“Saint Martial is the patron saint of Limoges and the name of our great abbey,” Master Renoir said stiffly. “The guild felt . . .”

“Forgive me, Master,” de Lafayette interrupted softly. “I agree with the guild’s artistic judgment, of course. But perhaps the guild might consider a second commission? A private one, from myself, not as Bishop of Limoges?”

Smiling, de Lafayette put his arm around the master artist’s shoulder. “Come, my friend, come. Let’s discuss it over some refreshment. I have some excellent Bordeaux . . .”

****

Abbey of Saint Martial, Limoges

 

“Gabriel-Nicholas de Traslage! Get down from there right now!” Frère Jacques shouted as he limped through the abbey gardens toward the boy, his Benedictine black robe flapping around his spare frame.

Gabriel grinned from a branch in the abbey’s oldest apple tree at the edge of the apple grove. “I’m all right, Frère,” he called down at the monk, swinging his legs.

“I don’t care if you’re the healthiest young man in France! I said get down! Not only is that tree older than you, but you’re late for your Latin lessons!” Jacques called, waving a fist at the boy.

That tree really should have been cut down years ago, Frère Jacques thought crossly. It was old and twisted and hadn’t borne fruit for years. It served no purpose but to give sanctuary to students who should have been in their lessons.

Gabriel groaned from his perch. He hated Latin, almost as much as he hated Mathematics and Fencing. “But Frère . . .”

“Don’t ‘but’ me. Do I have to tell Father Pierre you’re due an extra penance?”

Gabriel shuddered and launched himself out of the tree, barely missing the monk as he landed. Father Pierre’s ‘extra penances’ always involved the wood paddle he kept in his office. Gabriel’s friend Charles had nicknamed it Dante after the class had read The Divine Comedy.

“What is this?” Jacques said, picking up the tattered bundle of papers Gabriel had dropped when he jumped.

“Something I was reading . . . for Literature . . . Frère,” Gabriel reached for the booklet, but the monk turned away too quickly, thumbing through the loosely-tied pages.

The Hound of the Baskervilles? That doesn’t sound like something Frère Michel would assign as class reading,” Jacques said sternly.

“It’s an up-time book by an Englishman,” Gabriel said. “The main character is paid by people to investigate mysteries. This one’s about a nobleman’s estate that is haunted. Monsieur Holmes . . .”

“Ah,” Jacques said, “it is one of their immoral novels.” The monk shook his head. What were the young coming to, infected by this godless up-timer fiction? he thought. When Jacques had been a novice . . .

“No, no,” Gabriel said, reaching for his booklet, “Monsieur Holmes uses the scientific method of observation to help. He frequently plays the violin to focus his thoughts, Frère Michel said . . .”

“That is not what I meant,” Jacques countered, holding the booklet away from Gabriel’s grasping hands. “Belief in ghosts and other so-called manifestations are superstition and heresy. It seems, young man, you need correction before you fall into serious error. I think I shall start by burning this piece of trash.”

“Frère Jacques! Frère Jacques! You must come quickly!” Turning, Jacques frowned as a novice ran across Jacques’s prize herbs, distracting him enough that Gabriel snatched his book from the monk’s hand. Reaching out, Jacques caught Gabriel’s arm as the novice stopped, panting on the path between the garden beds.

“What’s the matter boy?” Jacques growled, scowling at the broom-thin novice’s dirt-covered sandals.

“Frère Jacques . . .” The novice heaved as he bent over, placing his hands on his knees.

“Yes,” Jacques said, annoyed at both the novice and Gabriel. “What is it?”

“The bishop is here, Frère! Abbot Daurat is calling the chapter!” the novice said, practically jumping up and down in his excitement.

“Yes,” Jacques said dryly, “he does that frequently. Suppose you tell me why?”

“Bishop de Lafayette has arrived! There is important news!” the novice said, looking as if he was about to spontaneously explode.

Gabriel looked excited, too, which was bad, Jacques thought. Two seconds after he dismissed young Gabriel, the news that the bishop had arrived and the abbey chapter called would be all over the school, and it would be impossible for anyone to get the students to settle to their studies for the rest of the day.

Jacques sighed. “Gabriel, get to class. No, you may not have your book back, at least not yet. I shall turn this . . .” He waved the booklet. “. . . over to Father Pierre and see what he has to say. Now scoot!”

****

“It’s in the chapel on the altar,” Claude d’Aguesseau whispered to Gabriel. “I heard the bishop said an up-timer couldn’t have done better.”

“Of course not,” Henri de Lafayette said indignantly. “The up-timers are good at machines. This is art, and Limoges is the greatest center of French art! Bertrand de Born . . .”

“Shut up!” Gabriel hissed, and not just because Henri tended to go on (and on) about Bertrand de Born as if the medieval troubadour was an up-time rock star. It wasn’t as if de Born could compare to Queen anyway. Just because Henri was the bishop’s great-nephew . . . Gabriel started as he realized he was tapping the rhythm to “We Will Rock You,” the song that a group of soldiers had shouted out at a recent handball game.

Trying not to make too much noise, Gabriel pushed open the door to the choir loft, and the three boys crept into the chapel and down the tight spiral staircase to the floor.

The chapel was dark, the sconces and candelabra making pools of light along the walls at each end of the aisle, and at the foot of the stairs, but leaving most of the altar in the shadow of the choir monk’s stalls. There was some moonlight coming from the stained glass windows on the far side of the chapel, but not enough.

“Just like in one of our Mystery Book Club novels,” Claude whispered to Gabriel and Henri. They nodded absently as they crept along the benches to the aisle.

“That’s strange,” Gabriel whispered to his friends. “Didn’t you say Frère Joseph was supposed to be doing penance about now, Henri?”

“Novice David said the Abbot told Frère Joseph he was to pray for forgiveness all night for his blasphemy,” Henri said.

“What did he say?” Claude asked with a smirk. He’d had to serve penance for blasphemy a lot lately, ever since their teachers caught on to what OMG meant. Claude claimed he’d heard the expression from a lefferti, but Gabriel suspected it was from one of the pamphlets Claude kept hidden under his mattress.

Henri shrugged. “I don’t know. David just told me he’d be here now and I thought this would be a good time to come to see the triptych. You know how deaf Frère Joseph is and how he falls asleep at mass.”

Gabriel nodded, and turned toward the altar. He wasn’t really interested in the triptych itself, but in the adventure. But the triptych wasn’t on the altar. Or rather part of it was. The frame was still there, but the jewels were gone, and only the center icon of the Virgin and Child remained.

“What have you three done?” Abbot Daurat’s voice rang out, echoing in the stone chapel.

Gabriel whirled around. “Father Abbot, we didn’t . . . We just got here . . .”

The abbot scowled, looking like a bird of prey with the other choir monks behind him, candles in hand. “And who gave you permission to be here and out of the dormitory? Where is Frère Joseph?”

“I don’t know,” Henri answered. “We thought Frère Joseph was doing penance . . .”

“And you thought he wouldn’t hear you entering the chapel,” Father Pierre said caustically from behind the abbot, “or mind you destroying a treasure commissioned by our bishop for the royal house! How did you get in?”

“We didn’t come to destroy the triptych!” Claude shouted. “We just wanted to see it . . .”

The Abbot held up a hand. “I repeat, how did you get in, and where is Frère Joseph?”

“I’m here, Father Abbot,” Frère Joseph said from the side door of the chapel. The old monk looked around at the crowd curiously. “I had to relieve myself.”

Abbot Daurat sighed, but nodded. Frère Joseph was one of the oldest monks in the abbey, and as the abbot before him had remarked when Daurat was a novice, God had to forgive a person for interrupting his penance to answer the call of nature because, after all, God had designed a man’s bowels. But, he wasn’t about to let the boys off the hook yet.

“That only leaves the matter of how you got into the chapel,” the abbot said sternly. “I assume you used the side door like Frère Joseph? Since we came through the front doors.”

“No, Father Abbot,” Gabriel said, looking at his friends. It was better to come clean, he thought. If they were honest about how they gotten into the chapel without being seen, as well as why they’d come, then maybe the abbot would stop suspecting them.

“We came in through the choir loft,” he finished. “Henri said it would be unlocked and . . .”

“Oh?” the Abbot interrupted. He looked at a guilty Henri. “And just how did you know the door in the loft would be unlocked? I thought I gave orders for that door to remain locked?”

Henri shrugged. “One of the novices told me, Father Abbot. I forget whom.”

Abbott Dauret nodded gravely, not believing Henri’s evasion. “Well, well.” He cupped his chin in his hand as he stared hard at the boys. “Maybe a week of serving penance with Frère Stephan will help you remember, Henri?”

Henri groaned, and Gabriel felt bad for his friend. Frère Stephan ran the abbey’s infirmary, and helping out with the sick was one of the least favorite ‘penances’ available since the infirmarian used his young helpers to empty and clean the bedpans.

“It was David, Father Abbot,” Henri said hopefully.

The abbot nodded. “Thank you for your honesty, Henri. I hope you will contemplate its virtues as well as the pitfalls of gossiping instead of attending to your prayers over the next week and a half in the infirmary. And as for you, Jean-Claude and Gabriel-Nicholas . . .”

Gabriel looked at the Abbot with horror,

“. . . I think you should join your friend in the infirmary while you contemplate the consequences of being out of bed after hours.”

Gabriel and Claude groaned. But, Gabriel realized, at least the abbot believed they hadn’t destroyed the triptych.

“Father Abbot,” Father Pierre’s hard voice said, “about the triptych . . .”

Abbot Dauret nodded. “Yes,” he said, turning to the thickset novice master who oversaw student discipline, “However, I think for the moment . . .” He turned and gave the boys a stern look, “. . . we shall proceed as though everyone here is innocent until proven guilty.”

****

“Tough luck, guys,” Charles said as he helped himself to his third pastry from the tray in front of the boys. Another tray, empty of everything but crumbs, rested at the other end of the huge table Gabriel shared with his friends in the half-empty refectory. “At least Father Abbot didn’t expel you. You would have caught it then. I told you not to go. All this trouble for a stupid picture!”

“A stupid picture that might mean something more than tax-farming or marrying some pockmarked heiress,” Gabriel said bitterly. If Their Majesties had liked the triptych enough to grant Limoges their patronage, then maybe Gabriel could do something other than marry the heiress his parents had betrothed him to and spend his life as a provincial magistrate. Something special for France, like Monsieur Holmes or the Vicomte de Turenne.

“Well, now it’s ruined,” Charles said, reaching for a fourth pastry, but Claude slapped his hand away. “And it doesn’t matter anyway. My father told me there isn’t going to be a Dauphin except for Monsieur Gaston, and Queen Anne is going to be locked in a convent with her bastard.”

The boys groaned, Charles’s father, a tax farmer, was a convinced Orleanist.

“That’s foolish,” Gabriel said. “And anyway, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Limoges’ gift to the crown is gone, and there’s no way the craftsmen could make replacements in time.”

Charles snickered. “They’d have to replace Saint Anne with Saint Marguerite, anyway. Madame la Duchesse won’t want a portrait of someone else’s saint.”

“Will you shut up, Charles?” Gabriel asked angrily. “I think we should find out what happened to the icons.”

Henri shook his head. “My great-uncle will do that. There’s no need for us to get involved.”

“I agree with Gabriel,” Claude said. “After all, Father Abbot suspects us—you, me, and Gabriel—of destroying it. If we can find out who really did it, we can prove it wasn’t us.”

Henri smiled as he nodded. “And maybe get out of carrying bedpans for a week and a half?”

Gabriel shuddered. It wasn’t that he hated the sick, or thought the poor who inhabited the abbey infirmary were bad, but the stench of anyone‘s chamber pot was enough to make him retch.

“All right,” Gabriel said to Henri and Claude. “If we’re going to do this, we’ve got to have a plan. We’ve got to be methodical and thorough in our investigation, like Monsieur Holmes.”

The other boys rolled their eyes at Gabriel’s mention of the English sleuth, but Gabriel ignored them and reached for his notepad and pencil. The notepad was thin newsprint and expensive, but the abbey school required each student to purchase several to take notes in class and write reports.

“Who’s our first suspect?” Gabriel asked, writing “Suspects” at the top of the page.

“Frère Joseph,” Claude and Henri said together.

“Not even Frère Joseph should have to take a piss when he’s been praying and fasting since Nones.” Charles snickered.

Ignoring Charles, Gabriel put Frère Joseph’s name beside the numeral 1. “What about David, Henri? The novice who told you the choir loft would be unlocked?”

Henri nodded. “Now that I think about it, how did he know? Put Father Pierre on the list, too Gabriel. He was so determined to point the finger at us.”

Gabriel nodded and added Father Pierre and Novice David to the list. “Anyone else?”

When the other boys shook their heads, Gabriel sighed and pointed at Henri with his stylus. “Henri, since David is your friend, why don’t you ask him some questions? Ask him where he was, that sort of thing.”

“No, really?” Henri asked sarcastically. “We read those up-time detective stories too, Gabriel. Remember, it was all of our money that paid for the Mystery Book Club subscription? Though I liked those ones about the Belgian more, not to mention the ones about the English monk.”

“Welsh,” Charles corrected him, “not English. Frère Cadfael was from Wales.”

“Claude, why don’t you tackle Father Pierre since Charles isn’t interested?” Gabriel asked, ignoring Charles. “And I’ll investigate the crime scene and talk to Frère Joseph.”

“Why do you get to investigate the crime scene?” Claude whined. “You don’t even know what you’re looking for, or have any of the materials to do it. How are you going to photograph the scene or dust for fingerprints? You can’t even draw.”

Gabriel nodded. It was a definite problem.

“Photographing the scene won’t help us even if we could afford a camera,” Charles said, looking superior. “As for fingerprints . . .” Charles pulled a box out of his satchel. “I . . . um . . . borrowed . . . this from my mother the last time I was home. For science experiments.”

The other boys grinned as they saw the unmistakable red tint of rouge in the box.

“Yeah, science experiments,” Gabriel said. “Funny though, I haven’t seen you taking any prints.”

Charles flushed. “Do you follow me around every second of every day, Gabriel? Besides, I haven’t figured out how to transfer the prints to something that’ll stick yet. Do you want me to help or not?”

Gabriel glanced at the other boys, who nodded, then held out his hand to Charles. “The game’s afoot, my friends!”

****

“So, Frère Joseph, where were you when the triptych was damaged?” Gabriel asked, trying to sound ingenious. Gabriel knew that Frère Joseph had told the abbot where he was, since Gabriel had been there, but Gabriel wanted to be thorough.

“What does it matter to you?” the monk asked sourly as he adjusted himself on the chapel’s stone floor.

The chapel was only a little warmer in the day than it had been last night, Gabriel thought, as the cold ate through his doublet and up though his shoes. Gabriel had no idea how Frère Joseph could stand kneeling on the icy floor day and night.

“You novices are all the same,” Frère Joseph said, hitching at his robe. “Nosy about things that don’t concern you, in places you shouldn’t be. Take my advice, young man, and stay out of the abbot’s private rooms.”

“I’m not a novice, Frère, I’m one of the students. I’m asking about the triptych the bishop commissioned for the Dauphin. I’m . . . doing a report,” Gabriel lied, looking over the monk’s shoulder to where Charles was brushing furiously at the chapel altar, which had begun to turn pink. Gabriel doubted Charles had found anything yet.

“What dolphin?” Frère Joseph shouted, and Gabriel winced. The old man’s voice was loud enough to wake the dead.

“The Dauphin, Frère Joseph. Queen Anne’s baby. She’s supposed to deliver any day now,” Gabriel said, trying to speak loudly and clearly enough.

“Nonsense, boy, you’ve got it wrong. The novice master ought to be whipped, and you along with him! Fancy a novice not knowing who the Queen of France is! Well let me tell you, whoever you are, the Queen of France is Marguerite de Valois!” Frère Joseph said with an air of finality as he clapped his hands together and screwed his eyes shut.

Gabriel stared. “Ummm, Frère . . . La Reine Margot is dead . . . And she was divorced . . .”

“Nonsense!” Frère Joseph countered, opening one eye. “Young boys these days! If my poor bowels …”

The monk suddenly blanched and ran for the side door. Gabriel followed, motioning to Charles. Even if he had to put up with the stink of an old man’s plumbing, Gabriel vowed, he’d find the truth.

Frère Joseph barely made it down the short hallway to the necessary before crouching down to relieve himself with a groan. Gabriel perched in the doorway, trying to breathe through his mouth. “Frère Joseph, you must remember the other evening? My friends and I came into the chapel to see the triptych . . .”

Frère Joseph groaned. “Young man, if I could remember what I had for dinner I probably wouldn’t be in such pain now. Will you please leave?”

Frère Joseph let out a loud fart, and Gabriel retreated into the corridor, holding his nose.

“At it again is he? Poor old man,” a voice said from behind Gabriel.

Gabriel turned and saw one of the lay brothers standing nearby with a mop and bucket.

“Was he here last night?” Gabriel asked, pulling out his notebook.

The monk shrugged. “Not my night on duty. Matthew usually cleans up after Frère Joseph, poor sod.”

“Who’s Matthew? What does he look like?” Gabriel asked as he pulled his pencil out from behind his ear. There were so many lay brothers, he thought. The students had little to do with the monks who did the work of running the abbey, except at mealtimes. Mostly they interacted with their teachers, who were all choir monks.

The monk snorted and shrugged. “Tall guy, red hair. If I could find him, I’d strangle him for leaving me to take care of the old man like this.”

“Where did he go?” Gabriel said, his ears picking up.

The monk shook his head and slung his mop over his shoulder. “Last time I saw him he said he was done with this place. Can’t say I blame him,” the monk said, pinching his nose at the stink coming from the necessary.

Gabriel gagged and ran down the hall toward the garden where he found Henri and Claude. “Heh, guys! Learn anything?”

“Yeah, Frère Pierre did it with the Dante in the cupola,” Claude said sarcastically. “Frère Pierre told me to get lost, and I wasn’t about to argue, not when he was chewing out Marc for throwing spit wads in the scriptorium. Not a conversation I really wanted to interrupt if you know what I mean.”

“I found out something,” Henri said, kicking at a pebble on the path. “My friend David said the choir loft door is regularly left unlocked. The choir master keeps forgetting to lock it, and the choir doesn’t like reminding him. They’d rather practice in the music room where it’s warmer, but the master wants to practice in the chapel because of the acoustics. But the choir master is supposed to lock the choir loft even though the main doors are left open. Father Abbot doesn’t want someone breaking a limb on those stairs in the dim light.”

Gabriel nodded and scribbled the information down. “Great. At least one of us got something.”

The other boys nodded gloomily. So far, Gabriel thought, their investigation was turning up nothing.

Then Gabriel heard shouting coming from behind him.

“Ah, guys?” Henri asked. “Where’s Charles?”

****

“I can’t believe you deserted me like that,” Charles said as he emptied a bedpan into the garden cesspit. “I thought we were supposed to be in this together like the Three Musketeers.”

“We never said ‘All for one, and one for all,’ ” Henri said as he emptied his pan. “And that book has been overdone since the Ring of Fire!”

“Guys, come on!” Gabriel said, joining his friends. “We’ve got to come up with a plan. So far the only things we’ve learned is that the choir loft is left unlocked, the lay brother who regularly helps Frère Joseph is gone, Frère Joseph has a bad case of the runs, and rouge powder turns the chapel altar pink. We don’t have a clue what happened to the missing icons, let alone the jewels in the frame.”

“They must have fallen out,” Claude said. He scratched his head. “My father’s always complaining about the quality of Limoges jewelers whenever I’m on a visit.”

“They may have fallen out,” Gabriel countered, “if the frame fell or someone broke it trying to get the icons out.” Gabriel sighed. “It would have been so cool if Charles had been able to find some fingerprints, but I think we should stick to Monsieur Holmes’s method of observation and logic.”

The other boys nodded in agreement.

“Here’s what could have happened,” Gabriel continued. “Someone entered the chapel between the time Frère Joseph went to the necessary and the three of us entered. They ruined the triptych frame and either stole or destroyed two of the icons.”

“And stole the jewels from the frame . . . maybe,” Henri interjected. “They could have fallen out. It isn’t as though we got to look around before the Father Abbot caught us.”

“I hate to interrupt your skull session,” Frère Stephan said dryly, “but those bed pans aren’t cleaning themselves.”

Gabriel looked at Frère Stephan thoughtfully. The monk had been with the abbot when the destroyed triptych had been found . . .

“Frère Stephan,” Gabriel said, trying, not very successfully, to appear angelic, “we were wondering about what happened to the triptych . . .”

Frère Stephan sighed. “Boys . . . please leave these matters to your elders and God’s hands. His Grace the Bishop will make sure Limoges is not forgotten when a Dauphin is christened or a king crowned.”

“Yes, but, Frère,” Henri said, pushing forward. “One day we’ll be peers of the realm, magistrates, or officials. I might be Bishop of Limoges like my great-uncle. Don’t you think . . .”

“No, I don’t. I think you should mind your own business, which, my fine gentlemen, is how you ended up under my supervision.” Frère Stephan said. “Matthew!”

The boys traded glances as an older lay monk walked over with a stinky bucket. He was taller than the boys and the other lay brother Gabriel remembered, but Gabriel wouldn’t describe his hair as red so much as orange.

“Yes, Frère Stephan?” Matthew answered politely.

“Our young penitents need some supervision, if you please. See that they stay on task,” Frère Stephan commanded as he swept away.

“Frère Matthew?” Gabriel asked as the monk handed his bucket to Henri to empty.

“Yes. Gabriel, is it?” Frère Matthew answered with a small smile.

“Yes sir. I was wondering whether to look after Frère Joseph?” Gabriel asked, trying not to breathe in the stink of the bedpan he still held. It seemed to be getting worse the longer he held it. Frère Matthew reached out and emptied it into the pit, after setting his bucket down.

“I do sometimes, poor soul. Frère Stephan and I think he’s not long for this world if his bowels remain so loose. He’s not keeping enough inside to keep a bird alive.” Matthew shook his head. “And he sleeps all day then insists on keeping vigil alone all night in the chapel even though the abbot says he must follow Frère Stephan’s advice and rest.”

“Why don’t you send him to Italy or the Germanies where he might get up-time medical help?” Charles asked.

Frère Matthew shook his head. “There’s no cure for old age, even among the up-timers. You should have emptied these bedpans into a bucket like I did, then changed them for one of the newly cleaned ones. Come along, boys.”

Gabriel and the others followed Matthew through the main infirmary to the corner where the monks kept the cleaning supplies. The cots on either side of the center aisle were practically empty, Gabriel thought resentfully. There shouldn’t be a pile of bedpans waiting to be cleaned with sand and vinegar.

“But did you see Frère Joseph go to the necessary that night? If you were looking after Frère Joseph why weren’t you in the chapel or with him when he came back?”

Matthew raised his eyebrows, but unlike Frère Stephan, he smiled. “I did see Frère Joseph go to the necessary that evening, boys. I did my best to help him, and when he finished I stayed behind to clean up. Now are there any other questions?”

“Did you see the triptych? What about the jewels from the frame?” Henri asked.

Matthew’s face became closed and stern. “I did see the triptych and the jewels in the frame. It’s a pity what happened.”

“What did happen?” Gabriel asked eagerly.

Matthew shook his head. “I’ve said enough. You need to get to work cleaning the bedpans.”

“That was suspicious,” Charles said as they turned to follow Matthew. “You’d think he’d just say ‘The abbot knows everything, everything’s all right.’ And tell us what happened. Why all this secrecy?”

“I think it’s because they don’t want both settlements finding out their gift to the royal family was stolen,” Claude said, leaping over a branch. “I think we should take a look at the necessary.”

Gabriel wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Even if it hasn’t been used lately it’ll still stink. Charles, while you were trying to dust for fingerprints did you see anything, any clue?”

Charles shook his head, and stopped in the path. “Nothing. But then I wasn’t looking. Maybe I should take another look while you guys are looking in the necessary?”

“No. Any evidence that might have been there is probably long gone by now.” Gabriel scratched his head, trying to think of an idea that might work. “Charles, why don’t you try Frère Pierre? He might talk to you since you weren’t in the chapel the first time.”

“I have a better idea,” Charles said. “Why don’t I go with you and Henri goes to see Frère Pierre? He’s the bishop’s nephew and you know how Frère Pierre respects connections.”

The boys grinned at each other. It was an open secret that Frère Pierre wanted to be abbot when Abbot Dauret died or stepped down and hoped to convince Bishop de Lafayette to support him. It was an equally open secret that the Bishop didn’t interfere with the chapter vote.

“No way,” Henri said. “I’d rather face the necessary than Frère Pierre.”

“But the necessary isn’t that big,” Gabriel pointed out. “All four of us wouldn’t fit.”

“So you and I will examine the necessary and Claude and Charles will keep watch,” Henri countered.

The other boys nodded, and Gabriel looked around them. Apparently both Frère Stephan and his assistants had given up on making the boys clean the pile of filthy bed pans, he thought, because they were all busy with the patients. Gabriel nodded to his friends.

“Okay, let’s go,” he said, and the boys crept out of the infirmary and through the corridors to the necessary by the chapel.

Gabriel started to pull open the door and suddenly stopped. Frère Joseph was sprawled on the floor, a small streak of blood at one side of his mouth and a larger pool drying where the brother’s head met the floor.

“Mon Dieu!” Gabriel shouted as he jumped back, hitting something solid as he did. A pair of large hands grasped at his arms as he over-balanced and nearly fell onto Frère Joseph.

“For the love of . . .” Frère Jacques sputtered as he pulled Gabriel out of the necessary.

“I didn’t hurt him,” Gabriel shouted as the monk hauled him into the corridor.

“I know that, Boy,” Frère Jacques sputtered. “I was two seconds behind you, coming to see what the four of you were doing in the corridor instead of in the infirmary. Or did Stephan let them go, Matthew?”

Gabriel turned and saw Frère Matthew coming toward them. Matthew shook his head as he joined the group, slightly out of breath. “No, Frère Jacques. I was just coming to get them.”

“Frère Matthew,” Gabriel said, “Frère Joseph is in the necessary unconscious, I think something’s wrong.”

The lay brother blanched, and pushed his way through to Frère Joseph. Kneeling down, Matthew pressed his fingers to Frère Joseph’s neck, then shook his head.

“He’s gone,” Matthew said slowly as he looked up at the boys. Tears began to form in the younger monk’s eyes.

“Someone killed him?” Charles asked, trying not to sound excited.

“I doubt it,” Frère Matthew said, glaring up at Charles. “Frère Joseph had been ill a long time. Most likely he had another seizure.”

“Another seizure?” Gabriel asked at the same time the other boys asked, “Frère Joseph had seizures?”

Frère Jacques sighed. “Frère Matthew, please go get Frère Stephan. You know what he’ll need. As for the three of you,” Frère Jacques gave the boys a hard look, “I think Father Abbot should deal with you. Again.”

****

“So you see, Father,” Gabriel said, “we decided to investigate. Just like the people in the mysteries.”

Gabriel’s father nodded slowly and exchanged a look with Abbot Dauret that Gabriel didn’t understand.

“As you can see, Young Gabriel,” the Abbot said, waving at a tall chest, “the settlement’s triptych is perfectly fine.”

Gabriel flushed as he examined the triptych as it sat in isolated splendor on Abbot Dauret’s carved prie deau. It was a lovely thing, Saint Anne cradling Saint Mary, her blue veil embroidered with fleur-de-lys on the right, Saint Martial in gold on the left, the Virgin and Christ child in the center. Worthy, Gabriel thought, of a future king.

It was so lovely and new it made the rest of the Abbot’s office look faded and shabby. But then the plain, uncarved desk, the ordinary straight-backed chairs, rickety bench, and brass candelabra looked like they belonged in a peasant’s hut, Gabriel thought disdainfully. Even his parent’s home, as poor as they were for a noble family, was better furnished.

“But what happened, Father Abbot?” Gabriel asked, unable to stop himself.

“Frère Jacques knocked the triptych over when he had a seizure,” Gabriel’s father said, putting a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “May God bless his soul.”

“Indeed,” Abbot Dauret said, folding his hands into the sleeves of his habit. “The jewels and icons were knocked loose by the violence when Frère Jacques thrashed out. I believe he was reaching for the Host when the seizure took him. He often did that,” the Abbot told Gabriel’s father, “forgetting he was no longer able to function as a priest. Poor Frère Matthew has had to take communion from Frère Joseph several times, fearing stopping him would do more harm than good.

“Frère Jacques found the icon of Saint Martial in the necessary,” Abbot Dauret continued, looking at Gabriel. “The icon of Saint Anne was found by Frere Pierre with the jewels behind the altar.”

“But . . .” Gabriel started, then stopped when he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder.

“There’s nothing wrong with healthy curiosity, Gabriel-Nicholas,” his father said. “And it’s good for a magistrate to know how an investigation is run. But . . .” Gabriel flushed at his father’s stern look. “There is a difference between curiosity and interference. The next time one of your elders tells you not to interfere, you should listen.”

“Yes Father,” Gabriel said. “But what if the person telling me not to interfere is hiding a crime?”

“Hmmm,” Gabriel’s father said, nodding. His displeased expression softened slightly. “It depends, I suppose, on whether you’re investigating a real crime or indulging your curiosity. What do you say, Father Abbot?”

Abbot Dauret smiled softly. “I agree, Monsieur.”

“I think I understand,” Gabriel said, then paused. “Father? Can I ask you something?”

His father chuckled. “You already did, but go on.”

“Do I have to be a magistrate?” Gabriel asked in a rush. “What if I became a private investigator like Monsieur Holmes? Maybe I could go to Grantville or Magdeburg to study up-time police things? When we’re not at war with the up-timers anymore? Please?”

His father exchanged a strange look with Abbot Dauret and tugged on his doublet’s worn sleeve. “I don’t know. If we can afford it. Maybe when the war ends. But, Gabriel-Nicholas, there’s no place for a private investigator in Limoges.”

“But I could go to Paris,” Gabriel countered, his mind filling with dreams. “Paris could use an investigator.”

Abbot Dauret rubbed his chin. “Hmmm. Monsieur, I think you should have a talk with His Grace about the information we spoke about earlier. I think he might have an idea or two about young Gabriel’s desire to study in Grantville or Magdeburg when he’s a little older.”

Jean-Nicholas de Traslage, Seignior de la Reynie smiled down at his son. “Perhaps. If he stops cutting Latin class.”

****

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One thought on “An Iconic Mystery

  1. leegibson

    It is good to see a piece expanding on”the Cardinal Virtues” , and to hear from this author again. I was hoping that we would have more on the riverboat Vanity Fair. Regarding the present opus, we have several authors building on the theme of the effects of uptime literature on 17th century readers. At this stage in the story’s development, I find it less entrancing than the author’s previous two contributions to this alternate universe, but time and editorial work could change that! Best wishes,
    Lee.

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