Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Meeting With the Abbot Rutilius

My Lord, Cardinal Benedetto Gaetano, from your servant, Captain Luigi Barozzi.

I hope this letter finds you in good health, my Lord, I pray too that God guides your hand protects you from the envy of others. I wish to commend to you, my Lord, a cleric whom I met by chance as I returned from my pigrimage to the Shrine of the Black Madonna. God has not, so far, been pleased to cure my sickness, the wound continues to afflict my health and I write this epistle to be sent on by courier since I must ride slowly.

I met the Abbot Rutilius and his acolyte on the road at Narbonne. Like me, they were spending a night at an inn there; they on their way to the shrine of the Virgin at Montserrat, I on my way back.

I thought it worthy of writing to you, my Lord Cardinal, to tell you of these two. They solve crimes that baffle others, misdeeds and felonies are as clear to them as spring water.

The Abbot Rutilius had just finished his evening repast when I came into the common room. It was busy and at his invitation, I sat and shared his table. He recommended a local wine and he joined me in a glass as we spoke. The Abbot has an imposing stature, somewhat above average height and far more than average corpulence. His complexion is a marvellous collection of colours with reds and mauves predominating.

“And where do you go?’ he asked me. ‘There are but two ways from here, one south, one north.’

‘I go north, m’Lord Abbot. I go home.’

‘I might guess you’ve been to one of the shrines, then,’ he suggested. ‘Montserrat perhaps, perhaps even to Compastela?’


He nodded. ‘I noticed you favour your left leg and that your complexion is pale. You’ve been to pray to La Moreneta?’

I smiled, nodded. ‘An old wound that gives me pain. And you?’

Montserrat. I have work to do there.’

‘Work? I thought it might be a pilgrimage?’

‘I oversee the tithes and the taxes to his Holiness. I make certain St. Peter’s Pence is gathered in.’

‘Ah.’ This surprised me. ‘A counter of monies.’

The Abbot chuckled. His stomach, which I may have mentioned was not inconsiderable, shook with good humour. ‘My visits are not always popular but generally, I see things that others miss and put them right, it eases the pain of taxes.’

I must have frowned in puzzlement here for he explained.

‘There may be schemes afoot, schemes that defraud the abbey. I notice and put a stop to it so, although Papa Martinus gets his share, the establishment is often better off than before.’

‘A fraud investigator too?’

He finished his glass of wine and I poured more.

‘Not just frauds, either.’ He winked, lowered his voice and leaned across the table conspiratorially. ‘There have been murders too.’

‘My Lord…’

‘Rutilius, please.’

‘Rutilius. You find murders? In monasteries?’

‘Holy places have their share too.’

‘Incredible. Tell me, how did you come to be a counter of money and an investigator of crime?’

‘Mistakes and happenstance.’

‘Now you must tell me more. Landlord,’ I spoke loudly and held up an empty jug which was quickly replaced. ‘Mistakes, you said.’

Again he chuckled. ‘May I – if you’ve finished?’ I nodded and he helped himself to a chop at the side of my plate. ‘Meat. This past year I have come all the way from Avignon through the villages of southern France; meat is not to be had by the country folk, it’s a rarity. Once, in Carcassonne I was given a decent meal and now, here.’

‘This inn,’ I waved my knife around, ‘this place caters to a wealthier class than most; meat may be had, at a price. You mentioned mistakes.’

‘I did, I did. I’m not used to wealth, Sir. My father was a fisherman in Naples till he disappeared – maybe he fell overboard or maybe he just ran away from us, a large family. I was soon found work, at the Bishop’s palace; I discovered a library of books and scrolls there, something I had never imagined ‘till then. My employer forthwith set about teaching me to read,’ Rutilius the Abbot smiled sadly, remembering his younger days I suppose. ‘To make the story short, the Bishop saw me educated and I went to Pisa where I was introduced to mathematics.’

‘A mistake,’ I said, trying to bring the Abbot back to the point.

‘Ah yes, the mistake. I came to Avignon where my task master mistook mathematics for arithmetic. Thus, I was put in the counting house.’

‘I see, I think. And happenstance?’

‘Happenstance, because I notice things that don’t add up. Bills don’t tally to what they’re supposed to, goods are wrongly valued. In a case earlier this year, the scriveners were idle; there was no paper, no vellum. The money had been spent on opulent decoration.’

I nodded, understanding. ‘Murder, I remember you mentioning.’

‘I give you but one example. A monk had stolen from abbey funds; he killed another and assumed his identity merely by shaving his beard and claiming to be the dead man.’

‘So much sin in such holy houses.’

Rutilius shrugged. ‘I must give credit to my assistant. A young man whose mind is sharp enough to see things I miss. We discuss these inconsistencies, we notice and we draw conclusions.’

‘Not with you tonight?’

‘Ah, he’ll be about. Probably making sure our donkey is fed. A beautiful boy, eyes like black olives, fingers like a musician’s. For one so young, he is an accomplished swordsman and has saved my valuables as well as my life on occasion.’

I had seen such a boy, by the kitchen door, talking with a maid. ‘You’re sure it’s the donkey, then? Not the serving maids?’ I joked.

‘William? The farthest thing from his mind.’

The jest passed Rutilius by like the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan. I held my piece and, grinning, poured more wine.

Rutilius was obviously not used to such strong drink and told me tales of detection that had my eyebrows raised until he went to his bed. I met the boy too; we discussed the finer points of the French sword and how the English, lacking finesse, merely hack at their opponents.

The Abbot imagines that William, the youngster, will eventually enter holy orders but this, I fear, may be one of his rare mistakes. However, believe me, my Lord Cardinal; either or both would make a useful addition to your staff.

Look for them at Avignon, have them come to see you.

Your servant, Captain of your Guard, Luigi Barozzi.

* * *

The Abbot and the Acolyte is planned to be a series of medieval mysteries set in real abbeys and other locations. Death and Taxes is the first book in this series; it is published by Libros International and is available in paperback from Amazon. Read about it at www.DavidBColes.co.uk.

David Coles and Jack Everett

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