Posted on 2015-10-31
Mr Knightley, of Donwell Abbey in Surrey, was known in the entire neighbourhood as a genial host. Unfortunately, being unmarried he had to restrict his invitations to the male population of Highbury and Donwell, a fact much lamented among the ladies. Mr Knightley's convivial gatherings were a regular affair. Once every month, the gentlemen of Donwell and the neighbouring villages of Highbury and Egerton were invited to dine at the Abbey. From what the ladies could discover from their husbands, the entertainment there was highly respectable. The dinners were first-rate, and after having enjoyed their meal and Mr Knightley's excellent port the gentlemen played chess or card games in the library. Those of a literary turn of mind were free to make use of Mr Knightley's well-stocked library, which was greatly appreciated by those gentlemen eager to improve their learning but unable to afford the latest literature. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, and the gentlemen tended to return to their homes rather late. However, that was not a problem since Mr Knightley's invitations usually coincided with the full moon, and so one need not be afraid of losing one's way in the dark. In cases of bad weather his guests could depend on being offered a bed for the night and an excellent breakfast the next day.
Mr Elton, the new vicar of Highbury, received his first invitation from Mr Knightley one day in late October, and although he had expected nothing less than being accepted into the local gentry with open arms he was flattered nevertheless. While such an invitation was due to Mr Elton's station in life, one could not generally count on people being aware of that fact. His host, Mr Knightley, was quite educated for a country gentleman and tolerably intelligent, so it was necessary to cultivate that acquaintance, even if the company expected at Donwell Abbey was not quite to Mr Elton's taste. For apparently, the term "gentleman" was applied rather too generously in this part of the world and seemed to include such people as Mr Weston or Mr Cole, who had made their fortunes in trade; or Mr Perry, the Highbury apothecary, whose profession was not, in Mr Elton's opinion, gentlemanly at all. Funnily enough the company was not going to include old Mr Woodhouse, who was the only real gentleman resident in Highbury, and with whose daughter Mr Elton wished to become better acquainted. Apparently Mr Woodhouse did not choose to go into society much, which was to be deplored.
Still, one had to make allowances for the smallness of the place, Mr Elton supposed; and he knew that being a clergyman he could not always pick and choose with whom he associated. He took comfort in the fact that he was in all likelihood the best-educated man in Highbury society and meant to establish his reputation as such as soon as possible. For this purpose, the dinner party at Donwell Abbey would serve him very well - the fewer gentlemen of education were present the better.
So Mr Elton spent considerable time reading up on the history of Donwell Abbey in order to educate the gentlemen regarding its importance; but to his great chagrin he could not discover much. The Abbey had been founded in the same year as the Magna Carta had been signed in nearby Runnymede, and the first abbot and monks had come from Waverley Abbey, a Cistercian abbey some fifteen miles south of Donwell. There was nothing in Mr Elton's books about the exact circumstances of the foundation, or who had initiated it. This was slightly disheartening at first, but then Mr Elton decided that he could use this circumstance to his advantage. He would display what knowledge he had, thus establishing his credit as a learned man, and ask his host for additional information. After all, learned men sought to expand their knowledge whenever they could, so not knowing everything about the Abbey would do him no harm. Besides he would give Mr Knightley, the proud owner of Donwell Abbey, an opportunity to show off his property and its history of greatness, which would further their friendship. Mr Elton was quite determined that he and Mr Knightley should be good friends. Considering their respective stations in life, their becoming friends was quite inevitable. Apart from Mr Woodhouse and Mr Bishop, the curate at Egerton, they were the only real gentlemen in the neighbourhood; and Mr Elton was not sure about Mr Bishop, not having made his acquaintance yet. Curates, while members of the clergy like Mr Elton, did not rank highly in his esteem, for they had failed to obtain a lucrative living as he had done. That, of course, had to be no one else's fault but their own.
Mr Bishop, in spite of his high-sounding name, turned out to be a quiet young gentleman. This would have suited Mr Elton pretty well if it were not for one fact. Mr Bishop did not talk much, but appeared to listen closely to everything he said with an air of mockery that made Mr Elton want to strangle him. To him, it was quite evident that Mr Bishop, that lowly country curate, did not take him seriously enough and he strongly resented that. Luckily for Mr Elton, the other gentlemen did not appear to share Mr Bishop's view of his character. They treated him with proper respect, and Mr Knightley singled him out just as Mr Elton had expected him to. That way, it was easy for him to accomplish his plans for the evening.
"Donwell Abbey is a fine place, Mr Knightley, a very fine place indeed," he said as they left the dining room and headed for the library, where chess boards and card tables had been set up for the gentlemen's evening entertainment.
"Thank you, Mr Elton," was Mr Knightley's polite reply.
"I have attempted to discover as much as I could about the Abbey's history, but with little success I am afraid," Mr Elton continued, with what he hoped was a self-deprecating smile. "My history books have little to say about it."
"This may be because the Abbey has hardly ever played a major part in history," Mr Knightley remarked. "As you know, the Cistercian order as such never aimed for greatness, although some of its members did achieve it. But the monks at Donwell were humble men, strictly following St Bernard's rules and not taking any interest in matters outside their sphere."
"This seems extraordinary, considering the power some of the medieval abbeys have held in their hands." Mr Elton said.
"Donwell Abbey has never been that powerful, Mr Elton," Mr Knightley said. "It cannot have been, for its founder was a humble man as well, and the Abbey did not acquire much land beyond what he had given them."
"He had the means to found an abbey, which means that he must have been a man of some importance," Mr Elton insisted.
"A man of some importance, true. Without him the Magna Carta might never have been signed. But he was a humble man nevertheless. Donwell Abbey has the distinction of being the only abbey in England - or anywhere else for that matter, as far as I know - that was founded by an itinerant barber-surgeon."
Mr Elton burst out laughing. "Really, Mr Knightley! Surely you must be joking! You cannot expect me to believe that! How could a barber-surgeon have founded an abbey? Where would he have obtained the means to do so?"
"I admit it sounds odd," said Mr Knightley. "Yet it is true. If you wish you may read it in the Abbey chronicles, which I keep in my library here. Donwell Abbey was founded by one Edmund of Lambton, a travelling barber-surgeon from Derbyshire. If the other gentlemen have no objection, I will tell you how he came to have the means of founding an abbey - and why he did so."
The other gentlemen expressed their willingness to hear the story, which seemed to them as extraordinary as it seemed to Mr Elton. As local men, they were probably acquainted with all the legends and tales concerning the Abbey and its monks, but they were quite interested in hearing more about Edmund of Lambton, the barber-surgeon. And so, Mr Knightley began.
"As we all know, the Magna Carta was signed in Runnymede," he said. "We also know that King John was none too happy about the affair, and that he would have evaded the barons if he could have done so. He might have stood his ground had it not been for one circumstance, which seemed trivial at the time but turned out to have a tremendous effect. In June 1215, at the time when he signed the Magna Carta, King John was suffering from severe toothache; a circumstance which the barons could use to their advantage."
"How?" Mr Elton was puzzled. "A man's suffering from toothache will not improve his temper in any way."
"True. But a man suffering from toothache will do anything to get rid of it," Mr Bishop, who had hardly opened his mouth up to that moment, pointed out. "I do not think King John was an exception."
"No, indeed," Mr Knightley said with a smile. "Are you acquainted with the story, Mr Bishop?"
"Not with the entire story, but it is mentioned in the parish chronicles of Egerton. As you know, the Donwell monks served the parish during the Middle Ages."
"Oh yes, and you are acquainted with the parish chronicles of course. - Well, Mr Elton, Mr Bishop is right. By making sure King John's toothache was not treated until he had signed the Magna Carta, the barons won. Once he had done so, they fetched a barber-surgeon who had happened to be in the vicinity at the time, and permitted him to draw the King's tooth. He was not very willing to undertake the task, however. Having heard only bad things about King John, he feared the King would somehow take his revenge on him, the humble barber-surgeon, since he could not get his hands on the barons."
"This looks like a very natural fear to me," Mr Weston remarked. "From what I have read of King John I conclude that he was none too reliable."
"Yet it would not be reasonable of him to take his anger out on a man who had done him no harm but, on the contrary, had been instrumental to his cure," Mr Elton objected.
"I had no idea King John was known for his sound judgement," Mr Bishop said dryly. "Edmund of Lambton, a poor man from the lowest ranks of society, had witnessed him, the King, in a vulnerable and humiliated state. That would be reason enough for the King to make sure the man did not talk."
"So how did they persuade Edmund the barber-surgeon in the end?" Mr Elton asked, deciding that his dislike of Mr Bishop was fully justified.
"The Barons promised to make some substantial property in and around Donwell over to him," Mr Knightley said. "Edmund, who was getting on in years and thinking of finally settling down, accepted that offer, provided that he was free to dispose of the property as he saw fit. Having obtained that promise from the Barons, he went to the King and did for him what he could. Once it was clear that the King was none the worse for his ordeal, Edmund fled - to Waverley Abbey, where he had friends. He promised to give his property in Donwell to the Cistercian Order if they built an abbey on the property, allowed him to remain there for the rest of his life, buried him in the abbey church when he died and prayed for his soul ever after. The abbot of Waverley was quick to accept the gift - which, as it turned out, was a clever strategy on Edmund of Lambton's part."
"Why?" Mr Elton asked. "Why did he let go of the property?" He did not see how that could have been a wise decision. In his opinion, it was an excessively foolish thing to do. One did not, in one's right mind, let go of property.
Mr Knightley smiled. "Apparently the King was not the only unreliable man in the kingdom. Owning property is not the same thing as asserting one's right to it, Mr Elton. The Barons knew that a poor man like Edmund had no means of enforcing his claim, and they did not expect him to try. It was quite a different matter with the Church, however. No one would stand in the way of the Church claiming its property - as Edmund well knew. So by handing over his land in Donwell to the Cistercians he made a home for himself, and by becoming a friar he was under their protection and could enjoy his property in peace. He led a quiet life in Donwell Abbey until his death some twenty years later, and was buried in the Abbey church according to his wishes."
"Ah, the Abbey church! I was meaning to ask you, Mr Knightley, whether there are any remains of the church still in existence," inquired Mr Elton.
"Nothing at all, I am sorry to say. What remained of it was destroyed during the Civil War."
"Which was when that business with the Monk started, wasn't it?" Mr Weston asked, adding with a nervous laugh, "Not that I believe a word of it."
Mr Knightley laughed. "Neither do I Mr Weston, in spite of what Nurse used to tell us when we were children. My brother and I were terrified of the Monk, but none of us has ever seen him. Apparently we did not misbehave sufficiently to deserve such harsh punishment."
"A local ghost story, I gather," Mr Elton said; his tone of voice leaving no doubt as to what he thought of such tales.
"Quite so," Mr Knightley replied. "There are rumours among the uneducated in the village - I do beg your pardon, Mr Weston; naturally I do not count you among that number - that after the destruction of the Abbey Church a monk was often seen in the forest at night when the moon was full. You see, the soldiers that blew up the ruins were not content with destroying what was left of the church. They opened the tombs, removed the remains of the monks and abbots who had been buried there and burned them, then dumped the ashes in the river. So according to popular opinion the monks, no longer resting in hallowed ground, cannot rest in peace. It is pure nonsense, of course, although the legend does tell us one thing - the local people thought that it was wrong to disturb the graves, which does show some very proper feeling on their part."
"Have they ever named the monk?" Mr Elton wanted to know in spite of himself. His next sermon, he decided, would be all about the dangers of superstition to the minds of the vulgar and would strike terror into the hearts of his congregation. He was already looking forward to delivering it.
"Why yes, as a matter of fact they have. They think it must be Edmund, the barber-surgeon who founded the Abbey; after all he was the one who had the best reason for resenting the destruction of his foundation."
"In other words, there is some sense to be found even in folk traditions," Mr Bishop commented, smiling.
"Do you condone vulgar superstition, Mr Bishop?" Mr Elton asked. That curate needed being taken down a peg or two, and Mr Elton was quite happy to oblige in that respect.
"Dear me, have I said so?" Mr Bishop countered. "Indeed, I do not! However, I agree with Mr Knightley that traditions and folktales can tell us a great deal about our forefathers' opinions, and as such they are a rewarding subject for study. As a fellow scholar you will agree with me, I know."
That last sentence was uttered in a mocking tone of voice which Mr Elton greatly resented. Although he could not do or say much while they were in company, he vowed to get even with Mr Bishop before he was much older. Maybe Edmund the barber-surgeon could be put to good use. Meanwhile, all Mr Elton could do was let the matter rest and spend the rest of the evening playing chess with the apothecary, while secretly hatching a plan for his revenge.
Mr Elton's plan was quite simple. It was easy for him to obtain a black hooded cloak, which he was going to hide in the forest close to the Highbury road. He was going to leave the next dinner party at Donwell Abbey early, put on the cloak and wait for Mr Bishop - who always walked - to come along on his way home. Then Mr Elton would make sure Mr Bishop had the fright of his life - after which he would reveal his true identity to his victim, and hold Mr Bishop's credulity over his head forever. Not for a moment did he doubt that it would be tremendous fun, or that Mr Bishop would be too humiliated by having allowed himself to be frightened by a silly prank to talk to anyone about it afterwards.
And so, a month later the gentlemen of Highbury, Donwell and Egerton met again at Donwell Abbey to enjoy Mr Knightley's hospitality. There was excellent food, fine wine, and sophisticated discussion as usual. No one suspected anything when Mr Elton took his leave at eleven o'clock, stating that he would have to rise early the following day.
However, the events following Mr Elton's departure from Donwell Abbey that night were destined to remain unknown. When his housekeeper found his bed empty and untouched the next morning, she sent one of the maids to Donwell Abbey to make inquiries. Mr Knightley, in his capacity as the local magistrate, immediately organised a thorough search in the environs of the Highbury road. Two hours later Mr Elton was found dead in the forest, not far from the site where the Abbey church had once been. No injuries were found on his body, but the expression on his face was one of extreme horror, and so it was assumed that Mr Elton must have died of fright. There were some in the village who suspected that the ancient razor found next to Mr Elton had some significance, and there was some talk of the Monk being responsible for Mr Elton's untimely demise. However, the new vicar of Highbury soon put an end to this kind of talk. Mr Bishop was not one to tolerate vulgar superstition in his congregation.The End