Monday, November 19, 2012

The Templar and the True Cross IV

    It had been seven years since de Montpellier had seen Paris. The last time he was here he had to flee for his life under cover of darkness. Today he entered the town with mixed emotions, feelings of both nostalgia and resentment. To Sir Jean-Marc, the city had not changed much. Paris was situated on the Seine River. The city was divided into three main sections; the town or ville on the right bank of the river, the university on the left, and in between the Ile de la Cité. This island on the Seine was the true heart of France. Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle and the Royal Palace were all recent additions to the Cité, making Paris the most modern city. The many universities were advanced and highly prized, attracting people from all over Europe.    Sir Jean-Marc entered the town from the north on the right bank of the river. The city appeared even more crowded than he remembered it, as more people moved away from farms and into urban areas. He recalled an adage he had frequently heard in his travels; ‘Town air make men free’, the saying went. For Jean-Marc, who had known both the open sea and the open land, he could not make much sense of the adage. Towns were offensive to him. Not only the unsightly manner in which the buildings were huddled tightly together, but even more offensive was the smell of animals, rotting refuse, and open holes used as privies.  

      The Templar passed two and three-storey houses that doubled as merchant shops. The second storey overhung the ground floor, allowing more living space in the former than the latter. Shutters on the front of the house closed up the shop at night, while in the day the shutters pivoted down to serve as a trestle on which goods were displayed. In the living quarters at the rear was an open fire for cooking and warmth. The smoke from the fires found its way out of the house through open windows and cracks. Since these merchants catered to the predominantly illiterate class, their shops were often identified with pictures such as a boot to indicate a cobbler, a fish to indicate a fish store or the red and white pole that was the mark of a barber. Many, if not all, of the merchants and craftsmen belonged to guilds who rigidly controlled their own trade. 
    Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier crossed one of the four bridges that joined the town and Ile de la Cité. Here on this island, a primitive Celtic tribe had built a fortification, holding the island until the Romans drove them away in 52 B.C. The Romans had abandoned the island nearly five hundred years later, and soon Paris welcomed her first Frankish king. The Viking raids in the 9th Century prompted the Capetian kings to rebuild the city and make Paris the capital of France.    
    On Ile de la Cité, the houses were finer than in the town— some were even made of stone—but still lay cramped and crowded. These were the homes of rich merchants who vied for the king’s attention and bought it with rich sums that provided arms and armies. Also on the island flourished some of the finest craftsmen in all France, such as silk weavers, furniture makers, silversmiths, makers of musical instruments, and those who produced illuminated manuscripts.

    Once on the island, Jean-Marc went immediately to the Royal Palace. He was able to enter the palace of the king by a prearranged signal that accompanied the message he received weeks ago ordering him to return to France under the king’s protection. Seven years had passed since Sir Jean-Marc had fled to escape death at the king’s hand, and if the knight had a sense of humour, he might just laugh at the irony of the situation. He did not, however, have much of a sense of humour, and nor could he find anything amusing about the entire matter. Whatever light-hearted feelings he might have possessed he lost on Friday, October 13, 1307, a date that would forever live in perfidy, and one he himself could never forget. For Sir Jean-Marc, it was a date that would forever be accursed in his heart of hearts, and one he would ever consider the epitome of infamous dishonour. For it was on that day that King Philip IV ordered the arrest of every Templar knight in France. At the time, Jean-Marc de Montpellier had been twenty-seven years old and only a Templar for six years, but in those six years he had felt more vital, more a part of something noble and righteous and Godly than he had in his entire life. He had served closely under Jacques de Molay, leader of the Knights Templar since first joining the order, and aside from his own father, Jean-Marc had never loved or respected a man more. Jaques de Molay was thirty-five years Jean-Marc’s senior but the two became close friends and were seldom seen apart.
    They had been on the island of Cyprus when a message reached them to return to France in 1307, at the order of the king. Jean-Marc’s family had been loyal to the throne for generations and none suspected any treachery until it was too late and all the Templars were placed under arrest. Regardless of Jean-Marc’s association to the king, he could expect no preferential treatment, and when an opportunity to escape presented itself, de Montpellier had been forced to take it. Naturally he did not wish to leave his comrades, but de Molay and the others ordered Jean-Marc to flee. He would carry the guilt of that action to his grave.  
         * * * * *

    In a small audience hall, King Philip le Bel sat upon a high-back throne of intricately carved wood and inlaid with precious stones. The room was small in comparison to the king’s official audience chamber, but this meeting was to be anything but official. It had not been an easy nor a rash decision to recall Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier back to France, but Philip felt he had little choice. Things could not go on as they were. It now seemed inevitable that this day would come. They had known, of course, where de Montpellier had been. They had known for over two years. Philip le Bel had been content to allow the knight to live out his days in exile. That fool de Nogaret had wanted to send assassins to kill him when his whereabouts had been discovered, but the king could not allow that. And what if he had? What if Philip had taken de Nogaret’s council and had sent assassins to kill the knight? Where would they be now? There was a very good chance the assassins would have failed. De Montpellier was no ordinary man, no ordinary knight. There had always been something special about that one, the king knew. But what would happen now? How would de Montpellier respond? Would he come to his king’s aid? Of course he would, Philip concluded. The man was the epitome of honour and duty. After all, patris est filius.
    “I advise your Majesty not to meet him alone. Allow me to stay by your side. If not by your side, then behind the tapestry.”
    The King of France gazed up from his musings. The words had come from Sir Gwayne de Chartres.
    “You would hide behind the tapestry like some common ...” the king could not imagine what he could compare it to, and shook his head in disgust. “He would find you out, Sir Gwayne. He has ways of knowing things. He would never hide behind a tapestry.” 
    The words were not meant to belittle the knight, but they served that result, and so Sir Gwayne grew silent.
    “He has too much honour,” the king continued as if speaking to himself. “He would potius mori quam foedari—rather die than be dishonoured. That is his weakness, and if the time comes, it is something we may use against him.
    “No,” the king said, taking on a less introspective tone, “if I am to meet Sir Jean-Marc, it must be alone. I must show him my trust if I am to take him into our confidence.”
    “Perhaps de Montpellier has no love for his Majesty,” de Chartres posed.
    “Perhaps he has no love for you, Sir Gwayne,” the king came back, and before the knight could protest further, the king dismissed him with a wave of his hand. “Leave us. Signal that he is to be sent in.” 

                * * * * *

    Now in the palace of the king once again, Sir Jean-Marc was led by a servant to an antechamber. He had known the castle in his youth, but did not remember ever seeing this room. Wordlessly the servant bid Jean-Marc to enter the room, and just as silently he left the knight alone. Slowly de Montpellier paced about the room, not knowing what to expect or where all this would lead. After a considerable wait, a door that had gone unnoticed up until now, opened in the wall. A young knight Jean-Marc did not know approached him and bowed slightly. He asked the Templar on his word of honour if he carried any weapons. De Montpellier raised his hands from his sides and indicated he was without a weapon. Satisfied, the knight motioned to the hidden door in the wall. Hesitantly Jean-Marc approached it, and passed through.
    He came out into a familiar room, the king’s small audience chamber. Still, it was a large room, with a polished marble floor, and tall columns that led up to an arched ceiling. At one end of the room an elaborate tapestry hung upon the wall. The tapestry was of King Louis IX—who was canonized in 1289—as he sat beneath an oak tree outside the palace dispensing justice and healing sick subjects. Before the tapestry, twin thrones sat upon a raised dias. One of the chairs was empty— and had been so since Queen Jeanne I had died in 1305—yet upon the other throne sat Philip IV, King of France. As Jean-Marc approached the monarch, he recalled why the king was known as Philip le Bel,  for even at forty-six years of age, the king still presented a striking figure. Philip le Bel was the epitome of a strong and appealing leader. He was a tall, handsome fellow, with long blond hair and striking blue eyes. He carried himself with all the confidence and kingly bearing of a man anointed by God. Yet to de Montpellier, the king’s appearance seemed hampered with worry and a solemnity that rivalled Jean-Marc’s own.
    The Templar approached the throne, his footfalls echoed with a hollow sound. He knelt on one knee before the king with head bowed.

    “Rise Sir Knight,” commanded the king in a royal intonation. De Montpellier did as he was bid and the king spoke in a more familiar tone. “We are pleased to see you again, Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier. Your presence fills a void in our heart that has long been vacant. Come, let me embrace you as a true son of France.”
    The king rose and descended the steps while de Montpellier took an awkward step forward. The two men put their arms about one another, but neither believed it to be more than a token gesture.
    The king pulled back, and taking the Templar by the arm the two walked the hall slowly.
    “It pains us to tell you of your father’s death,” King Philip spoke with genuine sadness. “He was our true friend and we miss him. But now you are here and it is almost like old times, my son. You wear your hair so short, now.” Philip le Bel stroked his own long, luxuriant locks, and when Jean-Marc said nothing, the king proposed, “Shall we talk of happier days; when you, as a boy would visit me here. Though I have three sons of my own, you were always my favourite. And not only mine—Isabella is married now to Edward and living in England. She would have been happy to see you after all these years.”
    Jean-Marc retained a solemn silence.
    “Are you waiting for permission to speak?” the king asked. “I do not remember you being so quiet. Tell me, how does it feel to be home again?”
    “It feels... strange, Sire” the knight spoke lowly. “It no longer feels like my home.”
    “But of course it is,” the king reassured him. “France can be the only true home for a true Frenchman. The monastery where we found you... where was it?”
    “Castille, Sire.”
    “Castille is not France,” Philip said with a suppressed chuckle. “Do you believe, my son, as I do, that God created France to be the centre of the Empire?”
    “Is that why you brought the papacy here?”
    “That was not entirely my doing,” the king said with conviction. “The Pontiff understood that for Christianity to survive, France must survive, France must lead. For France to lead, she must fight our enemies, and to fight our enemies we must have the finances. Do you understand?”
    “Finances. Is that why you brought about the end of the Templars?” Jean-Marc asked evenly and without emotion. “For money?”
    King Philip donned a staid countenance. “Stet pro ratione voluntas—let my will stand as a reason!  It is not for you to question the motives of the king,” he stated. “You were young then. You were not in the country to know what was happening. The bishops and the barons fought for the demise of the Templars. The Hospitallers gained much afterwards. Regardless of what you may have heard, I was not the prime mover that brought down the Templars.”
    “But you might have prevented it,” Jean-Marc insisted.
    “I was trying to hold a country together,” the king stated forcefully. “Can you understand that? Everything I did, everything I do is ex aequo et bono—according to what is just and good. My duty is to France. Your duty is to France. That is why I called you back. That is why you are here.”

The Templar and the True Cross on Amazon

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Templar and the True Cross III

Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier departed the tournament grounds hurriedly, denying all invitations to joust another round, or meet and be congratulated by admirers. He changed out of his armour, arranged for the care of his horse and entered the fair-grounds which lay adjacent to the tournament field. There were trees of oak, maple, and elm that lined the grounds. Their leaves had started to turn colour, but to de Montpellier, they did not seem as bright as he remembered from his youth. There was a dull hue hanging over the countryside that seemed to reflect the times.
    This would be the final trade fair of the year and would last several days. Merchants travelled from England, Spain, Provence, Flanders and Italy, and gathered north of the city to hawk their wares– French wine, Italian glass, and cloth and wool from Flanders. Jean-Marc saw splendid coloured fabrics from Ypres and Bruges that were known for their softness and perfect yarns. There were merchants with spices and silk that had come all the way from China, while others sold furs brought from as far as Russia and Germany.
            Entertainers, money changers, and other hangers-on added to the activity of fair days, while local merchants, moneylenders, and buyers found fairs convenient places to do business. Adding to the fair’s carnival atmosphere were a variety of entertainers such as stilt-walkers, jugglers, acrobats, and wandering musicians and minstrels.
    De Montpellier did not like the entertainers. As a Templar, he had no use for these types, and believed they served no useful purpose. They were too frivolous, too nonsensical. He believed the purpose of life was to serve God, and he could not see how these people served God in any way.
    Several stalls on the grounds offered produce from the local areas, but few offered palatable displays. This was the third year of the Great Famine. Since 1311, Western Europe had experienced early winters and cold wet springs which had considerably reduced harvest yields. Almost ten per cent of the population had succumbed to starvation, while more still died of illness brought on by malnourishment. This was the first famine Europeans had ever experienced, and most countries were thrown into a state of panic. In the past three centuries, the population of Europe had more than doubled. Urban areas such as Paris had grown faster than the number of farms needed to supply them with food. The people could only be fed when crops were good, which in these times, was seldom. Some believed it was the coming of the end times, and turned towards God for comfort. Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier did not know if this was indeed the coming of the end times, but he was certain that the famine was God’s own hand teaching the country a lesson for their unrighteousness. Man was straying from the Almighty’s path, and they needed something to help them find their way back.   
    Sir Jean-Marc stopped at a stall that offered food and drink. He purchased a simple flat-cake mixed with nuts and dried berries, which he washed down with very poor wine.
    The Templar knight could not help bringing attention to himself wherever he went. Even here on the fairground his presence garnered curious stares from all, some who thought they recognized the knight, and some who deemed they should. People often gave him a wide berth, and few dared move in too close. There was one on the fairground, however, who spied de Montpellier and studied him from a distance for a time before moving in for a closer scrutiny. He was a brash young man, a minstrel who carried a stringed instrument in his hand.
    The young man strummed his instrument gently as he approached the knight, humming a tune. As he moved closer, the musician broke out into song.
A bold brave knight did ride,
Across the dark countryside.
On a quest for truth and right
To bring to the land a new light
And thereby dispel the night.

    Sir Jean-Marc studied the minstrel closely. The other man was a slim, comely youth perhaps twenty years of age, with curly light hair that hung down to his shoulders. The knight had seen this type before in his travels; itinerant jongleurs who roamed about making a living from singing songs, telling stories and  performing feats of magic or displaying acrobatic skill. If Jean-Marc could appreciate singing, he would have to admit that the man had a sweet voice and carried a tune well. As it was, Jean-Marc attempted to ignore the man, but he could not expect the same from the jongleur.
    “You are new to the province, are you not?” the singer said brazenly to Jean-Marc. “I have been to every fair around Paris for the past six years and I have never seen your like before. My name is Gilbert, master minstrel. I am known from Paris to London, where I have been in the court of Edward II. I studied under Henri de Chevolet. He taught me his entire repertoire before he died last year. Surely you have heard of Chevolet, even if you are not from here. His reputation is well-known. Henri de Chevolet knew the works of Adam de la Halle, the famous trouvère. Surely you have heard of him.”
    Jean-Marc chewed on his dry flat-cake and took a sip of wine. He shook his head to indicate he had not heard of the man Chevolet or of de la Halle.
    “That is a wonder you have not heard of Henri de Chevolet,” the minstrel said. “You must be from some outer province not to have heard of him. Tell me, Sir Knight, from where do you hail? Have you ever been to Paris?”
    Jean-Marc nodded.
    “I have been invited to play in the palace of his Royal Highness King Philip the Fair,” Gilbert said boastfully. “So, tell me, good Sir Knight, what is your name?”
    The Templar hesitated and hoped that this man would go away, but he did not. “My name is Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier,” the Templar said. Jean-Marc knew he should be more tactful; he had in fact been ordered by the king to be discreet, but his father had taught him as a young boy to be proud of his name.
    Gilbert paused in thought. “It would seem that I should know that name,” he said. “It sounds familiar.”  Still thinking, Gilbert strummed his instrument, and after a moment broke out into song.
And he rode far out of sight
This young, brave Templar Knight
While his brothers fed the fire
At the royal command of their sire
de Montpellier bore visions dire.
    “Are you that de Montpellier, Sir Knight?” Gilbert asked thoughtfully. “Some say you fled France to let your brother knights die at the stake. Others say that it was you who betrayed them so you could have the riches of the Templars for yourself.”
    “I care not for what others say,” the Templar responded.
    “But what do you say, Sir Knight?” the minstrel asked. “What is the truth, so I might put it in song?”
    “The Good Lord, the king, and I know the truth. That is enough for me. You need not put it in song.”                                                                               
    Without another word, the Templar rose and walked off. Gilbert followed Sir Jean-Marc’s progress through the fairgrounds, but after a short time decided to ply his trade elsewhere and perhaps make a little money.
    De Montpellier decided to leave the fairgrounds as soon as possible. A grubby-looking youth ran past the knight on his left which caused him to turn in that direction. Before he was aware of another youth on his right, the little thief had cut the purse-strings from his belt and was off at a run. Despite his size, the knight moved with unbelievable swiftness. His long strides caught up with the youth, who attempted to evade capture by darting this way and that. The boy let out a surprised scream when he was grabbed by the scruff of the neck and lifted off his feet.
    “Hand over my property,” Sir Jean-Marc ordered.
    The youth cried out for help which immediately garnered attention. Heads turned, and people began to move in. The knight, oblivious of the spectators, asked for purse but the boy continued to cry out for help. Even when people asked the stranger to explain his actions, the knight paid them no mind and searched the boy with one hand while he held on to him with the other.
    “What is the problem here?” asked an authoritative voice. “What are you doing there?”
    The crowd that had gathered now parted and a stern-looking mounted guard rode up to the scene, demanding an explanation. The knight turned to the guard but would not release the boy. Sir Jean-Marc knew this was an appointed guard whose duty it was to patrol the grounds and knew it was best to cooperate.
    “This boy cut my purse-strings and made off with my property,” the knight said simply.
    “Did he now?” the guard asked with a hint of doubt.
    The boy protested, “This man grabbed me and threatened to kill me if I didn’t go with him. He wanted to take me somewhere. I was scared and ran. He chased me and is going to kill me. Please, don’t let him kill me.”
    “He is lying,” the knight said.
    “You be silent,” said the guard, and when the boy persisted, he said, “You too, be silent. Does he have your purse on his person?” the guard asked de Montpellier.
    “He must have passed it on to his friend,” Jean-Marc said.
    By this time the crowd was making up their mind, and since de Montpellier was a stranger, most sided with the boy, even though most suspected he was a little thief.
   The comments became threatening and for their own safety, the guard instructed them, speaking in a loud clear voice so all could hear, that he was taking Jean-Marc and the boy to the pied-poudre where the matter would be settled.
    The crowd protested, mainly because this was the only decent entertainment they had witnessed all day. The guard moved the boy and knight hastily away to a white and red striped tent that held the pied-poudre, a special temporary court where parties could settle their differences on the fairground. The mounted guard climbed down from his horse and escorted man and boy into the tent. 
    Inside the tent, presiding over the pied-poudre, was a minor official who sat behind a small table. Beside him was a secretary recording all that transpired. Two armed guards stood within the tent to keep order. They entered the tent to see that there was presently a case before the court.
    As one litigant was desperately trying to explain her case, the official rested his head in his hands, his face turn down to the table. The litigant, a local resident, said she had bought a bolt of cloth from a merchant from Flanders, but soon after buying the cloth the woman examined it more closely and saw that it was not of the best quality and was demanding her money back. The Flanders merchant explained that the female customer had been satisfied when she bought it and saw no reason to return her money. Besides, the merchant went on to explain, the women had left the fairgrounds some time ago, and the merchant was not even certain she had returned with the same bolt of cloth he had sold her.
    The two proceeded to argue until the magistrate held up his hands and cried out for them to halt in a loud voice. He sat staring at the two litigants. His eyes betrayed his contempt for them. The magistrate had received his appointment from Pierre Duboise, a personal council to the king, but had hopes of presiding over more important and august cases. He felt his talents were going to waste with these peasants and decided to dispense his own brand of justice that shadowed the wisdom of Solomon, and would teach these two lowly serfs not to waste his precious time.
    The magistrate’s decision was that the merchant was to return half the money to the woman, and the bolt of cloth would be cut in half down the middle— making it fairly useless— and each were given a piece. The litigants walked away dejected, and totally unsatisfied.

    “Next case!” the magistrate called.
     The guard stepped forward, and in as few words as possible, explained the case and indicated the two new litigants. The official regarded the pair and asked the boy to explain himself. Calling forth a few tears, the boy repeated the same story he had related to the guard.
    “Do you have anything to say for yourself?” the magistrate asked de Montpellier.
    “Only God’s own truth that I have already stated,” the knight uttered. “And if Your Honour cannot see that, than even the smallest bit of justice has fled the land.”
    The magistrate considered the man before him. At first, the man’s insolence had incensed him, but he then thought better of it. There was something different about the stranger. He wore a sense of honour about him. And there was something familiar about him. The magistrate decided to take an obvious precaution. He ordered the guard to pick up the young lad by the heels and after a few shakes and amid the crying protests of the boy, a few different purses fell to the ground. 
    Jean-Marc de Montpellier bent over, picked up his purse and went on his way.
    The knight wished he had not passed through the fairgrounds. Not only for the inconvenience of having his purse stolen and having to go to the pied-poudre, but mostly because he felt contempt for these displays. The entire affair held no appeal to his simple and ascetic nature. He felt too much energy was put into these types of materialistic endeavours and kept people from contemplating God and His glory. He left the fairground and walked toward the city.

The Templar and the True Cross by Stephen Gaspar is available on Amazon

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sherlock Holmes and the Klondike

Cold-Hearted Murder is the latest Sherlock Holmes adventure from mystery author Stephen Gaspar. In Cold-Hearted Murder, the great detective is drawn into mystery and murder revolving around a trio recently from the Klondike gold fields in the Yukon Territory where they made their fortune.

But what had happened in that remote part of the world near the Arctic Circle? What strange occurrence took place in the Canadian wilderness that would plague:
Patrick Flynn, the young handsome American, who was strong but too trusting;
Charles Westerbrook, the not-overly honest Englishman, bent on making his fortune;
Suzanne Bouchard, the beautiful French-Canadian seductress who used her wiles to get what she wanted.

Cold-Hearted Murder on Amazon