In January, a friend of mine initiated a writing project based on the paintings of the 19th century English artist Edmund Blair Leighton. Each participating writer chose a painting and used it as a prompt. The result was a collection of unique and touching short stories and poetry beautifully reflective of Leighton’s style. I was delighted to be invited to join this project and am excited to share my story with you, inspired by Leighton’s painting “In Time of Peril.”
Edmund of Northwich, eldest son of an English lord, sat at a table in a monk’s cell in the east wing of Cymer Abby, North Wales. A single candle spluttered on the table before him, but though he stared at it, he saw it not. Sleep shrouded his weary head, but anxieties denied him rest. He shivered slightly. The night chill had soaked through his surcoat, byrnie, gambeson, and the tunic he wore next to his skin. He pressed his fingers over his eyes.
A tap sounded upon the door. Edmund raised his head. The stooped, bearded figure of a Cistercian monk appeared in the doorway. At Edmund’s inclination, he entered and eased himself into a chair opposite Edmund, resting his folded hands upon the table. Edmund gazed a moment on the beloved man before him: Abbot Mechyll of Cymer Abbey, the friend and mentor of his youth. But he was not permitted to continue his reverie.
The abbot spoke urgently. “You must leave, Edmund,” he said. “You and your family are no longer safe here.”
Edmund’s brow furrowed and he glanced at the sleeping figures of a woman and two children lying in a bed placed in the corner, canopied by a frescoed setting of the Annunciation. The mother’s arm lay protectively over her older son and she cradled a baby close to her.
Abbot Mechyll leaned forward. “Rumour has reached us that Prince Llywelyn is dead. Wales is weak. King Edward knows this. He will attack us soon and the abbeys will be the first places his men will look in search of—” he paused. “Shall we say, those who cause him political disquiet?”
Edmund’s shoulders sagged and he drew his hand across his face in attempt to dispel his weariness. Discouragement and despair surged within his breast. A fresh wave of alarm swept through his mind, bringing on its wings the horrific images that led him to flee England with his wife and children. With it flamed anew the rebellious desire to return to England and stand with his father. Why must courage be so often hindered by prudence? he thought. “We must go now?” he asked aloud.
“Yes.” Abbot Mechyll’s grey eyes looked into those of the younger man, sensing his thoughts. “Do not regret your decision to heed the request of your father, Edmund,” he said quietly. The earnest lilt of his Welsh accent lent depth to his words. “There are times when prudence requires more of a man than open rebellion. I do not count you a coward, nor would any other who understood your position.
“Now,” he continued, brightly, “we can have things prepared for your departure in moments. I have brothers in Ireland who will offer you lodging. You will be safe there. Make ready your family and meet me by the west door.”
Edmund woke his wife, Alice, and told her the abbot’s news. Her quiet confidence and surety heartened him. Together they gathered what few belongings they had. Alice picked up the baby and Edmund lifted five-year-old Hugh in his arms. The boy’s silky head slumped drowsily on his father’s shoulder and his rosy cheek lay warm against his neck. Strengthened by this also, and taking the bundle of their belongings in his free hand, Edmund and his wife made their way through the corridors and cloister, now dim with early morning light, down to the west door which opened onto the River Mawddach.
The dawn-breeze was whisking the mist from the river and pursuing it beneath the trees. It was fresh, and blew somewhat of the stupor from Edmund’s eyes. Abbot Mechyll was awaiting them. A rowboat was moored to the abbey wall, held fast by a local fisherman and his two sons. It seemed a mere skiff in Edmund’s eyes—not a vessel he felt willing to place his life in at the mercy of the Irish Sea. Abbot Mechyll perceived Edmund’s thought. “This boat will bear you to the coast,” he said. “You can then hire a sailing ship to ferry you to Ireland. Beware whom you speak to: though many in Wales are against Edward, there are some who would betray you in return for his favour.”
Abbot Mechyll assisted Alice into the boat and Edmund lifted Hugh into his place beside her. He then turned to the abbot, wonder in his face. “This treasure—”
The abbot smiled. “A gift to you and your family.”
“But so much!”
“You will need it. Do not be afraid, Edmund: God is with you. Duw a’ch bendith chi ar eich taith. Godspeed, my son. May you reach safety at your journey’s end. Farewell!”
Edmund stepped into the stern. The boat slipped into the current and began to glide swiftly through what mist remained on the water. Edmund turned for a final glimpse of the abbey. Abbot Mechyll stood alone in the doorway, the morning glimmer melting his silver beard into gold.
Image: In Time of Peril, Edmund Blair Leighton, 1897
Duw a’ch bendith chi are ich taith means, as the Abbot suggests, “Godspeed.” However, Welsh does not have a direct translation of “Godspeed,” which is why the Welsh sentence is much longer than the English word. I was privileged to work with a native Welsh speaker to obtain this translation.