The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter xi

How Peter Came Again to Avelard

Of the later events of that night Peter had no clear memory. He was conscious of trying to speak and finding utterance hard; his mouth was dry, and the words stuck to his lips; also his head ached. After that came a blank, and the next thing he remembered was lying, not on straw, but on a rough pallet bed with wet cloths on his temples. There seemed to be a pool of water in front of him which glimmered in the darkness; it was a belt of sunlight coming through the half-shuttered window in the barn. There was a woman there, an ancient woman whose face seemed familiar, and Darking sat beside him on a three-legged stool. . . . The pain in his head had gone, but a wheel was still turning dizzily inside it, and his eyes pained him so that he could not look at the pool of light.

Then, after another spell of oblivion, he heard Darking’s voice, and made sense of his words. He was speaking to John Naps — he could not mistake Naps’s parrot-like white head.

“No more than a common fever,” Darking was saying. “He went down like a felled ox — that is the way of youth that knows nothing of sickness. ’Tis this soft weather. When St Martin starts his summer before the feast of Simon and Jude young blood must suffer. Also he may have got a whiff of some malady by the Rustler’s bed or in that crypt where Lovell died. God knows there were foul airs enough in that hole to sicken an army.”

The whipjack laid his horny claw on the wet clouts on Peter’s brow.

“He burns like a lime-kiln,” he said. “Heaven send the holy one make haste and bring a leech, for there is need here of drenching and purging and blood-letting.”

After that came confusion again. His next memory was of Tobias with a grave face, sitting by his bed and conning his breviary. Then came a new figure — a wisp of a man with a small head and a sharp nose, a figure like a heron, that stooped and pecked at him. He was conscious of little stabs of pain, and of spasms of great weakness, after which he floated away on clouds into forgetfulness. . . .

These were hard days for Brother Tobias. To see the lad, whom he had never known sick or sorry, lie helpless in fever, wrung his old heart and put amazing vigour into his old bones. There was a wise man at Banbury, one Pyramus, who had studied medicine at Palermo; so to Banbury went Tobias, and, having his own means of persuasion, brought the leech straightway to Little Greece. Dr Pyramus pronounced it no common autumn fever. He suspected poison, and finally amended his diagnosis to an infection by evil breath, whence breathed he could not tell. He bled his patient with such vigour that the boy’s face became like tallow and Tobias could not look at it without a heart pang. He compounded noxious draughts, made out of foul things like wood-lice, and spiders, and powdered deer horn, and the dung of white doves, and these, mixed with hot ale, Peter was compelled to swallow. They did one thing effectively, for they made him deathly sick, thereby relieving his body of evil humours.

One day Mother Sweetbread stood beside him weeping, and with her Madge of Shipton, who, to the scandal of Tobias, made spells with well water and a lighted candle and the tail hairs of a black mare. Tobias’s own part was to keep the brow cool and the lips moist, to prevent him tossing the blankets off him, and to hold his hand when Peter clutched at the air in a feverish dream. Also to pray, incessantly, to God and God’s Mother, and to all the saints who furthered the healing art — St Blaize and St John the Almoner, St Timothy and St Michael the Archangel, St Anthony who cures heats of the skin, and St Lazarus who was himself once a youth raised by our Lord from the dead.

The fever was stubborn, but whether it was the purgings and bleedings, Goody Littlemouse’s spells or Tobias’s prayers, there came a day when it left Peter, and he lay as weak as a kitten, while the tides of life began to drift back slowly into his body. Dr Pyramus came from Banbury for the last time, and pronounced over him the curative benediction, half Latin and half Arabic, of the Palermo physicians. Then it was the task of others to speed the patient up the slopes of health. Goody Littlemouse came from Shipton, and this time she did not weave spells. A big fire was lit, and a pot boiled, and she washed Peter in scalding water, and wrapped him in a skin new stripped from a heifer calf. Also her cunning hands, strong as a bear’s paws, picked out and kneaded his flaccid muscles, and soothed the tormented nerves of neck and face, and pounded his breast so that vigour should return to his heart. . . . Mother Sweetbread took up her quarters in Little Greece, and made him broths of game and wild herbs, and frumenty spiced with ginger, and, to quench his thirst, a gruel of barley mixed with her own sloeberry cordial. . . . Also Tobias came again from Oseney, and, having given thanks for a son restored, read to him the Colloquies of the great Erasmus, as well as the Scriptures, and gave him the news of Oxford. . . . It was now long past St Martin’s day, but the good saint’s summer still held, and presently Peter was carried to a chair and looked out on blue skies and smoke-brown coverts, and sniffed the sweet wild odours of the winter woods.

“God has sent you this sickness, my son,” said Tobias, “for His own purpose. Deus nobis haec otia fecit. You have had peace to make your soul before the hour of trial comes. First came that night at Minster Lovell which was a purging of your heart, and then the needful purging of your body, and last these days of quiet reflection. The ways of the Lord are altogether wise.”

For a little, while his strength crept back to him, Peter lay in a happy peace. He felt himself purged indeed, a chamber clean and swept for a new life to fill. . . . But presently, as his vigour renewed itself, the peace became cloudy. He remembered dimly Simon Rede’s last words, but very clearly he was conscious of his challenge. Sabine’s figure returned to haunt his memory. He would lie for hours dreaming of her, sometimes happy, sometimes vaguely unquiet, now and then in the midnight hours uncommonly ill at ease. While he was tied by the leg in Little Greece, what had become of the girl — what was Simon Rede doing? He had forgotten his greater task. For him Avelard was only Sabine’s bower and Lord Avelard only her guardian.

But little by little his old life rebuilt itself in his mind. What was a-foot in the world beyond the oak shaws? One day John Naps arrived, and he listened to his talk with Darking, who had come the night before from Oxford.

“There is word from Avelard,” said the latter; “my lord here is bidden hold himself in readiness for a sudden call. I had a message in Stowood.”

The whipjack nodded.

“There is a mighty to-do among the great folk,” he cried. “Flatsole is in Bernwood, fresh from the north, and he says there is a fire alight in Yorkshire that the King’s men cannot put out, and a running to and fro of dukes and earls and King’s messengers like the pairing of partridges in February.”

“There is a kindling in the west, too,” said Darking. “The priests are broidering a banner with the Five Wounds, and Neville is gone to Wales. The hour is near when he of Avelard must stir himself, and that means work for our young lord. King Harry, who has been looking east and north, is beginning to throw a glance westward. I had news in Oxford yesterday. Crummle, they say, is more anxious about Severn than Trent, and is turning his pig’s face this way. That spells danger. Is my lord safe here from prying eyes?”

The whipjack spat solemnly. It was his favourite gesture of contempt.

“As safe as if he were in Avelard with all the armed west around him. Since the hour he fell sick, my posts and pickets have been on every road. ‘Twould be harder for one unbidden to enter Little Greece than to kill and cart a buck in Windsor Forest under the castle walls, and any Peeping Tom would soon be an acorn on the highest oak. . . . But if there be war coming, I fear it may get foul weather. I like not this false summertide which stretches towards Yule. The sky curdles too much of an evening, and the wild geese are flighting in from the sea.”

“What do you fear?” Darking asked, for the whipjack was famous for his weather lore.

“Snow,” was the answer. “Wind, maybe, but I think snow. There will be deep snow by Andrewmas.”

But the feast of St Edmund the Martyr came, and still the weather held, and on St Catherine’s day the sky was still clear, though the wind was shifting by slow degrees against the sun to the north. By now Peter was on his feet, and able to walk a mile or two with comfort, right down through the alleys amid the thorn scrub to where Naps’s sentries kept watch. Indeed, he could have walked farther had not Mother Sweetbread commanded moderation, for he felt his limbs as vigorous as ever, and had that springing sense of a new life which falls only to youth recovering from a fever.

On the night after the festival of Catherine, Darking came to Little Greece — in a great hurry, for he was in the saddle and not a-foot.

“How goes it, my lord?” he asked. “Are your limbs your own once more? Can you back a horse for a matter of twenty miles?”

“I am strong enough to stride that distance in four hours,” said Peter.

“Well and good. The word for you is mount and ride. You must be in Avelard by to-morrow’s noon.”

So there was a furbishing up of Peter’s raiment, and the horse he had brought from Avelard was fetched from its stable in the forest, where it had been bestowed after the loosing of the gospeller at the Holt. And next morning he set out with Darking, who conveyed him only a little way, since he had business of his own on Cherwell side. The sky was still bright, though the air stung when they left the Evenlode vale for the wolds of Stow. It was wintertime clear enough, for there were no larks rising on the hills or swooping plovers — only big flocks of skimming grey fieldfares, and strings of honking geese passing south, and solemn congregations of bustards, and in the wet places clouds of squattering wildfowl. But the grass was still green, and, though the trees were leafless, the bushes were so bright with fruit that they seemed to make a second summer.

“Heaven has sent a breathing space to the world as well as to me,” thought Peter. “I wonder what it portends. Maybe a wild Christmas.”

That morning’s ride was to dwell in his memory like a benediction, for it seemed that from his sickness he had won a new youth. Every sight and sound and scent charmed his recovered senses, and his thoughts had again the zest and the short horizons of the boy. He schooled his spirits to temperance. He reminded himself that no more for him was the foolish dream of worldly glory. He was a soldier vowed to a selfless cause. But he found a substitute for drums and trumpets in this very abnegation. He recalled the many who had lost the world to gain it, and found exhilaration in the thought of a high dramatic refusal. The verse of Boethius ran in his head —

“Ite nunc fortes ubi celsa magni

Ducit exempli via.”

He sung it aloud to the empty wolds:

“Go forth, ye brave, on the high road

Where honour calls to honour’s wars;

Strip from your back the craven load;

Go spurn the earth and win the stars.”

In his new mood he wove for himself delicious dreams of a world where the philosopher would be the king, and Christ and Plato would sit at the same table, and the Psalmist and Virgil would join their voices in the celestial Marriage-song.

But the mood could not last, and before he had come to the last edge of Cotswold and looked down on Severn, he had different fancies. Down in the valley was Sabine, in an hour he would be under the same roof, in an hour he would see her eyes. . . . He was no longer the seer and the dreamer, but the common lover, with a horizon bounded by his mistress’s face. The verses which now filled his head had no taint of sanctity, but were the snatches of wandering goliards, to whom women and wine were the sum of life. . . . He would make for her songs of his own — her eyes should be hymned as Catullus had hymned the burning eyes of Lesbia; he would make her famous among men as Peter Abelard had made the Abbess of the Paraclete, so that, like Eloise, men would speak of her beauty long after it was dust.

Arrived at Avelard, he was taken straight to my lord’s chamber. Lord Avelard wore a heavy furred robe, for his blood was thin, and a fire of logs made the place like an oven to one fresh from the sharp out-of-doors. The old man kissed Peter on both cheeks.

“You have been ill, my son? Only stern business kept me from your bedside, but I had constant advices, and you were in good hands. My faith! but sickness has made a hero of you. You look older and sager and more resolute, if still a trifle over-lean. Sit, my son, for you must husband your strength. . . . The moment is very near. The Welshman is most deeply entangled in the north, and from what I hear both heart and guile are failing him. Our plans are on the edge of completion, and the word has gone forth that on St Lucy’s day our folk begin to draw together. After that we move swift. You shall eat your Christmas dinner in Oxford, and, if God please, you shall sit in London ere Candlemas.”

The waxen face had now more colour in it, and the approach of the hour of action seemed to have put fresh life into his blood, for he moved briskly, and fetched from a side table a mass of charts and papers.

“Now for your own part. In the next week you will visit some of the centres of our rising and show yourself to those who will follow you. ‘Faith, they will think you St George himself, if you are properly habited, for sickness has made you like a young archangel. . . . Meantime there are these parchments for you to put your hand to. They are, in a manner of speaking, the pay-rolls of your army, only you pay not with coined gold but with assurances. Your followers will spend much substance in your cause, and doubtless much blood. If you win, it is right that they should be recompensed by some increase to their estate.”

The parchments were many, and they made a most comprehensive pay~roll. To his horror Peter saw that they related mainly to Church lands. There were one or two royal manors to be apportioned, but most were the property of the abbeys and priories of the Thames and Severn vales. The lists made very free with the estates of the greater houses — Gloucester and Tewkesbury and Malmesbury and Evesham — and bore somewhat less hard upon the smaller foundations. Eynsham and Bicester and Hailes and Winchcombe were left with a larger proportion than Pershore. His own Oseney was to be comprehensively despoiled and all her rich lands about Bibury were to be taken from her. The abbeys themselves were to remain, apparently, but they were to remain with less than a tithe of their old wealth. It was a spoliation more drastic than Crummle’s.

Peter read on with a darkening face. Even the revelation here given of the strength of those who followed him woke no response in his heart. He was shocked to the bone that he, the champion of the Church, should be her chief despoiler. . . . To each piece of land was attached the name of the new owner. The great lords had the lion’s share — Avelard himself, and Exeter, and Rutland, and Neville — even Northumberland. But there was good provision for the lesser gentry, and the names of Sudeley and Boteler and Tracey and Lacey and Noel bulked large. . . . Even Fettiplace, his late pursuer, was there. Also the wool merchants of the Calais staple, who were doubly valuable, since they could contribute good money, as well as stalwart prentices. Not one of them seemed to be absent — Drury, Midwinter, Cely, Bartholomew, Grevel, Hicks, Marner, Tame, Sylvester, Whittington — representing every stone town from Stroud to Witney, from Fairford on Thames to Stratford on Avon.

Peter conned the documents with an angry heart, and took so long over it that Lord Avelard tried to turn the leaves faster.

“You are mistaken in me, my lord,” he said at length. “May God forgive me if I put my hand to any such parchment! Are we the devil’s scriveners to hack and whittle at God’s inheritance and break down the carved work of the sanctuary?”

The waxen face did not change, or the steely regard of the pale eyes.

“Patience, my son. There is no purpose of malevolence against Holy Church. But her possessions have grown somewhat cumbersome for her handling. The wiser abbots and bishops are of the same mind, and the people of England are set on the freeing of the religious lands. Think you that otherwise the Welshman could have done what he has done? Crummle would have had his throat slit in the first week of his visitations if England had not approved the purpose, though condemning its executors.”

“Maybe you speak truth, and the abbeys need pruning. I know well that some of them fester like cesspools. But that pruning must be done with a single eye to the glory of God and the comfort of His people. My lord, your plan is common banditry. You would plunder God to enrich the proud, and that were a deed accursed of Heaven.”

Peter’s wrath had given him assurance, and he faced the elder man with a firm chin and a glowing eye.

“These same proud,” Lord Avelard said quietly, “are the men who will fight for you and set you in a high place. Hear reason, my son. An army must be paid, and where is your war chest? You have not a groat which you can call your own. I and some few others are willing to risk our substance in your cause, which is also the cause of England. But for the others — the rank and file — they will venture only if they see their profit. . . . Consider the interests of Holy Church herself. The Welshman will wholly root her out of England and give her possessions to those who are sharers in his iniquity. That is the avowed purpose of Crummle and his kind, and it is they who control the King. Is it not better to stablish her securely, even if she herself have to pay in part for that security? Consider, my son. We dwell in a fallible world where great deeds can only be compassed by reckoning with the foibles of mankind.”

“Nevertheless,” said Peter stubbornly, “I will not set my hand to these parchments. There must be some purging of the Church for the Church’s sake, but it cannot be done in such fashion. I will not be privy to giving what is dedicated to God and His poor to those who have abundance. Let us make a hazard, my lord, and if we win, then is the time to effect a decent and orderly reformation. There be Church lands which have been ill guided and may well be entrusted to better hands. There be royal manors to repay my army. There be . . . ”

It was Lord Avelard’s turn to flush, and his voice was no longer quiet, but full of a cold passion.

“A murrain on all clerks!” he cried. “You have the accursed taint in your blood, got I know not how —’tis not the strong wine of Bohun. I had thought Solomon Darking would have put more wisdom into your skull. Duke Edward and Duke Harry would have burned every monkish rookery in the land if it would have furthered one ell their march to the throne. You are a priest, it seems, and no soldier, and who will strike a blow for a peevish priestling, even though he have Buckingham’s blood?”

Then he seemed to put a check on his temper, and his voice softened.

“Forgive me, son. I am an old man, and do not love to have my plans questioned. . . . We will let these parchments sleep for the moment. Maybe, when you have seen something of those who follow you, you will come to another mind. Trust me, I am no less devout a son of the Church than you, though I was not bred in a cloister. I am too near the grave to do aught to imperil my salvation.”

In the afternoon came Dickon to Avelard, having been delayed at Little Greece till his new suit arrived from the Witney tailor. With some weeks of good feeding behind him he looked a different child from the starved urchin at the Holt, and in his servant’s livery of sober brown he cut a personable figure. When Peter went to his chamber to change his clothes before supper, he found Dickon in waiting, handling curiously the rich garments of silk and taffeta and velvet.

“We are in a lord’s palace,” said the boy, “and you yourself are now a lord. With what softness the great ones clothe themselves!” And he laid a satin doublet against his hard cheek.

Peter had not yet cast eye on Sabine. She did not appear at dinner, and all afternoon he had ranged idly through the park, hoping to catch a glimpse of her gown or hear the feet of her horse. That evening the northern sky had banked up ominously with clouds, and the wind had settled fairly into that quarter — a steady wind blowing through leagues of ice. So Peter had been fain to seek the hearth of the great hall, and let his cheeks grow hot in the glow of it, while he reflected upon the events of the morning. Once more he was lapped in the luxury of Avelard, and it moved him little; for certain boyish weaknesses seemed to have been burned out in his recent fever. He was no longer thrilled by dainty fare and fine raiment, as he had been a month before. Now he was conscious of a stronger purpose in his heart, of more masterful blood in his veins, of that power to command which was his birthright. To-day he was doubly Bohun. Also he realised that he had that first of a leader’s gifts, a fine carelessness of self, so that if need be he could stand alone. He was prepared to fling soul and body into the arena, to be exalted or trampled under as God ordained. . . . And then he was forced to confess to himself that this boasted self-sufficiency was a lie. He did not stand alone; there was one in this very house who could tumble him from his pinnacle by a glance of her eye.

At supper Lord Avelard kept his room, but Sabine appeared. The meal was served in the Great Chamber, as on the first occasion, and when the food was set on the table the servants withdrew. This time the girl had discarded her black robes for a wonderful gown of silver tissue, and her jewels were not sapphires but stones that darted crimson fire. She gave him both hands at her entrance, but not her cheek. Tonight she seemed not kinswoman or friend, but possible mistress, certain queen. Her pale beauty had authority in it, and her eyes a possessive pride.

“Have you brought your lute?” he asked. “Once you ravished the soul out of me with your singing.”

She laughed and looked at him from under drooped eyelids.

“To-night we take counsel, my lord. The matter is too grave for music.”

At first they spoke little. The girl’s eyes smiled on him, but not with common friendliness. She seemed to be appraising him, to be striving to read something in a face which his recent fever had made keener and finer, for there were little puckers of thought on her brow. Also — or so it seemed to him — there was a new respect in her air, and with it a certain hesitation. Once or twice she appeared to be nerving herself for words which she found it hard to utter. There was between them a thin invisible veil of ice.

It was Peter who broke it.

“Has Simon Rede been here in the past month?” he asked abruptly.

“He came three weeks since,” she answered, “a week after you left Avelard.” There was no sign of discomposure in her face.

“He came to pay court to you?”

She laughed.

“Maybe. We were sweethearts as children, but that is long ago. Does my lord do me the honour to be jealous?”

“I would be glad to learn that he got a flat denial.”

She shrugged her white shoulders. “There was no need. Master Simon’s love-making did not stretch thus far. I am the ward of my lord Avelard, who has something to say in the disposal of my hand, and he does not look kindly on Master Rede.”

“But you yourself?”

“I am a woman grown and a woman must think of many things. I am no green girl to be led captive by a plumed bonnet and a long sword and a soldier’s airs. What has Master Simon to offer but the mouldering walls of Boarstall, or more likely a wet bed in the forest, for he is ever at odds with those in power. We women, who would be wives, love peace and surety.” There was a curious sudden hardness in face and voice.

“Yet I have heard that a woman will risk all for love.”

“Ay, for true love.” Her eyes did not melt. “When true love rides the road, some women will sell their shift and follow him. But I do not love Master Simon, though I have a tenderness for an old playmate.”

She paused. There was honesty, a kind of boyish frankness, in her tone.

“I do not think I was born for such love. I have never felt those raptures, which youth calls passion and eld green-sickness. Maybe ’tis a sore lack, maybe good fortune, but so we Beauforests are made. We are good wives to those we choose, for we are loyal comrades and can play high and bold like a man. There burns in us a fierce ambition, and it is no idle fancy, for we have the power in us to deal with high matters and the courage to use that power. Make no mistake, my lord. We are no common housewives to tremble at a husband’s nod, and bear a child once a year, and see to his cordials and pasties.”

The veil of ice between them had gone and so had the rosy mist of sex. Peter felt that a human soul confronted him, a soul fierce and candid, earthy and gallant, and no mere lovely body shrouded in silks and jewels.

“You were meant for a queen,” he said, and there was reverence in his voice.

“Maybe. Assuredly I was not meant for a squire’s lady.”

In that instant of intimate revelation Peter’s love blazed to its height, and yet at the back of his head he realised its hopelessness. Here was one more starkly contrary than Lord Avelard.

“I would make you a queen,” he said, and he lingered over the words, for he knew that he was nearing an irrevocable choice.

She rose and curtseyed, gravely, without coquetry.

“I am honoured, my lord,” she said.

“I love you, Sabine. It is true love with me, for I live with your face in my heart — I cannot see the light for you — I cannot pray for the thought of you — I desire you more than my salvation.”

“Than your salvation?” she echoed. “Then you are indeed a lover and no clerk.”

For one moment it seemed as if his ardour awoke in her a like response. Her face grew gentler, her eyes softened. Peter realised that her arms were waiting for him. . . . And yet he did not move. The word “salvation” held him. Was he honest with her, as she had been with him?

She saw his hesitation, and attributed it to the true motive, for her voice was cool again.

“I am willing to be a queen . . . I am willing to risk all hazards by your side, and if you fall to fall with you like a true wife. . . . But I must be certain that that is indeed your purpose, my lord. I will not link my fortunes to one who is half-hearted, for in this cause it must be venture all.”

He did not answer, for he was in the throes of a great temptation. Never had she seemed more desirable. This was not the shimmering girl with some of the airs of a light-in-love, who had first enchained his heart, but a woman with greatness in her, a true queen, a comrade to ride the fords with were they agreed about the road. His longing was less to have her in his arms than to see the light of confidence and affection in those clear eyes. . . . But were they not poles apart? How could he, who had set common ambition behind him, keep step with one whose heart was set so firmly on earthly magnificence?

“I will venture all,” he said. But as the words left his mouth he knew that he lied.

She knew it also.

“Your clerkly scruples?” she asked. “My uncle has told me of them. You would lead an army and yet refuse to provide its reward. That is mere folly, my lord. This is no perfect world, and he who believes it such is doomed to fail.”

“I will venture my life — my hope — my peace — but not my chance of Heaven,” he said, and his voice in his own ears sounded small and far away. He realised miserably that he had crossed the stream and that there was no returning.

Her quick mind saw that here was finality. She laughed bitterly.

“What kind of gage are these? Life, hope, peace! A common soldier will risk as much. . . . It is as I thought. You are a clerk to the bone, and had better get you back to your cell. . . . Nay, I do not blame you. You have been honest with me, as I with you. But you are not the one to upset the Welshman. A strong man will risk soul as well as body, and look to make his ultimate peace with a God who understands our frailties, since He ordained them.”

She rang the silver bell to summon the servants.

“I will never be your queen, my lord,” was her last word, “for you will never be a king.”

Peter went to his chamber with a chill at his heart. He felt that in the last hour the youthfulness of the morning had fallen from him and that he had grown very old. The room was warm and perfumed, but its comfort deepened his chill. He flung open the lattice and stared into the night.

Snow was coming. He smelt it, and saw it stored in heavy clouds under the fitful moon. An owl hooted by the wall, and from the valley came the sound of wild swans travelling with the wind. There was a light far off burning in some hollow of the woods. . . . He drew in his head, and the cold at his heart was lightened. The splendour of Avelard was not for him, but he had still a share in the wild elemental world.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32