The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter ii

In which Peter is Introduced to Fortune

Peter did not slacken pace till he descended from the uplands and crossed the highway which joined Oxford and Woodstock, a frequented road, for by it the staplers sent their pack-trains to load their wool in the river barges. There was a great green plain on his right hand, grazed upon by a multitude of geese, and already country folk with baskets of market stuff were on their way to the north gate. He turned down a lane by Gloucester Hall, where he looked over a close of pippins to the Rewley fishponds, and passed the little stone quays at Hythe bridge, where men were unloading sweet-smelling packages from a lumpish green boat. In the huts of Fisher Row strange folk, dingy as waterweeds, were getting ready their cobles and fishing-gear against the next fast-day. Peter crossed the main stream at Bookbinders bridge, and came on a broad paved path which ran to what seemed a second city. Walls, towers, pinnacles rose in a dizzier medley than those of Oxford, which he had seen five minutes before beyond the north gate. In especial one tall campanile soared as the stem of a pine soars from a wilderness of bracken, white and gleaming among the soberer tints of roof and buttress.

Suddenly from it there fell a gush of lovely sound, the morning canticle of the noblest peal of bells in the land. Peter stopped to listen, motionless with delight. In the diamond air of dawn the bells seemed to speak with the tongues of angels, praising God for His world, with the same notes that birds used in the thickets or the winds on the waters. As the peal slowed and ebbed to its close, one bell lingered, more deep and full than the rest, as if its rapture would not be stayed. Peter knew it for Thomas of Oseney, which had no equal in England — as great as Edward of Westminster or Dunstan of Canterbury.

The bells told him the hour. Prime was long past, and now the Chapter was over. There would be no food for four mortal hours unless he could make favour in the kitchen. He hurried through Little Gate and past the almshouses to Great Gate, with its cluster of morning beggars. It was dark under the portals, so dark that the janitor did not at first recognise him, and caught him roughly by the cloak till his face was revealed. Beyond was the wide expanse of Great Court, one half of it in shadow, one half a pool of light. On three sides, north, east and west, lay the cloisters, roofed with Shotover oak, and faced with the carved work of old Elias of Burford. Peter knew every inch of them, for, far more than his cell in St George’s College in the Castle, the Oseney cloisters were his home. There on the west side was his schoolroom, where he instructed the novices; there on the north was the scriptorium, where lodged the Abbey’s somewhat antiquated library; there on the south, beside the kitchen, was the Abbey’s summer parlour, and the slype which led to the graveyard, the gardens and the river. This last was Peter’s favourite corner, for in the morning hours it had the bustle of a market-place. On its stone seats sat those who waited on business with the Abbot, and foreign merchants using Oseney as a consulate, and brethren who could snatch a half-hour of leisure. It was a window from which the Abbey looked out into the world.

This morning there was a great peace in all the cloisters. Two old canons were taking the sun, and a half-dozen children stood in a ring repeating what might have been equally a game or a lesson. To Peter’s chagrin there was no comfort in the kitchen. The morning meal in the fratry was still hours distant, and the under~kitchener, who was his friend, had gone to the Abbot’s lodging, busied about an early collation for the Abbot’s guests. To forget his hunger Peter turned into Little Court, whence by way of the infirmary he could reach the back parts of the Abbey.

He found himself presently in a strange place, a place of lanes and closes, cot-houses and barns, from which came the clang of hammers and the buzzing of wheels. It was a burgh of itself, that part of the Abbey precincts which was known as Oseney-town, where dwelt the artificers. Here during the centuries there had grown up a multitude of crafts — tanners who prepared the Cotswold skins; bookbinders who clad in pigskin and vellum the archives of abbey and college; illuminators who decked the written word with gold and vermilion; wax-chandlers who made the lights for the holy places; shoemakers and workers in all kinds of leather and fine metals. Here were the millers who ground the corn from the Abbey farms, and carpenters and smiths and fullers and weavers of wicker-work. From every doorway came the sound of busy folk, and as an undertone the rhythmic beat of mill-wheels and the babble of little chinking rivulets. From this hive of industry there rose, too, a dozen smells, pleasant smells which told of wholesome human life — the bitter reek of the tan-pits, the freshness of new leather, the comfortable odour of ground corn which tormented Peter’s emptiness. And everywhere the clean scent of running water.

But Peter did not linger amid the busyness of Oseney-town. A gate between two dovecotes, where homing pigeons made a noisy cloud, led him across a bridge to the Abbey gardens. First came orchards of apples, pears and plums, quinces and apricots, and a close of plainer fruits, filberts, walnuts, almonds, and the cornels from which sweet drinks were made. There were fig-trees on the west walls, and a vineyard whose small grapes were used for a rough wine, but mostly for sweet pasties. Beyond lay the herb-garden, where Brother Placidus was now pottering. He had beds of every herb that healed the body and some which hurt, for he had mandrakes which must be torn up only by a black dog in the dark of the moon. There were flowers, too, in their July glory, admitted shamefacedly, since they were idle and fruitless things, and served only to make nosegays for the children of the craftsmen. Then came more meadows, some already shorn, some heavy with hay, and more dovecotes and orchards. Through all of these meandered runnels, which spouted sometimes over tiny lashers. Last came the fish-ponds, oblongs of clear green water, where in the depths great carp and bream and tench could be seen, motionless but for an occasional flicker of their tails. Beyond them, after a banked walk among willows, lay a shining loop of river, and across the farther meadows the smoke of Hinksey village and the hills of Cumnor, already dim with the haze which promised another day of breathless summer.

Peter crossed the meadow called Nymph’s Hay, the fodder from which was reserved for the Abbot’s stalls, and entered the little orchard named Columbine, which was all of apple trees. He chose the place because it had an open view, on one side to Cumnor and Wytham, on the other to the soaring tower of Oseney Great Church, with the hump of Oxford Castle and the spire of St Mary the Virgin beyond it. He was hungry and had long to wait before he breakfasted, but that was nothing new to Peter. It was his soul not his belly that troubled him. The high spirits of yesterday, the vigour of that very morning, had gone, and he was in a mood of profound disquiet. He flung himself among the long cool grasses, and sniffed the scent of earth; he lay on his back and watched pigeons and finches crossing the space of blue between the trees; and then he shut his eyes, for his trouble was within, in his heart.

It had been coming on for a long time, this malady of the mind. There were days like yesterday when youth and sunshine and holiday gave him the unthinking happiness of childhood. Sometimes for as much as a week he would be at peace, busy with his books, his small duties at the Abbey, and the pleasant ritual of food and sleep. And then a film seemed to dim his outlook, and all that had been coloured grew drab, and what had seemed a wide horizon narrowed to prison walls.

He raised his head and looked at the lift of the Abbey towers beyond the apple trees. Sometimes he thought the sight the noblest on earth, not to be bettered surely by Rome or Jerusalem. But now he saw it only as a jumble of grey stone, and under that jumble he knew that there were weedy courtyards, and seventeen ageing canons stumbling aimlessly through their days of prayer, and an Abbot on whose brow sat the cares of the world rather than the peace of God, and shrill-voiced impudent novices, and pedlars who made the cloisters like St Giles’s Fair — a shell once full of fruit, but empty now but for weevils and a few dry and rotting shreds. . . . A medley of singing rivulets filled the place, freshening the orchards and meadows, sending strong leats to wash away filth, edging the walks, turning mill-wheels, making everywhere pools and founts and cisterns. In a happier hour he had told himself that Oseney was a northern Venice, a queen of waters; now in his distemper it seemed only a mouldering relic among sewers.

He wanted life and power and pride; not in a sinful cause, but for noble purposes — this he told himself hastily to still a doubting conscience. He wanted to tear the heart out of learning, which was to him the mother of power. He wanted to look the world in the face, to cast a spell over men and make them follow him. In all innocency he hungered for pomp and colour, trumpet notes, quick music, the stir of the heart. . . . And he was only a poor scholar of St George’s College in the Castle, entitled to little more than lodging and a commons of bread and ale; a pensioner of Oseney under an ancient corrody of the keepers of Wychwood Forest; a teacher of noisy infants and dull hobbledehoys; a fumbler at the doors of knowledge when he should be striding its halls; a clerk in a shabby gown, whom no woman cast a second glance at and proud men thrust from the causeway; a cypher, a nobody, neither lay nor cleric, gentle nor simple, man nor maid. . . . He remembered the face of the traveller on the weary roan whom the night before he had seen ride in the gloaming into Stowood, and at the memory of his mastery Peter turned on his side and groaned.

The queer gipsy man, who spoke like a clerk, had said he was no churl’s get. But he had been wrong. Peter’s mind flew back to what he remembered of his youth. His only recollection was of the forester’s cottage on the edge of Wychwood, looking down upon Windrush. Mother Sweetbread, the forester’s wife, was all of a mother he had ever known, and the forester all of a father. He was not their child, but more distant kin — his father, he was told, had been a soldier slain in the wars. . . . His early life had been that of other country children — long summer days in wood and meadow, and winters snug at the back of the fire. But there had been sudden odd gleams athwart it. He remembered once being hurried into the deeps of Wychwood by Mother Sweetbread, where he lived for several days in a cold cleft by a stream, and somehow that hasty journey was associated in his mind with trampling horses and a tall man with a scar on his brow. . . . Then there was Brother Tobias, who superintended his schooling. Tobias was an Oseney canon, whose face, as long as Peter remembered it, had been wrinkled like a walnut. Tobias had taught him his letters, and arranged for him to attend the Witney school, where he boarded with the parson. Tobias had spoken to him of wonderful things and opened up new worlds and set him on the scholar’s path. It was Tobias who had got him an entrance to St George’s College, and had been his guide and benefactor when the Wychwood corrody placed him on the Oseney foundation. To Tobias he had gone in every trouble save his present discontent. That he could not carry to him, for Tobias would declare that it was sin. Tobias hoped that he would presently take up the religious life: it was for such a purpose that he had brought him from the Windrush cottage.

Peter had been now three years in Oxford, and in those three years he had strayed far from the Witney school and the precepts of Tobias. He had found the place humming with a strange jargon and fevered with the beginnings of a new life. There was Greek to be had in the new lectures at Corpus Christi College, and Greek was not a fresh subject to be added to the Trivium or Quadrivium, but a kind of magic which altered all the rest of man’s knowledge. It made him contemptuous of much that his betters still held venerable, and critical even of the ways of God. . . . But there was more astir in Oxford than Greek. The sons of great men were coming now to college, instead of going like their fathers to a nobleman’s household or the King’s Court, and they were bringing the wind of politics into its sheltered groves. All was in a flux in Church and State. Great things were happening, greater still were promised; it was hard to keep the mind on study when every post from London set the streets and taverns in a babble.

It was a moment when barriers seemed to be cracking, and there were wild chances for youth. But in such chances Peter had no share. The most that lay before him was the narrow life of the religious, regular monk or secular priest, or a life not less narrow spent in the outer courts of learning as a copier of scripts and a schoolmaster to youth. He was a peasant and a son of peasants, and there was no place for him in the glittering world. . . . Once the Church might have helped him to a pinnacle, as it had helped the great Cardinal of York, now dead. But the Church was crumbling; soon it would be no more than an appanage to the King’s palace, and its affairs would be guided by high-handed oppressive folk such as he had watched last night jingling through Stowood.

Again Peter raised his head, and this time his eye was held by the soaring tower of the great church. It was of Taynton stone, and whiter than the fabric; a sudden brightness seemed to fall on it and make it a shaft of alabaster with a light behind it. . . . He saw again Oseney as he had first seen it, a mystic city filled with all the wisdom of God and man. Especially he remembered how the tower had seemed to him to leap into the skies and marry earth and heaven. Something of the old mood returned to him. Sinner that he was, he had the Faith to hold him up, the Faith for whose mysteries he had once hungered and trembled. The world might go withershins, but here was a cornerstone which could not be removed, an anvil which had worn out many hammers. To remember that he was a clerk gave him a second of pride, almost of defiance, for the Church and her clerks had many foes. He was not obscure so long as he was a member of that celestial brotherhood, nor humble when he had a title to the pride of Heaven. . . . He gazed again at the shining tower, and a fount of affection welled in his dry heart. At that moment Thomas, the great bell, boomed the hour for High Mass.

Peter hurried through the orchard closes and over the little bridges and through the purlieus of Oseney-town. The place smelt less pleasingly than it had an hour ago, and, with the dazzle of dawn out of his eyes, he could see the squalor of much of it — the dirt and offal in the runnels, a sluttish woman at a door, crumbling styes and byres, a bridge mended with a broken cart~wheel, a scum of grease filming an eddy in a stream. He ran past the infirmary and across Little Court, for Thomas had had a peremptory note in his voice, and he did not slacken pace till he was in the cloisters of Great Court, and joined a little convoy of canons proceeding to the west door of the church. . . . Then suddenly he was in a hollow like the inside of a mountain, a hollow lit with twinkling lights and strange jewelled belts of sun, thick with incense smoke, and tremulous with the first notes of the great organ.

The growing poverty of Oseney had not yet shown itself in its mighty church. Peter, in his seat below the choir, felt himself once again secure from the temptations of life and lapped in an ancient peace. Nothing could stale for him the magic of this hollow land whose light and colour and scents were not those of the world. He followed the service mechanically from long practice, but his thoughts were far away. Oseney kept up the old fashion: no prick-song with its twists and tremors, but the honest plain-song of their fathers. The solemn cadences dwelt in the dim recesses above him like a night-wind among the clouds. They soothed him, and yet quickened the life in him, so that his fancies ranged in a happy medley. On the wall opposite him hung a tapestry of some saint of the Thebaid, with Libyan lions dogging his heels, and an aureoled angel offering him something in a cup. In the background little yellow hills ran out to a blue river, beyond which, very far away, lay a city with spires, and a sea with two ships. The sun coming in through the rose window in the south transept made the phylactery which the angel bore glow like a topaz, and gilded the hermit’s bald head, while it turned the ciborium below into shining gold. . . . Slowly Peter’s mind passed from a happy vacuity to making tales about the scene depicted in the tapestry, and, as his fancy ranged, the peace which the dim light and the grave harmonies had given him began to shiver like mist and disappear. Adoramus te Christe — sang the pure voices of the choristers — Jesu fili Dei vivi — but Peter’s thoughts were not on God. That tapestry had become a window through which he looked again upon the secular world which tormented him.

At the benediction he made straight for the fratry, for his hunger was now grievous. At the laver in the cloister he bathed his face, and washed hands which were stained with the soil and moss of the orchard. The fratry was on the south side of Great Court, to be reached by a broad stairway, for all the ground-floor was occupied by cellars and store-rooms. It was too large by far for the present community, for the officers, canons, novices and clerks attached made only a cluster at one end of the great hall. The daïs was empty, since Abbot Burton was entertaining guests in his own lodgings. The precentor gabbled a grace, and the little company began their meal on the viands already on the table, for there were no hot dishes when fast was broken in summer-time. The food was plentiful and good — rye bread in abundance, and for each a commons of the fine white Oxford loaves called “blanchpayn,” the Abbey’s own ale, the Abbey’s own cheese and butter, smoked London herrings, and dishes of fresh lettuces of Brother Placidus’s growing. Peter’s place was at the lower end, and he ate hungrily, having no ear for the novice, who in a stone pulpit read aloud from St Jerome. The black dog was on his back again. He was a poor clerk in a poor place, disconsidered even by the disconsidered. The homely smell of the food, of the scrubbed floor and woodwork, of the coarse fabric of his neighbours’ clothes, filled him with a childish exasperation. He looked at the grey heads around him. Was he to grow old like them in this place of shadows?

A hand was laid on his shoulder as he descended the staircase into the July sunlight, and he found Brother Tobias beside him. Brother Tobias was a little lame, and leaned heavily on his arm while he spoke in his placid cooing way in his ear. Brother Tobias had a very small face, red and rosy and wrinkled like a walnut, and a very long neck, stringy as a hempen rope. From earliest days he had been Peter’s guardian, patron, father in God, or whatever title covers the complete oversight of interests in time and eternity. He had blue eyes a little dim from study, for he was Oseney’s chief scholar and accounted a learned Thomist as well as a noted Grecian, but those same eyes saw much that others missed, and at moments they could gleam with a secular fire. For Tobias had not always been a churchman; there were tales of a youth spent in camps and courts, for he was come of high stock from Severn side.

His dragging arm led Peter to the slype beside the summer parlour. On the stone seats some of the brethren, who had already eaten, were basking in the sun. Two men in green, clothiers from the Stour, were engaged in argument with the hosteller about certain coverlets supplied to the hostel beds. . . . Brother Placidus, a lean old man with a skin the colour of loam, was upbraiding Brother Josephus, because the latter, who was skilled in the work of illumination, had plucked as a model the leaf of a certain rare plant, which the former alleged to have been thereby destroyed. The leaf in question was now past the use for which Brother Josephus had designed it, having been rolled into a pellet in Brother Placidus’s angry hands. . . . A pedlar of wild strawberries had plumped his baskets on the flags and was extolling the merits of fruit picked that morning in the Besselsleigh woods. . . . Two brethren were imperilling their digestions by a theological argument as to whether our Lord, combining a divine and a human nature, was to be described as conflatus or commixtus. A third joining in, urged that the proper word was unitus, or perhaps geminatus, and quoted a sentence of St Augustine. . . . A group of younger canons were discussing the guests whom the Abbot was then entertaining. One was Sir Ralph Bonamy of Wood Eaton — he was a familiar figure; but the other, the old man with the small white beard and the quick anxious eyes? Doubtless a confrater, or lay member of the Abbey, come to consult on Oseney business. One claimed to know the face as that of a lord in the west country who was very close to the King’s ear. . . . The reeve from the Abbey’s lands at Kidlington was engaged with the sub-cellarer on an intricate computation of the number of beeves to be fattened for the Abingdon market. . . . Peter, who could not choose but hear fragments of the tattle, felt an overpowering weariness of soul.

Brother Tobias, stretching his old legs in the sun’s warmth, looked curiously at his friend, whose gown had slipped from his shoulders, and who stood before him very comely in his young grace, but with something listless and dejected in his air.

“I missed you at supper last night, son Peter,” he said. “Were you in the woods, maybe? You have become more of a forester these days than a clerk. In this summer of God no doubt the woods are the best school. Would that my limbs were less ancient and I could go with you, but where I must jog on a mule you can stride like a hunter. When saw you Mother Sweetbread last?”

“Yesterday seven days.”

“She was in health?”

“In the health which her age permits.”

“Ay. That good wife grows old like me. Age needs cherishing, and she is all the kin you have. Next week, if the Lord spare me, we will go together upstream and taste the Windrush trout and the Forest strawberries. But before that we must speak together of some difficult matters. You are a man now, with your twenty-first year behind you. It is time to consult about the future.”

“That is what I desire,” said Peter moodily.

“Let it be this evening before compline.” He looked up at the boy’s shapeliness, the clean limbs, the narrow loins, the breadth of shoulder, at the face dark with weather, the straight brows, the noble lines of head and jaw, the candid grey-blue eyes at present sullen and puzzled, the crisp brown hair, for Peter had never been tonsured. All this Brother Tobias gazed at, and then he sighed, before he rose to limp back to his studies. He wondered whether such youth would submit readily to the dedication which religion demanded. “I must require of him some special discipline,” he thought.

Peter finished his duties in the novices’ school by an hour after noon. He visited his attic in St George’s College in the Castle. It was very hot, and, since the window opened to the south, the little room was like an oven. He looked at his unslept-in bed, with its mean bedclothes, his shelf of papers weighted by a book or two, the three-legged stool and the rickety table which were all the furniture, and a pair of blue flies buzzing at a broken pane, and the sight did not increase his cheerfulness. Poverty lay like dust over everything. He had meant to give the afternoon to his own studies, to that translation of a book of Plato into Ciceronian Latin, at which, with a fellow of Corpus Christi College, he had been for some months at work. But he found it impossible. On such a day and in such a mood he would go mad in that stuffy cell. He would go to the library of Merton College, where he had permission to read, and look up certain passages in Diogenes Laertius till dinner-time.

It had become a day of blistering heat. The last summer had been a succession of fogs and deluges, so that the hay rotted in the mead and the beans in the field. But this year, though there had been many comforting rains, there had also been weeks of steady heat, when the sun rose in a haze, glared at noontide from a cloudless sky, and set again in amethyst and opal. Peter entered the city by the west gate, and by way of Friars’ Street came into St Aldate’s opposite the gate of what had once been Cardinal College. It was still unfinished, a barrack of gaunt masonry, noble only in its size, with beyond the raw gables and the poles of the scaffolding the lovely grey spire of St Frideswide’s Church. Peter on his way to Merton passed through the new main quadrangle, which was as yet more like a quarry than a dwelling for men. The older work was of hard Burford stone, but much of the finishing, to save time and cost, was in the soft stone of Headington, and the masons who wrought on it filled the air with a fine dust and made the place in the sultry afternoon like a desert in a sandstorm. On the older plinths and buttresses Peter read the great Cardinal’s arms, and he wished his soul well wherever it might be. Wolsey had loved grandeur and pomp, and had made all men bow to him. Also he had loved sound learning, and, had his dreams been realised, the Greek of Corpus would have been to the Greek of Cardinal as a cup of water to a flood.

Merton Street gave him shade, where the town houses of the gentry of the shire beetled over the narrow pathway. Beyond he saw bare ground up to the city wall; that had once been a populous quarter of the city, but it had been untenanted since the Black Death a hundred years before. . . . The great Cardinal dwelt in his mind, not as a warning against pride, but as an encouragement to the humble. Though tragedy had been the end of him, he had wrested rich prizes from life. Dukes had held the ewer while he washed, and earls had tied the strings of his shoes. His palaces at Hampton and Tittenhanger and the More had been as noble as the King’s. He had travelled about with three hundred servants, and he, the flesher’s son, had sat as equal at the council-board with the Emperor and the King of France. Peter’s fancy fired at the thought, and in a dream he climbed the library steps with long strides and found his accustomed corner.

But the mood did not last. . . . Wolsey had been Wolsey, and he was Peter Pentecost, without a friend save Brother Tobias and the Oseney canons, and with no means to raise himself from his humility. His obscurity was too deep for any good fortune to disinter him. Diogenes Laertius that day was not profitably studied, for Peter sat on the oak settle with his eye on the page and his mind far away. . . . He thought of his happy careless childhood with irritation. Born a peasant in a peasant’s hut, not very clear even about his own humble kin, learning had opened windows for him and given him a prospect beyond his station. But learning having made the promise could not give him fulfilment. The Church offered no career. It was crumbling; as Tobias said, the gates of Hell were prevailing against it. A churchman met hard glances nowadays wherever he went; and, worse, he found the doors of power barred to him. There was a new world coming to birth, and it was a world which, instead of exalting Peter Pentecost, must force him deeper down into the mire. . . . Mother Sweetbread was growing old, and she was all the kin he knew. The thought at the moment brought no kindness to his heart, for youth has its hard patches. He felt something which was almost resentment against the woman who had reared him for so narrow a life. Yet in those days he had been happy. His memory of them was of an infinite series of golden hours, green woods and clear waters and gentle faces. Illusion, no doubt, but it was better than the grim reality of today. . . .

And then his thoughts flew to the Painted Floor, and the strange spectacle of the night before. Since his youth could not be recovered, might he not win that clean and gracious world which the classical poets had revealed to him, another and a fairer youth, an eternal springtide of the spirit? But the harsh present was too insistent, nor did he believe that he had the makings of the true scholar. He could not consent to live only with books and dreams, even if that life were free to him. He had revelled in old poets because they had given him a sphere so remote from squalid reality that he could indulge the fancy that within it he was a master and not a slave. He had rejoiced in the Painted Floor, because it was his own, and he was king there by the strongest right of tenure. But did not the secret of both affections lie in the fact that they made him what he could dream, but could never attain to? . . .

He had a momentary thought of breaking all shackles and seeking another course of life. He had been taught the use of arms by the Wychwood foresters. Brother Tobias himself had seen to it that he had some skill of the sword, a rare thing in a clerk. His chest was deep and his limbs were tireless. What of the big unclerkly world beyond Oseney gates and Oxford walls? . . . The notion only crossed his mind to be dismissed. Learning, even a little learning, had spoiled him for beginning life in the ranks among bullies and cut-throats and fellows whose sole possession was their sinews. It had made him fastidious. He hungered, and yet could be dainty about any offered dish. . . . Peter shut his book and dropped his head on his arms. He was feeling the pressure of life which sets a man’s nerves twitching and confuses his brain, and which can be mastered only by blinding the eyes and concentrating on a single duty, or — the poet’s way — by weaving tumultuous phenomena into the simplicities of art. What were those words of Tobias which he was always using of England? —“The blanket of the dark.” The gipsy with the hot eyes in Stowood had said the same. Peter had a sense of a great cloud of darkness encumbering him, a cloak at once black and stifling.

His restlessness drew him from the shadowed library and sent him by way of Merton Lane into the bustle of High Street. It was cooler now, but, since that narrow street ran east and west, the sun’s beams fell in a long slant and there was no shade. Peter, filled with his own thoughts, and keeping close to the booths, found himself so jostled that he was shaken into cognisance of the world around him. . . . A cowman, leading a red bull by the nose, was pulled off his legs and had a wordy brawl with a mounted lackey wearing the Harcourt liveries. . . . For a moment the street was cleared, while a veiled lady on a palfrey was escorted by four running footmen and an armed steward. Great folk from Ewelme, thought Peter, for the men had the Suffolk colours. . . . He saw two friars cross the street and disappear within the Wheatsheaf passage, moving furtively and fast. They were from a Dominican house among the south marshes, a foundation long decayed and now trembling to its fall. Dr John London, the Warden of New College, emerged from the Bear inn, wiping his lips and arguing loudly with a pale priest in a cassock. Dr John’s red face and vehement eye dominated the pavement, and the citizens doffed their caps to him, while the friars quickened their pace at the sight, for he was deep in Cromwell’s confidence and purposed to make himself a scourge for the religious houses under the direction of the masterful chief whip of the Council. . . .

There were plenty of threadbare scholars of Peter’s own complexion, and a sprinkling of a different kind of youth — ruddy boys, richly doubleted and booted, and in defiance of statute bearing arms — young sprigs of gentrice and nobility, to whom the life of Oxford was that of a country house. The sight of them made Peter shrink still farther into what shadow he could find. . . . In a press at a corner he thought he caught a glimpse of the lean face and the hot eyes of the gospeller of the night before. And of one face he was certain. Down the causeway, as if he were its squire, strode the tall horseman whom he had seen twenty hours ago ride up the hill into Stowood. He had changed his clothes, for gone were the plumeless bonnet and battered doublet: now he was handsomely dressed in black and silver, with a jewel in his cap, but the same long sword swung at his side. . . . Opposite Haberdashers’ Hall, which was on Oseney ground, there was a loud cry to clear the way, and, a hundred yards off, he saw the head of a mounted man bobbing above the throng. It was a post from London, no less than the Vice–Chancellor’s own private courier, and, since he had many acquaintances, he was delayed by people plucking at his stirrups and bridle and asking for news. To avoid the crowd Peter stepped into an open door of the Ram inn, and found a seat well back in the dusk.

It was a place which he sometimes frequented, when his weekly three silver pennies permitted the indulgence. A drawer brought him a pot of ale, and when he had taken the edge from his thirst he looked round the room, which was bright in front where its low windows and door admitted the sunlight from the street, but at the back was dusky as a vault. A clerk sat on the settle next him, and he saw without pleasure that it was that Jeremy Wellaby of Corpus with whom he was at work on Plato.

There was a clamour at the door and loud cries on Master Puncheon the vintner to bring forthwith a hogshead of ale to quench the drought of an honest man. The Vice–Chancellor’s messenger had halted at the Ram door and was being treated by his friends. Peter could not choose but catch echoes of the babble, as the said friends discussed the news. The Pope’s men rising . . . Norfolk way . . . some say the Bishop leads ’em . . . nay, not the Duke of Norfolk, who was the right hand of the King’s grace . . . Darcy maybe, and unnamed lords in the north . . . St Albans had fallen to them . . . some said they were stopped at Huntingdon. . . . Nay, nay, Master Giles had been clear that there was no rising as yet, only the fear of one. . . .

The crowd surged on, but, like an ocean billow, it left some flotsam behind it. Several figures had entered the taproom of the Ram. One was already a little drunk, and had the look of a scrivener’s jackal, for there were ink stains over his large splay hands. He sat near the door, spilling his ale as he drank over a grimy doublet, and he seasoned his draught with complaints to all within earshot.

“Ay, my masters,” he hiccuped, “the King’s grace has gotten the Pope at last in his belly. Now that the big black Cardinal crow is dead, the rookeries will be hewn down, and there will be rook pie for every poor soul that seeks it. A better world, says I. No more mortuaries and probates and a right to sin for every lousy clerk. Dr John! Dr John London! More power to your stout arm! They waxed fat and kicked fat, forsooth . . . three dishes at a meal for the plain gentleman and only six for a great lord of parliament, but nine on the board of him that was Cardinal of York. . . . It is the day of recompense, my masters, and blessed be the eyes which shall see it. . . . ”

The man saw something in the street which plucked him from his bench and sent him staggering into the open.

“It is the day of loose tongues,” said a grave man, an Oxford mercer who was dining handsomely off a roast duck and a cup of sack. “The stocks and a clipped ear await that one. . . . Doubtless it would be a pleasant world lacking mortuaries and such~like, but what an honest man saves from the Church he will pay to the King. An Englishman is born to be fleeced by the mighty ones, and what with subsidies and loans and amicable aids he is like to be worse off than before. His money is lost to him whether it goes to Pope or bishop or exchequer clerk. I am a good citizen and a true and loyal King’s man, but it is the right of a freeman to have his grumble.”

Master Wellaby spoke up.

“You had an England of laymen and clerks, and you are destroying it. What better will it be to have an England of rich and poor? Will there be more peace and happiness, think you?”

A new-comer had ordered a meal, with an observing eye upon the mercer’s fare. He was a countryman by his ruddy face and the dust on his square-toed boots and leather breeches, but from his dress he might be reeve or steward or verderer or petty squire.

“Marry, there will always be rich and poor,” he said, “since the Scripture orders it, and since the new breed of rich is less gentle than the old, the poor will fare the worse. Are the new men that lord it to-day the make of the old? I trow not. What is Russell and Audeley and Wriothesley to Mowbray and Bohun and Mortimer, or Seymour to De Vere, or Fitzwilliam to Lovell? You have a new man at the King’s elbow, Master Crummle, of whom they speak great things. Nevertheless he is but a gilded scrivener. My own cousin saw him a score of years back a ragged serving-lad at the door of Messer Friskyball’s bank in Florence. It sticks in my mind that the new masters will be harsher than the old, since they are but risen servants.”

“History confirms you, sir,” said Master Wellaby eagerly. “In ancient Rome the freedman was the worst tyrant.”

“I know nought of Rome, ancient or new, but much of England, notably that part of it which lies between Cherwell and Severn, and I declare before God that I love the old ways best, as I love best old ale and old pasture. ’Twere better if instead of bare-back fleshers and scriveners the ancient masters bore rule again in the land. Such an one as the mighty Duke of Buckingham.”

“Him that suffered in ‘21?” the mercer inquired.

“The same. His blood was direct from Bohun and King Edward. There was the great lord! He had fourteen thousand marks of rental each year, and he never stirred abroad without four hundred armed men at his back.”

“Too proud,” said the mercer. “Too proud for a naughty world. Wherefore did he die, good sir? I was only a stripling then and forget the tale.”

“Because of an old wives’ gossip of treason. Wolsey, whom the devil burn, feared to go to the French wars and leave such a man behind him. It is our foolish fashion to sacrifice some great one before we fight our enemies. ’Twas Pole in ‘13, and ’twas Buckingham in ‘21. I uphold that the Duke’s death was a crime in God’s eyes, and that He hath visited it not only on Wolsey who was the guilty one, but on the King’s grace who was an innocent partaker. Witness his lamentable barrenness in the matter of posterity. . . . ”

There was a hush at the words, as if each auditor feared his neighbour. But the countryman went on undaunted.

“And now there is nought left of the proud race of Stafford and Bohun, and old England is the poorer place.”

After that he spoke no more but gave his mind to a meat pasty. Presently Wellaby rose to leave, and soon Peter was the only occupant of the taproom. It was the hour of the evening meal at Oseney, but Peter had no mind to it. He expended one of his few coins on a little bread and cheese, and sat on as the dusk deepened and the booths put up their shutters and women called their husbands to supper.

He was in a mood of profound dejection, for two things had befallen him that afternoon. He had realised that the life to which he had vowed himself was in danger of becoming no more than a blind alley, and that the huge fabric of the Church was falling about his ears. Also he had been made aware that great events were toward in the State, and he had seen the happy bustle of men with purpose and power, while he himself sat a disconsidered oddment in a corner. The blanket of the dark was very thick about him.

A hand touched him and woke him from his lassitude. It was one of the Abbey servitors from Oseney.

“Make haste, Master Pentecost —‘ee be wanted. I’ve been rakin’ Oxford for ‘ee this past hour. Brother Tobias bade me bring ‘ee post-haste.”

Peter followed him into the street, listless and incurious. This was the consultation, no doubt, for which Tobias had trysted him that morning. But what could Tobias do? Peter had not lost the savour of life; the deadly sin of accidia was not his; he felt the savour with a desperate keenness, but he despaired of passing from the savour to the taste of it. . . . The crowd in the street was less, since it was the meal hour, but there were travellers on the road, spurring through the city to some Cotswold inn or manor. Also there were many of the new proud breed of collegians, coming from the Beaumont field to the colleges nearest the river, or forsaking their bare commons for a tavern supper. There were merchants of the town, too, taking the air and discussing the last news, comfortable men, with a proper reverence for a lord and a proper contempt for a poor scholar. . . . To everyone he met, even the humblest, he was nothing — a child of country peasants, a dabbler in unwanted learning, a creature of a falling Church. In the bitterness of his soul he clenched his hands till the nails hurt his palms. As he crossed Bookbinders bridge and entered the Abbey he felt like a dog whistled back to its kennel.

So low were his spirits that he did not notice that he was being conducted to the Abbot’s palace till his feet were on the threshold. The messenger handed him over to the seneschal, who appeared to be awaiting him. This was an odd spot for his appointment with Tobias, for he had never entered the place before, but he followed his guide dully through the outer hall, and through the dining chamber and up a stairway of Forest marble. He entered a room part panelled and part hung with tapestries, which looked westward over the Botley causeway and the Wytham meadows. It was lit by the summer sunset, and beside the table stood two men.

One was Tobias, whose crab-apple face seemed strangely perturbed. He looked at Peter with hungry eyes as if striving by them to say that which he could not put into words. The other was an old man dressed soberly in black, who wore a rich chain of gold and a jewel on his breast. His face was deeply lined, his mouth was grim, and he had the eye of one used to command. Recollection awoke in Peter at the sight. This was the very man whom he had seen wearing a purple cloak and an ermine collar in the cavalcade of the evening before. He had guessed that he was one of the King’s commissioners sent to deal with the religious houses. Eynsham had not been his goal. He must have been Oseney’s guest for the night.

Both men rose at his entrance and remained standing, a strange thing for a great one in the presence of a youthful clerk. The elder looked at him steadily, ardently, his eye taking in every detail of the threadbare clothes and lithe form and comely face. Then he sighed, but his sigh was not of disappointment.

“The same arch of the brows,” he murmured, “and the little cleft in the upper lip.”

“You are he whom they call Peter Pentecost?” he said. “I have searched long before I found you, my child. They told me that you were an inmate of a religious house in these parts, but which I could not learn. Having found you, I have much to tell you. But first answer my question. Who and what are you and what was your upbringing?” There was no rudeness in the interrogation, but nevertheless it was peremptory, and the speaker’s air had that in it which compelled an answer.

“I was reared by one Mistress Sweetbread at Leafield, the wife, and now the widow, of a Wychwood forester.”

The old man nodded.

“Your father?”

“Of him I know nothing. I have heard that he was a soldier who fell in the wars oversea.”

“Your mother?”

“I never saw her. She was, I think, of near kin to the Sweetbreads, a sister or a sister’s child.”

The other smiled.

“It was a necessary imposture. There was no safety for such as you except to bury you deep in some rustic place. You remember nothing of the years before you came to Leafield?”

Peter shook his head. A wild hope was beginning to surge in his heart.

“Then it is my privilege to enlighten you. There were some who knew the truth, but it did not become them to speak. This good man for one,” and he turned to Tobias.

“I judged it wiser to let the past sleep,” said Tobias, “for I considered only the happiness of him whom I loved as my own son. There was no need . . . ”

“The need has arisen,” said the old man firmly. “We who were your father’s friends have never lost sight of that likelihood, though i’ faith we let you sink so deep into Oxfordshire mud that it has been hard to find you. That was the doing of our reverend brother Tobias. You have lived a score of years in a happy ignorance, but the hour has come when it must be broken. Your mother . . . ”

He paused, and Peter’s heart stood still.

“Your mother was no Sweetbread kin. She was the Lady Elinor, the eldest daughter of Percy of Northumberland.”

Peter’s heart beat again. He felt his forehead flush and a wild gladness in him which sent the tears to his eyes. He was noble then on the distaff side, noble with the rarest blood of England. What runaway match, what crazy romance, had brought him to birth?

“My father?” he asked.

“Be comforted,” said the other, smiling back. “I read your face, but there is no bar sinister on your shield. You were born in lawful wedlock, a second son. Your mother is long dead, your elder brother is these three months in his grave. You are now the only child of your father’s house.”

“My father?” The tension made Peter’s voice as thin as a bat’s.

“Your father?” said the old man, and he rolled the words out like a herald at a tourney. “Your father was that high and puissant prince, Edward, Duke and Earl of Buckingham, Earl and Baron of Stafford, Prince of Brecknock, Count of Perche in Normandy, Knight of the Garter, hereditary Lord High Steward, and, in virtue of the blood of Bohun, Lord High Constable of England.”

“He died in the year ‘21,” said Peter, blindly repeating what he had heard in the Ram inn.

“He died in the year ‘21, a shameful and unmerited death. His lands and honours were thereby forfeited, and you have not one rood to your name this day. But in the eyes of God and of honest men throughout this land you are Buckingham and Bohun and the sixth man from Edward the Third. I and those who think with me have sought you long, and have planned subtly on your behalf, and on behalf of this unhappy realm which groans under a cruel tyranny. The times are ripe for a change of master, and there will be no comfort for our poor people till that change be accomplished.”

“You would make me a duke?” Peter stammered.

The westering sun was in the old man’s face, and it showed that in his eyes which belied his age. He was suddenly transfigured. He came forward, knelt before Peter, and took his hand between his two palms.

“Nay, sire,” he said, “by the grace of God we will make you King of England.”

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