The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter iii

In which Peter Lurks in the Shadow

Four weeks later to a day Peter sat again in his old eyrie, above the highway which descended from Stowood to the Wood Eaton meads. Strange things had happened meanwhile. Twenty-four hours after the meeting in the Abbot’s lodging the heat had broken in thunderstorms, followed by such a deluge of rain as washed the belated riverside haycocks to the sea and sent Isis and Cherwell adventuring far into distant fields. In the floods a certain humble dependent of Oseney, Pentecost by name, had the ill-luck to perish. For two days he was missed from his accustomed haunts, and on the third news came up the river from Dorchester that he had been last seen attempting a crazy plank bridge over Thame which had been forthwith carried down by the floods. The body was not recovered, but there were many nameless bodies washed up those days. Perfunctory masses were sung for the soul of the drowned man in a side chapel of Oseney Great Church, and in the little chapel of St George in the Castle, and Brother Tobias wore a decent mask of grief and kept his chamber. A new master in grammar was found for the novices, and there was a vacancy in an Oseney corrody and an empty bed in the Castle garret. In a week a deeper tide than that of Isis had submerged the memory of Peter Pentecost.

“It is necessary to do such things cleanly,” the old Lord Avelard had said. “There must be no Lambert Simnel tale that might crop up to our undoing.” He was a careful gentleman, for Brother Tobias was sent to Wychwood to spread the news, so that those who had sat by Peter on the benches of Witney school might spare a sigh for a lost companion.

Then Peter by night was taken to Sir Ralph Bonamy’s house at Wood Eaton. No servant saw him enter, but in the dark a clerk’s gown was burned, and in the morning a young man broke his fast in Sir Ralph’s hall, who bore the name of Bonamy, and was a cousin out of Salop. The manor-house of Wood Eaton was no new-fangled place such as fine gentlemen were building elsewhere. It was still in substance the hall of Edward the First’s day, with its high raftered roof, its solar with plastered walls, its summer parlour, its reedy moat, which could nevertheless be speedily filled bank~high by a leat from Cherwell, its inner and outer courtyards bastioned and loopholed for defence. Sir Ralph was as antique as his dwelling. A widower and childless, he lived alone with an ancient sister, who spent her days amid the gentle white magic of herbs and simples. He was well beyond three-score and ten years, but still immensely strong and vigorous, and able to spend long days in the field with his hounds or on the meres with his fishing pole. He was short and broad, with a noble head of greying reddish hair, and he was clad always in coarse green cloth like a yeoman, while his boots were as massive as an Otmoor fowler’s. He was a lover of good fare and mighty in hospitality, so that his hall was like a public house of entertainment, where neighbour or stranger could at any time get his fill of beef-pudding and small beer. It was an untidy place, murky in winter with wood-smoke and dim even in summer, for the windows were few and dirty. It smelled always of cooked meats and of a motley of animals, being full of dogs — deer-hounds and gazehounds, and Malta spaniels, and terriers; likewise there were hawks’ perches, and Sir Ralph’s favourite tassel-gentle sat at his elbow. The stone floor was apt to be littered with marrow-bones and the remains of the hounds’ meals, and the odour was not improved by the drying skins of wild game which hung on the walls. Sir Ralph had a gusty voice and a habit of rough speech, which suited his strange abode, but he was also notably pious, and a confrater of Oseney; a small chapel opened from the hall where the family priest conducted regular devotions, and he kept his Fridays and fast days as rigidly as any Oseney canon. He was an upholder of the old ways in all things — religion, speech, food and furnishing.

Peter, clad in a sober, well-fitting suit of brown such as became a country squire out of Salop, breakfasted his first morning at Wood Eaton with his head in a whirl. His host, in a great armed chair, made valorous inroads on a cold chine of beef, and drank from a tun glass of ale which he stirred with a twig of rosemary. The long hawking-pole, which never left him, leaned against his chair, and by his hand lay a little white stick with which he defended his platter against the efforts of a great deer-hound and two spaniels to share its contents. Sir Ralph had welcomed his guest with a gusto which he had in vain attempted to make courtly, and since then had said nothing, being too busy with food and dogs. “Eat, sir,” he had said, “youth should be a good trencherman. Now, alas! I can only pick like a puling lanner.” Then he cut himself a wedge of pie which might have provisioned a ploughman for a week.

Peter turned his head at a sound behind him. Lord Avelard had entered the hall, preceded by his body-servant, who arranged his chair, procured him some wheaten cakes and butter, filled a glass of sack which he mixed with syrup of gillyflowers, and then bowed and took his leave. Seen for the first time in the morning light, the face of the old man was such as to hold the eyes. His toilet was but half made; he had slippers on his feet and still wore his dressing-gown; his age was more apparent, and could not be less than four-score; nevertheless, so strong was his air of purpose that he seemed ready forthwith to lead an army or dominate a council. A steady fire burned in his pale eyes, a fire of enthusiasm, or, it might be, of hate. Peter, as he looked on him, felt his curiosity changing to awe.

But the old man was very cordial to the young one. He greeted him as a father might greet a son who was presently to be pope or king.

“We will call him for a little by your name, Ralph,” he said. “Master Bonamy — Master Peter Bonamy — I have forgot what is his worship’s manor t’other side of Severn. . . . Wood Eaton will be a safe retreat for a week or two, till I am ready to receive him at Avelard.”

“By your leave, my lord,” said his host, “it is none too safe a sanctuary. Wood Eaton has a plaguey name as a house of call for all and sundry. It is as open as the Oxford corn-market. Likewise, I have lodging here my niece Sabine — old Jack Beauforest’s daughter — you mind Jack of Dorchester, my lord? Come to think of it, Sabine is as near kin to your deceased lady as to me. She is gone for a week to the nuns at Godstow, where she went to school — Abbess Katherine was her mother’s cousin — but will be home tomorrow. The secret with which you have entrusted me is too big for a maid’s ear, and I do not want Mistress Sabine and this new cousin of ours to clap eyes on each other. You see the reason of it, my lord, though, as one with a hospitable name, I think shame to urge it.”

“But I have a plan to offer,” he continued, when he saw the old man’s countenance fall. “Let him go into Stowood to a verderer’s lodge. I, as principal ranger, can compass that. There is one John of Milton, a silent man, who lives deep in the forest, and to him I would send our cousin, my lord. There no eye will see him save that of gipsy or charcoal-burner or purley-man, and he will have leisure to perfect himself in arts in which I gather he is lacking. A month will pass quick in the cool of the forest.”

Lord Avelard pondered. “Your plan is good, Ralph,” he said. “Wood Eaton is a thought too notable because of its master.” He looked at Peter and smiled. “How will you relish taking to the greenwood like Robin Hood or Little John? You are dedicated, my son, to a great purpose, and it has always been the custom of the dedicated to sojourn first for a while in the wilderness.”

His face, as he looked on the young man, was lit for a moment with a strange tenderness, but the next second it had fallen back into the wary mask of the conspirator.

“How goes the country, Ralph?” he asked. “What does Oxfordshire say of the latest doings at Court?”

“Oxfordshire is very weary of the Welshman,” was the answer, “and grieves for the fate of poor Hal Norris. It was well to cut off the Concubine’s head, but why should Hal have been made to suffer for her misdoings — Hal whom I knew from boyhood and who was innocent as a christom babe? Wychwood and Langley forests had never a better keeper than Hal. . . . Who is to have the post, think you? I heard talk of Jack Brydges. . . . ”

“The King, as you know, has married the Seymour, so he has a new breed of wife’s kin to provide for.”

“The Welshman makes a poor business of marrying, for he has nothing to show for his pains. The Lady Mary is outlawed, and the Concubine’s child is outlawed, and . . . ”

“Nay, but there is a new conceit,” said Lord Avelard. “Parliament has granted the King’s grace the power to bequeath the Crown of England by will, as you or I might legate an old doublet.”

“God’s wounds!” cried Sir Ralph, “but this is sacrilege! If a pack of citizens can decide the disposition of the crown what becomes of the Lord’s anointing? It is the tie of blood which God has determined. . . . ”

“Do not vex yourself, for the thing works in our favour. If the King forget the obligations of lawful descent, England remembers them. . . . What further do you report of the discontents?”

“There is the devil’s own uproar over the King’s extortions among the gentle, and the simple complain that they are sore oppressed by the inclosers and the engrossers and the wool-staplers. Likewise the pious everywhere are perturbed, since heretics sit in high places and the blasphemer is rampant in the land. Crummle’s commissioners go riding the roads, with the spoils of God’s houses on their varlets’ backs, copes for doublets and tunics for saddlecloths. There are preachers who tell the folk that the Host is only a piece of baker’s bread, and that baptism is as lawful in a tub or a ditch as in a holy font; and will allow a poor man none of the kindly little saints to guide his steps when God and His Mother have bigger jobs on hand. Certes, the new England they will bring upon us is good neither for Jack nor his master.”

“Jack knows it,” said Lord Avelard. “I will prophesy to you, Ralph. In a matter of months, or maybe of weeks, you will hear strange news out of the eastern and northern shires. There will be such a rising of poor Christian people as will shake the King on his throne.”

“Ay, ay. I have heard something of it. But Jack alone will never oust the Welshman. That is a job for Jack’s masters. What of them, my lord? What of the nobles of England?”

“Their turn will come,” was the answer. “First, the priests and the common people. Then, when they have fluttered the heart of the Court and drawn the King’s levies into a difficult campaign, we shall strike in the western and midland shires, and the blow will not be by a bill in a clodhopper’s hand but by a glaive in a steel gauntlet. First the commonalty, then the gentles — that is our stratagem.”

“And of these latter more puissant folk what numbers can you command? Remember, my lord, I have been a soldier. I was at Flodden and Therouanne. I am not ignorant of the ways of war.”

Lord Avelard consulted a paper. “Your walls are secret?” he asked.

“As the grave. Likewise I have no servant who is not deaf or dull in the wits.”

“Of the plain country squires throughout the land, three out of four are on our side. . . . For the greater ones — Norfolk is Harry’s man, and Suffolk married his sister — we can reckon on neither. . . . In the north there is hope of Northumberland. He was once affianced to the Concubine and weeps her death, and likewise he is your cousin’s kin on the distaff side.” He smiled on Peter. “Westmoreland and Cumberland are with us, and Latimer and Lumley. In the mid shires and the east we shall have Rutland and Huntingdon and Hussey and Darcy. We can count assuredly on the Nevilles. . . . Shrewsbury we cannot get, but if we lose the Talbots we have the Stanleys.”

“What of the west?” Sir Ralph asked. “What of Exeter?”

“I have good hopes. But the Courtenay blood is hard to judge, being in all things capricious, and my lord of Exeter is a grandson of Edward Fourth, and so himself within modest distance of the throne. He cannot love the Tudor, but he may not consent to give place to a son of Buckingham. Yet we shall see. . . . What of you, old friend? Will you strike again for England against the Welshman the shrewd blow which you struck against the Scot at Flodden?”

“I am aged,” was the answer, “and am somewhat set in my habits. But I stand for holy Church, the old blood and the old ways, and not least for Ned Stafford’s son. I will ride with you, provided your campaigning season does not fall athwart my other duties. . . . Let me consider. In the months of August and September, I am engaged, as principal ranger of the King’s forests of Stowood and Shotover, in thinning the deer. The fallow buck are already ripe for the bolt, and in a week the velvet will be off the red deer’s horns. That brings me to October, when we take the wild fowl from the Otmoor fleets; a heavy task which needs a master’s eye and hand. Then up to Yule I hunt the fox and badger and get the pike out of the river. January is a busy time with my falcons, seeing that the geese are on the wing if it be frost, and if it be mild the pigeons are in every spinney. February and March are the training months for the eyasses, while the herons nest, and in April and May there are the trout to be caught in the Fettiplace waters and the monks’ ponds of Bicester. In summertime I have the young haggards to consider which my men take in the forest, and that, too, is the season when the manège must be looked to against the hunting months.”

“You have filled up your year to the last minute,” said Lord Avelard.

“By the sorrows of God, I have.” He pondered in deep perplexity. “Let it be summer, then,” he said at length. “I must leave the haggards to my falconer Merryman. I will mount and ride with you if your summons come on the first day of June. But, as you love me, not a day sooner, for Windrush trout rise heartily till the last moment of May.”

So Peter had exchanged the gloomy halls of Wood Eaton for the verderer’s lodge deep in the heart of Stowood, where the ground fell steeply from the chantry of Stanton St John to the swamps of Menmarsh. The lodge stood in a glade among oaks, beside a strong spring of water — a pleasant spot, for the dwellers there looked northward over dim blue airy distances and a foreground as fantastic as a tapestry. The verderer, John of Milton, who came from the Milton hamlets in the east by Thame side, was all day absent on his own errands, and to Peter, as a cousin of the chief ranger, he behaved as a respectful servitor, sparing of speech but quick to execute his wishes. The boy was not lonely, for he went anew to school. Under Sir Ralph’s direction he was taught the accomplishments of his rank. One of the Wood Eaton men, who had like his master confronted the Scottish spears at Flodden, taught him various devices in the use of the two-edged, cut-and-thrust blade, of which he already had mastered more than the rudiments. A hedge-captain came out from Oxford to instruct him in the new Spanish sword-play, where the edge was scarcely used and the point was everything. Peter had often marked the man in Oxford and had taken him for a lord from his fierce eyebrows and arrogant air — but he proved only a different kind of usher, who doffed his cap respectfully to Sir Ralph’s kin. Likewise, Sir Ralph’s chief falconer, Merryman, who was an adept at the cross-bow, made Peter sweat through long mornings shooting at a mark, and a Noke man taught him to stretch the long-bow. Peter was no discredit to his tutors, for his eye was true, his sinews strong and his docility complete. Besides, his training had been well begun years before on the skirts of Wychwood.

At last had come Brother Tobias, riding out on an Abbey mule, when the little wild strawberries were ripe in the coverts. Tobias liked these fruits, and had a bowl of them, lappered in cream from the verderer’s red cow. He regarded Peter nervously, avoiding his eye, but stealing sidelong glances at him, as if uncertain what he should find. Peter himself had no shyness, for this old man was the thing he loved best in the world.

“You knew all the time?” he asked when he had settled his guest on a seat of moss beside the spring.

“I knew, and I was minded never to tell,” was his answer. “You were born too high to find peace; therefore I judged that it was well that you should remain low, seeking only the altitude which may be found in God’s service. It was not so decreed, and I bow to a higher wisdom.”

But if Tobias was embarrassed he was likewise exalted. It appeared to him that his decision had been directly overruled by Omnipotence, and that his pupil had been chosen for a great mission — no less than the raising again of Christ’s Church in England. He expounded his hopes in an eager quivering voice. The Church stood for the supremacy of spiritual things, and the King out of a damnable heresy would make it a footstool to the throne. The Church stood for eternal right and eternal justice; if it fell, then selfish ambition and man-made laws would usurp the place of these verities. Upon the strength of the Church depended the unity of Christendom. Weaken that integrity, and Christendom fell asunder into warring and jealous nations, and peace fled for ever from the world. Granted abuses many; these must be set in order by a firm hand. But Pope must be above King, the Church’s rights above the secular law, or there could be no Christian unity. God and Mammon, Christ and Cæsar — they could not share an equal rule; one must be on top, and if it were Mammon or Cæsar then the soul’s salvation was ranked lower than the interests of a decaying and transitory world. It was the ancient struggle which began in Eden, and now in England it had come to the testing-point, and Peter was the champion by whose prowess the Church must stand or fall.

The old man’s voice ceased to quiver and he became eloquent. Forgotten was the Grecian, the exponent of new ways in learning, the zealous critic of clerical infirmities; he who sat on the moss was a dreamer of the same dreams, an apostle of the same ideals, as those which had filled his novitiate.

Peter said nothing — he spoke little these days. But he remembered the sinking revenues and the grass-grown courts of Oseney, the pedantries of the brethren, the intrigues and quarrels that filled their petty days. He remembered, too, the talk of Lord Avelard. Those who took the Church’s side in the quarrel had, few of them, much care for the Church, save as part of that ancient England with which their own privileges were intertwined. None had such a vision as Brother Tobias. Peter had travelled far in these last years from his old preceptor, and had come to think of the Church as no better than a valley of dry bones. Could those bones live again? Were there many with the faith of Tobias, life might still be breathed into them. But were there many? Was there even one? He sighed, for he knew that he was not that one. Disillusionment had gone too far with him, and his youth had been different from that of the old believer at his side.

He sat that August afternoon on his familiar perch above the highway, and his head was like a hive of bees. It had been humming for weeks, and had become no clearer. Outwardly he was a silent and reflective young man, very docile among his elders, but inwardly he was whirlpool and volcano.

He had got his desire, and he was not intoxicated or puffed up or strung to a great purpose; rather he was afraid. That was his trouble — fear — fear of a destiny too big for him. It was not bodily fear, though he had visions now and then of the scaffold, and his own head on that block where once his father’s had lain. Rather it was dread of an unfamiliar world in which he had no part.

Lord Avelard’s was the face that stuck in his mind — that wise, secret face, those heavily pouched eyes, the gleam in them of an unquestionable pride and an undying hate. He had treated him tenderly as the son of an old friend, and respectfully, as one of whom he would make a king. But Peter knew well that he was no more to Lord Avelard than the sword by his side, a weapon to be used, but in a good cause to be splintered. The man and all his kin, the ancientry of England, were at deadly enmity with this Welshman who had curbed their power, and was bringing in a horde of new men to take their places. They professed to speak in the name of the burdened English commons, but for the poor man he knew they cared not a jot; given the chance they would oppress as heartily as any royal commissioner; was it not they who had begun the ousting of tillage by the new sheep pastures? They claimed to stand for the elder England and its rights, and the old Church, but at heart they stood only for themselves. . . . And he was to be their tool, because he had the blood of the ancient kings in him. He was being trained for his part, so that when he came into the sunlight he should have the air and accomplishments of his rank. . . . Peter sickened, for it seemed to him that he was no more than a dumb ox being made ready for the sacrifice.

They professed to fight in the name of Christ’s Church. For a moment a recollection of Tobias’s earnest eyes gave this plea a shadow of weight. Sir Ralph, too. That worthy knight, if he could be dragged from his field sports, would fight out of piety rather than concern for his secular privileges. . . . But the rest! . . . And was that Church truly worth fighting for? Had he any desire to set Aristotle and St Thomas back in their stalls? Was he not vowed heart and soul to the new learning which Colet and Erasmus had brought into England, and would not his triumph mean a falling back from these apples of the Hesperides to the dead husks of the Schools? Was it any great matter that the Pope in Rome, who had been but a stepfather to England, should have the last word, and not an anointed king? Was there no need of change in the consecrated fabric? Half the religious houses in England were in decay, no longer lamps to the countryside, but dark burrows where a few old men dragged out weary days.

He tried to recover that glowing picture of the Church of God which he had brought with him from Witney school, when Oseney’s towers seemed to be bathed in a heavenly light, and its courts the abode of sages and seraphs. He tried to remember and share in Tobias’s vision of Christendom. It was useless. He saw only the crumbling mortar and the warped beams of Oseney cloisters, and heard Brother Lapidarius and Brother Johannes disputing shrilly about the Kidlington dues, over their fried onions at supper. . . . The glamour had passed. How could he champion that in which he had no belief or men who at the best were half-believers?

As he looked at the strip of highway passing through the canyon of the forest he recalled with a shock that evening a month before, when at the end of a day of holiday he had watched the pageant of life on the road beneath him, and longed for an ampler share in it than fell to the lot of a poor clerk of St George’s. He had got his wish. He remembered his bitter jealousy in the hot Oxford streets of a sounding world in which he had no part. He was in the way during the next few months of getting a full portion of that world. And he realised that he did not want it, that the fruit was ashes before he put his mouth to it.

Peter tried to be honest with himself. One thing he had gained that could never be taken from him. He was not born of nameless peasants, but of the proudest stock in England. He had in his veins the blood of kings. That was the thought which he hugged to his breast to cheer his despondency. . . . But now he knew that he wanted that knowledge, and nothing more. He did not desire to live in palaces or lead armies. He wanted, with that certainty of his birth to warm his heart, to go back to his old bookish life, or to sink deep among countryfolk into the primordial country peace. He had thought himself ambitious, but he had been wrong. His early life had spoiled him for that bustling fever which takes men to high places. He did not like the dust of the arena, and he did not value the laurels.

The opposite slope of the hill towards Elsfield was golden in the afternoon sunlight, and mottled with the shadows of a few summer clouds. He saw the brackeny meadow, and above it the little coppice which hid the Painted Floor. He had a sudden longing to go there. It was his own sanctuary, hallowed with his innermost dreams. It represented a world of grace and simplicity æons removed from the turbid present. . . . But he did not dare. He must go through with the course to which he was predestined. He had got what he had hungered for, but he felt like a wild thing in a trap. Yet he was Buckingham’s son, and there could be no turning back.

A magpie flew down the hollow, but he had turned his head to the hill and did not notice it.

There was a hunt that day in Stowood. At dawn the slowhounds had been out to start the deer and the greyhounds had been unleashed before noon. They had begun by running a knobber in the Shabbington coverts, but in the afternoon the sport had been better, for they had found a stag of ten in the oak wood by Stanton and had hunted him through the jungle of the Wick and the Elsfield dingles, and killed in the hollow east of Beckley. As Peter made his way back to the verderer’s lodge he had heard the mort sounded a mile off.

He hastened, for he wished to be indoors before he was seen by any straggling hunter. Such had been Sir Ralph’s precise injunction; when the hunt was out he must bide indoors or in cover. But this time he was too late. He heard cries and laughter on all sides; a knot of hunt servants, whom they called Ragged Robins, crossed the road ahead of him at a canter. Worse, he saw two of the hunters coming towards him, whom he could not choose but pass. One was a woman on a black jennet, the other a young man on a great grey gelding. The first wore a riding dress all of white, with a velvet three-cornered cap, and a rich waistcoat of green velvet, the other had the common green habit of the woods, and was not to be distinguished from a yeoman save by the plume and the jewel in his flat cap.

Peter recognised the man first. He was the rider whom he had envied a month ago, first at the gate of Stowood and then in the Oxford street, because he seemed so wholly master of his world. The man had still that mastery. He passed the boy with a lifted hand to acknowledge his greeting, but he scarcely spared him a glance; nor were his eyes set on his companion, but roaming fiercely about as if to seek out matter of interest or quarrel. His weathered face had the flush of recent exertion, but his pale eyes were cool and wary.

These same eyes might well have been on the girl at his side. Peter had a glimpse of ashen gold hair under the white cap, a cheek of a delicate rose above the pale ivory of the uncovered neck. She bowed her head slightly to his salute, and ere she passed on for one instant the heavy lids were raised from her eyes.

Peter stood stock still, but he did not look after them. This was the white girl who had danced at midnight on the Painted Floor. Now he had seen her eyes, and he knew that there was that in them of which the memory would not die.

He continued his way in a stupor of wonderment and uneasy delight. He halted at the spring by the verderer’s lodge, and turned at the sound of hoofs behind him. To his amazement it was the girl. She sprang from her horse as lightly as a bird. The jennet, whose bit was flecked with foam, would have nuzzled her shoulder, but she slapped its neck so that it started and stood quivering.

“I am warm with the chase, sir,” she said. “I would beg a cup of water.”

Peter fetched a bowl from the lodge and filled it at the spring. When he gave it her she sipped a mouthful. Her face was no longer rose-tinted but flushed, and she was smiling.

“Greeting, cousin,” she said. “I think you are my cousin Peter from Severn side. I am niece of Sir Ralph Bonamy at Wood Eaton. My name is Sabine Beauforest.”

She offered him her cheek to kiss. Then she drew back, and to Peter it appeared that she blushed deeply. She sank in a low curtsey on the moss, took his hand and carried it to her lips.

“I am your Grace’s most loyal and devoted servant,” she said.

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