The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter iv

In which Peter Goes Deeper into the Greenwood

Two days later came Sir Ralph Bonamy to the verderer’s lodge in Stowood. He left his big-boned horse in a servant’s charge half a mile from the place, and reached the cottage by a track among brambles and saplings, walking so fast that the sweat beaded his brow. Clearly Sir Ralph’s errand was one of speed and secrecy.

“This is but a feeble harbourage,” he told Peter. “I thought you were safe here as in the heart of Otmoor, but you have taken the air too freely, my lad. It seems you have been seen, and questions asked, for a youth of your shape and bearing is a scarce thing in the forest.”

“There was a lady . . . ” Peter began.

“Ay. That was my niece Sabine. If I ever trusted woman with a secret, it would be niece Sabine, for she is close as a hazel-nut. She had word of a cousin from beyond Severn who was sojourning in Stowood, and, being a quick-witted wench, put a name to you when she saw you. It is not Mistress Sabine that troubles me, for I can control my womenkind, but he that rode with her. Did you mark him?”

“A tall fellow with a stiff neck and a proud eye.”

“That is he. That is Master Simon. I have naught against the lad, though my sire and his fought like cockerels. They both claimed for their scutcheons the barry nebuly of Blount, and they wrangled as bitterly over that device as Scrope and Grosvenor over the bend d’or. The lad himself is well enough, a good man to horse and hound, a keen eye for a cross-bow, and a strong hand for the sword. But he is not of our faction.”

“Is he one of Crummle’s men?”

“Nay, he loves Crummle and his rabble as little as I. But he is a King’s man, and has been on some errand of the Welshman’s to the northern states of Europe. Also, he has been on voyages with the Bristol merchants, and has picked up some vile heresies in outlandish parts. My news is that he is asking questions about a stranger in Stowood, and when such an one asks he is likely to get an answer. He lives too plaguily near at hand for my peace of mind, for he is Simon Rede of Boarstall — his home is not five miles distant under Muswell hill. Also through his mother he has heired the manor of Headington, and his lawful occasions take him often through this forest. We must find you a safer lodging, friend Peter.”

Sir Ralph removed his bonnet, and with his great brown face, and his ancient brown doublet, much soiled at the shoulders by his falcons, he looked not unlike a stump of oak.

“You are not due at Avelard yet awhile, and we must jealously observe my lord’s instructions. But Avelard is the other side of Cotswold, and the nearer you are to it the better for my lord’s purposes. My advice is that you move west in the company which I shall appoint for you. I had thoughts of sending you to Otmoor among the moormen, but Simon is a moorman himself after a fashion, and Boarstall is on the edge of the meres. You will be safer in Wychwood and Cotswold.”

“I was bred there,” said Peter. “There are many living who remember me. Mother Sweetbread . . . ”

“Why, so much the better. Peter Pentecost is dead and masses sung for his soul, but Mother Sweetbread will not have forgot him and will welcome her foster-child restored to her, whatever name he may choose to bear. She has all along been privy to your tale, for she was a serving-woman of your mother’s. There you will be safe from the sharp eyes of Simon Rede, and the coverts of Wychwood are deeper than the coverts of Shabbington. But to make security certain I have trysted with one who will accompany you and never leave your side till you are safe at Avelard. He will be here before sunset to start with you, and ’twere well that you keep yourself privy till then.”

“Who is this guide?” Peter asked.

Sir Ralph smiled and scratched his head. “That were hard to say. The name he will give you is Solomon Darking, but he has many others. He is of the old race of these parts, the squat dark folk we call the Wens, who were here a thousand years before the Romans. He is a true man and a wise man, and if he seems strange to you, remember that wisdom is apt to cohabit with oddity. There are mannikins plenty who have seen something of oddity in ME. This I can tell you. If I were fleeing for my life it is to Solomon Darking I would go, for he could call the beasts of the field and the birds of the air to my defence. . . . Farewell and God bless you. I must get me to Beckley, where there is a gyr-falcon training for me at the Upper Lodge.”

Off rode Sir Ralph, leaving Peter to an afternoon’s meditation in the deeps of an oak coppice. Two days had worked a miracle in his mood. He was no more the doubter, proud only of his rediscovered race, but shrinking from the hazards and heartbreaks of the career into which others would thrust him. He now longed for it. He longed to set his foot on the wildest road so long as it led him to the hill-top. For he had seen someone for whom a hill-top was the only dwelling.

The girl, of whom he had had two glimpses in the afternoon sunshine of Stowood, whom he had seen dancing at midnight on the Painted Floor under the moon, had sent warmth and light running through a world that had seemed all frost and shadow.. .. He had never since his childhood looked a woman full in the face. He had been aware of them as mysterious beings, sometimes old and witch-like, sometimes young and shining, but always to be shunned by him who would serve God and save his soul. Yet he had had his own fancies. He had seen in imagination the slim girls in Theocritus dancing to the shepherd’s pipes, and he had exulted in the proud tales of old queens, for whom men had counted the world well lost. So he had come in time to make for himself pictures of a woman who should be fair as Helen and gentle as the Virgin Mother, pictures as vague as gossamer, for they rested on no base of human meaning. Sometimes indeed, when the sun was bright of a spring morning, his visions had taken a simple form, and he had felt strange stirrings of the blood, which he had not resisted as sin — which he had not even questioned, for they seemed as innocent as thirst or hunger.

But now, suddenly, all his imaginings and desires had become centred on a living woman. She had first come to him on his own Painted Floor, a fellow discoverer. Two days ago she had taken his hand and called him liege-lord. Surely in this there was a divine foreordering. What if the two of them were predestined to tread the road together? That road which seemed so grim would be different indeed if that white girl were by his side, and if at the end of it he could make her a queen. For a queen she was born to be; nothing less would content him, or be worthy of her magnificence. . . . Peter, deep in the oak scrub, felt a wild hunger to be up and doing, to be treading the path to greatness which others had marked out for him. It was a fine thing to be Buckingham and Bohun; it would be a finer to lay England at Sabine Beauforest’s feet. He thought of her with none of the tremors of a lover. He did not ask her beauty for his arms, but that principalities and powers should rest in her slender hands. He was in that first stage of love when it is divinely unselfish.

When the shadows began to lengthen he returned to the verderer’s lodge, dressed himself for a long journey, and put a few simple belongings into his wallet. He was to be still in the greenwood, but a little nearer to the hour and the place where he would begin his new life.

Presently out of the thicket came an urchin. John of Milton was gone to Bernwood, so Peter was the only living thing in the place for the messenger to accost. The boy was about twelve years of age, squat and freckled and frog-like. He spoke in a tongue which was hard to comprehend, but his intention was made clear by a jerked thumb. He had been sent to lead him somewhither to someone. Peter picked up his wallet and followed.

The urchin led him, at a pace surprising in one so small, past the granges of Woodperry, and downhill to where a long tongue of Otmoor crept into the forest. After that the road lay in the dry belt of tall reeds along the edge of the marsh, till the slopes of Beckley had been turned and the rise of Wood Eaton hill was visible, and the hovels of Noke, smoking for the evening meal, could be seen over pools now reddened with the sunset. Then they turned north, along a causeway which brought them to the little river Ray, which they crossed by a plank under the hamlet of Oddington, where geese were making a great clamour in the twilight. Once again they were in forest country, a long rough hillside full of hollows and thickets. Into one of these they plunged, and after a rough passage came into an open space in the heart of it, where a fire burned. There the urchin disappeared, and Peter found himself confronted with a man who rose from tending a pot and doffed his cap.

The man was short and burly in figure, his dress was that of a forester, and he carried a cross-bow slung on his back and a long hunting knife in his girdle. His face was sharp and yellow, like one who had suffered from the moor-ill, and a mop of thick black hair fell to his shoulders. His eyes, seen in the firelight, were like a dog’s, large and sombre and steadfast.

“I seek Solomon Darking,” said Peter.

“He is before you, my lord,” was the answer. “He that you wot of has spoken to me. I make you welcome to a hunter’s hearth. You will eat and then you will sleep, but dawn must find us many miles on our way. Sit ye down. No grace is needed for food eaten under the sky.”

He made a seat for Peter on a heap of fern, and served him with stew from the pot on a little iron platter. He did not eat himself, but waited upon his guest like a servant. When Peter had finished he cleansed the platter in a well of water and made his own meal. The same water was the sole beverage. Not a word was spoken; the only sounds were the crumbling of the fire’s ashes, the babble of a brook that ran from the well, and — very far off — the chiming of bells from Islip church. When he had finished the forester again washed the platter, cut some swathes of bracken and made two beds, and stamped out the embers. He stood listening, like a dog at fault, for a moment, and then, like a dog, shook his head and stretched himself.

“To your couch, my lord,” he said. “You have four hours to sleep ere we take the road. A wise man feeds full and sleeps deep when he has the chance, for it may be long before that chance returns.”

Peter asked no questions. There was something about this man which made them needless. He had the sense of being shepherded by wise hands, and laid his head on the bracken as confidently as he had ever laid it on his pallet in the Oxford attic.

He was awakened while it was still night, though there was a thin bar of grey light on the eastern horizon. Darking stood ready for the road, and Peter, rubbing sleepy eyes, did up the belt of his doublet and prepared to follow him. There was a thick dew on the ground, and Peter was soon soaked to the knees; also the air blew cold as if rain was coming from the west. Come it did before they had crossed the Cherwell, and Peter, empty and chilly, felt his spirits sink. Soon, however, he found that he had so much ado to keep up with his companion’s vigour that he had no leisure to despond. Darking moved at a prodigious pace, so fast that Peter, who was half a foot taller and had longer legs, was compelled often to trot to keep abreast of his stride. Moreover, the road chosen seemed to be the worst conceivable. Anything like a path was shunned, even when it bent in the right direction. Open meadowland, the bare crest of a hill, a broad woodland glade were avoided as if an enemy’s arrows commanded them. Darking did not even take advantage of the fords, for streams were crossed at their deepest and miriest. Presently, as they toiled through a thicket of oak saplings, the sun came out. Darking sniffed the air. “The rain has gone,” he said. “It will be fine till sunset. We are nearing our breakfast.”

They came to an outcrop of rock rising above the woods and thatched with wild berries. From a distance its bald head could not be distinguished from the oak tops; it looked like a patch of dead wood in the coppice. There was a hollow on the left, and this had been roofed with timber, now so lichened as to be indistinguishable from stone. The result was a narrow hut, discernible only at the closest quarters by one who knew what he sought. In front of it a blackened angle of the rock showed where a fire had once burned.

Darking brought some dry billets and twigs from the hut, and laid and lit a fire. From the hut, too, he fetched a pan, some collops of deer’s meat, a lump of deer fat, a loaf of rye-bread, and a leatherjack of ale.

“Strip,” he commanded. “You will have ague in your young bones if you sit in a damp shirt. For me, I am so full of it that a wetting more or less does not concern me.”

So Peter, stripped to the buff, sat warming his toes at the fire, while the meat sizzled in the pan, and his clothes, stretched on the rock face, dried fast in the sun.

“You have led me by a hard road,” he said, when Darking filled his platter. “Why need it have been so secret? Are you a man of many enemies?”

Darking’s gravity did not respond to the smile on the young man’s face.

“It is well to be secret in such times,” he said. “Households are divided within themselves and sons are set against fathers. No man knows his enemy. He who would live at peace must take the byways. I was told that it is most needful that you, my lord, keep out of men’s sight yet awhile; therefore, while you are in my company we will court no questions.”

He broke off and pointed to the south, where a flock of birds was wheeling. He stared till they were out of sight, and when he spoke his voice was solemn.

“That is the second portent within the week. Last Thursday in Horton spinney I saw a bramble with both ends growing in the ground. Know you the meaning of that? It is the noose the Devil makes for his next hunting. . . . And now, behold these birds.”

“They are only curlews,” said Peter.

“Curlews and whimbrels — young birds bred on the hills. But what do they here in the tail of August? Two months ago they should have been on the salt beaches. Remember, the long beaks are no common fowls, but have foreknowledge of many things, and their lives are full as long as a man’s. They tarry inland to see what they shall see. The old wives say that a curlew after June spells foul weather. Foul weather comes, not in the heavens, but in the ways of men. Therefore it were wise to go secretly.”

They crossed the little streams of Dorn and Glyme and came out of the forest to wide downs of grass and furze. Bearing northward, they still ascended, Darking in the bare places showing as much precaution as if he were stalking a winter’s hind. They never passed a crest except on their bellies, or crossed an open slope without a long reconnaissance. They had seen no dwelling or sign of man, but he behaved as if he were in a populous land. At last they reached a point which seemed the highest ground in the neighbourhood, for on every side the country fell away into valleys.

Peter recognised his whereabouts. He was on the skirts of Wychwood, the other side from where he had dwelt as a child, and so to him unknown country. Away to the south he saw the lift of the Leafield ridge, and that gave him his bearings. All about them the forest flowed in a dark tide, so that it seemed to cover the whole visible earth. The little clearings round the hamlets were not seen, and the only open patches were the marshy stream-sides far below, which showed bright green among the dun and olive of the woods. It seemed a country as empty of man as when primeval beasts had trumpeted in the glades and wallowed in the sloughs. And yet their journey had been as stealthy as if enemies had lurked in every acre.

“There are no folk left hereabouts,” Peter said. “Why have we made so secret a business of this morning?”

“The hamlets are emptying, but the woods are filling,” said Darking.

“But we have seen no sign of humanity since sunrise.”

“YOU have not, my lord, but you have not the ears and eyes for the forest. I have seen and heard many.”

Peter stared.

“There were charcoal-burners in the coppice above the Dorn. There was a camp of Egyptians a mile on — I smelt their cooking — a fawn, I think. A man with a long-bow was in the thicket this side of Glyme. I saw two of the Ditchley foresters pass on our left but an hour ago, and there was a horseman in a mighty hurry on the road from Woodstock to Enstone. Also the prickers were out among the hazels beyond Wootton. One way and another I have seen a score of mortals since we broke our fast.”

“They did not observe us?”

“Of that I am certain.” A slow smile lit his sallow face.

“But I have seen no smoke from cot or village,” said Peter.

“You will see none. There are few cots, save here and there a forester’s lodge, and scarcely a village. The land has become all wood and sheep-walks.”

“And the people?”

“Dead or wanderers. England is full of broken and masterless men this day. They have gone under the ground, finding life too hard above it. Let us press on, and I will show you something.”

They came presently to an upland meadow whence rose one of the feeders of Evenlode. Once there had been a village here, for there were the ruins of a score of mud-and-wattle huts. The baulks of the common field were still plain; likewise orchards running wild, and that rank growth of weeds which means abandoned ploughland. In one corner by the brook stood a heap of stones, which at first sight Peter took for a quarry. Darking stood for a little gazing at the scene.

“When I was a child,” he said, “this was a thriving village. Bourtree was its name — Bourtree in the Bush, men called it. Half a hundred souls had their dwelling here, and it was noted over all the land for its honey. You must know that there was a miracle wrought here. Once upon a time a fellow stole a fragment of the Host that he might work magic by it, and set it by his hives to improve their yield. But the bees, the little pious ones, built round it a church all of wax, with altar and windows and steeple, to protect its holiness. You have heard the tale?”

Peter nodded. He had told the story to the novices at Oseney.

“Behold Bourtree to-day! The church is a heap of stones, most of which they have carried off to help build the new great church at Charlbury. What was once tillage and orchard is now sheep-walks for the graziers. The men and women that dwelled here are most of them under the sod, and if any still live, they are nameless folk drifting like blown leaves in the shadows.”

He lifted his head and looked Peter full in the face with his odd melancholy eyes. “Much of old England is gone to ground, my lord,” he said. “Keep that in your mind and ponder on it, for it may deeply concern your own business.”

“I have brought you to a Pisgah-sight,” said Darking an hour later. “The land is your own, so long as I am with you, and you are as secure as a badger in its earth. What are your commands, my lord? I can hide you so snugly till the summons comes that all the King’s armies searching daily for ten years would not find you. But that might be but a dismal life for youth in sunshiny weather. Or . . . ” He paused.

“Or?” Peter repeated.

“Or I can take you with me a little way underground — among the masterless folk who will soon be half our people. I ask no questions, my lord, but he at Wood Eaton warned me that you were a precious piece of goods that mattered much for the welfare of England. The gentles play their high games and the noise of them fills the world, but in the end it is the simple who decree the issue. Would you sojourn for awhile among the simple?”

“I was bred among them,” said Peter. “I would first see my foster~mother, the widow Sweetbread, who lives below Leafield on the forest edge. Do you know the place?”

“Nay, then, since you are Mother Sweetbread’s fosterling, you have already the right of entry among all the forest people. Well I know her. Her good-man, Robin Sweetbread, was my trusty comrade.” He seemed suddenly to look at Peter with changed eyes, as if a special password to his confidence had been spoken.

When they took the road again, so as to ford Evenlode and come down the Windrush side, Darking, while still wary in choosing obscure paths, was no longer silent. Friendliness now mingled with his dignity. He spoke to Peter like a respectful kinsman. He was quick to point out, here a derelict farm, there a ruined village, among the grassy spaces of the hills.

“’Twas the little granges first, and then the hamlets, and now, if all tales be true, ’twill soon be the proud abbeys. Nought of man’s work in England is steadfast, not even the houses he has built for God. What sends an earl to the block sends a churl to the gallows’ hill, and the churl’s wife and children to eat nettles by the wayside. None is safe to-day save those who do not raise their noses above the covert, and the numbers in the covert grow fast.”

“Are you among them?” Peter asked.

Darking lifted his head proudly. “No man can harm us of the old England and the older blood. Kings and nobles and priests may pass, but we remain. Ours is the fallentis semita vitæ, which is beyond the ken of the great.”

Peter cried out in surprise: “Have you the Latin?”

“A tag or two,” and a smile wrinkled the sallow cheeks.

Mother Sweetbread welcomed Peter as one recovered from the dead. She strained him to her breast and wept over him. “They said you were drowned,” she crooned. “Brother Tobias spoke a word in my ear that you still lived, but he warned me that I should never see you more. And now you come stepping like Robin Hood out of the woods, clad as a proper man and no clerk. Son Peterkin, you are now a man indeed.”

She had been a tall woman till age had bent her, and she had none of the deformity of the old peasant, crippled with ague and incessant toil. Her petticoat was coarse but spotless, and on her head was the snowy curch which was Peter’s clearest memory of his childhood. Out of her high-coloured old face looked two eyes as black as sloes. Merry eyes they still were, for mirth and she had never been strangers.

She prepared food for him, those dishes which she remembered him liking as a child, and set before him a jug of her own cowslip wine, heady as ale and scented of flowers. But she did not sit with him at meat, nor did Darking; they waited on him till he had finished, and then ate their meal.

Her eyes followed him hungrily, and now and then she would stroke his sleeve with her old fingers.

“You are still the lad I nurtured,” she said; “but you are grown too mighty for this nest. I thought you were an eyas with clipped wings that would never fly far from me. That was the hope of Brother Tobias, too, but God has ordered it otherwise. Once you favoured your mother, and I took it for a happy omen, but now, childing, I see your sire in you. You have that kindly sullenness in the eyes which men spoke of in his grace. Heaven send you a happier fate.” And she crossed herself and muttered a prayer.

“How long?” she asked of Darking. “Not till St Martin’s day? You have come among your own folk, Peterkin, and we must make you ready for your flight. You are safe among us, and maybe we can do something ere that day to help your fortunes. You will soar out of our ken, but we can make certain that, if your wings tire, there is cover where you can clap down.”

Darking took him to a hut in Wychwood in a patch of ashes above St Cyther’s well, which had been used sometimes to give a night’s shelter when the hunt was up in that quarter of the forest. There they made their dwelling, and it was as lonely as a hill-top, the new ranger not having yet taken up his office, and every verderer and forester being under the spell of Darking’s strange authority. There Darking took Peter in hand and taught him much not commonly known by those who have in their veins the blood of kings. The boy was country bred, and started with some equipment of wild lore, but presently he understood that he had dwelt hitherto only in the porches of nature, and that he was now being led into the inner chambers. “Have patience, my lord,” said his tutor. “Great folk live and move high above the common world. But now and then they come to ground, and it is well to have a notion of that ground where you must creep and cannot fly.”

So Peter learned the ways of weather — what was portended by rooks flying in line, and mallards roosting in the trees, and herons leaving the streams for the forest pools. He learned to read what haze signified at dawn and sunset, and to smell distant rain. He was taught the call and cry of all the things that ran and flew, to imitate a stoat’s whistle and a badger’s grunt, the melancholy trumpet of the bittern, and the broken flageolet of the redshank, the buzzard’s mewing and the grey crow’s scolding. Presently he knew the mark of every pad in mud or herbage and the claws that patterned the streamside shingle. Something he learned too of the medicinal lore of the woods, how to make febrifuge and salve, what herbs sweetened foul water, or quieted hunger, or put a wakeful man to sleep. He was a ready pupil at this lore, for it gave his mind something to work on in those weeks of idleness. Also it seemed to marry the new strange world into which he was entered with that old world he was forsaking. It was pleasant to think that he, who might yet be a king, should go first to school with the ancient simplicities of earth.

Darking gave him another kind of tutoring. He made him discard the clothes he had worn, and put on the rough garb of a lesser forester. And then, enjoining on him to hold his peace at all costs, he took him far and wide through the neighbourhood. They visited the fairs in the little towns and sat in alehouses listening to the talk of peasants. They joined themselves to wool convoys on the highroad, and attended the great wool markets in Northleach and Burford and Campden. One day they would eat their bread and cheese in a smithy, the next in a parson’s kitchen, and the third day in a cornfield with the harvesters at their noonday rest. Darking seemed to have a passport to any society, some word which set people at their ease and opened their mouths.

“You are school-bred and abbey-bred,” he said. “It were well that you should learn of the common folk on whose shoulders the world rests. If you are to be Jack’s master, it is time to know a little of Jack.”

Peter, with his memory full of pinched faces and furtive talk of oppression, and eyes that spoke more eloquently than words, shivered a little.

“What has become of merry England?” he asked. “It is a sad world you have shown me, and a dark. Most men are groping and suffering.”

“There is small merriment nowadays,” he was told, “save among the gilded folk at the top, and those who have sunk deep down into the coverts. But it is a world very ripe for change.”

Mother Sweetbread favoured a different kind of preparation. She was in her way a devout woman, but she believed in an innocent magic outside the sanctities of the Church. Like all peasants, she was a storehouse of traditional lore which had descended from days long before Christ came to England. Her special knowledge was of herbs and simples, some for medicines, but most for spells, since there was a motley of vague beings to be placated if one would live at ease. During Peter’s childhood she had practised many harmless rites on his behalf. She had tried to foresee his future by fire and running water. The way of it was that you flung a blazing wisp of straw into a stream at midnight of a Thursday and repeated a benedicite and the rune “Fire burn, water run, grass grow, sea flow,” and then finished with a paternoster. But she had gained nothing that way except a fit of ague. She had striven to ward off evil from her charge by sticking a knife into a plant of helenium at sunrise on Michaelmas Day, in the hope that the proper demon would appear, whom at that hour and with such preparation she would have power to command. But no spirit, good or bad, had made himself visible, though the awaiting of him had been a business requiring all her courage. But with her herbs she had been more fortunate. She had mixed the juices of dill and vervain and St John’s wort, and it was to this application, accompanied by the appropriate words, that she attributed Peter’s notable freedom from childish ailments.

Now she must go further, and the next step was for a true initiate. There was a woman lived at Shipton-under-the-Forest, Madge Littlemouse her name, who was reported to be learned in the old wisdom, and yet whose doings had left her on the sheltered side of the law and the Church. Indeed, there was no breath of discredit against Madge; she never dried up the ewes or the kine with the charm —

“Hare’s milk and mare’s milk,

And all the beasts that bears milk,

Come ye to me . . . ”

or brought pains and death to her neighbours with nigromantic images, or fasted the Black Fast against her ill-wishers. She was a meek-faced old woman, whose garden was full of bee-hives, and to her bees she would talk as to a gossip. For certain, there was no such honey as hers in all Cotswold; but there were those who said that her bees were more than bees, that they were familiar spirits. The miller of Chadlington had found her asleep one summer noon, and had seen bees issuing from her mouth and ears, so that, being then in liquor, he had been instantly sobered, and had sworn off ale for a twelvemonth. But Madge’s repute was not hurt by this tale. Beyond doubt she had power, but her magic was white and unhurtful — no trafficking with the horrid relics of dead men and foul beasts, no blasphemous juggling with the sacred chrism or the more sacred Host, but clean invocations to decent spirits, who might reasonably be called good angels.

This potent ally Mother Sweetbread desired to enlist on Peter’s behalf, and she especially desired that Madge should make him a ring, the possession of which would attach to him a friendly guardian spirit. So she managed to obtain during Peter’s visits some oddments of his belongings — a lock of his hair, the paring of a nail, a fragment of linen which had been worn next his body — indispensable things without which Madge would be helpless. The ring must be of silver, so for the purpose she sacrificed a precious buckle, the gift of her old mistress: and she offered Madge as her fee a gold noble out of her small hoard.

She spoke to Darking of what she had done. He was not less superstitious than she, but he shook his head.

“Remember what befell the lad’s father,” he said. “The beginning of the lord duke’s calamities was the prophecy that he would be King. ’Twas one Nicholas, a Carthusian monk, that made it. There are some things too high for mortal men to meddle with.”

“Nay, Solomon,” she said. “I would not tempt God by such meddling. But I would make him a ring such as the great Cardinal had, which will assure his fortune and keep a good angel by his side.”

“What sort of angel had Wolsey?” Darking cried. “I have heard of that ring. It brought a devil named Andrew Malchus to do his will, and all men know the consequence.”

“This shall be decently and piously made, with prayers and paternosters,” she pleaded.

But Darking still shook his head. “Many a man has sought to secure a good spirit, and has found a fiend answer his call. I like not this dabbling in forbidden things. But go your ways, mother, for you are wiser than me. . . . I will tell you how you can best benefit my lord. Get Goody Littlemouse to tell him where treasure is hid and you will make his fortune secure. For, hark you, mother, my lord has nothing now but his name and his birth. He has no great estate to milk or vassals to arm; therefore he is but a tool in the hands of those who seek his interest just in so far as it serves their own. Give him his own privy purse, and, so it be large enough, he will be able to carry his head high.”

The old woman pondered the words, which had been spoken lightly enough, and from a chance remark or two later it appeared that she had taken counsel with Madge Littlemouse on the matter. One day Peter and Darking were overtaken by a violent thunderstorm which split a great oak before their eyes. Darking laughed, as he wrung the wet from his cap. “Mother Sweetbread is busy about treasure~trove and is raising foul weather.”

But one night he talked for a long time apart with the old woman.

“The hour of the summons is near,” he said, “and soon the lad will be out of our care. I have taught him where and how to find refuge, if all else fails. Presently he will be set on a pinnacle, but a pinnacle is poor footing, and he will be alone. I am for showing him where to find allies, besides those great ones who will companion him. . . . There will be a gathering soon of them we know of. I saw Catti the Welshman yesterday on the Burford road, and old John Naps was at the Rood Fair on Barton Heath, and there is word of Pennyfarthing in the Cocking dingle.”

Mother Sweetbread opened her eyes wide. “You would not take my lord into such company?”

“I would take my lord to any company that can strengthen his hands. Listen, mother. England is all of a turmoil nowadays, and no man knows which is the true road or who are his friends. There is dispeace in the King’s Court, and disorder in the Council, and disquiet in Parliament, and everywhere divided minds. But far down below there are those who know their own purposes and hang together like a nest of wasps. I would take my lord to the only part of England that is stable.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/buchan/john/blanket-of-the-dark/chapter4.html

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