The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter v

The Parliament of Beggars

The first frosts began with October, and after the hot September suns the leaves yellowed fast and hung loose, waiting for the Martinmas gales. One evening Darking and Peter left their hut in Wychwood and took the road up Evenlode, while the forest behind them was a riot of colour, and the waterside meadows lay yellow as corn in the sunset. Both were shabbily dressed, Mother Sweetbread having obtained for the boy a suit which her husband had worn for twenty years at the winter woodcutting.

“You are my prentice for the nonce,” said Darking, “and you have no name save Solomon’s Hob.”

“Where are we bent?” Peter asked.

“To Kingham Waste. There is a place in the heart of it called Little Greece, where we shall meet with company. You must not open your lips, but follow me and gape like a bumpkin.”

“What company?”

“Strange company, my lord. I have told you that half England has gone to ground. This night you will see some of those who hold rule among the vagabonds. Little Greece is no common bowsing-ken. All trades have their laws and disciplines, and not less that which is the trade of idleness. You would think, maybe, that the limping rogue you meet on the road obeyed no law but his own desires and necessities. Yet you would be wrong. He is under as strict rules as any soldier of an army. To-night you will see some of his officers. Twice a year they meet to take counsel upon matters that affect their living, and in this beggars’ parliament you will see the men who govern all the vagabondage between Thames in the south and Severn in the west and Trent in the north.”

“Tell me of this strange world. I know nothing of it.”

“You could not. They keep wide of the King’s forests for the most part, though I have known a batch of wild rogues raid the deer. Nor will you find them often in the Oxford streets or the lanes about Oseney. But elsewhere they are thicker than crows on a March ploughland.”

Peter asked the origin of so great a multitude.

“The poor we have always with us,” Darking quoted. “There have always been the unfortunates whose craft has failed them, or who have come to odds with the King’s laws, and find it convenient to have no fixed habitation. But in the last fifty years there has been a breaking up of England, so that honest fellows, with generations behind them of laborious forbears, have not known where to turn to for the next crust. Such are now on the roads. Also the end of the wars both here and abroad has deprived many soldiers of a trade. Then there are those who take willingly to the life because of the restlessness of their bones or the corruption of their hearts. Every year sees a fresh hatch-out. The King’s rabbling of the small religious houses has sent a new swarm abroad, and trebled the number of patricoes. Lastly, there are some who take the wallet for a deeper purpose at the bidding of great men. You must know that every vagabond must have his billet or licence duly signed and sealed, else he will be taken and whipped at the next town-end. Such billets can be granted by anyone in authority — justice, or knight, or noble, or churchman — and what easier for a great one, who wishes to know the truth of what is happening in England, than to equip his own men with such licences and send them forth to glean tidings? The device has not been practised by the King’s Council, but some, who like not the King, have used it freely. There are many of my Lord Avelard’s intelligencers abroad with the beggars.”

“Tell me of these beggars,” said Peter. “Are there several kinds of them?”

“As many as there are kinds of fly hatched out in summer. They have their own names, and their own manner of speech and way of business, and if I were to recite them all I should not have done by the morrow’s dawn. There are those known by the misdeeds they favour. Such are the rufflers and the rogues and the highwaymen, who use violence, and the coney-catchers and cozeners and hookers and horse-priggers and fraters who use guile. Some have their trades, like the tinkers and pedlars, the jugglers and the minstrels, the crowders and fortune-tellers and bearwards. Some are plain beggars; others practise different arts to excite compassion, as the palliards, who make sores on their bodies with ratsbane and spearwort — the abrahams who sham madness, and the cranks who counterfeit the falling sickness — the dommerers who are deaf and dumb, and the whipjacks who tell a lamentable tale of shipwreck at sea or have a father or brother made captive by the Turk. There are more varieties of calling in vagabondage than in honest trade, and more ranks and classes than at the King’s Court. And at the top of all are those whom they call the Upright Men, that are their captains and justices. Them we shall meet at Little Greece.”

“But for what purpose?” Peter asked.

“For many. These rogues have their ears very near the ground and hear much which other men miss. They have knowledge which the King’s Council could not buy for gold. Also they are strong and secret, and throng as a swarm of bees, and they cover all England. If we win their favour they may come to your aid when you are hard beset and your great friends are powerless.”

“Why should they bear good-will to me?”

“They will know nothing of you. To them this night you will be my servant, a gaping youth out of the forest. You will watch my movements and follow them like a lackey, and for the Lord’s sake utter not one word, for your speech would betray you. A man’s life would not be worth a moment’s purchase if he broke in unwarranted on the Beggars’ Parliament. In half an hour his throat would be slit and he would be six foot deep under a farm midden. For me, I have a name among them and certain credentials. They will not harm me and may even do as I desire. But for you, my lord, safety lies only in an owlish silence.”

They were now traversing a flat moorish space where narrow tracks ran through thickets of furze and blackthorn. Their goal seemed to be near, for Darking instructed Peter in a low voice.

“The captain of this parliament is one they call John Naps, an old whipjack who is in some sort the owner of Little Greece. No man gave him the title, but there is none who would dispute it with him. He is an ancient merry villain, and a kind of king among the vagabonds between Cotswold and Chiltern. . . . For the rest I can tell you some who will be there. Mark well a little, black-eyed, beetle-browed ruffian with a long knife at his belt. That is him they call Catti the Welshman, whose special business is to rob travellers who go from Thames to Severn. He bears a woman’s name, but he is not womanish. None knows so well every road and track and horse-path in south England. . . . There will be a fat man whose jaws never stop munching so that he seems to be chewing the cud like kine. That will be Timothy Penny-farthing, otherwise True Timothy, who is master of the palliards, that make their bodies foul with sores and cry their ailments at every doorstep. He is a longheaded rogue with a shrewd judgment, and, except in his trade, a certain honesty. . . . Likewise, there will be Henry Hooker, chief of them that thieve with a crooked stick and prig the goodman’s shirt out of an open window. He has special authority Warwick and Northampton way. . . . Flatsole will be there beyond doubt — a lean man with a poxed face and eyes of different colours. He is a horse-thief to trade, and knows every fair and feast and market south of Trent. Do not engage him in sword-play, my lord, for Flatsole has been a soldier, and no court gallant can match him at the cut-and-thrust business. The rogue is well-mannered, too, for he is the by-blow of some noble house. . . . Also, you will meet one Pierce the Piper, who travels farther afield than the rest, for he has carried his cow’s bladder benorth of Tweed among the wild Scots and west of Severn among the wild Welsh. He is a scholar of a sort — some say of Balliol College — and when he is well drunk, can make music to wring a man’s heart. . . . None of the raggle-taggle following will be there, and the doxies will be left behind, for this is a high occasion for the rogues, and they are as solemn about it as a mayor and aldermen. . . . Walk warily now, for we are nearing their sentinels.”

A pole was suddenly thrust from the covert athwart Darking’s breast, and he stopped in his tracks. A voice said something in what seemed to Peter a strange tongue, and Darking replied with like gibberish. The pole was withdrawn, and from the thicket came words which seemed to be a direction.

They were now in what was little better than a maze. High walls of furze and bramble and hazel, matted with wild clematis, stood up on each hand, and the path was no wider than a rabbit track. Also it twined and zigzagged and split into baffling sideways, so that more than once Darking hesitated. A second pole across his chest and another colloquy in jargon gave him the clue, and after a little the path widened, and the jungle was varied with patches of heath and now and then a tall tree. The moon had risen, and instead of a green dusk there was now an alternation of silver spears and inky shadows.

Three times more the travellers were brought to a halt and a password exchanged. The last time the sentinel himself emerged from the scrub — a slim boy whom Peter at first took for a girl. He made a sign by drawing his forefinger down the right side of his nose and then cupping his right ear, and Darking replied with a gesture which seemed to satisfy him. The boy looked sharply at Peter, and Darking explained his presence in words not one of which Peter understood. Then the boy preceded them and led the way to a space where the thicket ceased altogether. There was a paddock with several horses at graze and several more tethered to the paling; there was a slender stream issuing from a broad pool which was indeed one of the springs of Evenlode; there was a grove of tall ashes and oaks, and in the midst of it the dark loom of a dwelling. No light showed, but as they rounded the end of it the sound of human speech came from within. The place seemed once to have been the tithe-barn of a manor, for fallen stones and broken walls showed all around. At the door stood two sentinels, tall men in beggars’ rags, each with a curtal-axe held at guard.

Here again there was a halt and a parley. The boy who had guided them spoke in whispers with the sentries, and then entered the barn, diving beneath a thick curtain. He was absent for a minute or two, and when he returned he seemed to look at Darking with a new respect. He said something in his queer jargon.

“They have finished their council,” Darking whispered to Peter, “and are about to feed. We are bidden to the banquet.”

The boy raised the flap of the frieze curtain and they entered the barn. The place was dimly lit, smoky and very hot, for a fire had been made on the stone floor, and there were no windows except the vent in the roof. At the far end a covered lantern had a pedestal formed of two barrels on end, and another stood on a table on the near side of the fire, a table which appeared to be loaded with dishes and flagons. Ten men sat round the fire, sprawling on straw-stuffed cushions, their legs outstretched to the blaze. Each of them had a platter and a mug, and two ancient crones were acting as servitors, carrying food and drink from the table to the feasters.

Peter was sharp-set with his long walk in the chill evening, and his eye went first to the laden table. Never had he seen such a riot of coarse dainties. There were great dishes of tripe and cow~heel. One earthenware platter was loaded with pig-food, another with white and black puddings, while a third bore a gigantic haggis. A mighty copper kettle was full of a broth which from its odour had been made of various sorts of game, while another bubbled with hasty pudding. But the chief dish was a huge pie which contained the mortal remains of one of the King’s deer. There was a plate of pippins to give refinement to the feast, and one of almonds and raisins. The drink was ale in blackjacks, no thin and common brew, but strong October, heady and ripe and dark as bog water. The ancient women hobbled between the table and the circle, replenishing platters and mugs, for the company seemed to have been starved for months, so resolutely did they set about the duty of feeding.

Suspicion woke in the eyes of several as the two strangers entered, but a deep voice beyond the fire bade them welcome. It came from a little old man, who in spite of the heat of the barn wore a cloak; since, unlike the rest, he squatted instead of sprawled, he looked like a broody hen. He had a ragged white beard, and white hair which fell on each side of lean mahogany cheeks. His nose was long and his weak eyes seemed to be always weeping, but there was comedy at the corners of his mouth. The voice was magnificent — rich, fruity, sentimental, cajoling, capable of an infinity of gross humour and grosser pathos.

Peter looked with interest at the captain of the vagabonds of the south. John Naps, who at the first sight seemed only comic, improved at the second. The man had a magisterial eye, and in his voice was that complete self-confidence which is the best endowment for a leader. He cried out a welcome to Darking with his mouth full of pasty, but his jargon was beyond Peter’s comprehension. He made room for him at his right hand, and Peter sat modestly behind, where he was served presently with broth and ale.

There were ten men at meat, but only nine in the circle, for one sat apart out of the glare of the fire. Peter, as he satisfied his hunger, let his eye rove among his neighbours. Some he made out at once from Darking’s description. . . . There was True Timothy, the king of the palliards, a vast browsing figure, whose paunch stuck out beyond the others like a flying buttress. Timothy was very serious about the business of eating, and gobbets of pasty were shovelled into his cavernous mouth as fuel goes into a furnace. . . . No doubt either about Catti the highway robber. The Welshman was as Darking had said, small, swarthy, beetle-browed, and the haft of his long whinger, as he sat, was almost at his chin. Yet it was not a face to inspire fear, for, as it lifted and Peter could see the mouth and eyes, there seemed something elfin and mirthful in it. He remembered tales of this Catti, which had penetrated to Oxford taverns — how he robbed especially rich men and usurers and the King’s servants, but spared the Church and the poor — a shabby Robin Hood with, instead of the greenwood humour, something of the wildness and magnanimity of his own hills. . . . Flatsole, too, he made out, from his meagreness and pitted cheeks. The horse-thief did not sprawl but sat lightly, as if ready to spring to his feet at a word of danger. The face was turned from Peter, so he could not see the twy-coloured eyes. A by-blow of some noble house, Darking had said; and for certain there seemed to be breeding in the slim neck and the graceful poise of his head. The man had swordsman written in every line of him.

But the one that held Peter’s eyes was he who sat outside the circle. This must be the piper Pierce, for, though his pipes were not there, a rude boxwood fiddle lay over his knees. He appeared to have no appetite for food, for a wedge of pie lay untouched beside him, but his tankard was constantly being replenished. The rest of the company had sober garments, like those of a small farmer on market day, but Pierce wore a jerkin of faded red and blue, and atop of his shock of black hair was set a damaged hat of black felt bound with a riband of the same colours. The hair fell over his brow and almost hid his deep-set eyes. His cheeks were shrunken and Isabella-coloured, he had no beard, and his lips were perpetually parted in something between a pout and a sneer. Peter remembered that, according to Darking, thus man had once been a scholar, and decided that he looked more like a warlock.

Suddenly Pierce lifted his fiddle and began to play, accompanying the music with a voice of a curious softness and power. The crackle of the fire and the steady munching of human jaws seemed to hush as the clear notes mounted the air.

“Peter sat at Heaven’s gate

Beeking in the sun,

While the souls came up the stair

Limping every one,

Like the weary homing rooks

When the day is done.”

The ballad went on to tell how kings and nobles and bishops and mitred abbots presented themselves and got but a dusty answer from the Keeper of the Gate, but how when the beggarman appeared he was welcomed as a boon companion. It was the kind of ribald song popular at a time when men had lost much of their awe of the divine mysteries. He followed it with a piece of naked uncleanness, which won much applause, and then — with a startling suddenness — broke into a sad old catch with an air like a wandering wind and the patter of raindrops.

“Godsnigs, Pierce,” John Naps commanded, “put more mirth into your music. That tune gripes one like sour ale, till I feel the cart moving beneath me and the rope at my weasand.”

The piper obeyed and broke into a song, of which everyone took up the chorus.

“When is the time to drink with a friend?

When is it meetest thy money to spend?

O now, now, now.

O now, now, now.

“When should a man fill his belly with meat,

Cool his hot throat and anoint his sore feet?

O now, now, now.

“When are most honied the lips of a lass?

When tastes the sweetest the foam on the glass?

O now, now, now.”

There were a dozen verses or more, and the revellers swelled the chorus O now, now, now like a kennel of full-throated hounds.

Then came toasts, mostly in the beggars’ patois, at which tankards were emptied and refilled. The company, heads of oak all of them, seemed to get no drunker in spite of their potations. But jollity increased and suspicion departed, till Peter found himself meeting the gaze of others and exchanging friendly grins. His body was far from comfortable, for he was not accustomed to squatting or lolling, and the heat of the fire and the heavy flavour of food and ale had made the place like a limekiln. Soon he felt he must drop off to sleep. But suddenly he was shaken into wakefulness by a hush in the babble of tongues. Darking was speaking and every face was turned to him.

Solomon was not using the beggars’ jargon, and he treated that odd gathering as if it were the most dignified assembly in the land. He was honoured, he said, with the right of entry to the councils of the Upright Men. He had missed the consultation of that evening, when doubtless matters of great import had been decided, but he craved permission to bring them again into council. No doubt after a feast the wits of most men were slow, but this company was different, for with such seasoned vessels the malt was never above the meat.

Permission was granted by general assent, for Darking seemed to be in favour with these kings of vagabondage. Even True Timothy propped himself on a bulky elbow to listen.

“I have often come to you for counsel, my masters,” Darking said, “and sometimes I have given it to you. We have been benefactors to each other, I think. Tonight I have something to give you and something to ask from you. You, whose life passes like a shuttle through England, can tell better than any other the maladies of the land. How is it with England today? What says the lord of Little Greece?”

Old Naps shook his head. “Badly. We touched on that matter at our consult. The skies are darkening, and presently a thunderbolt may fall. Let Master Flatsole speak, and after him Master Pierce, for they go farthest afield.”

He spoke no longer in jargon, nor did Flatsole. The latter set down his mug, stiffened his back, and in a slow crooning voice testified to things which drove from Peter’s head every atom of drowsiness. . . . The King’s levies were proving more burdensome, and in all the land there was discontent. The new rich were becoming richer and the poor poorer. He who had been a squire with ten free tenants was now himself a tenant on other men’s lands, hard put to it to snatch a living. He who had been a free farmer, with two yokes of plough oxen, a good horse, a dairy cow and a score of sheep, was now a labourer for daily hire. And he who had been a labourer was now on the roads — or dead of hunger. . . . The land was full of men broken in the wars, and trained to arms. There were concealed weapons everywhere. . . . None loved the King, save his pensioners, and the plain man groaned to see his substance wasted on royal harlots and jacks-in-office.

“As for us of old England,” he said, “we like not the Welshman nor his ways. He is making our trade too throng for a man’s comfort. And now he is laying hands on God’s houses, and soon there will be a horde of abbey-lubbers and unfrocked priests to cumber the roads and milk the charitable.”

“What of the abbeys?” Darking asked. “Will the people at large approve the King’s doing, or will fear of Hell and hope of Heaven set them in a ferment?”

“It is hard to say,” was the answer. “Most men to-day think of their next meal before their hopes of Heaven, and their bellies before their souls. Holy water will not wash a foul shirt clean. But beyond question the devout are perturbed, and it would take little to bring them into the streets with staves and pikes. I have heard of a stirring Lincolnshire way, and Pierce will tell you that a very little spark would fire the northern moors. But I have been in too many wars to set much store by what the commonalty alone can do. There are plenty of foot-sentinels, but ’tis the captain that matters.”

“Ay,” said John Naps, “’tis the captains. What say the great folk, good sir? The poor knave whose back is broke with beating hemp has no guts in him to strike the first blow, but he may lay shrewdly about him if he find a trusty leader.”

“Granted such a leader,” Darking asked, “with what cry could he raise England?”

There was no answer. Each man seemed to be puzzling over the question. “The safety of the Church?”

“‘I faith, no. The Church has bled ’em too hard and has stirred up too many grudges. Here and there a pious soul might risk his neck for his salvation, but most would leave the business to the churchmen. It is not Christ that is in jeopardy, but his holiness of Rome and a score or two of plump abbots.”

“The redress of wrongs?”

“Ay. There you have a cock would fight. Let some great one offer to ease the burdens on the poor and hang the rich who oppress them, and the trumpet would sound from Devon to Berwick.”

“And the great one — who would be such a leader? My lord of Exeter?”

Catti the highwayman spat vehemently and his eyes blazed. “I’d liefer slit his weasand than follow him,” he growled.

“Talk to Saint Peter of cockerels but not to friend Catti of that lording,” said Naps. “He once suffered lamentably from his justice.”

Darking ran over other noble names, and all were received with doubt or disfavour.

“None will fight,” said Flatsole, “to make Neville or Percy King save their own men. If you are to oust the whoreson Welshman you must have a prince indeed, and one of the old blood, for the English have long memories.”

“Such an one as Buckingham was?”

Flatsole considered. “Ay, such an one as Buckingham, for he was of the ancient kings, and had the bearing that the plain man loves.”

“If such an one appeared — of Buckingham’s house and kindred, say — and with Buckingham’s art to charm the people — and bade men follow him that merry England might come again — would he succeed, think ye?”

“Yea. ’Tis a salmon to a gudgeon that the Welshman goes.”

Pierce broke in, having hitherto not opened his mouth except in song. He spoke as he sang, in a voice so soothing to the ear that it compelled attention. Unlike the others, he said, he had no terrestrial bounds, not even south England, to limit him. He had penetrated beyond Severn and threaded his way among the green foothills of Clun and Wye into the stony Welsh vales till he had looked from the Dyfi mouth on the Atlantic. He had been in the north among the great seas of heather that lined the track for days and days, and had talked with their hard, heather-bred folk. He had been in the south-west among the tin-miners of Cornwall and the rich Devon pastures, and round the coast from the Dorset dunes to the Kent chalk-cliffs and the Essex marshes and the sea-meres of Norfolk. And inland he had carried his pipes and his fiddle from the Malvern hills to the Cambridge fens, and from the Hampshire wolds to the fat meadows of Trent and the dark glens of Derwent. For the great he could not speak, though he had made music in castle halls, but he could tell of a thousand taverns and hamlets and granges where his playing had enlivened the cheesecakes of the simple.

“It is a dim land nowadays,” he said. “The blanket of the dark lies heavy on it.” (Peter started at the phrase.) “But there is an uneasy stirring, and that stirring may soon be an upheaval that will shake down crowns and mitres. There is a new world coming to birth, good sirs, though men know it not and crave rather to have an older world restored.”

“That is truth,” said Flatsole, “as I can bear witness. Only a leader is wanted.”

“Ay, but what leader?” the piper asked in his soft far-away voice. “If it is a great one he will only lead the nobles against the King, or some of the nobles against others. Who will lead the people against both?”

“I care for none of your new worlds,” said Naps. “We of the road want the old world with its wealth of cakes and ale, and we are for anyone that will give it back to us.”

Peter, at Darking’s shoulder, looked round the circle where the faces had become dimmer as the fire declined. It was hard to believe that this was a gathering of the kings of wastreldom. Each face, on which time and hard living had written curious tales, seemed to be sunk in musing. No doubt it was only the effect of October ale, but it looked like profound meditation. Darking was speaking. “If such a thing should come, and a prince of the old blood should appear with a strong following to ease the people of their discontents, could he reckon on your support?”

Naps replied for the others. “If you vouch for him, Master Solomon, we are his men. That is, up to our capacities. We are not an army, though we have fighting men among us, and we are poor folk, though now and then we can sup like gentles.”

“I ask no more,” said Darking. “But such an one might well call for help from those who know our England to the roots and who have their folk in every square mile of the land. What token can he give so that such help will be forthcoming?”

The old man’s face took on a sudden shrewdness.

“Is such a business in train?”

“Maybe. And I would make all things ready against the hour.”

“’Tis well. You know yourself the pass-words of our different orders. But I will give you a master-word and I will warn the troops so that, on its presentation, every wayfaring man in England is bound to honour it, though it put his neck in a halter. Are we secret here, think you? Who is he that sits at your back?” And he looked hard at Peter.

“A forest lad in my service,” was the answer. “I brought him with me because it was more convenient than to leave him behind. He is thick as an oak-log,” and he tapped his forehead.

Old Naps considered.

“Hearken, sirs,” he cried. “The master-word I appoint is this. The question will be asked, ‘How far is it to the skirts of Wychwood?’ The answer will be, ‘As far as to Peter’s Gate.’ Upon which says the questioner, halting between each word —‘Alack — I— shall — not — be — there — in — time.’ Whoever hears such question and reply, must put his all at the disposal of him who asks it. Let that go out to the troops as my command. . . . Another jug of ale, gammer, for I am dry with talk, and do you, Pierce, give us a stave.”

The tankards beside the dying fire were refilled and the fiddle woke. But it was no drinking song that came from it, but an air as slow and solemn as a Gregorian chant. The words seemed to be a comment on the piper’s last speech, and, in that place of strange faces and crooked shadows, they sounded as ominous as the owl’s complaint before a stormy dawn.

“Worm at my heart and fever in my head —

There is no peace for any but the dead.

Only the dead are beautiful and free.

Mortis cupiditas captavit me.”

John Naps flung an empty ale-pot at his head.

“God’s curse on your snivelling, Pierce,” he cried. “Give us Kind Heart or Banbury Bobby — summat to warm our blood.”

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