The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter vi

In which Peter Emerges into the Light

I

Cotswold lay asleep in the October afternoon under a haze like the bloom on a plum. Long before the western rim of the uplands was reached Peter and Darking had entered the pale of Avelard. Its stone walls began before they passed the upper waters of Coln and came out on the high bleak tableland where all the tributaries of the young Thames have their source. It was now a country of pasture, with the short sweet bite for sheep, but here and there rank patches showed where there had once been ploughlands. There were no hamlets or farms, only shepherds’ cabins, and the ruins of former habitations from which the walls of the pastures had been built. The sheep were small and shaggy to Peter’s eye, accustomed to the heavier animals of the lowlands; the shepherds were wild~looking folk, with their swathes of rags for footgear and their long hazel crooks, and the dogs were savage and noisy.

“These are my lord’s flocks,” said Darking. “He has been a great pasture-maker, and most of his wealth comes from these dirty hides.”

But at the scarp the pasture ceased, for the land fell not in gentle shallow vales as on the east, but in a declivity of a thousand feet to the huge hollow of a river. The slope was a wild park, full of fern and furze and seedling thorns, with here and there clumps of scrub oak and holly and hazel. In places there were acres of greensward among the bracken.

“See there,” said Darking, pointing to one of the clearings. “This has not long been forest land. A dozen crofts were sacrificed to make my lord’s park.”

But Peter was not listening, for the breath was taken from him by the vast prospect, the widest he had ever beheld, since the western scarp of Cotswold was the highest ground which his feet had yet trod. The slope ended far below in a champaign of meadow and woodland, but mainly woodland. A wide river looped itself through the plain, and on its banks he saw the walls of more than one town, and the spire of a great church. Beyond he could see foothills, for in the Severn valley the upland haze had gone, and the western skies were darkening for rain. And far away, a spectral blue against the rain-clouds, loomed a field of black mountains, higher than anything that the lowland-bred Peter had dreamed of, menacing and yet inviting with their promise of unknown worlds.

“The hills of Wales,” said Darking, with a jerk of his head. “Ill neighbours for peaceable folk.”

Half-way to the valley below, and a little to the right, was a broad shelf of ground, partly terraced with gardens. In the midst rose a great house, clearly new, for the yellow Cotswold limestone was not yet grey with lichen and weather. It was built in the form of a double L, and from where they stood above it could be seen the green of the lawns enclosed in the half quadrangles. To Peter it seemed more immense than any dwelling he had seen — far bigger than Stanton or Woodstock or Ewelme, greater than any college except the unfinished Cardinal. His heart beat faster, for he knew what it was without Darking’s words.

“That is the castle of Avelard. It is also new built, save for the keep on the left, which in its time stood many sieges in the Barons’ Wars and from the wild Welsh. Now my lord is rich and peaceful, and he has built him a house without defences. Let us make haste before the storm breaks.”

There was a postern gate in a battlemented wall abutting on the hill. The travellers had been seen, for a serving-man awaited them there. Darking spoke aside to Peter.

“Here I leave you, my lord. God prosper you in your venture. Remember that you have a bodyguard in the forest. You have but to speak the word old John Naps taught you to command their aid. That way, too, you can send me a message if you have need of me.”

Peter wrung his hand. The kindness in the sombre face brought tears to the boy’s eyes.

“Your goodness is beyond my gratitude,” he stammered. “What have I done to merit it?”

“I was your father’s man,” was the answer. “In old days there was never a Bohun rode to the wars but a Darking ran by his stirrup.”

Solomon slipped into the thicket after he had given Peter’s satchel into the servant’s hands. The man bowed low and led the way through the postern. Peter found himself in a demesne enclosed from the wild park, a place of wide lawns set with clumps of foreign bushes. Then came a sunken garden running the whole length of the terrace — a pleasance still in the making, for the containing walls showed recent marks of the chisel, and the long pool in the centre was empty of water and its bottom littered with heaps of quicklime. Two fountains were spouting, one of white marble shaped like a pyramid, on the apex of which sat a marble bird, and one a cluster of sea nymphs around Neptune. Here there were trim walks of grass, and fantastic plots of withered flowers. A marble staircase led to the terrace, a quarter-mile of sward a little browned with the September drought, edged by a parapet of blue Forest stone. Above it rose the southern façade of the house, all a dazzle of high square-headed windows surmounted by cornices moulded in the Italian manner, but ending far up in Gothic gables. In the centre was a great porch set with columns and capitals of the Tuscan order, and carrying a shield carved in deep relief with the lion rampant of Avelard.

A tall grave man was waiting in the porch. He bowed low.

“My lord has not yet returned,” he said, “but all is ready for your lordship’s reception.”

He led Peter into a hall, the height of two storeys of the house, with a gilt and painted plaster ceiling of dolphins and gorgons and the Avelard lion. It was panelled half-way up with small squares of oak, new and not yet darkened by smoke, and the immense chimney of white stone looked like a work of yesterday. Peter stared in bewilderment, his eyes running from the sober hangings of black and gold velvet to the rich hues of the plaster, the brilliance of a Spanish foot-cloth below the central table, the silver sconces and the great carved silver chandelier, the huge buffet laden with silver and gold plate, the Avelard lion, sable on or, ramping above the fireplace, set between two mighty alicorns. He had not believed that such magnificence dwelt even in kings’ palaces.

The yeoman of the hall handed him over deferentially to the yeoman of the chambers. Behind screens of Spanish leather they entered a lesser hall, whence rose a broad staircase of oak on the newels of which sat the Avelard lion. On the first floor he passed through a narrow gallery full of pictures into the Great Chamber, hung with Flemish tapestry, where stood a state bed of scarlet and sky-blue, and a raised chair of state under a silk canopy, cabinets of ivory and tortoiseshell and ebony, stools covered with velvet and embroidered fustian, and a medley of musical instruments, including one of the new upright spinets, called a clavicytherium, which Peter had heard of but had never seen. From this he passed to a nest of lesser chambers, in one of which a wood-fire burned on the hearth. It was a bedroom, for there was a great bed with Ionic pilasters and brocaded valance and curtains. Here a groom awaited him.

“Your lordship will bathe before he sups?”

Peter assented, with his head in utter confusion. He suffered himself to be undressed, and bathed in a tub with a curtain-like covering. The water was perfumed and warm. Then he was clothed in a new suit, the like of which he had never seen — a shirt of delicate white silk, a doublet of purple velvet slashed with yellow satin, and a surcoat of heavy silk lined with marten’s fur. His trunk hose were of silk, and on his feet were soft fur-lined slippers of cherry velvet. This done, he passed into the adjoining room, which was fitted up as a winter parlour. There he found a table covered with fine linen, and two grooms waiting to serve his meal. He had not broken bread since the morning, and, in spite of his bewilderment, fell to with a will. The grave man who had first received him again made his appearance.

“My lord has not yet returned,” he said. “Meantime we wait your lordship’s commands.”

Peter made his supper off sausage served with a sauce of almond milk, an omelette of eggs and chopped herbs, a slice of a venison pasty, and a tart made from warden pears. He was offered a variety of wines, white and red, but chose the mild beer made bitter by hops which was just come into England. This he drank from a tankard fashioned in the shape of an Avelard lion, in the bottom of which was set a piece of unicorn’s horn. When he rose from meat he drew back the curtains and looked out. The night had fallen dark and wet, with a howling wind.

Again the old usher appeared.

“My lord still tarries. Maybe he is storm-stayed and will stay the night at his house of Minster Carteron. Has your lordship any commands?”

“I am weary,” said Peter. “I go to bed.” He had risen two hours before sunrise.

A groom undressed him and put on him a nightgown of quilted satin lined with ermine. There was a table beside the bed with spiced wine in a gold posset-dish and a silver lamp burning scented oil. The air in the room was as heavy as that of a chapel at high mass. As soon as the man had withdrawn Peter pulled back the curtains, opened one of the lattices and let in a breath of the soft western wind. Then he turned the lamp low, for he felt that a night light would be a comfort in this strange place. He flung from him his night-robe, and dived between the cool cambric sheets, which to his naked body were as grateful as spring water. Such a bed he had never known, for he seemed to sink deep in down and yet float on air. The sheets were as fine as silk, and the Chalons blankets as soft as fur — far different from the rude Witney fabric which had hitherto been his only covering. The strangeness and the luxury, maybe too the rich supper and the posset, sent him forthwith to sleep.

Presently he awoke. The wind had freshened and the open lattice rattled noisily. He came back slowly to consciousness and struggled for a little to discover his whereabouts. He had been dreaming, and had thought that he was in Wychwood, crawling through a covert which grew thicker with every yard and pressed down on him from above. He tossed the blankets from him, and stuck his legs out of bed, where a cold draught from the window brought him to his bearings. The lamp was flickering in the wind, so he shut the lattice, and as he did so he noticed his right hand in the light, the middle finger of which wore a broad silver ring. That had been Mother Sweetbread’s gift, the work of the wise woman at Shipton~under-the-Forest. It was the talisman which was to bring him safety and fortune on his new road. The sight of it cheered him in the midst of this unfamiliar magnificence, for it seemed to him a link with his old world.

Then, above the riot of the gale, he heard music. It came not from without, but from somewhere within the house, for when he opened the lattice again he did not hear it. He sat on the edge of the bed straining his ears. The thing was fitful like a wind, now dying away, now rising into a perceptible air. He believed that it came from the Great Chamber, and that someone was playing on the clavicytherium. Had Lord Avelard returned and brought company?

Whoever played accompanied the music with the voice. For an instant the melody came strong and full, and he could almost catch the words. A girl was singing, and by some strange wizardry the voice was familiar. The sound of it brought pictures before his eyes — the summer midnight and the dancer on the Painted Floor — an August afternoon in Stowood, and the white girl who had called him cousin and offered her cheek to kiss. . . . Then the music ceased and the only sounds were the night wind without and the hoot of an owl.

He breathed freely now, for ever since he arrived he had had the sense of walking in a stifling dream. Out there in the darkness was the world he knew, the world of simplicity and bare living and old silent things. A mile or less distant, in the straw of a cowshed or in a dell of the woods, were men who, when he spoke the word, would do his bidding. He had felt imprisoned — but only a sheet of glass separated him from the most ancient freedom. . . . Meantime, this magnificence was his; he was born to it; he commanded servants; soon he might command all England; and there was a girl with a linnet’s voice waiting for him to set a crown upon her head.

He snuggled again into the sheets. “I am Bohun,” he told himself. “I am even now in God’s sight a duke, and soon I may be a king.”

But he did not sleep, for the music had been resumed, nearer it seemed, perhaps in the next room. This time the voice of the singer had lost the note of a wild bird. It was seductive music, languorous, rousing strange tremors in his body. It seemed to invite to new and lawless delights. . . . Peter shivered, for he knew that whoever sang was calling him, was awaiting him. They two were alone in that great dark house. He had a moment of wild exultation, succeeded by sheer terror. He was being tempted, and was in the mood to yield. . . . He buried his head under the clothes and said a prayer. When he uncovered his ears the music had stopped, and to his horror he found himself longing for it to begin again.

When he was wakened by a lackey, who drew the curtains and proffered a morning draught in a gold cup, Peter found himself in a new mood of pride and expectancy. He had forgotten his scruples. This fantastic world into which he had fallen was full of strange delights, and, if some were unlawful, the deeper their witchery. “I am Bohun,” he repeated. “I must assuredly remember that, if I am to keep my back stiff in this palace.”

ii

Lord Avelard had returned and received Peter in a little room which opened from the Great Chamber. He was dressed as ever in plain black and silver, and he sniffed a gold pomander, for October was the month when men feared the plague. His lined waxen face and the dark pouches beneath his eyes gave him in the cruel morning light an air of immense age, but the eyes themselves were keen as a hawk’s, and there was none of the impotence of senility in his delicate stubborn jaw. He took the boy’s hands in his.

“Welcome to Avelard,” he said. “You are master here, and my servants will do your bidding as they would my own. But your rank and name must still be secret. You are a kinsman from the west country whom I would make my heir, and I have seen to it that whatever is needed for that station has been forthcoming. Here you will stay till the times are ripe, and I think that the days of waiting will pass pleasantly. I am too old to be a fit companion for youth, but there are those here who will better suit your age. Young Messynger will arrive to-morrow, and my dead wife’s niece, Mistress Beauforest, will provide the graces. She is niece too to Sir Ralph Bonamy whom you know. . . . Meantime, I have news for you. Yesterday morning there came a post out of Lincolnshire. The commons are up in the eastern shires and the King’s agents are hanging like crabs on every wayside tree. The church bells are ringing, and the priests are on the march, and ten thousand men are moving on Lincoln under the banner of the five wounds of Christ.”

The voice in which he spoke had no fervour in it, but rather a cool irony, and his waxen cheek puckered in a smile.

“All goes as I foresaw,” he said. “Soon the trouble will spread north beyond Trent and fire the Yorkshire dales. I learn that the King is hurrying every man he can muster to this peasant war. Suffolk has clomb into the saddle, and Norfolk is on the road, and Beauchamp and Russell and Fitzwilliam. Presently there will not be a stand of arms left in the Tower of London, or a vassal of the King’s lords who is not tramping Lincolnshire mud. The King purposes to use the eastern shires as he used Wales, when five thousand rebels decked the gibbets. I have not been slack in my loyalty,” and again the smile flickered, “for a troop of my Gloucester lads is on the way to join my lord of Shrewsbury. Crummle will have no word to speak against the name of Avelard. I shall have a letter from the Welshman commending his affectionate cousin. And in the meantime . . . ”

He broke off and his eyes seemed to burn into Peter’s soul, while every line of the old face spoke of a consuming passion.

“Meantime,” he went on, “behind the cover of this eastern revolt our preparations ripen. When the King is embroiled deep with priests and commons, we of the old houses will strike. It is time to let you deeper into our plans, for they touch you nearest of all. When we take the field our banner will not be any monkish device, but the silver knot of Stafford and the swan of Bohun.”

He spread some papers on a table. Shire by shire, demesne by demesne, he took Peter through the details of the rising. This lord was good for so many mounted men, this squire for so many footmen. Peter found himself enthralled by the vision of great numbers waiting under arms from the Cumberland lakes to the Devon moors till the word was given, and then moving like a river fed by many streams towards London and victory. His cause was strong, it seemed, along all the western shires of England, with outposts in the midlands and the south. They lay on the flank of the royal army, and the farther that army was beguiled north of Trent the more deadly their blow. . . . There were the Welsh, too, twenty thousand of the mountaineers, who would fight for a mercenary’s wage, but with something more than a mercenary’s fury, since they had a long tale of wrongs to avenge. . . . They passed to minute computations of armament, wagons, horses and supplies. Wales would furnish a reserve of horses, and at various key-points provisions had been long accumulating. Serpents and culverins were making in the Dean forest.

“Who will command?” Peter asked, and was told himself. “Only a son of Buckingham can keep such a concourse to its purpose. Never fear. You shall have skilled marshals to assist you. We do not look for the arts of war in one clerkly bred. There are with us many old captains of the French and Scottish wars — men accustomed to order a battle — no mere carpet-knights and jousters like the King.”

Peter asked one last question. Whence came the funds for this great venture? Lord Avelard smiled wryly.

“You have set your finger on our weakness. We have somewhat, but not enough. Some, like myself, are ready to pledge their private fortunes, and there will be certain payments coming from the Emperor, who wishes us well. But we cannot do as the King does, and order requisitions in the name of the law. We must depend on the good-will and ardour of our followers, who will venture their substance knowing that victory will repay them a hundredfold.”

“But if the King has bled the land sore, will there be any recompense for those who overthrow him? He has plundered the Church and the poor, and such a course is barred to us.”

Lord Avelard glanced sharply at Peter.

“A way will be found,” he said. “There are many resources for the victorious.”

Peter’s life at Avelard was not to be idle. His mentor was satisfied with his skill in swordsmanship and something more than satisfied with his prowess with long-bow and cross-bow. But the boy had no more than a peasant’s knowledge of a horse, and he spent long hours that afternoon at the manège, where Lord Avelard’s master of horse, a Walloon from Ghent, proved an exacting, albeit a respectful, tutor. For the rest he seemed to be solitary in that immense echoing house. Lord Avelard did not show himself after the conclave of the morning, and there was no flutter of skirts in doorway or corridor to reveal the girl who had sung to the clavicytherium.

Peter watched the dusk gather over Severn valley, and roamed from the terrace to the pleasance and to the edge of the outer curtilage. The smell of wet bracken and rotting leaves drifted up to him from the woods, and a whiff of wood-smoke from the fire of some tinker or forester in the dingles. He had lost his sense of strangeness. He felt that this world of power and riches was his by right, and he looked on the lackeys with a possessing eye. His imagination was fired by what he had heard that morning, and he burned to see the argent and gules of Buckingham marshalled against the Tudor verd and argent. He must learn — learn savagely, for there was but little time in which to become a leader of men. He must be wary, for he stood alone. He was a pawn in the game, but when that pawn became a king it would be no more a pawn. His followers would fight for him only because he might help them to satisfy their own desires. There had been kindness in Lord Avelard’s face, he was well-disposed to the son of his old friend, but kindness would never be the overmastering motive with such a man. That old face, with the shadows blue as in a snowdrift, was like white fire. . . . He stiffened his back, and felt a sudden access of manhood. These men should not use him save in so far as his will consorted with theirs. Money — that was what he lacked, what the whole enterprise lacked. Had he but wealth behind him he would assuredly call the tune. As it was, he would play high for fortune. He was Bohun — of that pride none could deprive him.

But, indoors again, his thoughts were suddenly switched to a different world. “Mistress Beauforest begs permission to join you at supper”; the yeoman of the hall told him, and his cheeks burned foolishly. He was to see for the third time this lady who had become the constant companion of his dreams.

He ransacked his new wardrobe for a suit which took his fancy, and finally chose one of rose-coloured silk taffeta, with a surcoat of primrose velvet. Boy-like, he was first of all delighted with his magnificence, and then abashed. He wore a sword — he was entitled now to that, since he would soon have an army behind him. And then, with his heart beating hard, he entered the Great Chamber, where he proposed to sup. “My lord keeps his room,” the usher told him, and his heart went faster.

He had not long to wait. A girl entered, followed by her tire~woman, who carried her comfit-box, a gold pomander, and a little pied Italian greyhound. She swept Peter a curtsey so deep that her knee almost touched the floor. She did not offer him her cheek; instead she took his hand and carried it to her lips. The tire~woman withdrew, the lackeys, after placing some dishes on the table, also left the room, and the two were alone.

A girl, so he had thought of her. But this was no girl, no woman, but the very goddess of love, Venus sprung from the foam. She wore a gown of black satin bordered with black velvet, an ebony sheath for her dazzling whiteness. There were jewels with a frosty blue sparkle on her hand and in her hair. To Peter’s fascinated eyes it seemed that her gown was scarcely a covering, for the snow of her neck and bosom was revealed, and, as she moved, the soft supple lines of her body. But it was her eyes that held him in a spell. This was a woman whom he had never seen before, and such eyes he had never dreamed of, coaxing, inviting, challenging.

She waited his permission to sit down. The fire on the hearth was burning brightly, and its flicker caught her jewels and the sheen of her satin. The heavy curtains shut out the world.

She toyed daintily with her food, but Peter’s meal was a farce, for he could not swallow, though he drank a goblet of wine in answer to her pledge. She fed the little greyhound on scraps, and talked to it wooingly. To Peter she spoke in a soft voice like music, with an air of tremulous respect. But she was wholly mistress of herself, and in her eyes was a strange seductive boldness. Her every movement was voluptuous — the turn of her limbs when she switched her train beside her chair, the sudden glimpse of a shapely arm outstretched to take a pear from a platter, the occasional fall of her cloak which revealed more of a white bosom.

Peter was in a tremor, in which there was as much fear as delight. Dimly he perceived that this woman was his for the taking, that she was part of the appurtenances of one who was Bohun and might be King of England. But he had not bargained for such a goddess. He had thought of her as a difficult Artemis, and now, behold, she was Aphrodite. Something monastic and virginal in him was repelled. He suddenly found his self-possession and the power of speech. But, as he recovered his tongue, she lost hers and she answered only with her eyes. And gradually into her eyes, which had been so full of lure and challenge, crept something different — was it disappointment, anger? Peter could look steadfastly at her now, and he observed that these eyes, which with her ashen blondeness should have been grey or blue, were the faintest hazel, like a shallow moorland stream running over white sand. The light in the limpid waters seemed suddenly to grow hot and sullen.

It was she who rang the silver bell which brought the servants and concluded the meal. Her tire-woman caught up her greyhound and her trinkets, and the lackeys bowed her to the door. She offered her cheek to Peter in a cousinly good-night, and to his lips it was cold.

As Peter went to bed he passed Lord Avelard in a furred night-robe and it seemed to him that the old eyes opened a little wider as if in surprise.

He fell asleep with his head full of the strange beauty which might be his, but he did not dream of her. Instead he saw a great army trampling over England, with, in the van, the silver knot of Stafford and the swan of Bohun.

iii

Next day came Sir Gabriel Messynger out of Wales. It had been rough weather beyond Severn, but that morning Sir Gabriel had made a fresh toilet, and was as trim and bright as if he had never left the Court. He was a young man not yet thirty, high coloured and ruddy, with reddish hair cut close to the bone after the new fashion, so that his round head flamed like a noontide sun. His clothes had the extravagance of the town — a shirt of fine laced silk, a doublet of cloth of gold, and sleeves puffed and slashed in a magnificence of rose and purple. Peter’s forecast proved true. This was the gallant he had seen that evening in Stowood when he had first set eyes on Lord Avelard.

Sir Gabriel showed that he was in the secret by treating the boy with an elaborate respect, while his shrewd pale eyes — blue in one light, green it seemed in others — sought his face furtively, as if hungry to appraise him. He had news of importance for Lord Avelard’s ears, and was closeted with him till the dinner-hour. At that meal Sabine Beauforest appeared — to be the recipient of Sir Gabriel’s loftiest courtesy. Yet the two seemed to be old acquaintances, for they shared together many covert jests, and their eyes would often meet in secret confidences. Her manner to Peter was one of stiff decorum; to the other she unbent like a friendly child.

After dinner they rode in the wild park in a brief clearing of the weather. Sabine and Sir Gabriel rode like madcaps, and Peter, still in his novitiate, found himself often in these gallops half out of the saddle and only saved from falling by an unseemly clutch at the mane. Happily his horse, Spanish blood crossed with the nimble Welsh, was wise and sure-footed, and needed little management, for Peter had none to give. While they walked their beasts, Gabriel and Sabine yielded place to him as to a superior, consulting his wishes, and falling a little behind like dutiful servants; but, once let them swing into a gallop in some aisle of turf, and Peter was forgotten. He pounded precariously in their rear, while their laughter came back to him above the beat of hoofs, and sounded like mockery.

The consequence was that, once indoors again, with his blood brisk from movement and weather, Peter found himself in a mood of jealous irritation. He had been excluded from a world which should have been his own, he lagged last when he should have been foremost. Before supper in the hall they played games — Pope July, shovelpound, imperial, and the new French deckles — and he played badly, for his temper was sour and his self-consciousness extreme. Sir Gabriel — in a fresh suit — was in a merry mood, and Sabine was prepared to condescend, but Peter’s sulks kept the air tense. He was ready to quarrel with Sir Gabriel, whose fine clothes offended him, his idiot laugh and aggressive geniality. With Sabine he could not quarrel, for she regarded him not; only by a respectful inclination or a humble dropping of the eyes did she acknowledge his presence. She had some grievance against him, and barred him resolutely from her world. But Sir Gabriel refused to quarrel; he accepted Peter’s contradictions meekly, and turned his rudeness with a pleasant laugh, so that the boy for very shame was forced to civility.

At supper a new Sir Gabriel was revealed. When the servants had gone and a bowl of spiced wine had been mixed against the damp, they talked of the King, half under their breath, and with many glances at the doors. The goblets were all of crystal, a new device to guard against poison.

“You have his colouring, Gabriel,” said Lord Avelard. “Were your mother’s virtue not notorious, you might be reckoned his son.”

“He never begot anything so sound of flesh,” the young man laughed. “My lord, have you not observed that his blood is tainted? When he is bruised in a tourney, he shows black for months. If his skin is broke, he will bleed for many hours. The nature of his body is all evil humours.”

“In his youth he was like Phoebus,” said the old man, “rosy and effulgent, so that the commons on whom he beamed hailed him as half divine. Never was such a bewitcher of empty heads. But to those who marked him close there was something of ill-breeding in the little eyes near set in that vast shining face. He seemed something less, if something more, than man. There was a devil, too, in his vast appetites.”

Sir Gabriel cracked a walnut. “There are tales not seemly for a gentlewoman’s company, which would bear out the truth you have spoken. He is of another breed from the old, rugged, hard-faced masters of England. As you know, my lord, I am of an ancient but modest house, and so, being in a middle place, am well situated to note the heights and the hollows. I go not in my judgments by a man’s countenance. The ancient nobility had as many different visages as coats, but were all large-featured and lean, the body being but a sheath for a strong spirit. Their colour was dusky or wan, since their flesh was in close subjection. But now comes the King and his race of new men, and they are all much cumbered with fat and overfull of blood. There was the Cardinal of York, with his cheeks like a Martinmas boar. There is this Crummle with his litter of chins and his swine’s eyes. There is Russell and Wriothesley and Fitzwilliam, all fair of flesh like applewomen. Above all, there is the King’s grace. The Beast has come to rule in England and it is ousting men made in their Maker’s image. . . . But mark you, if they have boar’s cheeks and boar’s eyes, they have also boar’s jaws which do not easily slacken their hold.”

Lord Avelard smiled. “You have wits in that popinjay’s head of yours, Gabriel. The Welshman has indeed the lust to acquire and the lust to retain. That is the devil in his blood, and it will not be subdued save by blood-letting.”

“Ay, my lord,” said Sir Gabriel, “but let us remember this for our comfort. If you let clean blood, you free a man from surfeits and make him whole, but if you let tainted blood you kill, for the wound will not heal. There is some nice chirurgeon’s work in store for England.”

Lord Avelard retired early, and the others sat in the Great Chamber. Sabine had withdrawn into a distant stateliness, and was fingering a lute as if it burned her fingers. “Music, music,” Sir Gabriel cried, stretching himself on a long stool. “Music to dispel the ugliness of our table talk. Sing of bright and jolly things. Hark to the wind! Winter is on us, and God knows what that winter will be. Sing of summertime.”

“I am in no mood to sing,” said the girl, but she plucked softly at the lute’s strings.

“Tush, my lady, you are always singing. Your face is a madrigal, and your hair is a mesh of sweet notes. You are all music to the eye, so make music also for the ear.”

The girl sighed, cast one sombre glance at Peter who was standing by the hearth, and then let her eyes rest on the smouldering logs. She touched a chord or two and began to sing:

“Summer is come with love to town,

Throstle in bush and lark on down

Merrily tell their tale O.

Folk that pine

Now drink sunshine

More strong than winter’s ale O.

Sweet mistress, why so pale O?

I hie to thee

As river to sea

When the deer draw to the dale O.”

It was a rude thing of several verses, each ending with the refrain about the deer and the dale. But, as the girl sang it, it was no longer a country catch, a thing for milkmaids and shepherds, but the pæan of youth and spring with the bravado of all lovers since the world was born. Into that shuttered and curtained chamber, outside which the wet October winds blew, it carried a fragrance like flowers. Sabine sang soft and slow, her eyes on the fire, her face abstracted from Peter. She repeated one verse, and then broke into a flight of grace notes, a fantasy which she followed with her voice, a rich eddy of curious music twisting in and out in an aerial dance. She was singing to please herself, for she had forgotten Peter by the hearth and Sir Gabriel on his couch. Presently a gentle snore broke in on the music. Sir Gabriel, tired with his Welsh journey, was asleep.

It was the fantasia, rather than the singing, which stirred Peter’s heart. For the rhythm it made was the rhythm of the dance which he had watched in the midsummer night on the Painted Floor.

She fell silent at last, and let the lute drop, while she sat with her hands between her knees, her head bent forward.

“I thank you.” Peter’s voice sounded intolerably harsh in his ear — the words of Mercury after the songs of Apollo. “You sing like the blessed angels. . . . I have heard that song before.”

She bent her face slowly towards him, and he noted that her eyes were blind, as if turned back in some inward absorption. “That cannot be,” she said.

“Nay, but it is so. Not heard it, maybe, but felt it. For I watched you dancing to that very air one July night on the Roman floor by Wood Eaton.”

Her absorption was gone. She flushed rosily to the tips of her little ears. “You know the place?” she stammered. “You saw me? . . . ”

“I first found the place, being guided thereto by the words of an ancient deed, and with my own hands I cleared it. We are twin discoverers, mistress.”

She rose and held out her hands, and in her eyes was a sudden wild abandonment which made their cool shallows a molten fire. She was giving herself to his arms — she was inviting him to her breast — and an answering passion awoke in the boy. But at that moment Sir Gabriel rolled off his couch and woke. He saw Peter holding Sabine’s hand to his lips, and speaking words of gratitude with a warmth which he had not looked for in one so fish-like.

iv

Peter was roused before dawn next morning by Lord Avelard standing by his bed. The collar of his furred night-robe stood about his head like a crest, so that to the boy’s sleepy eyes he had the air of an immense gnome.

“The devil is in this business,” he said. “Who think you are here? One of Crummle’s wolves — Plummer his name, a Middle Temple lawyer — on his way to take reckoning with the Gloucester monks. He has a secretary with him, and four armed servants, and as a companion young Rede of Boarstall, who once saw you and inquired concerning you. What brings them here? They are ten miles out of the straight road to Gloucester, and there is no religious house in these parts to stir their greed. It may be that Crummle has got a hint of our doings and would spy out the land. I like not this young Rede’s presence, for he has been known as a King’s man, but no Crummle’s man, and yet here he is playing fugleman to the worst of them.”

“Must I get me gone?” Peter asked.

“Nay, that would be to make suspicion certainty, if, as I believe, they know of your presence here. But, while they know of your presence they do not know who you are. Mark well, my son. You are no more than my cousin and destined heir, Master Bonamy from Dyston in Salop. My servants have been instructed, and Sabine and Gabriel will keep up the play. God send our guests do not tarry long. It behoves us to treat the rogues like princes and welcome them like May flowers. Haply we will get from them some later news out of the east and north.”

It was a clear mild October day, and at breakfast in the hall the sun shone full on the company. Master Plummer, the commissioner, was a black-avised man of middle age, with a yellow parchment skin, a quick eye like a fowl’s, and the voice of the hectoring lawyer. He was servile to his host, civil to Gabriel and Peter, fulsome to Sabine, but always with an air of one who condescended, and could at any moment change the velvet glove for the iron hand. He ate a breakfast of a size miraculous for one so slight, and, as he gobbled noisily, he babbled of his doings at Court, of his purchase with his master and his power with the King, and of the noble work he had wrought already in curbing the vice and gluttony of the religious. “Honest men must come to their own,” he cried so often, that it sounded as if he demanded from the company some proof of honesty.

The other traveller, Simon Rede, for the most part kept silence. Three times Peter had seen him — once on the midsummer night in Stowood when he had envied his conquering air, once in Oxford streets, and once on that afternoon when he had ridden with Sabine from the hunt. Now, in his travelling dress which bore the stains of the road and was scarcely richer than a yeoman’s, he looked more formidable than ever. There was power in every movement of his limbs, the small shapely head set on a strong neck, the breadth of the shoulders, the gnarled brown wrists beneath his cuff-bands. His face appeared to have been weathered by hotter suns than England’s, for, except below the eyes and ears, it was the colour of dark oak, and seamed with the fine lines which come only from the glare and the spray of the sea. It was a hard face, and yet prepossessing, for its arrogance was a clean thing like a north wind, not the fussy pride of the commissary. . . . He met Peter’s eye with no sign of recognition, though he had had him in full view on that afternoon in Stowood, and, according to Sir Ralph Bonamy, had set afoot inquiries about him. Sir Gabriel was a stranger to him, but Sabine was plainly a friend. She had greeted him as such, and at breakfast his eyes were always travelling towards her, and whenever she spoke, he seemed to bend to listen. . . . Peter had a sudden conviction. This man was in love with her. He had come here because of her, using the commissary’s visit as an excuse to enter Avelard. And with this conviction came a spasm of furious jealousy.

Master Plummer, having ridden through part of the night, was weary, so he retired to his chamber to sleep, announcing that he would push on towards Gloucester in the late afternoon. So far so good, but it was necessary to dispose safely of Master Rede. Sir Gabriel took upon himself the duty of master of ceremonies. There was a heavy buck harboured in Dainton wood, which would for certain run towards the river, where the going was good even in a soft October. So horses were brought and the four young people rode out into the sloeberry bloom of the autumn wilds. For three hours they ran the buck, but the mort was never sounded, for he took to the water and found sanctuary beyond the flooded Severn. By midday, too, the weather had changed, a torrent of rain descended, and long ere they won the shelter of Avelard the four were soaked to the bone.

Peter had been all morning violently out of temper. The thought of Simon Rede as a lover of Sabine had thrown him into a mood of deep disquiet. Sir Gabriel’s intimacy with the girl had not perturbed him, but there was that in the other’s air of mastery which struck fear to his heart. What woman could resist one who had the face of the god of battles, and treated the world as his own demesne? Before such assurance Peter felt raw and impotent. This galling sense of inferiority was increased by the incidents of the hunt. Where the others leaped their horses easily over ditches and pales, he was compelled to make an ignominious circuit. The result was that he fell far behind, and the stag had taken to the river while he was still ploughing a mile away through swampy thickets.

From a knoll he saw the others turn, while the prickers’ horns sounded to recall the hounds. The rain had begun, and in deep disgust he too swung his horse round for home. Below him in a hollow were some charcoal-burners at work, and one of them, a young man, followed him, and touched his stirrup.

“How far be it, master, to the skirts of Wychwood?” he asked in a broad Gloucestershire burr.

For a moment Peter was taken aback, and could only stare. Then he remembered.

“As far as to Peter’s Gate,” he replied.

“Alack!” said the man, stumbling between each word, “I shall not be there in time.” Then he grinned. “I have a message for ye, brave sir. Mas’r Darking be mighty eager to see ye. Ye will get news of him at Goody Sweetbread’s. The word given me to pass on was that there was summat in the ground as concerned your fortunes.” The man pulled a forelock, and went back to his companions.

To Peter the message was like a breeze to dispel the fog of his discontents, since it reminded him of the high road on which his feet were set. What was Simon Rede to him who would soon be the master of ten thousand men? His ambition rekindled, and burned side by side with his passion for Sabine, for the two were one.

After dinner, while the rain pelted on the windows, came word that the commissary, fearing the swamps of the valley in such weather, had resolved to postpone his going till the morrow. So the good~humoured Sir Gabriel set himself to devise amusement for indoors. Little Welsh horses were provided, their feet cased in monstrous shoes of felt, and he and Simon held a miniature tourney on the black-and-white marble pavement of the hall. Sir Gabriel won, and was crowned by the laughing Sabine with a wreath of ivy. There was sword-play, too, in which Peter could hold his own, and a nice show of dagger-and-buckler work by Sir Gabriel, who at the French court had learned to be a master of games. Then, as the wet dusk drew in, they sat around the big hearth and talked, the commissary being engaged with Lord Avelard elsewhere.

It was curious talk, in which Peter, restored to good humour, joined but little, sitting apart and watching the others. It began with the foreign wars, and it seemed to him that Sir Gabriel was bent on discovering, with adroit courtesy, something of Simon’s past life and present ventures. But, with equal courtesy, the other put the questions by. He had been much about the northern courts on errands for the Council, but such business was not for gossip, as Sir Gabriel well knew. Peter observed that the latter’s manner had lost its bravado, and that his face had become that of an older and shrewder man. Almost it seemed to him that it had acquired something of the hardness of the commissary upstairs.

To the girl Simon was more forthcoming. “There is a wider world than Europe, my lady,” he said, “and I have ventured some way into it.” And then, in response to her questions, he began to tell tales, drifting casually into them, smilingly disclaiming any importance for them, and, as he spoke, his face too seemed to change. It became gentler, less wary and assured, and he smiled as if his memories were happy. He told how, as a boy, he had journeyed in the Bristol gabbarts to Gascony for wine, to Portugal with salted fish, to Ireland, and once far north, involuntarily, with a storm behind him, into icy seas. And, when come to man’s estate, he had sailed with Cabot of Bristol in the service of the King of Spain to the new world beyond the Western Sea. . . . For a space all hung on his words, and Sabine, with her head bent forward and her lips parted, never took her eyes from his face. He told of great rivers so wide that a man in midstream could see neither shore, of forests with their feet in the salt water, of strange bright fruits and birds, and dark-skinned people a touch of whose arrows brought death.

“Gold and jewels?” she asked breathlessly. “Did you find them?”

He laughed. “A little of each, mistress, such as a hasty seafarer can carry on board. But those lands are rich beyond mortal dreams. There is a dark blanket which covers Europe, but beyond it there are open skies and the sun.”

She looked at him with wide eyes.

“How can you endure to sit at Boarstall and look out on Otmoor mud, when you know that there are such brave lands for the finding?”

Again he laughed.

“I am an Englishman,” he said, “and I may wish to give a hand in raising the blanket that covers us.”

At that all fell silent, for they realised that they had come very near forbidden things, and each wondered what was in the other’s heart.

Lord Avelard broke in upon the conclave, and with him came the commissary, now rested and refreshed and in a mellow temper.

“We have another guest,” said the old lord, “and an ill-boding one. There is a fellow here, one of the new gospellers, who has been working mischief among the Oxford clerks. He is Cambridge bred, but the devil sent him to sow tares in the Oxford fields. The proctors laid hold on him, but he escaped, and his grace of Lincoln, having a mind to end the evil, sent his men after him, and he has been taken while attempting to cross the marches into Wales. He has been brought here, and it is required that I keep him in safe custody and send him guarded to Oxford for the Bishop to deal with. They are bringing him in that I may have a look at him. Master commissary, we know well that the King’s grace, though he has a grudge against certain of the religious, has an ardent mind to pure religion and will tolerate no heresy-making.”

The commissary nodded and blinked.

“The King’s grace is a good Christian. And so likewise is his grace’s Vicar–General.” But he seemed uneasy, and shot a sharp glance at Simon, which Peter intercepted.

“’Tis a difficult time for a Christian,” said Sir Gabriel airily. “If he have a liking for the Pope he may be hanged for treason, and if he like not the mass he may burn for heresy.”

The commissary frowned, and Lord Avelard shook a warning head. Simon had risen and Peter observed that his face had become grim.

“What is the man’s name?” he asked, and it was clear that he strove to keep his voice soft.

“One Sturmy or Sturdy,” said Lord Avelard. “His grace of Lincoln writes a plaguey bad hand. But here comes the fellow.”

The outer door of the hall was thrown open by an usher, and five men entered. Four wore the Bishop’s livery and carried halberts. The fifth was the man Peter had met with the gipsies in the Stowood covert — he could not mistake the thin face and the burning eyes. He was no longer in rags, but wore a sober clerk’s garb much splashed with mire. He had damaged his left arm, which hung in a dirty sling. There was a chain round his middle, the other end of which was locked to the wrist of one of the warders.

The prisoner seemed in no way perturbed. He looked weary and famished, but he held his head erect, and his eyes met Lord Avelard’s bent brows with a scornful composure.

“You are one Sturmy, Nathaniel Sturmy, a clerk of Cambridge?”

The man bowed. “I am that one.”

“Who after working mischief in Oxford fled to Wales, but was taken on the bank of Severn?”

“I was stayed by the Lord’s hands. He sent His floods as a sign that He had still work for me to do in England.”

“You are charged with speaking against the holy mysteries, and with distributing certain books among the common people whereby their hearts are seduced?”

“The charge is true. I have spoken against mummeries which pervert the truth, and I have laboured to spread the knowledge of God’s own word.”

“You have already been found guilty of like blasphemies, and have confessed and repented. At Uxbridge you carried a faggot in a procession of heretics, and did penance on the altar-steps?”

A spasm of pain crossed the man’s face. “Woe is me, it is true. The flesh was weak and I was afeared. Now I have gotten strength to endure all things.”

The commissary spoke out, and his tone was harsh. “A plague on such ignorant lubbers. When the King’s grace is bent on reforming Holy Church, you must needs step in with your follies, thereby delaying the good work. Know you the penalty, fellow, for your errors, the penalty established by the law’s wisdom? To be drowned in a sack or to be burned in a public place.”

The man looked scornfully at his inquisitor.

“Threaten those things to rich and dainty folk who are clothed in purple and have their life in this world. Thanks be to God, I care not whether I go to Heaven by land or water or fire!”

As he spoke, he looked round the company, and his eyes fell on Simon. Some intelligence seemed to pass between them, for of a sudden his face lightened, and when Peter glanced at Simon he saw that his mouth was set hard. . . . And then Peter had a strange experience. As he looked, the world seemed to go small. The noble hall with its carvings and gildings and escutcheons suddenly shrank into a little bare place. Lord Avelard seemed a broken old man with deathlike cheeks, Sir Gabriel a painted lath, the commissary a hollow thing like an empty barrel, Sabine a pretty mask with nothing behind but a heart ticking foolishly. Even Simon looked wooden and lifeless. But this wisp of a man, manacled to his jailer, seemed to give out life as fiercely as a furnace gives out heat. There was such a convincing purpose in him that in his presence all the rest of them with their brave appurtenances dwindled and withered.

The mood lasted but for a second. When he looked again he saw only a shabby prisoner, and heard Lord Avelard saying: “Take him away. I will furnish two extra guards to carry him to-morrow to Oxford.”

The rest of the evening was all discomfort. The commissary was out of temper, and suspicious of everybody, notably of Sir Gabriel, whose persiflage fell as flat as rain-water in a strong sun. Simon was moody, and seemed to be thinking his own thoughts, while Lord Avelard laboured in vain to play the genial host. Sabine, too, was in an odd mood, dropping her eyes, chary of her smiles, forgetful of her graciousness of the night before. She spoke only to Simon, who gave her short answers. Peter’s jealousy burned fierce, for it had much to feed on. He went to bed angry with the world, angry with the girl, and with the conviction that in Simon Rede he had found a rival and an enemy.

Lord Avelard came to him in his chamber. He at any rate was not out of temper, for his cheeks puckered in smiles.

“That was a pretty play,” he said. “’Tis well known that Crummle is the blackest heretic in the land, and this young Rede I fear is no better. They are walking on difficult ground, for with one hand they are plundering the Church and with the other must smite all who deny the Church’s creed, because their thick-witted master still hopes to save his soul. They cannot quarrel with my urgency to oblige the Bishop, since ’tis their King’s wish, but you could see what gall and wormwood it was to them. . . . But Avelard is no place for you at this moment. Both Rede and that black commissary have been examining my servants concerning you. Best go back for a little to Stowood till this visitation be past. There is good news from the east, where the stubble is ablaze, and soon Crummle and his crew will have their hands full in that quarter. You had best leave at dawn to-morrow. I am sending two of my fellows to strengthen the Bishop’s guard — needless enough, but a proof of my good-will — and what more natural than that my young kinsman should accompany them, as a pledge of the holy zeal of the house of Avelard?”

“Does Master Rede go to-morrow?”

“He rides with the commissary to Gloucester. What brought him here, think you? I have my guess that it was the bright eyes of Mistress Sabine. But that dainty flesh is not for him.” The old eyes looked at Peter with that in them which restored his confidence and set his heart beating.

He did not tell Lord Avelard of the charcoal-burner’s message. That side of his life had nothing to do with Avelard, and at the moment it did not seem to him of much importance.

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