The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter vii

How a Would-Be King Became a Fugitive

Sleep banished the dregs of Peter’s ill-temper. The sky had cleared after the rain, and he set out on his journey in a world all blue and golden. Master Plummer, too, made an early start, and to his surprise Peter found that Simon Rede had made a still earlier one, having left before dawn for Gloucester to prepare the way for the other’s reception. The sour-faced commissary was therefore a witness, as Lord Avelard had intended, to the zeal of the house on the Church’s errands. The Bishop’s four servants wore sad-coloured liveries with a cross on their shoulders, but the two Avelard men were splendid in Avelard’s yellow and black. As they started uphill towards the crest of Cotswold the Severn vale swam in a clear morning light, and the far hills rose blue and wraith~like against the pale sky. Every thicket was a riot of autumn gold and crimson, the pools left by the rain were alive with wild-fowl, and a great wedge of geese was winging across the valley. Peter drew long breaths of the sharp, scented air. In such a world it was good to be alive.

His heart had lightened as a boy’s will at the coming of a new pleasure, and his head was filled with two pictures. One was Sabine, as he had seen her that night when he had revealed his knowledge of the Painted Floor, and her arms had opened towards him. Fool that he had been not to accept his fortune! A malediction on Sir Gabriel for his inopportune awakening! She had invited him to a deeper intimacy, since they two were sharers in one secret. . . . She had invited him before. He remembered her appealing music on his first night at Avelard, and the night when they had supped together and her eyes had been like a siren’s. Now he saw these incidents in a different light, and he recalled Lord Avelard’s words the evening before. He was the unicorn who, according to the tale, could only be captured by the wiles of a virgin’s lap. This girl was destined for him, was his for the taking — and she was not unwilling. A delicious tremor shook him; he exulted, yet with fear. What mattered Simon Rede when her heart was his? He told himself that he had already conquered. . . . And then another picture took the stage in his brain, inspired by the quick movement and the jingle of harness in the diamond morning. He saw himself riding at the head of an immense concourse — all England — with the swan of Bohun above him. The picture fairly ravished him. What, forsooth, mattered Simon Rede to one born to such a fortune?

Ay, but what of Simon Rede? There was that in the man’s face which could not be put aside, and Peter’s high mood suddenly fled. The man was stronger than he. He had travelled far and wrought mightily and mastered his world, while he was still in his tutelage. . . . The thought brought back all his uncertainties. He was but a tool in the hands of others and his power and place was only on sufferance. He was the painted flag men sent before them into battle — a thing valued not for its own sake but because it was a symbol of their pride. And, as he looked back on the company at Avelard, the picture seemed to darken. The old lord with his waxen face fought for the antique privileges of his order, and since Peter was of his order and a comrade’s son he had a kindness for him. But nothing more. Sir Gabriel was a squire in the same cause — a crusader with a very mercantile interest in his crusade, for he had studied his face and seen the cool calculation behind the gaiety. Sabine was the delicate lady of the order, the prize for the man who should be its champion. But Simon Rede was of a different world. Whatever course he followed would have daylight and honour in it. He was the spending, not the getting, kind, and would fling his cap over the moon for a gallant whimsey. Curses on that high air of his! It might leave Sabine cold, but for Peter it had an ill-boding sorcery.

And that rag of a man, the gospeller! He had spoken strange words the night before, when he had scorned the commissary’s threats, and had bidden him use them to those “whose hope was in this world.” Peter had been bred to think that this world at its best was a perishing thing, and that man’s first business was to save his soul. But now all his thoughts were on mundane glory and mundane joys. There was small relish of salvation in his new life. . . . He was to be the champion of the old Church against the King, but what cared Lord Avelard and his like for the Church, save as a prop to their own fortunes? . . . He was now engaged in the repression of heresy, but there were some who had called both him and Brother Tobias heretics, because they had followed Erasmus and the new learning. This gospeller’s offence was spreading knowledge of the Scriptures, a thing which Tobias had long urged and which the King’s grace himself had toyed with. . . . Acute doubts assailed him, doubts not only of his own powers, but of the merits of his cause. Was he fighting only for the lust of the eyes and the pride of life? If so, his cause smacked somewhat of damnation.

Hitherto he had ridden ahead, but when they were descending the long slopes to the Coln, with Cirencester town smoking below on their right, he fell back on the party. The gospeller rode between two of the Bishop’s servants with the two others behind him, and the Avelard men bringing up the rear. He was no longer manacled, but a stout thong joined his bridle hand to the belt of one of the servants. Peter ordered the thong to be loosed that he might ride abreast of the man, and bade the others fall back a little. The Bishop’s servants, ill-looking rogues all of them, sullenly obeyed. At first it seemed that they might refuse, for they knew nothing of Peter, and the old clothes which he had resumed did not suggest rank, but a word from the Avelard men brought their compliance.

The gospeller looked ill and weary. In the daylight his skin had the yellow tinge of one who had suffered much from ague, and the same colour showed in the whites of his eyes. He drooped in the saddle, and his wounded left arm seemed to pain him. He stared in front of him, while Peter adjusted the cavalcade, and when they rode forward together he did not raise his eyes. He seemed to be repeating a prayer, for his lips moved continually.

“You are a sick man,” Peter said. “I will call a halt, when you wish, that you may rest. There is no need for haste.”

“Nay, friend, I am well enough,” was the answer. “Like the Psalmist, I pass through the valley of misery and find springs therein.”

“We have met before. In July at midnight in the hollow below Stowood as you go to Wood Eaton. You were with a troop of gipsies, and I tumbled by chance on your encampment.”

At last the man raised his head and looked at his companion. “I remember. An Oxford clerk in a poor gown. What does such an one in the halls of the great? I saw you yesternight among the gentles, clothed as they. What part has a scholar in that magnificence? What has a poor Grecian to do with the rich and the oppressive?”

“You said, when you looked in my face that night, that I was no churl’s get.”

The man set his penetrating eyes on his companion. “I spoke truly. So you are of the blood of Avelard. Well, ’tis a high stock to them who value such vanities, but ’tis a strange taproot for a Grecian. Yon old fox is the steeliest bigot in all the west country. He loves not the King, but he will compound for treason by being hot against heresy.”

A bank of cloud had obscured the sun and the wind blew suddenly sharp from the south-east. The gospeller shivered, for he had no cloak.

“I like not the weather,” said Peter, sniffing the air. “The mallard are flighting low, too. It smells like the first snows.”

The gospeller muttered to himself. “When it is evening, ye say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather to-day, for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky, but can ye not discern the signs of the times?’”

Then he lifted his hand. “You are abbey-bred, young sir?”

“Ay,” said Peter. “Oseney.”

The man’s face softened. “Well I know it, and ’twas once a noble palace of God. But it is falling, falling, like all the others. I looked on it again this very summer, and my eyes watered as I gazed on that noble tower which would make a fit resting-place for archangels, and my ear heard its myriad of chinking rivulets. When I passed through its courts I saw old men mazed in foolish worldly toils, and the stones crumbling, and grass growing in their cracks. There are few sins in Oseney save those of omission, but its feeble innocence will not save it. It goes the way of the rest, for the Lord is purging His threshing floor. . . . You are doubtless one who would save such relics, even when they fester.”

“Nay, I would reshape them. There are abuses enough, God knows, and some of them I have seen with my own eyes. But I would not plunder God to enrich Mammon.”

“So that is your way of it.” The man seemed to have lost his weariness and sat straighter in the saddle. “Where then should the abbey spoils go when the folk are sent packing? If you say ‘to the service of a purified Church,’ then you and I think the same. Strange, if you are kin to Avelard!”

“I would not send the folk packing. They have not oppressed the poor, like many of the great ones, and the poor in these days have few friends.”

The man bent his brow. “Stranger still for Avelard blood! Why, man, your ancient kinsman has been in his day the harshest oppressor this side of Severn! You are right in one thing. The poor man needs every friend who will stand between him and the bitter blasts that blow from the high places. But the abbeys were not protectors. No nursing mothers they, but harsh stepdams.”

“Then what is this news from the eastern shires?” Peter asked. “It would seem that the commons of those parts are ready to risk their necks for the religious houses.”

“That is the lovable simplicity of poor folk. But it is not for the monks they fight but for their hope of salvation.

“‘Christ crucified

For thy wounds wide

Us commons guide

Which pilgrims be!’

That is their song. The hearts of Englishmen are not turned from God, but their eyes are dim. But God is preparing His own salve for their blear eyes, and soon they will see clear. England will be merry again when she has turned from the glosses and corruptions of man to the plain script of God. To that great purpose many contribute, though they know it not. The King on the throne, for one, and the broad-faced scrivener Crummle who gathers treasure for his master. They are but instruments to win the world back from the Church to Christ. . . . ”

“They are strange instruments for a strange end,” said Peter. “And the same instruments will bear hard on you, my friend.”

“Though He slay me yet will I trust in Him,” was the answer. “The bodies of many will be dung for the fields before the new grain springs.”

Peter rose in his stirrups to look behind him. There were the Bishop’s four servants, but what had become of the Avelard men? They must have fallen far back and be beyond a turning of the road which lay straight to the eye for a mile and more. For the party was now on the great Fosse Way, the Roman highroad which ran from south-west to north-east across England. The six of them stopped at the tavern of Fosse Bridge to eat, where the road crossed the Coln, but they finished their meal without any sign of the truants. Peter, intent on his own errands, saw no reason to delay for them, since the Bishop’s men were a sufficient posse, so presently they were jingling up the hill towards the town of Northleach, where the road branched off for Oxford. But before they came in sight of its great church, as big as many a minster, and heard the rattle of the windlasses in the wool-sheds, another horseman on a bay gelding struck in from a by-path on their right and joined them. To his surprise and disgust Peter recognised Simon Rede. The gospeller too recognised him, for his pale face flushed and a sudden light came into it.

Simon ranged himself on Peter’s other side.

“A fair day for the road, my friend, but ’twill be snow ere night.” His face was ruddy with the weather, and his pale eyes were merry.

“I thought you had gone to Gloucester,” said Peter glumly.

“I have done my errand in that direction, and now business calls me back to Boarstall. I and my horse are used to long and sudden journeys. It appears that you are shedding your convoy, Master Bonamy. I passed two of my Lord Avelard’s men five miles back, drunk as swine in a hedge alehouse.”

Peter cried out. “They were sober fellows as ever I saw.”

“They are most marvellously unsober now. Strong ale and strong air go fast to a man’s head. But the Bishop may do very well without them. Four lusty rogues are sufficient to carry a feeble man to jail.”

How it was managed Peter did not know, but at a nod from Simon the escort closed up, and the gospeller fell back among them. “Secure that thong,” they were told, and the prisoner was again bound up to the belt of the lackey. Thus Peter found himself riding ahead with Simon as his companion.

All his antagonism had revived. This man had taken charge of the party and ousted him from the command, without so much as a word of explanation. The arrogance of it left him speechless, and rankled the more since it seemed so natural. The intruder made no question of it, for he assumed that no question could be asked.

Yet they had scarcely left Northleach when he found himself forced into conversation with the interloper, and they had not gone a mile before that conversation had driven all other thoughts from his head. For it was clear that this man did not despise him — nay, that he might even fear him. He seemed disposed to friendship, and felt his way towards it with a careful diplomacy. He accepted him as Lord Avelard’s heir, a cousin, too, of old Sir Ralph at Wood Eaton. But his curiosity did not seem to be about Lord Avelard’s affairs but about Sir Gabriel. Who and what was Sir Gabriel? What did he at Avelard? An unwilling admiration seemed to lurk in Simon’s voice, and dislike too, as for one too showy and foppish, a distaste which he flatteringly assumed Peter must share.

But Peter had little to tell him. Sir Gabriel was of the Court, and had been useful in going to and from the King of France. . . . And then he guessed at the cause of Simon’s interest. He feared Sir Gabriel as a rival with Sabine, and would probe his quality. But he did not fear Peter. . . . And at the thought his vexation returned, and he gave short answers.

But Simon’s good humour seemed unbreakable, and it was hard to be short with him. For, presently, detecting his companion’s mood, he swung off to different topics. He spoke, as he had spoken the night before, of a widening world. The man had scholarship of a kind, for he could quote a phrase of Aristotle and a line of Seneca to the effect that one travelling towards the sunset would in time come round to the sunrise. Peter’s interest was acutely stirred, and there might have been confidences between the two had not the weather suddenly turned to the vilest. The road, strung high along open wolds, ran eastward, and the riders were met by the full force of a blizzard of snow. It drove with the violence of the first precursor of the winter’s storms, whipping their faces, blinding their eyes, and shutting out the Windrush vale with a screen of leaden mist.

“If we would enter upon this new world,” Simon was saying, “we must purge our baggage. A man must travel light.” Then he flung a fold of his cloak around his throat. “A murrain on this weather,” he cried, “for I must be beyond Otmoor ere I sleep. There is promise of a heavy fall. You will be well advised, Master Bonamy, to seek a shelter for the night, since in your errand there is no need of spurring. It matters little when the wretch behind us lies in the Bishop’s prison so long as he duly reach that haven. In an hour the night will fall. Best look for a lodging while there is a spark left of daylight.”

The counsel was good, and Peter was conciliated by this deference to him as leader of the party. But it was no easy task to find port in such a place in such weather. The road ran solitary among downs, now piebald with snow, and the prospect on either side was only a few yards of driving vapour.

Peter had decided to push on to Burford, which he judged to be but a few miles distant, in spite of his aversion to lying at a tavern on such an errand, when in a sudden clearing of the snow he saw a light flicker on his left. He decided that they were close to Barrington woods, which were outliers of Wychwood. This must be some forester’s hut, and where a forester lodged there would be an outhouse of some kind where they could camp, and fuel for a bivouac. So he gave the order to turn north, and, after a hundred yards of rough pasture, they reached the light and smelt the smoke of green boughs.

The place proved to be a wretched hovel of logs and mud, through the chinks of which came the gleam of a fire. In the dim light there could be seen around it broken walls and one large ruinous barn.

“This was once a snug farm,” said Simon. “Now some waif squats in the ruins, as a bird builds its nest in the nettles of a stoneheap.”

A shout from Simon brought someone to the door, a half-naked boy in his middle teens. Simon flung himself from his horse and pushed past him into the hovel, while Peter followed. It was a single room with an earthen floor, on which the snow, melting on the wattled roof and drifting through the holes, was making deep puddles. There was no light in the place but a new-kindled fire of wet wood, the smoke from which filled the air and set the eyes smarting. Furniture there was none except a three-legged stool and in a corner a heap of straw on which it seemed that a human figure lay. This was no forester’s hut, but a hovel of the very poorest.

On the stool sat a man who seemed to be engaged in cooking something in a broken pot. He was a bent creature with tangled tow-like hair. A ragged sack was his only garment, and through the rents of it showed ribs as sharp as the bars of a harrow. At the sight of the strangers he let the pot drop so that some of its contents spilled and fizzled in the ashes, while his face was drawn in an extreme terror. Yet it was a vacant terror, a physical rather than a mental passion, for, while his cheeks and mouth were contorted, his eyes remained dull and blind.

Simon sniffed, for the spilled food sent out a vile odour.

“We want lodgings and kindling for a fire,” he said. “What of the barn? Is the roof reasonable tight?”

The man only muttered, and it was the boy who answered.

“Tighter than this, master. There be store of faggots, too, against the next deer-drive. But we have nought to do with the place, for it belongs to Master Lee, the verderer.”

“We will take Master Lee’s permission for granted, for we travel on the King’s business. What have you in that pot?”

The man now spoke, his thin jaws working with a great effort, and his voice was like a bat’s squeak. But his speech, like the boy’s, was not that of an ordinary churl.

“Nothing, gentle sirs, but some nettle broth, with the thickening of a dead partridge, half-plucked by a hawk, which Dickon found in Waterman’s Acre.”

“The bird must have been dead a week,” said Simon, screwing up his nose.

“You speak truth, sir,” said the man eagerly. “’Twas only carrion, and therefore honestly come by for a poor man.” And, all the while his lips and eyes seemed to be twisting towards the pot, as if he were in the last stage of famine.

“What is that on the straw?” Simon asked.

“My wife, noble sir. She has been dead twelve hours, and Dickon and I wait for the snow to pass to bury her.”

“Of what sickness?” Simon demanded in a sharpened voice, for the whole world feared the plague.

“Of none. Of a lamentable lack of food. Dickon did not find the partridge in time, and we have had nought for our bellies this past sennight but hips and haws and beechmast.”

Simon swung round. “Go on with your meal, brother. We will camp in the barn and make use of Master Lee’s faggots. We carry food with us, so need not borrow yours.”

Peter, whose stomach was turning at the stench of the pot and the spectacle of the dead thing on the straw, followed him hastily out of doors. The men were soon settled in the barn, which proved to be tolerably water-tight, a fire was made and a lantern lit, and the food wallets unpacked; while the horses were tethered among some straw at the far end. When the meal was eaten, Simon resaddled his beast.

“I must get me onward,” he said, “for the storm seems to abate. Farewell, Master Bonamy, and good speed to your journey! If you will honour my humble dwelling of Boarstall I will show you the work of the Italian chart-maker whom I spoke of.” Then to the men, “See you truss up that fellow when you lie down. If you sleep like hogs, and he is unshackled, he will be over Severn by the time you wake.”

Peter’s first intention had been to pass the night with the others. But the sight of a patch of clear sky and a few stars made him incline to follow Simon’s example. He was not concerned to deliver the gospeller to the Bishop’s charge: that was for the Bishop’s servants, and the two Avelard men, now lying drunk many miles in the rear. His business was to find Darking, and for that he must get him to Mother Sweetbread. The distance was not more than five miles, and he knew every cranny of the countryside.

So he, too, resaddled his horse, and with a word to the men to go on to Oxford next day as they had been bidden, he opened the door and flung his cloak about his shoulders. It had an odd feeling, and, when he took it to the lantern, he realised that it was Simon’s cloak of grey frieze, and that his own, which was of soft murry-coloured woollen from the Stour, was now on Simon’s back on the road to Boarstall. There was small loss in the exchange, for the two men were much of a height.

Then another thought struck him. He picked up some of the remains of the food, a piece of loaf, a knuckle of salted beef, and a fragment of pie. There was enough left for the men to breakfast off, and they would be in Oxford for the noontide meal. He slung the viands in a corner of his cloak, and led his horse to the hovel door.

The couple had finished their meal, for the pot was empty. The man was picking his teeth with a bit of bone, and the boy was scraping the pot. The fire had sunk, and the light was so dim that he could not see the dead woman on the straw.

“Here are some broken meats,” he said. “And see here, friend. Here are also three silver pennies, that your wife may be decently put in the earth.”

The man scarcely lifted his head, but the boy seized eagerly on the gifts.

“If I were found with those monies on me I would hang,” said the man.

“Nay, father, I know where I can spend them secretly,” said the boy. “And here be enough food to keep us for a week. God bless ye, my lord.”

The man cast one look to the corner, and shook his matted head like a puzzled animal. “Would that God had sent him twelve hours sooner, or that Dickon had been quicker in finding the bird.” He hunched himself again on the stool, and stared into the ashes. There was neither sorrow nor regret in his voice, only bewilderment.

The snow had gone, and there was sufficient clear sky to permit of a faint starlight. Peter put his horse to a trot, for he wished to put miles between him and that place of death and famine. Fresh from the splendour of Avelard, he felt like a man in thin raiment coming from a warm and scented room into a bitter wind. To one brought up in the homely comfort of the Wychwood cottage, and the simple abundance of Oseney, this sudden glimpse of unimagined poverty was an awful revelation. He could not banish the picture from his mind, as he rode through the slush of the highway and the sprinkled meadows to Mother Sweetbread’s cottage high up on the skirts of Wychwood.

There he found the warm fire, and the lighted lamp, and the old welcome. He stabled his horse in an outhouse commonly occupied by forest ponies, and supped off a stew of game and a cup of Mother Sweetbread’s famous sloeberry wine.

“Solomon Darking left word that you were to follow him without delay to Oxford,” he was told. “You will find him, he said, at the Swan tavern over against the Ox Pens. You were to go secretly, and only under cover of night. . . . Now to bed with you, Peterkin — for I will call you by no other name. You look as weary as John Gowglass when he fled home from the night-riders on Bartholomew Eve.”

But Peter had not been three hours between Mother Sweetbread’s blankets, when he was roused by voices at the door, and found a lean urchin gabbling a message to his hostess. At the sight of him the boy slipped to his side, and in his eagerness took him by the hands. It was the boy from the hovel, and his errand was urgent. Someone had attacked the posse in the barn and released the prisoner, setting him on the best horse. The Bishop’s men had been overpowered in their sleep . . . bound with ropes, too, and had only freed themselves after the fugitives had been half an hour gone. They had been in a great taking, and had gone to Squire Fettiplace at Swinbrook, who was a zealous King’s man and would for certain mount his servants and scour the country. . . . “They think it was you that done the deed, master,” the boy added, “for they swear they recognised the cloak of him that mishandled them. . . . I heard them say that the villain was one Bonamy, who had ridden with them from Avelard and decoyed them to their undoing.”

Peter’s first impulse was to laugh. Simon Rede with the borrowed cloak had bested him nobly.

“Haste ye, master,” said the boy. “I followed ye here by your horse’s tracks. There is a powdering of snow and others can do the same.”

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