The Wife of Flanders


John Buchan

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The Wife of Flanders

From the bed set high on a dais came eerie spasms of laughter, a harsh cackle like fowls at feeding time.

‘Is that the last of them, Anton?’ said a voice.

A little serving-man with an apple-hued face bowed in reply. He bowed with difficulty, for in his arms he held a huge grey cat, which still mewed with the excitement of the chase. Rats had been turned loose on the floor, and it had accounted for them to the accompaniment of a shrill urging from the bed. Now the sport was over, and the domestics who had crowded round the door to see it had slipped away, leaving only Anton and the cat.

‘Give Tib a full meal of offal,’ came the order, ‘and away with yourself. Your rats are a weak breed. Get me the stout grey monsters like Tuesday se’ennight.’

The room was empty now save for two figures both wearing the habit of the religious. Near the bed sat a man in the full black robe and hood of the monks of Cluny. He warmed plump hands at the brazier and seemed at ease and at home. By the door stood a different figure in the shabby clothes of a parish priest, a curate from the kirk of St Martin’s who had been a scandalised spectator of the rat hunt. He shuffled his feet as if uncertain of his next step — a thin, pale man with a pinched mouth and timid earnest eyes.

The glance from the bed fell on him. ‘What will the fellow be at?’ said the voice testily. ‘He stands there like a sow about to litter, and stares and grunts. Good e’en to you, friend. When you are wanted you will be sent for. Jesu’s name, what have I done to have that howlet glowering at me?’

The priest at the words crossed himself and turned to go, with a tinge of red in his sallow cheeks. He was faithful to his duties and had come to console a deathbed, though he was well aware that his consolations would be spurned. As he left there came again the eerie laughter from the bed. ‘Ugh, I am weary of that incomparable holiness. He hovers about to give me the St John’s Cup, and would fain speed my passing. But I do not die yet, good father. There’s life still in the old wolf.’

The monk in a bland voice spoke some Latin to the effect that mortal times and seasons were ordained of God. The other stretched out a skinny hand from the fur coverings and rang a silver bell. When Anton appeared she gave the order ‘Bring supper for the reverend father’, at which the Cluniac’s face mellowed into complacence.

It was a Friday evening in a hard February. Out-of-doors the snow lay deep in the streets of Bruges, and every canal was frozen solid so that carts rumbled along them as on a street. A wind had risen which drifted the powdery snow and blew icy draughts through every chink. The small-paned windows of the great upper-room were filled with oiled vellum, but they did not keep out the weather, and currents of cold air passed through them to the doorway, making the smoke of the four charcoal braziers eddy and swirl. The place was warm, yet shot with bitter gusts, and the smell of burning herbs gave it the heaviness of a chapel at high mass. Hanging silver lamps, which blazed blue and smoky, lit it in patches, sufficient to show the cleanness of the rush-strewn floor, the glory of the hangings of cloth-of-gold and damask, and the burnished sheen of the metal-work. There was no costlier chamber in that rich city.

It was a strange staging for death, for the woman on the high bed was dying. Slowly fighting every inch of the way with a grim tenacity, but indubitably dying. Her vital ardour had sunk below the mark from which it could rise again, and was now ebbing as water runs from a little crack in a pitcher. The best leeches in all Flanders and Artois had come to doctor her. They had prescribed the horrid potions of the age: tinctures of earth-worms; confections of spiders and wood-lice and viper’s flesh; broth of human skulls, oil, wine, ants’ eggs, and crabs’ claws; the bufo preparatus, which was a live toad roasted in a pot and ground to a powder; and innumerable plaisters and electuaries. She had begun by submitting meekly, for she longed to live, and had ended, for she was a shrewd woman, by throwing the stuff at the apothecaries’ heads. Now she ordained her own diet, which was of lamb’s flesh lightly boiled, and woman’s milk, got from a wench in the purlieus of St Sauveur. The one medicine which she retained was powdered elk’s horn, which had been taken from the beast between two festivals of the Virgin. This she had from the foresters in the Houthulst woods, and swallowed it in white wine an hour after every dawn.

The bed was a noble thing of ebony, brought by the Rhine road from Venice, and carved with fantastic hunting scenes by Hainault craftsmen. Its hangings were stiff brocaded silver, and above the pillows a great unicorn’s horn, to protect against poisoning, stood out like the beak of a ship. The horn cast an odd shadow athwart the bed, so that a big claw seemed to lie on the coverlet curving towards the throat other who lay there. The parish priest had noticed this at his first coming that evening, and had muttered fearful prayers.

The face on the pillows was hard to discern in the gloom, but when Anton laid the table for the Cluniac’s meal and set a lamp on it, he lit up the cavernous interior of the bed, so that it became the main thing in the chamber. It was the face of a woman who still retained the lines and the colouring of youth. The voice had harshened with age, and the hair was white as wool, but the cheeks were still rosy and the grey eyes still had fire. Notable beauty had once been there. The finely arched brows, the oval of the face which the years had scarcely sharpened, the proud, delicate nose, all spoke of it. It was as if their possessor recognised those things and would not part with them, for her attire had none of the dishevelment of a sick-room. Her coif of fine silk was neatly adjusted, and the great robe of marten’s fur which cloaked her shoulders was fastened with a jewel of rubies which glowed in the lamplight like a star. Something chattered beside her. It was a little brown monkey which had made a nest in the warm bedclothes.

She watched with sharp eyes the setting of the table. It was a Friday’s meal and the guest was a monk, so it followed a fashion, but in that house of wealth, which had links with the ends of the earth, the monotony was cunningly varied. There were oysters from the Boulogne coast, and lampreys from the Loire, and pickled salmon from England. There was a dish of liver dressed with rice and herbs in the manner of the Turk, for liver, though contained in flesh, was not reckoned as flesh by liberal churchmen. There was a roast goose from the shore marshes, that barnacle bird which pious epicures classed as shell-fish and bought fit for fast days. A silver basket held a store of thin roasted rye-cakes, and by the monk’s hand stood a flagon of that drink most dear to holy palates, the rich syrupy hippocras.

The woman looked on the table with approval, for her house had always prided itself upon its good fare. The Cluniac’s urbane composure was stirred to enthusiasm. He said a Confiteor tibi Domine, rolling the words on his tongue as if in anticipation of the solider mouthfuls awaiting him. The keen weather had whetted his appetite and he thanked God that his northern peregrinations had brought him to a house where the Church was thus honoured. He had liked the cavalier treatment of the lean parish priest, a sour dog who brought his calling into disfavour with the rich and godly. He tucked back his sleeves, adjusted the linen napkin comfortably about his neck, and fell to with a will. He raised his first glass of hippocras and gave thanks to his hostess. A true mother in Israel!

She was looking at him with favour. He was the breed of monk that she liked, suave, well-mannered, observant of men and cities. Already he had told her entertaining matter about the French King’s court, and the new Burgrave of Ghent, and the escapades of Count Baldwin. He had lived much among gentlefolk and kept his ears open . . . She felt stronger and cheerfuller than she had been for days. That rat-hunt had warmed her blood. She was a long way from death in spite of the cackle of idiot chirurgeons, and there was much savour still in the world. There was her son, too, the young Philip . . . Her eye saw clearer, and she noted the sombre magnificence of the great room, the glory of the brocade, the gleam of silver. Was she not the richest woman in all Bruges, aye and in all Hainault and Guelderland? And the credit was her own. After the fashion of age in such moods her mind flew backward, and she saw very plain a narrow street in a wind-swept town looking out on a bleak sea. She had been cold, then, and hungry, and deathly poor. Well, she had travelled some way from that hovel. She watched the thick carved stems of the candlesticks and felt a spacious ease and power.

The Cluniac was speaking. He had supped so well that he was in love with the world.

‘Your house and board, my lady, are queen-like. I have seen worse in palaces.’

Her laugh was only half pleased. ‘Too fine, you would add for a burgher wife. Maybe, but rank is but as man makes it. The Kings of England are sprung of a tanner. Hark you, father! I made a vow to God when I was a maid, and I have fulfilled my side of the bargain. I am come of a nobler race than any Markgrave, aye, than the Emperor himself, and I swore to set the seed of my body, which the Lord might grant me, again among the great ones. Have I not done it? Is not Philip my son, affianced to that pale girl of Avesnes, and with more acres of pleasant land to his name than any knightlet in Artois?’

The Cluniac bowed a courtly head. ‘It is a great alliance — but not above the dignity of your house.’

‘House you call it, and I have had the making of it. What was Willebald but a plain merchant-man, one of many scores at the Friday Market? Willebald was clay that I moulded and gilded till God put him to bed under a noble lid in the New Kirk. A worthy man, but loutish and slow like one of his own hookers. Yet when I saw him on the plainstones by the English harbour I knew that he was a weapon made for my hand.’ Her voice had become even and gentle as of one who remembers far-away things. The Cluniac, having dipped his hands in a silver basin, was drying them in the brazier’s heat. Presently he set to picking his teeth daintily with a quill, and fell into the listener’s pose. From long experience he knew the atmosphere which heralds confidences, and was willing to humour the provider of such royal fare.

‘You have never journeyed to King’s Lynn?’ said the voice from the bed. ‘There is little to see there but mudbars and fens and a noisy sea. There I dwelt when I was fifteen years of age, a maid hungry in soul and body. I knew I was of the seed of Forester John and through him the child of a motley of ancient kings, but war and famine had stripped our house to the bone. And now I, the last of the stock, dwelt with a miserly mother’s uncle who did shipwright’s work for the foreign captains. The mirror told me that I was fair to look on, though ill-nourished, ind my soul assured me that I had no fear. Therefore I had hope, but I ate my heart out waiting on fortune.’

She was looking at the monk with unseeing eyes, her head half turned towards him.

‘Then came Willebald one March morning. I saw him walk up the jetty in a new red cloak, a personable man with a broad beard and a jolly laugh. I knew him by repute as the luckiest of the Flemish venturers. In him I saw my fortune. That night he supped at my uncle’s house and a week later he sought me in marriage. My uncle would have bargained, but I had become a grown woman and silenced him. With Willebald I did not chaffer, for I read his heart and knew that in a little he would be wax to me. So we were wed, and I took to him no dowry but a ring which came to me from my forebears, and a brain that gold does not buy.’

The monkey by her side broke into a chattering. ‘Peace, Peterkin,’ she said. ‘You mind me of the babbling of the merchant-folk, when I spurred Willebald into new roads. He had done as his father before him, and bought wool and sake fish from the English, paying with the stuffs of our Flemish looms. A good trade of small and sure profits, but I sought bigger quarries. For, mark you, there was much in England that had a value in this country of ours which no Englishman guessed.’

‘Of what nature?’ the monk asked with curiosity in his voice.

‘Roman things. Once in that land of bogs and forests there were bustling Roman towns and rich Roman houses, which disappeared as every tide brought in new robbers from the sea. Yes, but not all. Much of the preciousness was hidden and the place of its hiding forgotten. Bit by bit the churls found the treasure-trove, but they did not tell their lords. They melted down jewels and sold them piecemeal to Jews for Jews’ prices and what they did not recognise as precious they wantonly destroyed. I have seen the marble heads of heathen gods broken with the hammer to make mortar of, and great cups of onyx and alabaster used as water troughs for a thrall’s mongrels . . . Knowing the land, I sent pedlars north and west to collect such stuff, and what I bought for pence I sold for much gold in the Germanies and throughout the French cities. Thus Willebald amassed wealth, till it was no longer worth his while to travel the seas. We lived snug in Flanders, and our servants throughout the broad earth were busy getting us gear.’

The Cluniac was all interest. The making of money lay very near the heart of his Order. ‘I have heard wondrous tales of your enterprise,’ he told her. ‘I would fain know the truth.’

‘Packman’s tricks,’ she laughed. ‘Nevertheless it is a good story. For I turned my eyes to the East, whence come those things that make the pride of life. The merchants of Venice were princes, and it was in my head to make those of Bruges no worse. What did it profit that the wind turned dally the sails of our three hundred mills if we limited ourselves to common burgher wares and the narrow northern markets? We sent emissaries up the Rhine and beyond the Alps to the Venice princes, and brought hither the spices and confections of Egypt and the fruits and wines of Greece, and the woven stuffs of Asia, till the marts of Flanders had the savour of Araby. Presently in our booths could be seen silks of Italy, and choice metals from Innsbruck, and furs from Muscovy, and strange birds and beasts from Prester John’s country, and at our fairs such a concourse of outlandish traders as put Venice to shame.

’Twas a long fight and a bitter for Willebald and me, since, mark you, we had to make a new road over icy mountains, with a horde of freebooters hanging on the skirts of our merchant trains and every little burg on the way jealous to hamper us. Yet if the heart be resolute, barriers will fall. Many times we were on the edge of beggary, and grievous were our losses, but in the end we triumphed. There came a day when we had so many bands of the Free Companions in our pay that the progress of our merchandise was like that of a great army, and from rivals we made the roadside burgs our allies, sharing modestly in our ventures. Also there were other ways. A pilgrim travels unsuspect, for who dare rob a holy man? and he is free from burgal dues; but if the goods be small and very precious, pilgrims may carry them.’

The monk, as in duty bound, shook a disapproving head. ‘Sin, doubtless,’ said the woman, ‘but I have made ample atonement. Did I not buy with a bushel of gold a leg of the blessed St George for the New Kirk, and give to St Martin’s a diamond as big as a thumb nail and so bright that on a dark day it is a candle to the shrine? Did not I give to our Lady at Aix a crown of ostrich feathers the marrow of which is not in Christendom?’

‘A mother in Israel, in truth,’ murmured the cleric.

‘Yea, in Israel,’ said the old wife with a chuckle. ‘Israel was the kernel of our perplexities. The good Flemings saw no farther than their noses, and laughed at Willebald when he began his ventures. When success came, it was easy to win them over, and by admitting them to a share in our profits get them to fling their caps in the air and huzza for their benefactors. But the Jew were a tougher stock. Mark you, father, when God blinded their eyes to the coming of the Lord Christ, He opened them very wide to all lower matters. Their imagination is quick to kindle and they are as bold in merchant-craft as Charlemagne in war, They saw what I was after before I had been a month at it, and were quick to profit by my foresight. There are but two ways to deal with Israelites — root them from the face of the earth or make them partners with you. Willebald would have fought them; I, more wise, bought them at a price. For two score year they have wrought faithfully for me. You say well, a mother of Israel!’

‘I could wish that a Christian lady had no dealings with that accursed race,’ said the Cluniac.

‘You could wish folly’, was the tart answer. ‘I am not as you burgher folk, and on my own affairs I take no man’s guiding, be he monk or merchant. Willebald is long dead; may he sleep in peace. He was no mate for me, but for what he gave me I repaid him in the coin he loved best. He was a proud man when he walked through the Friday Market with every cap doffed. He was ever the burgher, like the child I bore him.’

‘I had thought the marriage more fruitful. They spoke of two children, a daughter and a son.’

The woman turned round in her bed so that she faced him. The monkey whimpered and she cuffed its ears. Her face was sharp and exultant, and for a sick person her eyes were oddly bright.

‘The girl was Willebald’s. A poor slip of vulgar stock with the spirit of a house cat. I would have married her well, for she was handsome after a fashion, but she thwarted me and chose to wed a lout of a huckster in the Bredestreet. She shall have he portion from Willebald’s gold, but none from me. But Philip is true child of mine, and sprung on both sides of high race. Nay, I name no names, and before men he is of my husband’s getting. But to you at the end of my days I speak the truth. That son of wrath has rare blood in him. Philip . . . ’

The old face had grown kind. She was looking through the monk to some happy country of vision. Her thoughts were retracing the roads of time, and after the war of age she spoke them aloud. Imperiously she had forgotten her company.

‘So long ago,’ came the tender voice. ‘It is years since they told me he was dead among the heathen, fighting by the Lord Baldwin’s side. But I can see him as if it were yesterday, when he rode into these streets in spring with April blooms at his saddle-bow. They called him Phoebus in jest, for his face was like the sun . . . Willebald, good dull man, was never jealous, and was glad that his wife should be seen in brave company. Ah, the afternoons at the baths when we sported like sea-nymphs and sang merry ballads! And the proud days of Carnival where men and women consorted freely and without guile like the blessed in Paradise! Such a tide for lovers! . . . Did I not lead the dance with him at the Burgrave’s festival, the twain of us braver than morning? Sat I not with him in the garden of St Vaast, his head in my lap, while he sang me virelays of the south? What was Willebald to me or his lean grey wife to him? He made me his queen, me the burgher wife, at the jousting at Courtrai, when the horses squealed like pigs in the mellay and I wept in fear for him. Ah, the lost sweet days! Philip, my darling, you make a grave gentleman, but you will not equal him who loved your mother.’

The Cluniac was a man of the world whom no confidences could scandalise. But he had business of his own to speak of that night, and he thought it wise to break into this mood of reminiscence.

‘The young lord, Philip, your son, madam? You have great plans for him? What does he at the moment?’

The softness went out of the voice and the woman’s gaze came back to the chamber. ‘That I know not. Travelling the ways of the world and plucking roadside fruits, for he is no home-bred and womanish stripling. Wearing his lusty youth on the maids, I fear. Nay, I forget. He is about to wed the girl of Avesnes and is already choosing his bridal train. It seems he loves her. He writes me she has a skin of snow and eyes of vair. I have not seen here. A green girl, doubtless with a white face and cat’s eyes. But she is of Avesnes, and that blood comes pure from Clovis, and there is none prouder in Hainault. He will husband her well, but she will be a clever woman if she tethers to her side a man of my bearing. He will be for the high road and the battle-front.’

‘A puissant and peaceable knight, I have heard tell,’ said the Cluniac.

‘Puissant beyond doubt, and peaceable — when his will is served. He will play boldly for great things and will win them. Ah, monk! What knows a childless religious of a mother’s certainty? ’Twas not for nothing that I found Willebald and changed the cobbles of King’s Lynn for this fat country. It is gold that brings power, and the stiffest royal neck must bend to him who has the deep coffers. It is gold and his high hand that will set my Philip by the side of kings. Lord Jesus, what a fortune I have made for him! There is coined money at the goldsmiths’ and in my cellars, and the ships at the ports, and a hundred busy looms, and lands in Hainault and Artois, and fair houses in Bruges and Ghent. Boats on the Rhine and many pack-trains between Antwerp and Venice are his, and a wealth of preciousness lies in his name with the Italian merchants. Likewise there is this dwelling of mine, with plenishing which few kings could buy. My sands sink in the glass, but as I lie a-bed I hear the bustle of wains and horses in the streets, and the talk of shipfolk, and the clatter of my serving men beneath, and I know that dally, hourly, more riches flow hither to furnish my son’s kingdom.’

The monk’s eyes sparkled at this vision of wealth, and he remembered his errand.

‘A most noble heritage. But if the Sire God in His inscrutable providence should call your son to His holy side, what provision have you made for so mighty a fortune? Does your daughter then share?’

The face on the pillows became suddenly wicked and very old. The eyes were lit with hate.

‘Not a bezant of which I have the bequeathing. She has something from Willebald, and her dull husband makes a livelihood. ’Twill suffice for the female brats, of whom she has brought three into the world to cumber it . . . By the Gospels, she will lie on the bed she has made. I did not scheme and toil to make gold for such leaden souls.’

‘But if your most worthy son should die ere he has begot children, have you made no disposition?’ The monk’s voice was pointed with anxiety, for was not certainty on this point the object of his journey?

The woman perceived it and laughed maliciously. ‘I have made dispositions. Such a chapel will be builded in the New Kirk as Rome cannot equal. Likewise there will be benefactions for the poor and a great endowment for the monks at St Sauveur. If my seed is not to continue on earth I will make favour in Paradise.’

‘And we of Cluny, madam?’ The voice trembled in spite of its training.

‘Nay, I have not forgotten Cluny. Its Abbot shall have the gold flagons from Jerusalem and some wherewithal in money. But what is this talk? Philip will not die, and like his mother he loves Holy Church and will befriend her in all her works.. . Listen, father, it is long past the hour when men cease from labour, and yet my provident folk are busy. Hark to the bustle below. That will be the convoy from the Vermandois. Jesu, what a night!’

Flurries of snow beat on the windows, and draughts stirred the hot ashes in the braziers and sent the smoke from them in odd spirals about the chamber. It had become perishing cold, and the monkey among the bedclothes whimpered and snuggled closer into his nest. There seemed to be a great stir about the house-door. Loud voices were heard in gusts, and a sound like a woman’s cry. The head on the pillow was raised to listen.

‘A murrain on those folk. There has been bungling among the pack-riders. That new man Derek is an oaf of oafs.’

She rang her silver bell sharply and waited on the ready footsteps. But none came. There was silence now below, an ominous silence.

‘God’s curse upon this household,’ the woman cried. The monkey whimpered again, and she took it by the scruff and tossed it to the floor. ‘Peace, ape, or I will have you strangled. Bestir yourself, father, and call Anton. There is a blight of deafness in this place.’

The room had suddenly lost its comfort and become cold and desolate. The lamps were burning low and the coloured hangings were in deep shadow. The storm was knocking fiercely at the lattice.

The monk rose with a shiver to do her bidding, but he was forestalled. Steps sounded on the stairs and the steward entered. The woman in the bed had opened her mouth to upbraid, when something in his dim figure struck her silent.

The old man stumbled forward and fell on his knees beside her.

‘Madam, dear madam,’ he stammered, ‘ill news has come to this house . . . There is a post in from Avesnes . . . The young master . . . ’

‘Philip,’ and the woman’s voice rose to a scream. ‘What of my son?’

‘The Lord has taken away what He gave. He is dead, slain in a scuffle with highway robbers . . . Oh, the noble young lord! The fair young knight! Woe upon this stricken house!’

The woman lay very still, while the old man on his knees drifted into broken prayers. Then he observed her silence, rambled to his feet in a panic, and lit two candles from the nearest brazier. She lay back on the pillows in a deathly faint, her face drained of blood. Only her tortured eyes showed that life was still in her. Her voice came at last, no louder than a whisper. It was soft now, but more terrible than the old harshness.

‘I follow Philip,’ it said. ‘Sic transit gloria . . . Call me Arnulf the goldsmith and Robert the scrivener . . . Quick, man, quick. I have much to do ere I die.’

As the steward hurried out, the Cluniac, remembering his office, sought to offer comfort, but in his bland worldling’s voice the consolations sounded hollow. She lay motionless, while he quoted the Scriptures. Encouraged by her docility, he spoke of the certain reward promised by Heaven to the rich who remembered the Church at their death. He touched upon the high duties of his Order and the handicap of its poverty. He bade her remember her debt to the Abbot of Cluny.

She seemed about to speak and he bent eagerly to catch her words.

‘Peace, you babbler,’ she said. ‘I am done with your God. When I meet him I will outface Him. He has broken His compact and betrayed me. My riches go to the Burgrave for the comfort of this city where they were won. Let your broken rush of a Church wither and rot!’

Scared out of all composure by this blasphemy, the Cluniac fell to crossing himself and mumbling invocations. The diplomat had vanished and only the frightened monk remained. He would fain have left the room had he dared, but the spell of her masterful spirit held him. After that she spoke nothing . . .

Again there was a noise on the stairs and she moved a little, as if mustering her falling strength for the ultimate business. But it was not Arnulf the goldsmith. It was Anton, and he shook like a man on his way to the gallows.

‘Madam, dear madam,’ he stammered, again on his knees. ‘There is another message. One has come from the Bredestreet with word of your lady daughter. An hour ago she has borne a child . . . A lusty son, madam.’

The reply from the bed was laughter.

It began low and hoarse like a fit of coughing, and rose to the high cackling mirth of extreme age. At the sound both Anton and the monk took to praying. Presently it stopped, and her voice came full and strong as it had been of old.

‘Mea culpa,’ it said, ‘mea maxima culpa. I judged the Sire God over hastily. He is merry and has wrought a jest on me. He has kept His celestial promise in His own fashion. He takes my brave Philip and gives me instead a suckling . . . So be it. The infant has my blood, and the race of Forester John will not die. Arnulf will have an easy task. He need but set the name of this newborn in Philip’s place. What manner of child is he, Anton? Lusty, you say, and well-formed? I would my arms could have held him . . . But I must be about my business of dying. I will take the news to Philip.’

Hope had risen again in the Cluniac’s breast. It seemed that here was a penitent. He approached the bed with a raised crucifix, and stumbled over the whimpering monkey. The woman’s eyes saw him and a last flicker woke in them.

‘Begone, man,’ she cried. ‘I have done with the world. Anton, rid me of both these apes. And fetch the priest of St Martin’s, for I would confess and be shriven. Yon curate is no doubt a fool, but he serves my jesting God.’

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