Sir Nigel, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter vii.

How Nigel Went Marketing to Guildford

It was on a bright June morning that young Nigel, with youth and springtime to make his heart light, rode upon his errand from Tilford to Guildford town. Beneath him was his great yellow warhorse, caracoling and curveting as he went, as blithe and free of spirit as his master. In all England one would scarce have found upon that morning so high-mettled and so debonair a pair. The sandy road wound through groves of fir, where the breeze came soft and fragrant with resinous gums, or over heathery downs, which rolled away to north and to south, vast and untenanted, for on the uplands the soil was poor and water scarce. Over Crooksbury Common he passed, and then across the great Heath of Puttenham, following a sandy path which wound amid the bracken and the heather, for he meant to strike the Pilgrims’ Way where it turned eastward from Farnham and from Seale. As he rode he continually felt his saddle-bag with his hand, for in it, securely strapped, he had placed the precious treasures of the Lady Ermyntrude. As he saw the grand tawny neck tossing before him, and felt the easy heave of the great horse and heard the muffled drumming of his hoofs, he could have sung and shouted with the joy of living.

Behind him, upon the little brown pony which had been Nigel’s former mount, rode Samkin Aylward the bowman, who had taken upon himself the duties of personal attendant and body-guard. His great shoulders and breadth of frame seemed dangerously top-heavy upon the tiny steed, but he ambled along, whistling a merry lilt and as lighthearted as his master. There was no countryman who had not a nod and no woman who had not a smile for the jovial bowman, who rode for the most part with his face over his shoulder, staring at the last petticoat which had passed him. Once only he met with a harsher greeting. It was from a tall, white-headed, red-faced man whom they met upon the moor.

“Good-morrow, dear father!” cried Aylward. “How is it with you at Crooksbury? And how are the new black cow and the ewes from Alton and Mary the dairymaid and all your gear?”

“It ill becomes you to ask, you ne’er-do-weel,” said the old man. “You have angered the monks of Waverley, whose tenant I am, and they would drive me out of my farm. Yet there are three more years to run, and do what they may I will bide till then. But little did I think that I should lose my homestead through you, Samkin, and big as you are I would knock the dust out of that green jerkin with a good hazel switch if I had you at Crooksbury.”

“Then you shall do it to-morrow morning, good father, for I will come and see you then. But indeed I did not do more at Waverley than you would have done yourself. Look me in the eye, old hothead, and tell me if you would have stood by while the last Loring — look at him as he rides with his head in the air and his soul in the clouds — was shot down before your very eyes at the bidding of that fat monk! If you would, then I disown you as my father.”

“Nay, Samkin, if it was like that, then perhaps what you did was not so far amiss. But it is hard to lose the old farm when my heart is buried deep in the good brown soil.”

“Tut, man! there are three years to run, and what may not happen in three years? Before that time I shall have gone to the wars, and when I have opened a French strong box or two you can buy the good brown soil and snap your fingers at Abbot John and his bailiffs. Am I not as proper a man as Tom Withstaff of Churt? And yet he came back after six months with his pockets full of rose nobles and a French wench on either arm.”

“God preserve us from the wenches, Samkin! But indeed I think that if there is money to be gathered you are as likely to get your fist full as any man who goes to the war. But hasten, lad, hasten! Already your young master is over the brow.”

Thus admonished, the archer waved his gauntleted hand to his father, and digging his heels into the sides of his little pony soon drew up with the Squire. Nigel glanced over his shoulder and slackened speed until the pony’s head was up to his saddle.

“Have I not heard, archer,” said he, “that an outlaw has been loose in these parts?”

“It is true, fair sir. He was villain to Sir Peter Mandeville, but he broke his bonds and fled into the forests. Men call him the ‘Wild Man of Puttenham.’”

“How comes it that he has not been hunted down? If the man be a draw-latch and a robber it would be an honorable deed to clear the country of such an evil.”

“Twice the sergeants-at-arms from Guildford have come out against him, but the fox has many earths, and it would puzzle you to get him out of them.”

“By Saint Paul! were my errand not a pressing one I would be tempted to turn aside and seek him. Where lives he, then?”

“There is a great morass beyond Puttenham, and across it there are caves in which he and his people lurk.”

“His people? He hath a band?”

“There are several with him.”

“It sounds a most honorable enterprise,” said Nigel. “When the King hath come and gone we will spare a day for the outlaws of Puttenham. I fear there is little chance for us to see them on this journey.”

“They prey upon the pilgrims who pass along the Winchester Road, and they are well loved by the folk in these parts, for they rob none of them and have an open hand for all who will help them.”

“It is right easy to have an open hand with the money that you have stolen,” said Nigel; “but I fear that they will not try to rob two men with swords at their girdles like you and me, so we shall have no profit from them.”

They had passed over the wild moors and had come down now into the main road by which the pilgrims from the west of England made their way to the national shrine at Canterbury. It passed from Winchester, and up the beautiful valley of the Itchen until it reached Farnham, where it forked into two branches, one of which ran along the Hog’s Back, while the second wound to the south and came out at Saint Catherine’s Hill where stands the Pilgrim shrine, a gray old ruin now, but once so august, so crowded and so affluent. It was this second branch upon which Nigel and Aylward found themselves as they rode to Guildford.

No one, as it chanced, was going the same way as themselves, but they met one large drove of pilgrims returning from their journey with pictures of Saint Thomas and snails’ shells or little leaden ampullae in their hats and bundles of purchases over their shoulders. They were a grimy, ragged, travel-stained crew, the men walking, the women borne on asses. Man and beast, they limped along as if it would be a glad day when they saw their homes once more. These and a few beggars or minstrels, who crouched among the heather on either side of the track in the hope of receiving an occasional farthing from the passer-by, were the only folk they met until they had reached the village of Puttenham. Already there was a hot sun and just breeze enough to send the dust flying down the road, so they were glad to clear their throats with a glass of beer at the ale-stake in the village, where the fair alewife gave Nigel a cold farewell because he had no attentions for her, and Aylward a box on the ear because he had too many.

On the farther side of Puttenham the road runs through thick woods of oak and beech, with a tangled undergrowth of fern and bramble. Here they met a patrol of sergeants-at-arms, tall fellows, well-mounted, clad in studded-leather caps and tunics, with lances and swords. They walked their horses slowly on the shady side of the road, and stopped as the travelers came up, to ask if they had been molested on the way.

“Have a care,” they added, “for the ‘Wild Man’ and his wife are out. Only yesterday they slew a merchant from the west and took a hundred crowns.”

“His wife, you say?”

“Yes, she is ever at his side, and has saved him many a time, for if he has the strength it is she who has the wit. I hope to see their heads together upon the green grass one of these mornings.”

The patrol passed downward toward Farnham, and so, as it proved, away from the robbers, who had doubtless watched them closely from the dense brushwood which skirted the road. Coming round a curve, Nigel and Aylward were aware of a tall and graceful woman who sat, wringing her hands and weeping bitterly, upon the bank by the side of the track. At such a sight of beauty in distress Nigel pricked Pommers with the spur and in three bounds was at the side of the unhappy lady.

“What ails you, fair dame?” he asked. “Is there any small matter in which I may stand your friend, or is it possible that anyone hath so hard a heart as to do you an injury.”

She rose and turned upon him a face full of hope and entreaty. “Oh, save my poor, poor father!” she cried. “Have you perchance seen the way-wardens? They passed us, and I fear they are beyond reach.”

“Yes, they have ridden onward, but we may serve as well.”

“Then hasten, hasten, I pray you! Even now they may be doing him to death. They have dragged him into yonder grove and I have heard his voice growing ever weaker in the distance. Hasten, I implore you!”

Nigel sprang from his horse and tossed the rein to Aylward.

“Nay, let us go together. How many robbers were there, lady?”

“Two stout fellows.”

“Then I come also.”

“Nay, it is not possible,” said Nigel. “The wood is too thick for horses, and we cannot leave them in the road.”

“I will guard them,” cried the lady.

“Pommers is not so easily held. Do you bide here, Aylward, until you hear from me. Stir not, I command you!” So saying, Nigel, with the light, of adventure gleaming in his joyous eyes, drew his sword and plunged swiftly into the forest.

Far and fast he ran, from glade to glade, breaking through the bushes, springing over the brambles, light as a young deer, peering this way and that, straining his ears for a sound, and catching only the cry of the wood-pigeons. Still on he went, with the constant thought of the weeping woman behind and of the captured man in front. It was not until he was footsore and out of breath that he stopped with his hand to his side, and considered that his own business had still to be done, and that it was time once more that he should seek the road to Guildford.

Meantime Aylward had found his own rough means of consoling the woman in the road, who stood sobbing with her face against the side of Pommers’ saddle.

“Nay, weep not, my pretty one,” said he. “It brings the tears to my own eyes to see them stream from thine.”

“Alas! good archer, he was the best of fathers, so gentle and so kind! Had you but known him, you must have loved him.”

“Tut, tut! he will suffer no scathe. Squire Nigel will bring him back to you anon.”

“No, no, I shall never see him more. Hold me, archer, or I fall!”

Aylward pressed his ready arm round the supple waist. The fainting woman leaned with her hand upon his shoulder. Her pale face looked past him, and it was some new light in her eyes, a flash of expectancy, of triumph, of wicked joy, which gave him sudden warning of his danger.

He shook her off and sprang to one side, but only just in time to avoid a crashing blow from a great club in the hands of a man even taller and stronger than himself. He had one quick vision of great white teeth clenched in grim ferocity, a wild flying beard and blazing wild-beast eyes. The next instant he had closed, ducking his head beneath another swing of that murderous cudgel.

With his arms round the robber’s burly body and his face buried in his bushy beard, Aylward gasped and strained and heaved. Back and forward in the dusty road the two men stamped and staggered, a grim wrestling-match, with life for the prize. Twice the great strength of the outlaw had Aylward nearly down, and twice with his greater youth and skill the archer restored his grip and his balance. Then at last his turn came. He slipped his leg behind the other’s knee, and, giving a mighty wrench, tore him across it. With a hoarse shout the outlaw toppled backward and had hardly reached the ground before Aylward had his knee upon his chest and his short sword deep in his beard and pointed to his throat.

“By these ten finger-bones!” he gasped, “one more struggle and it is your last!”

The man lay still enough, for he was half-stunned by the crashing fall. Aylward looked round him, but the woman had disappeared. At the first blow struck she had vanished into the forest. He began to have fears for his master, thinking that he perhaps had been lured into some deathtrap; but his forebodings were soon at rest, for Nigel himself came hastening down the road, which he had struck some distance from the spot where he left it.

“By Saint Paul!” he cried, “who is this man on whom you are perched, and where is the lady who has honored us so far as to crave our help? Alas, that I have been unable to find her father!”

“As well for you, fair sir,” said Aylward, “for I am of opinion that her father was the Devil. This woman is, as I believe, the wife of the ‘Wild Man of Puttenham,’ and this is the ‘Wild Man’ himself who set upon me and tried to brain me with his club.”

The outlaw, who had opened his eyes, looked with a scowl from his captor to the new-comer. “You are in luck, archer,” said he, “for I have come to grips with many a man, but I cannot call to mind any who have had the better of me.”

“You have indeed the grip of a bear,” said Aylward; “but it was a coward deed that your wife should hold me while you dashed out my brains with a stick. It is also a most villainous thing to lay a snare for wayfarers by asking for their pity and assistance, so that it was our own soft hearts which brought us into such danger. The next who hath real need of our help may suffer for your sins.”

“When the hand of the whole world is against you,” said the outlaw in a surly voice, “you must fight as best you can.”

“You well deserve to be hanged, if only because you have brought this woman, who is fair and gentle-spoken, to such a life,” said Nigel. “Let us tie him by the wrist to my stirrup leather, Aylward, and we will lead him into Guildford.”

The archer drew a spare bowstring from his case and had bound the prisoner as directed, when Nigel gave a sudden start and cry of alarm.

“Holy Mary!” he cried. “Where is the saddle-bag?”

It had been cut away by a sharp knife. Only the two ends of strap remained. Aylward and Nigel stared at each other in blank dismay. Then the young Squire shook his clenched hands and pulled at his yellow curls in his despair.

“The Lady Ermyntrude’s bracelet! My grandfather’s cup!” he cried. “I would have died ere I lost them! What can I say to her? I dare not return until I have found them. Oh, Aylward, Aylward! how came you to let them be taken?”

The honest archer had pushed back his steel cap and was scratching his tangled head. “Nay, I know nothing of it. You never said that there was aught of price in the bag, else had I kept a better eye upon it. Certes! it was not this fellow who took it, since I have never had my hands from him. It can only be the woman who fled with it while we fought.”

Nigel stamped about the road in his perplexity. “I would follow her to the world’s end if I knew where I could find her, but to search these woods for her is to look for a mouse in a wheat-field. Good Saint George, thou who didst overcome the Dragon, I pray you by that most honorable and knightly achievement that you will be with me now! And you also, great Saint Julian, patron of all wayfarers in distress! Two candles shall burn before your shrine at Godalming, if you will but bring me back my saddle-bag. What would I not give to have it back?”

“Will you give me my life?” asked the outlaw. “Promise that I go free, and you shall have it back, if it be indeed true that my wife has taken it.”

“Nay, I cannot do that,” said Nigel. “My honor would surely be concerned, since my loss is a private one; but it would be to the public scathe that you should go free. By Saint Paul! it would be an ungentle deed if in order to save my own I let you loose upon the gear of a hundred others.”

“I will not ask you to let me loose,” said the “Wild Man.” “If you will promise that my life be spared I will restore your bag.”

“I cannot give such a promise, for it will lie with the Sheriff and reeves of Guildford.”

“Shall I have your word in my favor?”

“That I could promise you, if you will give back the bag, though I know not how far my word may avail. But your words are vain, for you cannot think that we will be so fond as to let you go in the hope that you return?”

“I would not ask it,” said the “Wild Man,” “for I can get your bag and yet never stir from the spot where I stand. Have I your promise upon your honor and all that you hold dear that you will ask for grace?”

“You have.”

“And that my wife shall be unharmed?”

“I promise it.”

The outlaw laid back his head and uttered a long shrill cry like the howl of a wolf. There was a silent pause, and then, clear and shrill, there rose the same cry no great distance away in the forest. Again the “Wild Man” called, and again his mate replied. A third time he summoned, as the deer bells to the doe in the greenwood. Then with a rustle of brushwood and snapping of twigs the woman was before them once more, tall, pale, graceful, wonderful. She glanced neither at Aylward nor Nigel, but ran to the side of her husband.

“Dear and sweet lord,” she cried, “I trust they have done you no hurt. I waited by the old ash, and my heart sank when you came not.”

“I have been taken at last, wife.”

“Oh, cursed, cursed day! Let him go, kind, gentle sirs; do not take him from me!”

“They will speak for me at Guildford,” said the “Wild Man.” “They have sworn it. But hand them first the bag that you have taken.”

She drew it out from under her loose cloak. “Here it is, gentle sir. Indeed it went to my heart to take it, for you had mercy upon me in my trouble. But now I am, as you see, in real and very sore distress. Will you not have mercy now? Take ruth on us, fair sir! On my knees I beg it of you, most gentle and kindly Squire!”

Nigel had clutched his bag, and right glad he was to feel that the treasures were all safe within it. “My proffer is given,” said he. “I will say what I can; but the issue rests with others. I pray you to stand up, for indeed I cannot promise more.”

“Then I must be content,” said she, rising, with a composed face. “I have prayed you to take ruth, and indeed I can do no more; but ere I go back to the forest I would rede you to be on your guard lest you lose your bag once more. Wot you how I took it, archer? Nay, it was simple enough, and may happen again, so I make it clear to you. I had this knife in my sleeve, and though it is small it is very sharp. I slipped it down like this. Then when I seemed to weep with my face against the saddle, I cut down like this —”

In an instant she had shorn through the stirrup leather which bound her man, and he, diving under the belly of the horse, had slipped like a snake into the brushwood. In passing he had struck Pommers from beneath, and the great horse, enraged and insulted, was rearing high, with two men hanging to his bridle. When at last he had calmed there was no sign left of the “Wild Man” or of his wife. In vain did Aylward, an arrow on his string, run here and there among the great trees and peer down the shadowy glades. When he returned he and his master cast a shamefaced glance at each other.

“I trust that we are better soldiers than jailers,” said Aylward, as he climbed on his pony.

But Nigel’s frown relaxed into a smile. “At least we have gained back what we lost,” said he. “Here I place it on the pommel of my saddle, and I shall not take my eyes from it until we are safe in Guildford town.”

So they jogged on together until passing Saint Catherine’s shrine they crossed the winding Wey once more, and so found themselves in the steep high street with its heavy-eaved gabled houses, its monkish hospitium upon the left, where good ale may still be quaffed, and its great square-keeped castle upon the right, no gray and grim skeleton of ruin, but very quick and alert, with blazoned banner flying free, and steel caps twinkling from the battlement. A row of booths extended from the castle gate to the high street, and two doors from the Church of the Trinity was that of Thorold the goldsmith, a rich burgess and Mayor of the town.

He looked long and lovingly at the rich rubies and at the fine work upon the goblet. Then he stroked his flowing gray beard as he pondered whether he should offer fifty nobles or sixty, for he knew well that he could sell them again for two hundred. If he offered too much his profit would be reduced. If he offered too little the youth might go as far as London with them, for they were rare and of great worth. The young man was ill-clad, and his eyes were anxious. Perchance he was hard pressed and was ignorant of the value of what he bore. He would sound him.

“These things are old and out of fashion, fair sir,” said he. “Of the stones I can scarce say if they are of good quality or not, but they are dull and rough. Yet, if your price be low I may add them to my stock, though indeed this booth was made to sell and not to buy. What do you ask?”

Nigel bent his brows in perplexity. Here was a game in which neither his bold heart nor his active limbs could help him. It was the new force mastering the old: the man of commerce conquering the man of war — wearing him down and weakening him through the centuries until he had him as his bond-servant and his thrall.

“I know not what to ask, good sir,” said Nigel. “It is not for me, nor for any man who bears my name, to chaffer and to haggle. You know the worth of these things, for it is your trade to do so. The Lady Ermyntrude lacks money, and we must have it against the King’s coming, so give me that which is right and just, and we will say no more.”

The goldsmith smiled. The business was growing more simple and more profitable. He had intended to offer fifty, but surely it would be sinful waste to give more than twenty-five.

“I shall scarce know what to do with them when I have them,” said he. “Yet I should not grudge twenty nobles if it is a matter in which the King is concerned.”

Nigel’s heart turned to lead. This sum would not buy one-half what was needful. It was clear that the Lady Ermyntrude had overvalued her treasures. Yet he could not return empty-handed, so if twenty nobles was the real worth, as this good old man assured him, then he must be thankful and take it.

“I am concerned by what you say,” said he. “You know more of these things than I can do. However, I will take —”

“A hundred and fifty,” whispered Aylward’s voice in his ear.

“A hundred and fifty,” said Nigel, only too relieved to have found the humblest guide upon these unwonted paths.

The goldsmith started. This youth was not the simple soldier that he had seemed. That frank face, those blue eyes, were traps for the unwary. Never had he been more taken aback in a bargain.

“This is fond talk and can lead to nothing, fair sir,” said he, turning away and fiddling with the keys of his strong boxes. “Yet I have no wish to be hard on you. Take my outside price, which is fifty nobles.”

“And a hundred,” whispered Aylward.

“And a hundred,” said Nigel, blushing at his own greed.

“Well, well, take a hundred!” cried the merchant. “Fleece me, skin me, leave me a loser, and take for your wares the full hundred!”

“I should be shamed forever if I were to treat you so badly,” said Nigel. “You have spoken me fair, and I would not grind you down. Therefore, I will gladly take one hundred —”

“And fifty,” whispered Aylward.

“And fifty,” said Nigel.

“By Saint John of Beverley!” cried the merchant. “I came hither from the North Country, and they are said to be shrewd at a deal in those parts; but I had rather bargain with a synagogue full of Jews than with you, for all your gentle ways. Will you indeed take no less than a hundred and fifty? Alas! you pluck from me my profits of a month. It is a fell morning’s work for me. I would I had never seen you!” With groans and lamentations he paid the gold pieces across the counter, and Nigel, hardly able to credit his own good fortune, gathered them into the leather saddle-bag.

A moment later with flushed face he was in the street and pouring out his thanks to Aylward.

“Alas, my fair lord! the man has robbed us now,” said the archer. “We could have had another twenty had we stood fast.”

“How know you that, good Aylward?”

“By his eyes, Squire Loring. I wot I have little store of reading where the parchment of a book or the pinching of a blazon is concerned, but I can read men’s eyes, and I never doubted that he would give what he has given.”

The two travelers had dinner at the monk’s hospitium, Nigel at the high table and Aylward among the commonalty. Then again they roamed the high street on business intent. Nigel bought taffeta for hangings, wine, preserves, fruit, damask table linen and many other articles of need. At last he halted before the armorer’s shop at the castle-yard, staring at the fine suits of plate, the engraved pectorals, the plumed helmets, the cunningly jointed gorgets, as a child at a sweet-shop.

“Well, Squire Loring,” said Wat the armorer, looking sidewise from the furnace where he was tempering a sword blade, “what can I sell you this morning? I swear to you by Tubal Cain, the father of all workers in metal, that you might go from end to end of Cheapside and never see a better suit than that which hangs from yonder hook!”

“And the price, armorer?”

“To anyone else, two hundred and fifty rose nobles. To you two hundred.”

“And why cheaper to me, good fellow?”

“Because I fitted your father also for the wars, and a finer suit never went out of my shop. I warrant that it turned many an edge before he laid it aside. We worked in mail in those days, and I had as soon have a well-made thick-meshed mail as any plates; but a young knight will be in the fashion like any dame of the court, and so it must be plate now, even though the price be trebled.”

“Your rede is that the mail is as good?”

“I am well sure of it.”

“Hearken then, armorer! I cannot at this moment buy a suit of plate, and yet I sorely need steel harness on account of a small deed which it is in my mind to do. Now I have at my home at Tilford that very suit of mail of which you speak, with which my father first rode to the wars. Could you not so alter it that it should guard my limbs also?”

The armorer looked at Nigel’s small upright figure and burst out laughing. “You jest, Squire Loring! The suit was made for one who was far above the common stature of man.”

“Nay, I jest not. If it will but carry me through one spear-running it will have served its purpose.”

The armorer leaned back on his anvil and pondered while Nigel stared anxiously at his sooty face.

“Right gladly would I lend you a suit of plate for this one venture, Squire Loring, but I know well that if you should be overthrown your harness becomes prize to the victor. I am a poor man with many children, and I dare not risk the loss of it. But as to what you say of the old suit of mail, is it indeed in good condition?”

“Most excellent, save only at the neck, which is much frayed.”

“To shorten the limbs is easy. It is but to cut out a length of the mail and then loop up the links. But to shorten the body — nay, that is beyond the armorer’s art.”

“It was my last hope. Nay, good armorer, if you have indeed served and loved my gallant father, then I beg you by his memory that you will help me now.”

The armorer threw down his heavy hammer with a crash upon the floor. “It is not only that I loved your father, Squire Loring, but it is that I have seen you, half armed as you were, ride against the best of them at the Castle tiltyard. Last Martinmas my heart bled for you when I saw how sorry was your harness, and yet you held your own against the stout Sir Oliver with his Milan suit: When go you to Tilford?”

“Even now.”

“Heh, Jenkin, fetch out the cob!” cried the worthy Wat. “May my right hand lose its cunning if I do not send you into battle in your father’s suit! To-morrow I must be back in my booth, but to-day I give to you without fee and for the sake of the good-will which I bear to your house. I will ride with you to Tilford, and before night you shall see what Wat can do.”

So it came about that there was a busy evening at the old Tilford Manor-house, where the Lady Ermyntrude planned and cut and hung the curtains for the hall, and stocked her cupboards with the good things which Nigel had brought from Guildford.

Meanwhile the Squire and the armorer sat with their heads touching and the old suit of mail with its gorget of overlapping plates laid out across their knees. Again and again old Wat shrugged his shoulders, as one who has been asked to do more than can be demanded from mortal man. At last, at a suggestion from the Squire, he leaned back in his chair and laughed long and loudly in his bushy beard, while the Lady Ermyntrude glared her black displeasure at such plebeian merriment. Then taking his fine chisel and his hammer from his pouch of tools, the armorer, still chuckling at his own thoughts, began to drive a hole through the center of the steel tunic.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/doyle/arthur_conan/sir-nigel/chapter7.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:33