The Sundering Flood, by William Morris

Chapter xv. Surly John Brings a Guest to Wethermel

Wear the days now till it is the beginning of winter, and there is nought new to tell of, till on a day when it began to dusk, and all the household were gathered in the hall, one knocked at the door, and when Stephen went thereto, who should follow him in save Surly John, and with him a stranger, a big tall man, dark-haired and red-bearded, wide-visaged, brown-eyed and red-cheeked, blotch-faced and insolent of bearing. He was girt with a sword, had a shield at his back and bore a spear in his hand, and was clad in a long byrny down to his knees. He spake at once in a loud voice, ere Surly John got out the word: “May Hardcastle be here tonight, ye folk?” The goodman quaked at the look and the voice of him, and said: “Yea, surely, lord, if thou wilt have it so.”

But Osberne turned his head over his shoulder, for his back was toward the door, and said: “Meat and drink and an ingle in the hall are free to every comer to this house, whether he be earl or churl.” Hardcastle scowled on the lad, and said: “I am neither earl nor churl, but a man of mine own hand, and I take thy bidding, goodman, for this night, but as to thereafter we will look to it; but as to they youngling, I will look to him at once and teach him a little manners.” And therewith he went up to Osberne and smote him a cheek-slap from behind. Surly John laughed, and made a mow at him, and said: “Ho! young wolf-slayer, feelest thou that? Now is come the end of they mastery!” But neither for slap nor for gibe did Osberne flinch one whit, or change countenance.

Then Hardcastle said: “Hah! Is that the lad who slew the wolves ye ran from, John? He will be a useful lad about the house.” John held his peace and reddened somewhat, and Hardcastle said: “Now show me where to bestow this fighting-gear of mine; for meseems I shall not want it yet awhile in this meek and friendly house.” Quoth Osberne over his shoulder: “Things boded will happen, and also things unboded.” Hardcastle scowled again, but this time smote him not, for he was busy doing off his hawberk, which Stephen took from him presently, along with his other armour and weapons, and hung them upon the pins at the other end of the hall. Then he came back and stood before Hardcastle as if waiting some commandment, but the warrior said: “What is this big lubber here, and what is his name? What does the fool want?” Said Stephen: “I want to serve thee, noble sir, and my name is Stephen the Eater, but I can swallow most things better than hard words.” Hardcastle lifted up his right foot to kick his backside, but Stephen deftly thrust out his right foot and gave the man a shove on his breast, so that he tripped him and down went Hardcastle bundling. He picked himself up in a mighty rage, and would have fallen on Stephen; but he saw that the Eater had a broad and big knife in his girdle, so he forbore, being now all unarmed; and Stephen said: “Our floor is somewhat slippery for dancing, fair sir.”

But therewith arose Osberne, and came before the guest, and louted to him and said: “Noble sir, I pray thee pardon our man Stephen, for thou seest how clumsy a man he is, and he knoweth not where to bestow his long legs; he is ever in everyone’s way.” And as he spake the smiles were all over his face, and he louted low again. Stephen stared astonished at him and drew back, and as for Hardcastle, the wrath ran off him, and he looked on Osberne and said: “Nay, thou art not so unmannerly a lad as I deemed; belike I shall yet make something out of thee.”

Therewith the meat was borne in and they all sat to table, and Hardcastle was well at ease; and the goodman, if he were not quite happy, yet made a shift to seem as if he were. The guest sat at the right hand of the goodman, and after he had eaten a while he said: “Goodman, thy women here have doubtless once been fair, but now they are somewhat stricken in years. Hast thou in hiding somewhere, or belike lying out in the field or at some cot, anything prettier? something with sleek sides and round arms and dainty legs and feet? It would make us merrier, and belike kinder, if such there were.”

The goodman turned pale, and stammered out that these were all the women at Wethermel; and John cried out: “It is even as I told thee, warrior. Heed it not; there be fair women up and down the Dale, and thou shalt have one or two of these with little pains, either for love or for fear.” Hardcastle laughed and said: “Thou shalt go and fetch them for me, Surly John, and see which shall serve thee best, love or fear.” All laughed thereat, for they well knew his ill temper and his cowardice, and he turned red and blue for rage. But as for Osberne, he could not help thinking of the pretty maid whose hand he had held at the Cloven Mote last winter; and he thought that if Hardcastle did her any wrong, Boardcleaver might well look on the sun in her behalf.

A little after Osberne turns to John and sees his knife lying on the board, a goodly one, well carven on the heft. So he says: “Thy whittle seems to me both good and strange, John, reach it into my hand.” John did so, and the youngling takes hold of it by the back near the point with his thumb and finger, and twists it till it is like a ram’s horn. Then he gives it back to John and says: “Thy knife is now stranger than it was, John, but ’tis not of so much use as erst.” All marvelled at this feat, all save the fool Surly John, who raises a great outcry that his knife is marred. But Hardcastle, whose head was now pretty much filled with drink, cried out: “Hold thy peace, John; doubtless this youngling here hath enough craft to straighten thy whittle even as he has crooked and winded it. By the mass he is a handy smith and will be of much avail to me.” Osberne reached out his hand for the knife, and John gave it to him, and he took it by the point as aforetime, and lo, in a moment it was once more straight again, so to say. Then he hands it back to John, and says: “Let our man Stephen lay his hammer on the blade tomorrow once or twice, and thy knife shall be as good as ever it was.” All wondered, but Hardcastle not much, whereas by this time he could not see very straight out of his eyes. So he bids lead him to bed, and the goodman took him by the hand and brought him to the guest-chamber, and himself lies down in an ingle of the hall. So all lay down, and there was rest in the house all night long; save for the goodman, who slept but little, and that with dreams of the cutting of throats and firing of roofs.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 22:07