Maid Marian, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter I

Now come ye for peace here, or come ye for war?

Scott.

“The abbot, in his alb arrayed,” stood at the altar in the abbey-chapel of Rubygill, with all his plump, sleek, rosy friars, in goodly lines disposed, to solemnise the nuptials of the beautiful Matilda Fitzwater, daughter of the Baron of Arlingford, with the noble Robert Fitz–Ooth, Earl of Locksley and Huntingdon. The abbey of Rubygill stood in a picturesque valley, at a little distance from the western boundary of Sherwood Forest, in a spot which seemed adapted by nature to be the retreat of monastic mortification, being on the banks of a fine trout-stream, and in the midst of woodland coverts, abounding with excellent game. The bride, with her father and attendant maidens, entered the chapel; but the earl had not arrived. The baron was amazed, and the bridemaidens were disconcerted. Matilda feared that some evil had befallen her lover, but felt no diminution of her confidence in his honour and love. Through the open gates of the chapel she looked down the narrow road that wound along the side of the hill; and her ear was the first that heard the distant trampling of horses, and her eye was the first that caught the glitter of snowy plumes, and the light of polished spears. “It is strange,” thought the baron, “that the earl should come in this martial array to his wedding;” but he had not long to meditate on the phenomenon, for the foaming steeds swept up to the gate like a whirlwind, and the earl, breathless with speed, and followed by a few of his yeomen, advanced to his smiling bride. It was then no time to ask questions, for the organ was in full peal, and the choristers were in full voice.

The abbot began to intone the ceremony in a style of modulation impressively exalted, his voice issuing most canonically from the roof of his mouth, through the medium of a very musical nose newly tuned for the occasion. But he had not proceeded far enough to exhibit all the variety and compass of this melodious instrument, when a noise was heard at the gate, and a party of armed men entered the chapel. The song of the choristers died away in a shake of demisemiquavers, contrary to all the rules of psalmody. The organ-blower, who was working his musical air-pump with one hand, and with two fingers and a thumb of the other insinuating a peeping-place through the curtain of the organ-gallery, was struck motionless by the double operation of curiosity and fear; while the organist, intent only on his performance, and spreading all his fingers to strike a swell of magnificent chords, felt his harmonic spirit ready to desert his body on being answered by the ghastly rattle of empty keys, and in the consequent agitato furioso of the internal movements of his feelings, was preparing to restore harmony by the segue subito of an appoggiatura con foco with the corner of a book of anthems on the head of his neglectful assistant, when his hand and his attention together were arrested by the scene below. The voice of the abbot subsided into silence through a descending scale of long-drawn melody, like the sound of the ebbing sea to the explorers of a cave. In a few moments all was silence, interrupted only by the iron tread of the armed intruders, as it rang on the marble floor and echoed from the vaulted aisles.

The leader strode up to the altar; and placing himself opposite to the abbot, and between the earl and Matilda, in such a manner that the four together seemed to stand on the four points of a diamond, exclaimed, “In the name of King Henry, I forbid the ceremony, and attach Robert Earl of Huntingdon as a traitor!” and at the same time he held his drawn sword between the lovers, as if to emblem that royal authority which laid its temporal ban upon their contract. The earl drew his own sword instantly, and struck down the interposing weapon; then clasped his left arm round Matilda, who sprang into his embrace, and held his sword before her with his right hand. His yeomen ranged themselves at his side, and stood with their swords drawn, still and prepared, like men determined to die in his defence. The soldiers, confident in superiority of numbers, paused. The abbot took advantage of the pause to introduce a word of exhortation. “My children,” said he, “if you are going to cut each other’s throats, I entreat you, in the name of peace and charity, to do it out of the chapel.”

“Sweet Matilda,” said the earl, “did you give your love to the Earl of Huntingdon, whose lands touch the Ouse and the Trent, or to Robert Fitz–Ooth, the son of his mother?”

“Neither to the earl nor his earldom,” answered Matilda firmly, “but to Robert Fitz–Ooth and his love.”

“That I well knew,” said the earl; “and though the ceremony be incomplete, we are not the less married in the eye of my only saint, our Lady, who will yet bring us together. Lord Fitzwater, to your care, for the present, I commit your daughter. — Nay, sweet Matilda, part we must for a while; but we will soon meet under brighter skies, and be this the seal of our faith.”

He kissed Matilda’s lips, and consigned her to the baron, who glowered about him with an expression of countenance that showed he was mortally wroth with somebody; but whatever he thought or felt he kept to himself. The earl, with a sign to his followers, made a sudden charge on the soldiers, with the intention of cutting his way through. The soldiers were prepared for such an occurrence, and a desperate skirmish succeeded. Some of the women screamed, but none of them fainted; for fainting was not so much the fashion in those days, when the ladies breakfasted on brawn and ale at sunrise, as in our more refined age of green tea and muffins at noon. Matilda seemed disposed to fly again to her lover, but the baron forced her from the chapel. The earl’s bowmen at the door sent in among the assailants a volley of arrows, one of which whizzed past the ear of the abbot, who, in mortal fear of being suddenly translated from a ghostly friar into a friarly ghost, began to roll out of the chapel as fast as his bulk and his holy robes would permit, roaring “Sacrilege!” with all his monks at his heels, who were, like himself, more intent to go at once than to stand upon the order of their going. The abbot, thus pressed from behind, and stumbling over his own drapery before, fell suddenly prostrate in the door-way that connected the chapel with the abbey, and was instantaneously buried under a pyramid of ghostly carcasses, that fell over him and each other, and lay a rolling chaos of animated rotundities, sprawling and bawling in unseemly disarray, and sending forth the names of all the saints in and out of heaven, amidst the clashing of swords, the ringing of bucklers, the clattering of helmets, the twanging of bow-strings, the whizzing of arrows, the screams of women, the shouts of the warriors, and the vociferations of the peasantry, who had been assembled to the intended nuptials, and who, seeing a fair set-to, contrived to pick a quarrel among themselves on the occasion, and proceeded, with staff and cudgel, to crack each other’s skulls for the good of the king and the earl. One tall friar alone was untouched by the panic of his brethren, and stood steadfastly watching the combat with his arms a-kembo, the colossal emblem of an unarmed neutrality.

At length, through the midst of the internal confusion, the earl, by the help of his good sword, the staunch valour of his men, and the blessing of the Virgin, fought his way to the chapel-gate — his bowmen closed him in-he vaulted into his saddle, clapped spurs to his horse, rallied his men on the first eminence, and exchanged his sword for a bow and arrow, with which he did old execution among the pursuers, who at last thought it most expedient to desist from offensive warfare, and to retreat into the abbey, where, in the king’s name, they broached a pipe of the best wine, and attached all the venison in the larder, having first carefully unpacked the tuft of friars, and set the fallen abbot on his legs.

The friars, it may be well supposed, and such of the king’s men as escaped unhurt from the affray, found their spirits a cup too low, and kept the flask moving from noon till night. The peaceful brethren, unused to the tumult of war, had undergone, from fear and discomposure, an exhaustion of animal spirits that required extraordinary refection. During the repast, they interrogated Sir Ralph Montfaucon, the leader of the soldiers, respecting the nature of the earl’s offence.

“A complication of offences,” replied Sir Ralph, “superinduced on the original basis of forest-treason. He began with hunting the king’s deer, in despite of all remonstrance; followed it up by contempt of the king’s mandates, and by armed resistance to his power, in defiance of all authority; and combined with it the resolute withholding of payment of certain moneys to the abbot of Doncaster, in denial of all law; and has thus made himself the declared enemy of church and state, and all for being too fond of venison.” And the knight helped himself to half a pasty.

“A heinous offender,” said a little round oily friar, appropriating the portion of pasty which Sir Ralph had left.

“The earl is a worthy peer,” said the tall friar whom we have already mentioned in the chapel scene, “and the best marksman in England.”

“Why this is flat treason, brother Michael,” said the little round friar, “to call an attainted traitor a worthy peer.”

“I pledge you,” said brother Michael. The little friar smiled and filled his cup. “He will draw the long bow,” pursued brother Michael, “with any bold yeoman among them all.”

“Don’t talk of the long bow,” said the abbot, who had the sound of the arrow still whizzing in his ear: “what have we pillars of the faith to do with the long bow?”

“Be that as it may,” said Sir Ralph, “he is an outlaw from this moment.”

“So much the worse for the law then,” said brother Michael. “The law will have a heavier miss of him than he will have of the law. He will strike as much venison as ever, and more of other game. I know what I say: but basta: Let us drink.”

“What other game?” said the little friar. “I hope he won’t poach among our partridges.”

“Poach! not he,” said brother Michael: “if he wants your partridges, he will strike them under your nose (here’s to you), and drag your trout-stream for you on a Thursday evening.”

“Monstrous! and starve us on fast-day,” said the little friar.

“But that is not the game I mean,” said brother Michael.

“Surely, son Michael,” said the abbot, “you do not mean to insinuate that the noble earl will turn freebooter?”

“A man must live,” said brother Michael, “earl or no. If the law takes his rents and beeves without his consent, he must take beeves and rents where he can get them without the consent of the law. This is the lex talionis.”

“Truly,” said Sir Ralph, “I am sorry for the damsel: she seems fond of this wild runagate.”

“A mad girl, a mad girl,” said the little friar.

“How a mad girl?” said brother Michael. “Has she not beauty, grace, wit, sense, discretion, dexterity, learning, and valour?”

“Learning!” exclaimed the little friar; “what has a woman to do with learning? And valour! who ever heard a woman commended for valour? Meekness and mildness, and softness, and gentleness, and tenderness, and humility, and obedience to her husband, and faith in her confessor, and domesticity, or, as learned doctors call it, the faculty of stayathomeitiveness, and embroidery, and music, and pickling, and preserving, and the whole complex and multiplex detail of the noble science of dinner, as well in preparation for the table, as in arrangement over it, and in distribution around it to knights, and squires, and ghostly friars — these are female virtues: but valour — why who ever heard ——?”

“She is the all in all,” said brother Michael, “gentle as a ring-dove, yet high-soaring as a falcon: humble below her deserving, yet deserving beyond the estimate of panegyric: an exact economist in all superfluity, yet a most bountiful dispenser in all liberality: the chief regulator of her household, the fairest pillar of her hall, and the sweetest blossom of her bower: having, in all opposite proposings, sense to understand, judgment to weigh, discretion to choose, firmness to undertake, diligence to conduct, perseverance to accomplish, and resolution to maintain. For obedience to her husband, that is not to be tried till she has one: for faith in her confessor, she has as much as the law prescribes: for embroidery an Arachne: for music a Siren: and for pickling and preserving, did not one of her jars of sugared apricots give you your last surfeit at Arlingford Castle?”

“Call you that preserving?” said the little friar; “I call it destroying. Call you it pickling? Truly it pickled me. My life was saved by miracle.”

“By canary,” said brother Michael. “Canary is the only life preserver, the true aurum potabile, the universal panacea for all diseases, thirst, and short life. Your life was saved by canary.”

“Indeed, reverend father,” said Sir Ralph, “if the young lady be half what you describe, she must be a paragon: but your commending her for valour does somewhat amaze me.”

“She can fence,” said the little friar, “and draw the long bow, and play at singlestick and quarter-staff.”

“Yet mark you,” said brother Michael, “not like a virago or a hoyden, or one that would crack a serving-man’s head for spilling gravy on her ruff, but with such womanly grace and temperate self-command as if those manly exercises belonged to her only, and were become for her sake feminine.”

“You incite me,” said Sir Ralph, “to view her more nearly. That madcap earl found me other employment than to remark her in the chapel.”

“The earl is a worthy peer,” said brother Michael; “he is worth any fourteen earls on this side Trent, and any seven on the other.” (The reader will please to remember that Rubygill Abbey was north of Trent.)

“His mettle will be tried,” said Sir Ralph. “There is many a courtier will swear to King Henry to bring him in dead or alive.”

“They must look to the brambles then,” said brother Michael.

“The bramble, the bramble, the bonny forest bramble,

    Doth make a jest

    Of silken vest,

That will through greenwood scramble:

The bramble, the bramble, the bonny forest bramble.”

“Plague on your lungs, son Michael,” said the abbot; “this is your old coil: always roaring in your cups.”

“I know what I say,” said brother Michael; “there is often more sense in an old song than in a new homily.

The courtly pad doth amble,

When his gay lord would ramble:

    But both may catch

    An awkward scratch,

If they ride among the bramble:

The bramble, the bramble, the bonny forest bramble.”

“Tall friar,” said Sir Ralph, “either you shoot the shafts of your merriment at random, or you know more of the earl’s designs than beseems your frock.”

“Let my frock,” said brother Michael, “answer for its own sins. It is worn past covering mine. It is too weak for a shield, too transparent for a screen, too thin for a shelter, too light for gravity, and too threadbare for a jest. The wearer would be naught indeed who should misbeseem such a wedding garment.

But wherefore does the sheep wear wool?

    That he in season sheared may be,

And the shepherd be warm though his flock be cool:

    So I’ll have a new cloak about me.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24