Maid Marian, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter XVI

Carry me over the water, thou fine fellowe.

Old Ballad.

The pilgrims, without experiencing further molestation, arrived at the retreat of Sir Guy of Gamwell. They found the old knight a cup too low; partly from being cut off from the scenes of his old hospitality and the shouts of his Nottinghamshire vassals, who were wont to make the rafters of his ancient hall re-echo to their revelry; but principally from being parted from his son, who had long been the better half of his flask and pasty. The arrival of our visitors cheered him up; and finding that the baron was to remain with him, he testified his delight and the cordiality of his welcome by pegging him in the ribs till he made him roar.

Robin and Marian took an affectionate leave of the baron and the old knight; and before they quitted the vicinity of Barnsdale, deeming it prudent to return in a different disguise, they laid aside their pilgrim’s attire, and assumed the habits and appurtenances of wandering minstrels.

They travelled in this character safely and pleasantly, till one evening at a late hour they arrived by the side of a river, where Robin looking out for a mode of passage perceived a ferry-boat safely moored in a nook on the opposite bank; near which a chimney sending up a wreath of smoke through the thick-set willows, was the only symptom of human habitation; and Robin naturally conceiving the said chimney and wreath of smoke to be the outward signs of the inward ferryman, shouted “Over!” with much strength and clearness; but no voice replied, and no ferryman appeared. Robin raised his voice, and shouted with redoubled energy, “Over, Over, O-o-o-over!” A faint echo alone responded “Over!” and again died away into deep silence: but after a brief interval a voice from among the willows, in a strange kind of mingled intonation that was half a shout and half a song, answered:

Over, over, over, jolly, jolly rover, Would you then come over? Over, over, over? Jolly, jolly rover, here’s one lives in clover: Who finds the clover? The jolly, jolly rover. He finds the clover, let him then come over, The jolly, jolly rover, over, over, over,

“I much doubt,” said Marian, “if this ferryman do not mean by clover something more than the toll of his ferry-boat.”

“I doubt not,” answered Robin, “he is a levier of toll and tithe, which I shall put him upon proof of his right to receive, by making trial of his might to enforce.”

The ferryman emerged from the willows and stepped into his boat. “As I live,” exclaimed Robin, “the ferryman is a friar.”

“With a sword,” said Marian, “stuck in his rope girdle.”

The friar pushed his boat off manfully, and was presently half over the river.

“It is friar Tuck,” said Marian.

“He will scarcely know us,” said Robin; “and if he do not, I will break a staff with him for sport.”

The friar came singing across the water: the boat touched the land: Robin and Marian stepped on board: the friar pushed off again.

“Silken doublets, silken doublets,” said the friar: “slenderly lined, I bow: your wandering minstrel is always poor toll: your sweet angels of voices pass current for a bed and a supper at the house of every lord that likes to hear the fame of his valour without the trouble of fighting for it. What need you of purse or pouch? You may sing before thieves. Pedlars, pedlars: wandering from door to door with the small ware of lies and cajolery: exploits for carpet-knights; honesty for courtiers; truth for monks, and chastity for nuns: a good saleable stock that costs the vender nothing, defies wear and tear, and when it has served a hundred customers is as plentiful and as marketable as ever. But, sirrahs, I’ll none of your balderdash. You pass not hence without clink of brass, or I’ll knock your musical noddles together till they ring like a pair of cymbals. That will be a new tune for your minstrelships.”

This friendly speech of the friar ended as they stepped on the opposite bank. Robin had noticed as they passed that the summer stream was low.

“Why, thou brawling mongrel,” said Robin, “that whether thou be thief, friar, or ferryman, or an ill-mixed compound of all three, passes conjecture, though I judge thee to be simple thief, what barkest thou at thus? Villain, there is clink of brass for thee. Dost thou see this coin? Dost thou hear this music? Look and listen: for touch thou shalt not: my minstrelship defies thee. Thou shalt carry me on thy back over the water, and receive nothing but a cracked sconce for thy trouble.”

“A bargain,” said the friar: “for the water is low, the labour is light, and the reward is alluring.” And he stooped down for Robin, who mounted his back, and the friar waded with him over the river.

“Now, fine fellow,” said the friar, “thou shalt carry me back over the water, and thou shalt have a cracked sconce for thy trouble.”

Robin took the friar on his back, and waded with him into the middle of the river, when by a dexterous jerk he suddenly flung him off and plunged him horizontally over head and ears in the water. Robin waded to shore, and the friar, half swimming and half scrambling, followed.

“Fine fellow, fine fellow,” said the friar, “now will I pay thee thy cracked sconce.”

“Not so,” said Robin, “I have not earned it: but thou hast earned it, and shalt have it.”

It was not, even in those good old times, a sight of every day to see a troubadour and a friar playing at single-stick by the side of a river, each aiming with fell intent at the other’s coxcomb. The parties were both so skilled in attack and defence, that their mutual efforts for a long time expended themselves in quick and loud rappings on each other’s oaken staves. At length Robin by a dexterous feint contrived to score one on the friar’s crown: but in the careless moment of triumph a splendid sweep of the friar’s staff struck Robin’s out of his hand into the middle of the river, and repaid his crack on the head with a degree of vigour that might have passed the bounds of a jest if Marian had not retarded its descent by catching the friar’s arm.

“How now, recreant friar,” said Marian; “what have you to say why you should not suffer instant execution, being detected in open rebellion against your liege lord? Therefore kneel down, traitor, and submit your neck to the sword of the offended law.”

“Benefit of clergy,” said the friar: “I plead my clergy. And is it you indeed, ye scapegraces? Ye are well disguised: I knew ye not, by my flask. Robin, jolly Robin, he buys a jest dearly that pays for it with a bloody coxcomb. But here is balm for all bruises, outward and inward. (The friar produced a flask of canary.) Wash thy wound twice and thy throat thrice with this solar concoction, and thou shalt marvel where was thy hurt. But what moved ye to this frolic? Knew ye not that ye could not appear in a mask more fashioned to move my bile than in that of these gilders and lackerers of the smooth surface of worthlessness, that bring the gold of true valour into disrepute, by stamping the baser metal with the fairer impression? I marvelled to find any such given to fighting (for they have an old instinct of self-preservation): but I rejoiced thereat, that I might discuss to them poetical justice: and therefore have I cracked thy sconce: for which, let this be thy medicine.”

“But wherefore,” said Marian, “do we find you here, when we left you joint lord warden of Sherwood?”

“I do but retire to my devotions,” replied the friar. “This is my hermitage, in which I first took refuge when I escaped from my beloved brethren of Rubygill; and to which I still retreat at times from the vanities of the world, which else might cling to me too closely, since I have been promoted to be peer-spiritual of your forest-court. For, indeed, I do find in myself certain indications and admonitions that my day has past its noon; and none more cogent than this: that daily of bad wine I grow more intolerant, and of good wine have a keener and more fastidious relish. There is no surer symptom of receding years. The ferryman is my faithful varlet. I send him on some pious errand, that I may meditate in ghostly privacy, when my presence in the forest can best be spared: and when can it be better spared than now, seeing that the neighbourhood of Prince John, and his incessant perquisitions for Marian, have made the forest too hot to hold more of us than are needful to keep up a quorum, and preserve unbroken the continuity of our forest-dominion? For, in truth, without your greenwood majesties, we have hardly the wit to live in a body, and at the same time to keep our necks out of jeopardy, while that arch-rebel and traitor John infests the precincts of our territory.”

The friar now conducted them to his peaceful cell, where he spread his frugal board with fish, venison, wild-fowl, fruit, and canary. Under the compound operation of this materia medica Robin’s wounds healed apace, and the friar, who hated minstrelsy, began as usual chirping in his cups. Robin and Marian chimed in with his tuneful humour till the midnight moon peeped in upon their revelry.

It was now the very witching time of night, when they heard a voice shouting, “Over!” They paused to listen, and the voice repeated “Over!” in accents clear and loud, but which at the same time either were in themselves, or seemed to be, from the place and the hour, singularly plaintive and dreary. The friar fidgetted about in his seat: fell into a deep musing: shook himself, and looked about him: first at Marian, then at Robin, then at Marian again; filled and tossed off a cup of canary, and relapsed into his reverie.

“Will you not bring your passenger over?” said Robin. The friar shook his head and looked mysterious.

“That passenger,” said the friar, “will never come over. Every full moon, at midnight, that voice calls, ‘Over!’ I and my varlet have more than once obeyed the summons, and we have sometimes had a glimpse of a white figure under the opposite trees: but when the boat has touched the bank, nothing has been to be seen; and the voice has been heard no more till the midnight of the next full moon.”

“It is very strange,” said Robin.

“Wondrous strange,” said the friar, looking solemn.

The voice again called “Over!” in a long plaintive musical cry.

“I must go to it,” said the friar, “or it will give us no peace. I would all my customers were of this world. I begin to think that I am Charon, and that this river is Styx.”

“I will go with you, friar,” said Robin.

“By my flask,” said the friar, “but you shall not.”

“Then I will,” said Marian.

“Still less,” said the friar, hurrying out of the cell. Robin and Marian followed: but the friar outstepped them, and pushed off his boat.

A white figure was visible under the shade of the opposite trees. The boat approached the shore, and the figure glided away. The friar returned.

They re-entered the cottage, and sat some time conversing on the phenomenon they had seen. The friar sipped his wine, and after a time, said:

“There is a tradition of a damsel who was drowned here some years ago. The tradition is ——”

But the friar could not narrate a plain tale: he therefore cleared his throat, and sang with due solemnity, in a ghostly voice:

A damsel came in midnight rain,

And called across the ferry:

The weary wight she called in vain,

Whose senses sleep did bury.

At evening, from her father’s door

She turned to meet her lover:

At midnight, on the lonely shore,

She shouted “Over, over!”

She had not met him by the tree

Of their accustomed meeting,

And sad and sick at heart was she,

Her heart all wildly beating.

In chill suspense the hours went by,

The wild storm burst above her:

She turned her to the river nigh,

And shouted, “Over, over!”

A dim, discoloured, doubtful light

The moon’s dark veil permitted,

And thick before her troubled sight

Fantastic shadows flitted.

Her lover’s form appeared to glide,

And beckon o’er the water:

Alas! his blood that morn had dyed

Her brother’s sword with slaughter.

Upon a little rock she stood,

To make her invocation:

She marked not that the rain-swoll’n flood

Was islanding her station.

The tempest mocked her feeble cry:

No saint his aid would give her:

The flood swelled high and yet more high,

And swept her down the river.

Yet oft beneath the pale moonlight,

When hollow winds are blowing,

The shadow of that maiden bright

Glides by the dark stream’s flowing.

And when the storms of midnight rave,

While clouds the broad moon cover,

The wild gusts waft across the wave

The cry of, “Over, over!”

While the friar was singing, Marian was meditating: and when he had ended she said, “Honest friar, you have misplaced your tradition, which belongs to the aestuary of a nobler river, where the damsel was swept away by the rising of the tide, for which your land-flood is an indifferent substitute. But the true tradition of this stream I think I myself possess, and I will narrate it in your own way:

It was a friar of orders free, A friar of Rubygill: At the greenwood-tree a vow made he, But he kept it very ill: A vow made he of chastity, But he kept it very ill. He kept it, perchance, in the conscious shade Of the bounds of the forest wherein it was made: But he roamed where he listed, as free as the wind, And he left his good vow in the forest behind: For its woods out of sight were his vow out of mind, With the friar of Rubygill.

In lonely hut himself he shut, The friar of Rubygill; Where the ghostly elf absolved himself, To follow his own good will: And he had no lack of canary sack, To keep his conscience still. And a damsel well knew, when at lonely midnight It gleamed on the waters, his signal-lamp-light: “Over! over!” she warbled with nightingale throat, And the friar sprung forth at the magical note, And she crossed the dark stream in his trim ferryboat, With the friar of Rubygill.”

“Look you now,” said Robin, “if the friar does not blush. Many strange sights have I seen in my day, but never till this moment did I see a blushing friar.”

“I think,” said the friar, “you never saw one that blushed not, or you saw good canary thrown away. But you are welcome to laugh if it so please you. None shall laugh in my company, though it be at my expense, but I will have my share of the merriment. The world is a stage, and life is a farce, and he that laughs most has most profit of the performance. The worst thing is good enough to be laughed at, though it be good for nothing else; and the best thing, though it be good for something else, is good for nothing better.”

And he struck up a song in praise of laughing and quaffing, without further adverting to Marian’s insinuated accusation; being, perhaps, of opinion, that it was a subject on which the least said would be the soonest mended.

So passed the night. In the morning a forester came to the friar, with intelligence that Prince John had been compelled, by the urgency of his affairs in other quarters, to disembarrass Nottingham Castle of his royal presence. Our wanderers returned joyfully to their forest-dominion, being thus relieved from the vicinity of any more formidable belligerent than their old bruised and beaten enemy the sheriff of Nottingham.

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