Maid Marian, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter II

Vray moyne si oncques en feut depuis que le monde moynant moyna de moynerie.

Rabelais.

The Earl of Huntingdon, living in the vicinity of a royal forest, and passionately attached to the chase from his infancy, had long made as free with the king’s deer as Lord Percy proposed to do with those of Lord Douglas in the memorable hunting of Cheviot. It is sufficiently well known how severe were the forest-laws in those days, and with what jealousy the kings of England maintained this branch of their prerogative; but menaces and remonstrances were thrown away on the earl, who declared that he would not thank Saint Peter for admission into Paradise, if he were obliged to leave his bow and hounds at the gate. King Henry (the Second) swore by Saint Botolph to make him rue his sport, and, having caused him to be duly and formally accused, summoned him to London to answer the charge. The earl, deeming himself safer among his own vassals than among king Henry’s courtiers, took no notice of the mandate. King Henry sent a force to bring him, vi et armis, to court. The earl made a resolute resistance, and put the king’s force to flight under a shower of arrows: an act which the courtiers declared to be treason. At the same time, the abbot of Doncaster sued up the payment of certain moneys, which the earl, whose revenue ran a losing race with his hospitality, had borrowed at sundry times of the said abbot: for the abbots and the bishops were the chief usurers of those days, and, as the end sanctifies the means, were not in the least scrupulous of employing what would have been extortion in the profane, to accomplish the pious purpose of bringing a blessing on the land by rescuing it from the frail hold of carnal and temporal into the firmer grasp of ghostly and spiritual possessors. But the earl, confident in the number and attachment of his retainers, stoutly refused either to repay the money, which he could not, or to yield the forfeiture, which he would not: a refusal which in those days was an act of outlawry in a gentleman, as it is now of bankruptcy in a base mechanic; the gentleman having in our wiser times a more liberal privilege of gentility, which enables him to keep his land and laugh at his creditor. Thus the mutual resentments and interests of the king and the abbot concurred to subject the earl to the penalties of outlawry, by which the abbot would gain his due upon the lands of Locksley, and the rest would be confiscate to the king. Still the king did not think it advisable to assail the earl in his own strong-hold, but caused a diligent watch to be kept over his motions, till at length his rumoured marriage with the heiress of Arlingford seemed to point out an easy method of laying violent hands on the offender. Sir Ralph Montfaucon, a young man of good lineage and of an aspiring temper, who readily seized the first opportunity that offered of recommending himself to King Henry’s favour by manifesting his zeal in his service, undertook the charge: and how he succeeded we have seen.

Sir Ralph’s curiosity was strongly excited by the friar’s description of the young lady of Arlingford; and he prepared in the morning to visit the castle, under the very plausible pretext of giving the baron an explanation of his intervention at the nuptials. Brother Michael and the little fat friar proposed to be his guides. The proposal was courteously accepted, and they set out together, leaving Sir Ralph’s followers at the abbey. The knight was mounted on a spirited charger; brother Michael on a large heavy-trotting horse; and the little fat friar on a plump soft-paced galloway, so correspondent with himself in size, rotundity, and sleekness, that if they had been amalgamated into a centaur, there would have been nothing to alter in their proportions.

“Do you know,” said the little friar, as they wound along the banks of the stream, “the reason why lake-trout is better than river-trout, and shyer withal?”

“I was not aware of the fact,” said Sir Ralph.

“A most heterodox remark,” said brother Michael: “know you not, that in all nice matters you should take the implication for absolute, and, without looking into the FACT WHETHER, seek only the reason why? But the fact is so, on the word of a friar; which what layman will venture to gainsay who prefers a down bed to a gridiron?”

“The fact being so,” said the knight, “I am still at a loss for the reason; nor would I undertake to opine in a matter of that magnitude: since, in all that appertains to the good things either of this world or the next, my reverend spiritual guides are kind enough to take the trouble of thinking off my hands.”

“Spoken,” said brother Michael, “with a sound Catholic conscience. My little brother here is most profound in the matter of trout. He has marked, learned, and inwardly digested the subject, twice a week at least for five-and-thirty years. I yield to him in this. My strong points are venison and canary.”

“The good qualities of a trout,” said the little friar, “are firmness and redness: the redness, indeed, being the visible sign of all other virtues.”

“Whence,” said brother Michael, “we choose our abbot by his nose:

The rose on the nose doth all virtues disclose: For the outward grace shows That the inward overflows, When it glows in the rose of a red, red nose.”

“Now,” said the little friar, “as is the firmness so is the redness, and as is the redness so is the shyness.”

“Marry why?” said brother Michael. “The solution is not physical-natural, but physical-historical, or natural-superinductive. And thereby hangs a tale, which may be either said or sung:

The damsel stood to watch the fight

By the banks of Kingslea Mere,

And they brought to her feet her own true knight

Sore-wounded on a bier.

She knelt by him his wounds to bind,

She washed them with many a tear:

And shouts rose fast upon the wind,

Which told that the foe was near.

“Oh! let not,” he said, “while yet I live,

The cruel foe me take:

But with thy sweet lips a last kiss give,

And cast me in the lake.”

Around his neck she wound her arms,

And she kissed his lips so pale:

And evermore the war’s alarms

Came louder up the vale.

She drew him to the lake’s steep side,

Where the red heath fringed the shore;

She plunged with him beneath the tide,

And they were seen no more.

Their true blood mingled in Kingslea Mere,

That to mingle on earth was fain:

And the trout that swims in that crystal clear

Is tinged with the crimson stain.

“Thus you see how good comes of evil, and how a holy friar may fare better on fast-day for the violent death of two lovers two hundred years ago. The inference is most consecutive, that wherever you catch a red-fleshed trout, love lies bleeding under the water: an occult quality, which can only act in the stationary waters of a lake, being neutralised by the rapid transition of those of a stream.”

“And why is the trout shyer for that?” asked Sir Ralph.

“Do you not see?” said brother Michael. “The virtues of both lovers diffuse themselves through the lake. The infusion of masculine valour makes the fish active and sanguineous: the infusion of maiden modesty makes him coy and hard to win: and you shall find through life, the fish which is most easily hooked is not the best worth dishing. But yonder are the towers of Arlingford.”

The little friar stopped. He seemed suddenly struck with an awful thought, which caused a momentary pallescence in his rosy complexion; and after a brief hesitation, he turned his galloway, and told his companions he should give them good day.

“Why, what is in the wind now, brother Peter?” said Friar Michael.

“The lady Matilda,” said the little friar, “can draw the long-bow. She must bear no goodwill to Sir Ralph; and if she should espy him from her tower, she may testify her recognition with a cloth-yard shaft. She is not so infallible a markswoman, but that she might shoot at a crow and kill a pigeon. She might peradventure miss the knight, and hit me, who never did her any harm.”

“Tut, tut, man,” said brother Michael, “there is no such fear.”

“Mass,” said the little friar, “but there is such a fear, and very strong too. You who have it not may keep your way, and I who have it shall take mine. I am not just now in the vein for being picked off at a long shot.” And saying these words, he spurred up his four-footed better half, and galloped off as nimbly as if he had had an arrow singing behind him.

“Is this lady Matilda, then, so very terrible a damsel?” said Sir Ralph to brother Michael.

“By no means,” said the friar. “She has certainly a high spirit; but it is the wing of the eagle, without his beak or his claw. She is as gentle as magnanimous; but it is the gentleness of the summer wind, which, however lightly it wave the tuft of the pine, carries with it the intimation of a power, that, if roused to its extremity, could make it bend to the dust.”

“From the warmth of your panegyric, ghostly father,” said the knight, “I should almost suspect you were in love with the damsel.”

“So I am,” said the friar, “and I care not who knows it; but all in the way of honesty, master soldier. I am, as it were, her spiritual lover; and were she a damsel errant, I would be her ghostly esquire, her friar militant. I would buckle me in armour of proof, and the devil might thresh me black with an iron flail, before I would knock under in her cause. Though they be not yet one canonically, thanks to your soldiership, the earl is her liege lord, and she is his liege lady. I am her father confessor and ghostly director: I have taken on me to show her the way to the next world; and how can I do that if I lose sight of her in this? seeing that this is but the road to the other, and has so many circumvolutions and ramifications of byeways and beaten paths (all more thickly set than the true one with finger-posts and milestones, not one of which tells truth), that a traveller has need of some one who knows the way, or the odds go hard against him that he will ever see the face of Saint Peter.”

“But there must surely be some reason,” said Sir Ralph, “for father Peter’s apprehension.”

“None,” said brother Michael, “but the apprehension itself; fear being its own father, and most prolific in self-propagation. The lady did, it is true, once signalize her displeasure against our little brother, for reprimanding her in that she would go hunting a-mornings instead of attending matins. She cut short the thread of his eloquence by sportively drawing her bow-string and loosing an arrow over his head; he waddled off with singular speed, and was in much awe of her for many months. I thought he had forgotten it: but let that pass. In truth, she would have had little of her lover’s company, if she had liked the chaunt of the choristers better than the cry of the hounds: yet I know not; for they were companions from the cradle, and reciprocally fashioned each other to the love of the fern and the foxglove. Had either been less sylvan, the other might have been more saintly; but they will now never hear matins but those of the lark, nor reverence vaulted aisle but that of the greenwood canopy. They are twin plants of the forest, and are identified with its growth.

For the slender beech and the sapling oak,

That grow by the shadowy rill,

You may cut down both at a single stroke,

You may cut down which you will.

But this you must know, that as long as they grow

Whatever change may be,

You never can teach either oak or beech

To be aught but a greenwood tree.”

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