The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 34

“Where be the true men?”

“Here be we. God bless you all! God bless you!”

There was a rush to the stairs, and half-a-dozen hard but friendly hands were held out and grasped them warmly.

“Y’have saved our lives, lads,” cried Denys, “y’have saved our lives this night.”

A wild sight met the eyes of the rescued pair. The room flaring with torches, the glittering breastplates of the archers, their bronzed faces, the white cheeks of the bound thieves, and the bleeding giant, whose dead body these hard men left lying there in its own gore.

Gerard went round the archers and took them each by the hand with glistening eyes, and on this they all kissed him; and this time he kissed them in return. Then he said to one handsome archer of his own age, “Prithee, good soldier, have an eye to me. A strange drowsiness overcomes me. Let no one cut my throat while I sleep — for pity’s sake.”

The archer promised with a laugh; for he thought Gerard was jesting: and the latter went off into a deep sleep almost immediately.

Denys was surprised at this: but did not interfere; for it suited his immediate purpose. A couple of archers were inspecting the Abbot’s body, turning it half over with their feet, and inquiring, “Which of the two had flung this enormous rogue down from an upper storey like that; they would fain have the trick of his arm.”

Denys at first pished and pshawed, but dared not play the braggart, for he said to himself, “That young vagabond will break in and say ’twas the finger of Heaven, and no mortal arm, or some such stuff, and make me look like a fool.” But now, seeing Gerard unconscious, he suddenly gave this required information.

“Well, then, you see, comrades, I had run my sword through this one up to the hilt, and one or two more of ’em came buzzing about me; so it behoved me have my sword or die: so I just put my foot against his stomach, gave a tug with my hand and a spring with my foot, and sent him flying to kingdom come! He died in the air, and his carrion rolled in amongst you without ceremony: made you jump, I warrant me. But pikestaves and pillage! what avails prattling of, these trifles once they are gone by? buvons, camarades, buvons.”

The archers remarked that it was easy to say “buvons” where no liquor was, but not so easy to do it.

“Nay, I’ll soon find you liquor. My nose hath a natural alacrity at scenting out the wine. You follow me: and I my nose: bring a torch!” And they left the room, and finding a short flight of stone steps, descended them and entered a large, low, damp cellar.

It smelt close and dank: and the walls were encrusted here and there with what seemed cobwebs; but proved to be saltpetre that had oozed out of the damp stones and crystallized.

“Oh! the fine mouldy smell,” said Denys; “in such places still lurks the good wine; advance thy torch. Diable! what is that in the corner? A pile of rags? No: ’tis a man.”

They gathered round with the torch, and lo! a figure crouched on a heap in the corner, pale as ashes and shivering.

“Why, it is the landlord,” said Denys.

“Get up, thou craven heart!” shouted one of the archers.

“Why, man, the thieves are bound, and we are dry that bound them. Up! and show us thy wine; for no bottles see here.”

“What, be the rascals bound?” stammered the pale landlord; “good news. W-w-wine? that will I, honest sirs.”

And he rose with unsure joints and offered to lead the way to the wine cellar. But Denys interposed. “You are all in the dark, comrades. He is in league with the thieves.”

“Alack, good soldier, me in league with the accursed robbers! Is that reasonable?”

“The girl said so anyway.”

“The girl! What girl? Ah! Curse her, traitress!”

“Well,” interposed the other archer; “the girl is not here, but gone on to the bailiff. So let the burghers settle whether this craven be guilty or no: for we caught him not in the act: and let him draw us our wine.”

“One moment,” said Denys shrewdly. “Why cursed he the girl? If he be a true man, he should bless her as we do.”

“Alas, sir!” said the landlord, “I have but my good name to live by, and I cursed her to you, because you said she had belied me.”

“Humph! I trow thou art a thief, and where is the thief that cannot lie with a smooth face? Therefore hold him, comrades: a prisoner can draw wine an if his hands be not bound.”

The landlord offered no objection; but on the contrary said he would with pleasure show them where his little stock of wine was, but hoped they would pay for what they should drink, for his rent was due this two months.

The archers smiled grimly at his simplicity, as they thought it; one of them laid a hand quietly but firmly on his shoulder, the other led on with the torch.

They had reached the threshold when Denys cried “Halt!”

“What is’t?”

“Here be bottles in this corner; advance thy light.”

The torch-bearer went towards him. He had just taken off his scabbard and was probing the heap the landlord had just been crouched upon.

“Nay, nay,” cried the landlord, “the wine is in the next cellar. There is nothing there.”

“Nothing is mighty hard, then,” said Denys, and drew out something with his hand from the heap.

It proved to be only a bone.

Denys threw it on the floor: it rattled.

“There is nought there but the bones of the house,” said the landlord.

“Just now ’twas nothing. Now that we have found something ’tis nothing but bones. Here’s another. Humph? look at this one, comrade; and you come too and look at it, and bring you smooth knave along.”

The archer with the torch, whose name was Philippe, held the bone to the light and turned it round and round.

“Well?” said Denys.

“Well, if this was a field of battle, I should say ’twas the shankbone of a man; no more, no less. But ‘tisn’t a battlefield, nor a churchyard; ’tis an inn.”

“True, mate; but yon knave’s ashy face is as good a light to me as a field of battle. I read the bone by it, Bring yon face nearer, I say. When the chine is amissing, and the house dog can’t look at you without his tail creeping between his legs, who was the thief? Good brothers mine, my mind it doth misgive me. The deeper I thrust the more there be. Mayhap if these bones could tell their tale they would make true men’s flesh creep that heard it.”

“Alas! young man, what hideous fancies are these! The bones are bones of beeves, and sheep, and kids, and not, as you think, of men and women. Holy saints preserve us!”

“Hold thy peace! thy words are air. Thou hast not got burghers by the ear, that know not a veal knuckle from their grandsire’s ribs; but soldiers-men that have gone to look for their dear comrades, and found their bones picked as clean by the crows as these I doubt have been by thee and thy mates. Men and women, saidst thou? And prithee, when spake I a word of women’s bones? Wouldst make a child suspect thee. Field of battle, comrade! Was not this house a field of battle half an hour agone? Drag him close to me, let me read his face: now then, what is this, thou knave?” and he thrust a small object suddenly in his face.

“Alas! I know not.”

“Well, I would not swear neither: but it is too like the thumb bone of a man’s hand; mates, my flesh it creeps. Churchyard! how know I this is not one?”

And he now drew his sword out of the scabbard and began to rake the heap of earth and broken crockery and bones out on the floor.

The landlord assured him he but wasted his time. “We poor innkeepers are sinners,” said he; “we give short measure and baptize the wine: we are fain to do these things; the laws are so unjust to us; but we are not assassins. How could we afford to kill our customers? May Heaven’s lightning strike me dead if there be any bones there but such as have been used for meat. ’Tis the kitchen wench flings them here: I swear by God’s holy mother, by holy Paul, by holy Dominic, and Denys my patron saint — ah!”

Denys held out a bone under his eye in dead silence. It was a bone no man, however ignorant, however lying, could confound with those of sheep or oxen. The sight of it shut the lying lips, and palsied the heartless heart.

The landlord’s hair rose visibly on his head like spikes, and his knees gave way as if his limbs had been struck from under him. But the archers dragged him fiercely up, and kept him erect under the torch, staring fascinated at the dead skull which, white as the living cheek opposed, but no whiter, glared back again at its murderer, whose pale lip now opened and opened, but could utter no sound.

“Ah!” said Denys solemnly, and trembling now with rage, “look on the sockets out of which thou hast picked the eyes, and let them blast thine eyes, that crows shall pick out ere this week shall end. Now, hold thou that while I search on. Hold it, I say, or here I rob the gallows —” and he threatened the quaking wretch with his naked sword, till with a groan he took the skull and held it, almost fainting.

Oh! that every murderer, and contriver of murder, could see him, sick, and staggering with terror, and with his hair on end, holding the cold skull, and feeling that his own head would soon be like it. And soon the heap was scattered, and alas! not one nor two, but many skulls were brought to light, the culprit moaning at each discovery.

Suddenly Denys uttered a strange cry of distress to come from so bold and hard a man; and held up to the torch a mass of human hair. It was long, glossy, and golden. A woman’s beautiful hair. At the sight of it the archers instinctively shook the craven wretch in their hands: and he whined.

“I have a little sister with hair just so fair and shining as this,” gulped Denys. “Jesu! if it should be hers! There quick, take my sword and dagger, and keep them from my hand, lest I strike him dead and wrong the gibbet. And thou, poor innocent victim, on whose head this most lovely hair did grow, hear me swear this, on bended knee, never to leave this man till I see him broken to pieces on the wheel even for thy sake.”

He rose from his knee. “Ay, had he as many lives as here be hairs, I’d have them all, by God,” and he put the hair into his bosom. Then in a sudden fury seized the landlord fiercely by the neck, and forced him to his knees; and foot on head ground his face savagely among the bones of his victims, where they lay thickest; and the assassin first yelled, then whined and whimpered, just as a dog first yells, then whines, when his nose is so forced into some leveret or other innocent he has killed.

“Now lend me thy bowstring, Philippe!” He passed it through the eyes of a skull alternately, and hung the ghastly relic of mortality and crime round the man’s neck; then pulled him up and kicked him industriously into the kitchen, where one of the aldermen of the burgh had arrived with constables, and was even now taking an archer’s deposition.

The grave burgher was much startled at sight of the landlord driven in bleeding from a dozen scratches inflicted by the bones of his own victims, and carrying his horrible collar. But Denys came panting after, and in a few fiery words soon made all clear.

“Bind him like the rest,” said the alderman sternly. “I count him the blackest of them all.”

While his hands were being bound, the poor wretch begged piteously that “the skull might be taken from him.”

“Humph!” said the alderman. “Certes I had not ordered such a thing to be put on mortal man. Yet being there, I will not lift voice nor finger to doff it. Methinks it fits thee truly, thou bloody dog. ’Tis thy ensign, and hangs well above a heart so foul as thine.”

He then inquired of Denys if he thought they had secured the whole gang, or but a part.

“Your worship,” said Denys, “there are but seven of them, and this landlord. One we slew upstairs, one we trundled down dead, the rest are bound before you.”

“Good! go fetch the dead one from upstairs, and lay him beside him I caused to be removed.”

Here a voice like a guinea-fowl’s broke peevishly in. “Now, now, now, where is the hand? that is what I want to see.” The speaker was a little pettifogging clerk.

“You will find it above, nailed to the door-post by a crossbow bolt.”

“Good!” said the clerk. He whispered his master, “What a goodly show will the ‘pieces de conviction’ make!” and with this he wrote them down, enumerating them in separate squeaks as he penned them. Skulls — Bones — A woman’s hair — A thief’s hands 1 axe — 2 carcasses — 1 crossbow bolt. This done, he itched to search the cellar himself: there might be other invaluable morsels of evidence, an ear, or even an earring. The alderman assenting, he caught up a torch and was hurrying thither, when an accident stopped him, and indeed carried him a step or two in the opposite direction.

The constables had gone up the stair in single file.

But the head constable no sooner saw the phosphorescent corpse seated by the bedside, than he stood stupefied; and next he began to shake like one in an ague, and, terror gaining on him more and more, he uttered a sort of howl and recoiled swiftly. Forgetting the steps in his recoil, he tumbled over backward on his nearest companion; but he, shaken by the shout of dismay, and catching a glimpse of something horrid, was already staggering back, and in no condition to sustain the head constable, who, like most head constables, was a ponderous man. The two carried away the third, and the three the fourth, and they streamed into the kitchen, and settled on the floor, overlapping each other like a sequence laid out on a card-table. The clerk coming hastily with his torch ran an involuntary tilt against the fourth man, who, sharing the momentum of the mass, knocked him instantly on his back, the ace of that fair quint; and there he lay kicking and waving his torch, apparently in triumph, but really in convulsion, sense and wind being driven out together by the concussion.

“What is to do now, in Heaven’s name?” cried the alderman, starting up with considerable alarm. But Denys explained, and offered to accompany his worship. “So be it,” said the latter. His men picked themselves ruefully up, and the alderman put himself at their head and examined the premises above and below. As for the prisoners, their interrogatory was postponed till they could be confronted with the servant.

Before dawn, the thieves, alive and dead, and all the relics and evidences of crime and retribution, were swept away into the law’s net, and the inn was silent and almost deserted. There remained but one constable, and Denys and Gerard, the latter still sleeping heavily.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33