They were wandering through the forest in an endeavour to find the high road; the sun, nearly at its full strength, dazzled through the pines and traced figures of gold on the path they followed.
Theirry was silent; they were hungry, without money or any hope of procuring any, fatigued with the rough walking through the heat, and also, it seemed, lost; these facts were ever present to his mind; also, every step was taking him further away from Jacobea of Martzburg, and he longed to see her again, to make her notice him, speak to him; yet of his own desire he had left her castle ungraciously; these things held him bitterly silent.
But Dirk, though he was pale and weary, kept a light joyous heart; he had trust in the master he was serving.
“We shall be helped yet,” he said. “Were we not hopeless last night when one came and gave us shelter?”
Theirry did not answer.
The forest grew up the base of the mountain chain, and after a while, walking steadily, they came out upon a gorge some landslip had torn, uprooting trees and hurling aside rocks; over this bare space harshly cleared, water rippled and dripped, finding its way through fern-grown rocks and boulders until it fell into a little stream that ran across the open space of grass and was lost in the shadow of the trees.
By the side of it, on the pleasant stretch of grass, a small white horse was browsing, and a man sat near, on one of the uprooted pines.
The two students paused and contemplated him; he was a monk in a blue-grey habit; his face was infinitely sweet; with his hands clasped in his lap and his head a little raised he gazed with large, peaceful eyes through the shifting fir boughs to the blue sky beyond them.
“Of what use he!” said Theirry bitterly; since the Church had hurled him out the Devil was gaining such sure possession of his soul that he loathed all things holy.
“Nay,” said Dirk, with a little smile. “We will speak to him.”
The monk, hearing their voices, looked round and fixed on them a calm smiling gaze. “Dominus det nobis suam pacem,” he said.
Dirk replied instantly.
“Et vitam aeternam. Amen.”
“We have missed our way,” said Theirry curtly.
The monk rose and stood in a courteous, humble position.
“Can you put us on the high road, my father?” asked Dirk.
“Surely!” The monk glanced at the weary face of his questioner. “I am myself travelling from town to town, my son. And know this country well. Will you not rest a while?”
“Ay.” Dirk came down the slope and flung himself along the grass; Theirry, half sullen, followed.
“Ye are both weary and in lack of food,” said the monk gently. “Praise be to the angels that I have wherewithal to aid ye.”
He opened one of the leather bags resting against the fallen tree, took out a loaf, a knife and a cup, cut the bread and gave them a portion each, then filled the cup from the clear dripping water.
They disdained thanks for such miserable fare and ate in silence.
Theirry, when he had finished, asked for the remainder of the loaf and devoured that; Dirk was satisfied with his allowance, but he drank greedily of the beautiful water.
“Ye have come from Basle?” asked the monk.
“And we go to Frankfort.”
“A long way,” said the monk cheerfully. “And on foot, but a pleasant journey, certes.” “Who are you, my father?” asked Theirry abruptly. “I saw you in Courtrai, surely.”
“I am Ambrose of Menthon,” answered the monk. “And I have preached in Courtrai. To the glory of God.”
Both students knew the name of Saint Ambrose.
Theirry flushed uneasily.
“What do you here, father?” he asked. “I thought you were in Rome.”
“I have returned,” replied the saint humbly. “It came to me that I could serve Christus”— he crossed himself —“better here. If God His angel will it I desire to build a monastery up yonder —— above the snow.”
He pointed through the trees towards the mountains; his eyes, that were blue-grey, the colour of his habit, sparkled softly.
“A house to God His glory,” he murmured. “In the whiteness of the snows. That is my intent.” “How will you attain it, holy sir?” questioned Theirry.
Saint Ambrose did not seem to notice the mocking tone.
“I have,” he said, “already considerable moneys. I beg in the great castles, and they are generous to God His poor servant. We, my brethren and I, have sold some land. I return to them now with much gold. Deo gratias.”
As he spoke there was such a pure sweetness in his fair face that Theirry turned away abashed, but Dirk, lying on his side and pulling up the grass, answered —
“Are you not afraid of robbers, my father?”
The saint smiled.
“Nay; God His money is sacred even unto the evildoer. Surely I fear nothing.”
“There is much wickedness in the heart of man,” said Dirk. And he also smiled.
“Judge with charity,” answered Ambrose of Menthon. “There is also much goodness. You speak, my son, with seeming bitterness which showeth a soul not yet at peace. The wages of the world are worthless, but God giveth immortality.”
He rose and began fastening the saddle bags on the pony; as his back was turned Theirry and Dirk exchanged a quick look.
Dirk rose from the grass and spoke.
“May we, my father, come with you, as we know not the way?”
“Surely!” The saint looked at them, his eyes fixed half yearningly on Theirry’s beautiful face. “Ye are most welcome to my poor company.”
The little procession started through the pine forest; Ambrose of Menthon, erect, spare, walking lightly with untroubled face and leading the white pony, burdened with the saddle bags containing the gold; Theirry, sombre, silent, striding beside him, and Dirk, a little behind, in his flame-coloured mantle, his eyes bright in a weary face.
Saint Ambrose spoke, beautifully, on common things; he spoke of birds, of St. Hieronymus and his writings, of Jovinian and his enemy Ambrose of Milan, of Rufinus and Pelagius the Briton, of Vigilantius and violets, with which flowers, he said, the first court of Paradise was paved.
Dirk answered with a learning, both sacred and profane, that surprised the monk; he knew all these writers, all the fathers of the Church and many others, he quoted from them in different tongues; he knew Pagan philosophies and the history of the old world; he argued theology like a priest and touched on geometry, mathematics, astrology.
“Ye have a vast knowledge,” said Saint Ambrose, amazed; and in his heart Theirry was jealous.
And so they came, towards evening, on to the road and saw in a valley beneath them a little town.
All three halted.
The Angelus was ringing, the sound came sweetly up the valley.
Saint Ambrose sank on his knees and bowed his head; the students fell back among the trees. “Well?” whispered Dirk.
“It is our chance,” frowned Theirry in the same tone. “I have been thinking of it all day —” “I also; there is much money . . . ”
“We could get it without . . . blood?”
“Surely, but if need be even that.”
Their eyes met; in the pleasant green shade they saw each other’s excited faces.
“It is God His money,” murmured Theirry.
“What matter for that, if the Devil be stronger?”
“Hush! the Angelus ends.”
“Now — we join him.”
They sank on their knees, to rise as the saint got to his feet and glanced about him; at the edge of the wood they joined him and looked down at the town below.
“Now we can find our way,” said Dirk in a firm, suddenly changed voice.
Ambrose of Menthon considered him over the little white pony.
“Will you not bear me company into the town?” he asked wistfully; he did not notice that Theirry had slipped behind him.
Dirk’s eyes flashed a signal to his companion. “We will into the town,” he said, “but without thy company, Sir Saint, now!”
Theirry flung his mantle from behind and twisted it tightly over the monk’s head and face, causing him to stagger backwards; Dirk rushed, seized his thin hands, and strapped them together with the leather belt he had just loosened from his waist, and between them they dragged him into the trees.
“My ears are weary of thy tedious talk,” said Theirry viciously, “my eyes of thy sickly face.” They took the straps from the pony and bound their victim to a tree; it was an easy matter, for he made no resistance and no sound came from under the mantle twisted over his face.
“There is much evil in the heart of man,” mocked Dirk. “And much folly, oh, guileless, in the hearts of saints!”
Having seen to it that he was securely fastened the two returned to the pony and examined their plunder.
In one bag there were parchments, books, and a knotted rope, in the other numerous little linen sacks of varying sizes.
These they turned out upon the grass and swiftly unfastened the strings.
Gold — each one filled with gold, fine, shining coins with the head of the Emperor glittering on them.
Dirk retied the sacks and replaced them in the saddle bags; neither of them had seen so much gold together before; because of it they were silent and a little trembling.
Theirry, as he heard the good yellow money chink together, felt his last qualms go; for the first time since he had entered into league with the spirits of evil he had plain evidence it was a fine thing to have the Devil on his side. A stupefying pleasure and exaltation came over him, he did not doubt that Satan had sent this saintly man their way, and he was grateful; to find himself possessed of this amount of money was a greater delight than any he had known, even a more delightful thing than seeing Jacobea of Martzburg lean across the stream towards him.
As they reloaded the pony, managing as best they might without the straps, Dirk fell to laughing.
“I will get my mantle,” said Theirry; he went up to Ambrose of Menthon, telling himself he was not afraid of meeting the saint’s eyes, and unwound the heavy mantle from his head. The saint sank together like the dead.
Dirk still laughed, mounted on the white pony, flourishing a stick.
“The fellow has swooned,” said Theirry, bewildered.
“Well,” answered Dirk over his shoulder, “you can bring the straps, which we need, surely.” Theirry unfastened the monk and laid his slack body on the grass; as he did so he saw that the grey habit was stained with blood, there was wet blood, too, on the straps.
“Now what is this?” he cried, and bent over the unconscious man to see where he was wounded.
His searching hand came upon cold iron under the rough robe; Ambrose of Menthon wore a girdle lined with sharp points, that at every movement must have been torture, and that, at their brutal binding of him, had entered his flesh with an agony unbearable.
“Make haste!” cried Dirk.
Theirry straightened his back and looked down at the sweet face of Saint Ambrose; he wished that their victim had cried out or moaned, his silence being a hard thing to think of — and he must have been in a pain.
“Be quick!” urged Dirk.
Theirry joined him.
“What shall we do with — that man?” he said awkwardly; his blood was burning, leaping.
“’Tis a case for the angels, not for us,” answered Dirk. “But if ye feel tenderly (and certainly he was pleasant to us) we can tell, in the town, that we found him. ‘Deo gratias,’” he mocked the saintly, low calm voice, but Theirry did not laugh.
A splendid yellow sunset was shimmering in their eyes as they came slowly down into the valley and passed through the white street of the little town.
They visited the hostel, fed the white pony there and recounted how they had seen a monk in the wood they had just traversed, whether unconscious in prayer or for want of breath they had not the leisure to examine.
Then they went on their way, eschewing, by common consent this time, the accommodation of the homely inn, and taking with them a basket of the best food the town afforded.
Clearing the scattered cottages they gained the heights again and paused on the grassy borders of a mighty wood that spread either side the high road.
There they spread a banquet very different from the saint’s poor repast; they had yellow wine, red wine, baked meats, cakes, jellies, a heron and a basket of grapes, all bought with the gold Ambrose of Menthon had toiled to collect to build God’s house amid the snows.
Arranging these things on the soft grass they sat in the pleasant shade, luxuriously, and laughed at each other over their food.
The heavens were perfectly clear, there was no cloud in all the great dome of sky, and, reflecting on the night before, and how they had stood shivering in the wet, they laughed the more.
Then were they penniless, with neither hope nor prospect and in danger of pursuit. Now they were on the high road with more gold in their possession than they had ever seen before, with a horse to carry their burdens, and good food and delicate wine before them.
Their master had proved worth serving. They toasted him in the wine bought with God His money and made merry over it; they did not mention Ambrose of Menthon.
Dirk was supremely happy; everything about him was a keen delight, the fragrant perfume of the pine woods, the dark purple depths of them, the bright green grass, the sky changing into a richer colour as the sun faded, the mountain peaks tinged with pearly rose, the whole beautiful, silent prospect and his comrade looking at him with a smile on his fair face. A troop of white mountain goats driven by a shepherd boy went past, they were the only living things they saw.
Dirk watched them going towards the town, then he said —
“The chatelaine . . . Jacobea of Martzburg —” he broke off. “Do you remember, the first night we met, what we saw in the mirror? A woman, was it not? Her face — have you forgotten it?” “Nay,” answered Theirry, suddenly sombre.
Dirk turned to look at him closely.
“It was not Jacobea, was it?”
“It was utterly different,” said Theirry. “No, she was not Jacobea.”
He propped a musing face on his hand and stared down at the grass.
Dirk did not speak again, and after a while of silence Theirry slept.
With a start he woke, but lay without moving, his eyes closed; some one was singing, and it was so beautiful that he feared to move lest it should be in his dreams only that he heard it. A woman’s voice, and she sang loud and clearly, in a passion of joyous gaiety; her notes mounted like birds flying up a mountain, then sank like snowflakes softly descending.
After a while the wordless song died away and Theirry sat up, quivering, in a maze of joy. “Who is that?” he called, his eager eyes searching the twilight.
No one . . . nothing but the insignificant figure of Dirk, who sat at the edge of the wood gazing at the stars.
“I dreamt it,” said Theirry bitterly, and cursed his waking.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06