The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter x

Of the Conclave at Little Greece

At Mother Sweetbread’s he found the lean urchin Dickon of the Holt, whose rags now hung on yet barer bones. He greeted Peter with a pull of his forelock.

“They be after ye, master,” he said. “The other of you two, a tall man, him that set free the prisoner three nights back, has been at his tricks again. Maybe ’twas he set the Fettiplace men after ye, forbye that ye were seen this day in the forest. In less than an hour they’ll be here, for they know that this is your hidy-hole. They were to muster at Asthall crossroads, for I was dobbing down in a chump of furze and heard them plan it.”

“Are you hungry?” Peter asked, and the boy’s wolfish eyes answered.

“Give him food, mother,” said Peter. “There is a bare cupboard at the Holt.”

“There be no cupboard there,” said the boy, “and there be no Holt. When I followed ye t’other night, father he set the place afire, and hanged himself to a rafter, and him and mother was all burned to cinders.” He spoke calmly as if such doings were trivial, and his eyes followed Mother Sweetbread as she brought food.

“Then you have no home? Where do you sleep?”

“Where there is a chance of meat. Outside Martin Lee’s kennels, where I can pick up scraps from the hounds’ dish, or beside the swine-troughs up Swinbrook way. That’s how I come to hear the talk of the Fettiplace folk.”

“You will come with me, Dickon lad, for it seems you are destined to serve me. Have you any old garments of mine, mother, to amend his raggedness?”

“We must be on the move,” said Darking. “Little Greece is the best shelter. I know not if John Naps be there, but I have the right of entry, and no Fettiplace durst follow.”

Madge of Shipton took up the tale. She was in a sullen mood, and had sat mumbling to herself in a corner.

“What of Lovell’s gold, young sir? The gold I have tracked by my spells through air and earth and water? What of the treasure that will set you among kings?”

“Let the first comer have it,” said Peter. “I have no longer need of it. I am beholden to you, Mother Littlemouse, but I am done now with spells and treasure. I have a path to tread where it would only cumber me.”

Peter’s tone, solemn and resolute, woke Brother Tobias from the half-doze which the fatigues of the night had brought on him.

“And you, Father,” said Darking, “will sleep here the night, and to-morrow I will send a man who will lead you back to Oseney.”

“Not so, friend,” said the old man. “My bones are rested, and my horse can carry me to Little Greece, which I take to be no great journey. I have a notion that my son Peter will need my counsel, and Oseney can well spare me.”

“Then let us haste,” said Darking, “or we shall have the Fettiplaces on our backs, and I for one am in no mood for a mellay. Food, mother, for there may be no larder at Little Greece. Make speed, Dickon, with that new jerkin.”

When they left the cottage, Dickon in the frieze of Peter’s boyhood, Tobias stiff and weary on his ambling cob, Peter and Darking striding ahead, the clouds had for the most part lifted, and the moon was riding in mid-heaven. There was no sign of pursuit, as they entered the forest aisles, and in ten minutes, through Darking’s subtle leading, there was no fear of it. They were back in an ancient world where Darking, and indeed Peter himself, could baffle any Fettiplace lackey. The cold had lessened with the dark, and the wind seemed to have shifted, for it blew in their left ears now and not in their right. Darking sniffed the air. “Winter has taken a step back,” he said. “St Martin will not forget his little summer. The moles were throwing up fresh earth, so I knew that the frost would not hold.”

Few words were spoken on that journey, and none by Peter, for he was in the grip of a great awe and a new enlightenment. The tortured dead, sprawled by the locked door, had tumbled down his fine castle of dreams. What was the glory of the world if it closed in dry bones and withered skin? . . . Lovell had been, next the King, the greatest man in all England, and he had died like a rat in a trap, gnawing his fingers in his agony. The starved peasant gasping out his last breath in a ditch had a better ending. And, as Lovell, so had been his grandsire, Henry of Buckingham, and his father, save that their threads of life had been shorn by a clean axe in the daylight for all men to see. It was not death that he feared, but the triviality of life. He had the awe of the eternal upon him, and he saw mortal things as through an inverted spy-glass, small and distant against the vast deserts of eternity. . . . Only a few hours back his head had been full of trumpets and horsemen, and his blood as brisk as a March morning. Now they all seemed little things, short-lived and weakly. The song of Pierce the Piper came to his mind —

“Worm at my heart and fever in my head —

There is no peace for any but the dead.

Only the dead are beautiful and free —

Mortis cupiditas captavit me. . . . ”

But no, he had no craving for death, as he had no fear of it, and he did not yearn for a peace which was rottenness. It was the littleness of life that clouded his spirit.

He had known these moods of disillusion before, when light and colour had gone out of everything. At Oseney, often, when he was tempted to forswear his gods, and the solemn chants of the choir in the great abbey church and the manuscripts of Plato in Merton library alike seemed foolishness. Since his new life began, he had scarcely felt them; rather he had been filled with a young lust of living. But now he had seen the world grow suddenly small, once at Avelard when the gospeller spoke his testimony . . . once when he saw the dead woman in the hut at the Holt . . . and two nights ago when he had looked at the dying face of the Rustler. . . . And if earthly greatness had shrunk for him, he was not recompensed by any brighter vision of celestial glory. Was it accidia that troubled him, that deadly sin? Or was it illumination, the illumination of the King Ecclesiast, who had cried Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas.

Nay, there was one thing that was no vanity. In the atmosphere of decay which surrounded him one thing shone fresh and bright and living, a star among clouds, a rose among the graves. The beauty of Sabine came over him like a benediction. . . . He had got a new mind, he had told Madge of Shipton, and he had spoken the truth. In the last hour he had become very old and wise. He had sacrificed all his whimsies. He would do whatever work God called him to, but he asked no reward. He did not seek kingdoms or dukedoms, or purple and fine linen, or trampling armies behind him. Such pomps he renounced as willingly as any monk. But in his revulsion from death he hungered for life, and to him Sabine shone as life incarnate, youth in excelsis, beauty sanctified. A great tumult of longing filled him. A line of some forgotten wandering poet came into his head —

“O blandos oculos et inquietos!”

It was true; her eyes were both lovely and wild, unquiet and kind. He searched his memory for more. Illic — how did it go? — yes —

“Illic et Venus et leves Amores

Atque ipso in medio sedet Voluptas.”

He tried to turn the couplet into his own tongue:

“For there dwells Venus, and the tiny Loves,

And in their midst Delight.”

The word Voluptas offended him. It should have been Desiderium.

They threaded without challenge the maze of thorn scrub which surrounded Little Greece, and when they reached the great barn there was no light in it. But the door was unlocked, as Darking had told them was the custom, and within there was plenty of kindling, and on the rafters a ham or two and the side of a fat buck. Darking and Dickon, who showed himself assiduous in his new duties, made a fire on the stone floor, and from the bean straw in the far end shook out four beds. “We will rob old John’s larder,” said Darking, and he cut slices from one of the hams and fried them on Naps’s griddle. But of the party he alone ate, and Dickon, who had vast arrears to make up. Peter would have flung himself on his pallet that he might dream of his love, but Tobias detained him. The old man lay couched on the straw, his head on his hand, and the firelight on his face revealed an anxious kindliness.

“There are no secrets among us, son Peter,” he said. “For certain you have none from me, for I read you like a printed book. This night you have seen a vision, such as befell St Paul on the Damascus road. You have seen the vanity of earthly glory, and your soul is loosed from its moorings. Speak I not the truth?”

“It is the truth.” Peter spoke abstractedly, for he had been called from the deeps of another kind of meditation.

“I have wondered sometimes,” Tobias continued, “whether of late months you had not forgot your upbringing, and had become over~worldly for one of your high calling. The lust of the eyes and the pride of life were new things to you, and I have often feared that you were dazzled. But this night you spoke words which were balm to my heart. You said you had got you a new mind, and that you trod a road where Lovell’s gold would only cumber you. If you meant what I take it you meant, you have indeed had a baptism of grace. I would have had you get treasure that you might be the more free to work a noble purpose. But if you sought it only to hold your head higher among worldly men and attain more readily to worldly honour, then your purpose was evil and God in His mercy has frustrated it.”

Peter made no answer.

“For you are a soldier of Christ, my son.” The old man’s voice had a crooning tenderness. “If you fight in your own strength and for your own cause, you will go down — I know it as if God had whispered to me. You will be the third of your house to die a violent and a futile death. For you may drive out the Tudor and yet go the way of Duke Harry and Duke Edward, for he who draweth the sword in his own quarrel will himself be slain by the sword. But if you fight as the champion of God’s Church and His poor folk you cannot fail, for if you fall you fall a blessed martyr, and angels will waft you to Paradise — and if you win, your crown will be like the crown of Israel’s High Priest, with the words writ thereon, ‘Holiness to the Lord.’”

Tobias had raised himself on his couch, eyes and voice had become rapt like a prophet’s, and he held out his arms to Peter in an ecstasy of appeal. Then he sank back, for the fire blazed up in a sudden draught, and there was a bustle at the doorway.

John Naps had entered. The master of Little Greece was wrapped up in several ragged mantles, as if he had found the night chill. From these rags there protruded only some wisps of white hair, the long coppery nose, and the moist magisterial eyes.

“Ho, masters!” he cried, and his voice boomed like a bittern’s. “What a Christ’s mercy ha’ we here? Godsnigs, but you are at ease in another man’s house!” Then his eye fell on Darking. “Solomon, my love, is’t thee? Welcome, old friend, and I prithee present your company!”

Then he caught sight of Brother Tobias, and doffed his hat. “A brother of Oseney, i’ faith? My greeting, holy sir. Lardy! It is the good Tobias that never denied alms to a poor man. May your reverence feed high and sleep deep in John Naps’s kennel!”

His rheumy eyes next covered Peter. “Your ‘prentice, Solomon — the honest lad that attended ye at our parliament a month back?”

“Know him by his true name,” Solomon laughed. “To the king of the Upright Men I present Master Bonamy, out of the west country.”

The old whipjack’s face underwent a sudden change. The comedy left it, and it fell into the stern lines which Peter remembered. His voice, too, became hard and grave.

“Him that has the Word — our Word, Solomon! ’Twas passed to him a sennight back at Avelard, and he passed it to Catti the Welshman t’other day at Gosford. Bonamy, you say? Well, one name will serve the present need as well as another, but maybe the true one also spells with a B. Say, friend,” and he spoke low, “is’t the one we await? In the words of Holy Writ, is’t him that should come or must we look for another?”

“You have said it,” was Darking’s answer.

Naps cast off his ragged cloak and revealed a very respectable suit of brown frieze and leather. He bobbed on his knee before Peter, looking like some king of the gnomes with his domed skull, his mahogany cheeks, and his wisp of white beard. He took the young man’s right hand, and laid it on the crown of his own head and on his heart, mumbling all the while a thing like a paternoster. He took a water-jug which stood on the floor, and sprinkled some drops on his palm. He picked a half-burned stick from the fire, and quenched the glowing end with his wet fingers. Last, he plucked a knife from his belt, and drew the edge over the back of one thumb so that a drop of blood spurted. What he had done to his own left hand, he did to Peter’s right.

“I swear you the beggar’s oath of fealty, sire,” he said, and the whipjack had a sudden hierarchic dignity. “The oath by water and fire and cold steel and common blood. Whenever your call sounds, the beggars will rise around ye like an autumn mist out of every corner of England.”

Then his eyes became anxious.

“We be all true men here?” he asked. “The reverend father?”

“Be comforted, John,” said Darking. “’Twas he that had the bringing up of my lord. He knew his secret first of any.”

The whipjack’s humour changed, and he was again the jovial ruffian. He got himself some food, and made himself a bed of straw by Darking’s side.

“What brings this high and mighty company to Little Greece? Few, save ourselves, come here, unless the King’s law be troublesome.”

“’Tis the King’s law troubles us,” said Darking. “My lord has his own business about the land, and for the moment must lie as close as a badger in snow. But some nights ago there was trouble at the Holt about the setting free of a gospeller, who was captive to his grace of Lincoln, and through a trick the deed was blamed on my lord. This day we come again into this countryside to find the cry still out and the Fettiplace hounds hot on the scent. Wherefore we seek refuge in a place which no Swinbrook man dare enter.”

Naps laughed long and loud. “Behold the foppery of the world!” he shouted. “He that will soon be the first man in England is at the mercy of a loutish esquire who thinks to curry favour with Law. The good Tobias, a pillar of Holy Church, is privy to an offence against that Church, and must needs go into hiding. And these two great ones seek shelter from old John Naps, who all his days has had little favour from Church and none at all from Law. . . . But the cream of the jest ye have yet to hear.”

He lowered his voice.

“There is another seeking sanctuary. He knows the road hither, and may be here any moment, and his need is greater than yours, for he is the guilty man. Ye have heard, maybe, of the young lord of Boarstall, him they call Simon Rede, him that has been fighting overseas ever since his beard sprouted. It seems he has took up with the thing Gospel — though what this Gospel be I know not — some say ’tis a fetter to bind the poor and others a club to beat the rich. ’Twas he that freed the gospeller at the Holt, and hid him for the time in a place which I know but will not tell. This day he returned to put the man in still safer hiding, and get my help on the job, for Boarstall has ever been a kindly door to wandering men. Nay, Solomon, fear not. He is not one of us, as you are — as this lord is. He has not the Word. Well, he succeeded, and the gospeller, a sour, starveling fellow with no stomach for ale, was hid away as snug as a flea in a blanket. But Esquire Fettiplace’s long nose was smelling out the business, and, if he came on the scent of my lord here, he comes plump and fairly on the footprints of Master Rede. Wherefore these last hours the said Master Rede has been hard put to it to shake off the hounds. With my aid he has done it, for he doubled back in the forest, and I sent one of my lads on a horse to draw the hunt towards the Glyme, so that by this time the Fettiplace dogs are giving idle tongue in Wootton or Glympton. And Master Simon will presently be here, if he remembers my guiding and does not fall into Borney marl-pit or drown in Capperton mere. He will be a weary man, sore in need of bed and supper. . . . ”

Darking looked grave.

“There is no love between him and my lord. Also, he is said to be of the King’s faction, though he has a taste for this Gospel. Above all, he is not in the secret. We must be wary, John, and guard our speech, and do you, my lord, let wrongs be forgot for this night.”

The name of Simon Rede had stirred Peter into complete wakefulness, for it was with Sabine that he chiefly associated the squire of Boarstall. All his old jealousies revived. The theft of the cloak, the arrogant air of superiority — such offences now seemed trivial compared with the fact that he dared to raise his eyes to the girl at Avelard. . . . Was he certain? Might it not be only his fancy? He longed to have Simon face to face to make sure. And yet he dreaded the meeting, for the man rasped his soul like a rough cloth on a sore.

But Simon was long a-coming. That was a restless night in Little Greece, for midnight was past, and Naps was snoring like a trumpet, and Peter mazed with the wheel of thought that spun in his brain, and Tobias sleeping the light sleep of old age, when the door opened, and the dead embers of the fire blew up in spirals of cold ashes. Thereafter there was no more peace. Dickon set the fire going again, and further rashers were set to broil, and Peter, elaborately incurious, at last raised his eyes to see on the straw opposite him the tall figure he knew so well.

Simon had had a rough journey. His boots were mired above the knee, and his hose and doublet had suffered heavily from the thorn scrub. But his dark face seemed content. He had a mug of ale in his hand — for Naps had revealed a secret store — and when he caught Peter’s eye he raised it to him.

“Greeting, Master Bonamy,” he said. “We are fated, it seems, to forgather in strange places. That cloak of mine, now? You have your own back, and I would welcome my own old mantle.”

He laughed, but there was no malice in the laugh. He seemed a new being, a boyish, friendly figure, that played pranks and frankly avowed them. Peter answered in the same strain.

“The frost has gone, so you will need it the less. But ’tis at Mother Sweetbread’s by Leafield under the Forest when you care to seek it.”

“I thank you for your stewardship. I make you my compliments, too, on the speed of your travels, for you cover the countryside like a Welsh cattle-lifter. I leave you by the Burford road, and twenty~four hours later meet you on the Oxford plainstones, and now I find you thirty miles off by the springs of Evenlode. You must have weighty business on your hands.”

“Weighty enough, but less urgent than yours, it seems. Have you gotten yon gospeller into safe hiding at last?”

The man’s face hardened.

“Please God, he is now where no Bishop’s jackal will ever unearth him!” He stopped, for he saw the eyes of Brother Tobias fixed on him, and he realised for the first time that Tobias wore the Oseney habit.

“What does a monk in Little Greece?” he asked sharply of Naps, and his eye was stern and wary, while his hand travelled to his side.

“Be comforted, master,” said Naps. “None that shelter here dare speak what they learn beyond these walls. That is the first of our laws, and it is death to break it. . . . These gentles know your tale. They, too, have had trouble this very day from the Fettiplace folk that hunted you. We be all comrades, and secret as a stone tomb.”

Then Tobias spoke. He had had all the sleep he needed, and now sat up, very wakeful.

“In spite of my habit, friend, I am not against you. I am not of those who would punish man for giving the Scriptures to the commons — in truth I laboured myself in that cause long ere you were born. To-day there is a sad confusion on the matter in the Church’s rule and the King’s laws. I wish yon gospeller relief from his tribulations. My hand would never be lifted against such as he.”

Simon looked at him harshly, till the gentleness in the old man’s face and voice seemed to thaw his suspicions.

“Is it so?” he said. “Then there is one honest Christian in the abbeys?”

“There be many,” Tobias answered. “And there be many kinds of Christian. You are young and I am old, and youth is a hard judge. God has not made all His servants of one mould.”

“That is strange doctrine for an Oseney brother. The Church would have every man and woman conform to its own rusty pattern, and those that jib at such antique moulds and seek the liberty of God’s children she dubs heretics and would consume with fire.”

“You are harsh to the Church, good sir. Maybe, you have met too many worthless clerks.”

“I have met worthy and worthless, but they are alike in bonds. See, father. I have been wearing my youth in far lands where there is no room for cloistered virtues, and I have learned the greatness of God in deep waters and on desperate battlefields. I return to find those who call themselves His servants in this land making a mockery of His service — babes mazed in childish mummeries or hucksters selling God’s mercies for gain. Wherefore I say — and I will cry it on the housetops — that there is need of a harsh broom and a strong broom in England.”

“Doubtless,” said Tobias. “I have long pled for such a broom. But see that it truly sweeps out the foul corners, and does not hurt the tender and gracious things.”

“In such a sweeping frail things must be broke. It is a cheap price to pay for a cleaner land.”

“When you have emptied the sanctuary and burned its old furniture how will you furnish it anew?”

“With the plain truth of God’s Scriptures,” said Simon.

“That were well. I have preached for thirty years that man must go back to the Scriptures. And yet — and yet. The Church is a fold for all, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, the child and the grown. If she do no more than preach the bare and difficult sentences of God’s Word, her meat will be too strong for her little ones, and her poor ones. The Word must be tempered and translated for the weaker lambs of the fold.”

“It must be the truth,” said Simon, “the truth, the naked truth, without human trimmings.”

“The truth!” Tobias dwelt long on the word. “No doubt such fare would be fit for your puissant youth. But for the simple and the unlettered? . . . Moreover, what is the truth? ’Tis a question no philosopher has yet answered. What is the truth of the Scriptures? There be many commentators, and they are not agreed, for Clement says one thing, and Athanasius another, and Austin a third, and the great St Thomas may differ from all.”

Simon shook his head angrily. “That is a monkish subtlety. The truth is plain to read for all that have eyes and an honest heart.”

“The truth may be, the truth of man’s salvation, but men are a diversity of creatures, and it must present itself to them in different forms. I have lived in this world nigh three-score and ten years, and I fear to circumscribe by mortal dogma the infinite ways of God. I incline to the belief that in the light of eternity all our truths are shadows, and that the very truth we shall only know hereafter. Yet I think that every truth in its own place is a substance, though it may be a shadow in another place. And I think that all such shadows have value for our souls, for each is a true shadow, as the substance is a true substance.”

Simon looked long at Tobias, and something melted in him under that innocent gaze.

“I think you are a good man,” he said. “But what would you do in the present discontents? You will not deny that the Church has fallen from its high estate, and that the religious houses are too often haunts of lechery and greed.”

Tobias smiled. “I would use the broom — a stiff broom. But I would not burn down an ancient dwelling whose walls are sound because there is filth in some of the rooms. I would not give the worldly man what was destined for God, and I would not, like the King’s grace, slay men because they account that to be a shadow which some hold truth, and truth what many call shadow.”

“Ay. That’s the rub and a plague on it! I am a man that loves clear courses. I am for the King against the abbeys, but I am most vehemently against the King in this matter of heresy. I am of those that the Spaniard calls Luteranos, who would have God’s revelation rewrit for simple men. But for the one faith the Bishops would burn me if they had the power, and for the other the King would assuredly hang me. . . . ’Tis a hard choice, yet on the whole I am for the King’s way of it. He has men around him who may guide him into wiser roads. But if the Church and the Pope once again put their foot on his neck, then farewell to all hope for England.”

He cast his eye round the company. Peter lay on the straw, his eyes half shut; Naps was busy with the blackjack; Tobias sat erect with his hood fallen back from his bald head; Dickon was asleep, and Darking’s sombre face was heavy with its own thoughts.

“We here in Little Greece,” Simon cried, “are for the moment of one company. We can speak freely, for our lips hereafter are sealed. There is word of a great revolt preparing against the King, with the Church behind it, and the Church’s serfs, and many great ones whom Harry has flouted! What know you of it, John Naps? Your ear is very close to English ground.”

“Look Lincoln way,” said the whipjack. “The trouble has begun there, and there is word that it is spreading northward.”

“There is more in it than that. The rising in the east is an affair of peasants, which the King’s men-at-arms will crush. But strange tales come out of the west, and that is a graver matter.”

He suddenly dropped the guarded tone he had been using and spoke out like a soldier crying a command.

“Who is this Master Bonamy that spends his time on the road between Oxford and Avelard? What part has he in those doings? I have heard a whisper of strange tales.”

Peter’s head buzzed like a hive, there was heaviness about his eyes, and pain in the back of his neck. He had scarcely listened to the talk, for his wits were wool-gathering. But he pulled himself together at the challenge.

“Little Greece is a sanctuary,” he said, speaking his words slowly and with difficulty, “but it is not a confessional, and you, Master Rede, have no warrant as an inquisitor. . . . I am the Lord Avelard’s heir.”

“Doubtless,” said Simon. “But what does the heir of Avelard do so far from his manor west of Severn? What does he at Avelard itself and at Stowood and Wood Eaton?”

“I will answer you of my courtesy,” said Peter. “I am in those parts because I am paying court to a lady — my lord’s niece.”

Simon started as if a whiplash had stung him.

“Sabine! Mistress Beauforest! Man, she is affianced to me. We were boy and girl together in the Boarstall woods.”

Then his face flushed deep and his temper broke.

“The devil take you for your insolence! . . . By God, you will never get her. . . . If yon old fox at Avelard play false to me and her dead father, I will wring his neck though all Severn side were at his back.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50