The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter xiii

The Unloosing of the Waters

Peter lay two days abed at Avelard, while the snow muffled the land, made plains of villages, and built new mountains on the levels. Recovering from a great fatigue is in early youth a pleasant thing. Weakness, after a man has slept his fill, passes into a delicious languor, hourly the blood runs more strongly in the veins, hunger revives, the scents and sounds of a recovered life come with a virgin freshness. . . . Peter lay in a delectable dream, while Sabine brought his meals — first possets of ewes’ milk and white claret, then eggs beaten up with cordials, till his restored strength demanded solider fare. He looked at her without embarrassment — nay, with a kind of cool affection. She was part of the beatific vision he had seen, but part only: now he had gotten a divine discontent and had his mind on the stars.

He rose on the third day, a whole man in body and a new man in spirit. He had come suddenly to maturity, and all the hesitations and doubts of his youth had dropped from him like an old cloak. He felt himself in the mood for command. He could now bend men to his will, for his purpose was a clear flame. No hazard was too great, for he had lost fear. The word of the Israelitish prophet rang in his ears: “Who art thou that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die, and of the son of man which shall be made as grass?”

When on the third day he met Lord Avelard he found that the awe in which he had always held him had gone. This was an old man he looked on, an old man near the end of his days, tramping wearily in the world’s mire. Such an one could not mould the fates of the land; it was very necessary that he himself should be up and doing. Peter felt his youth and vigour surge within him like springtide.

“You are like Phoebus new-risen,” said the old man, and there was that in his eye which wondered. This man that stood before him was not the stripling he had known.

“I feel within me the strength of ten,” Peter replied. “In four days, my lord, it will be St Lucy’s feast. I must be stirring. What news of the King?”

“Darking came here yesterday. The Welshman will pass Christmas at Woodstock. He leaves Windsor to-morrow, and will travel by Reading and Watlington and Hasely. That is his accustomed road, but hitherto he has made his progresses in the height of summer, or in September when the buck are fat. What is his purpose, think you? By the rules of common wisdom he should sit snug in Windsor, or, if he move, go north to the Yorkshire dales, where the trouble waxes daily. ’Tis said he has pardoned the chief rebels there, but his clemency has not abated the discontent.”

“He must have news which makes him fear the west more than the north.”

Lord Avelard nodded.

“Doubtless. And that is the doing of Crummle and his vagabond commissaries. They have been into every abbey on Thames and Severn, and though our plans are well guarded we could not hope that some rumours of them would not escape. The Welshman wishes to learn our condition for himself and, if need be, to strike the first blow. I think that purpose will miscarry.”

“What force does he bring to Woodstock?”

“No more than a hundred mounted men of my lord Shrewsbury’s. . . . Elsewhere things go happily for us. As I told you, Henry has broke with the Emperor and is now hotly abetting the French King. Therefore the Emperor is with us, and he is sending money — his legate Reginald Pole, him that is Clarence’s grandson, is even now awaiting a ship on the Flanders coast. Also James of Scotland is moving on the northern marches, and his holiness of Durham will find it hard to stay him. There is good news, too, of my lord of Exeter. It seems that the Cornishmen would make him king, but my lord’s heart fails him for such a flight. All he seeks is the Welshman’s downfall, and at the word from us he will march on Bristol.”

“But what of the King at Woodstock? He may be at Avelard gate while we are busy with our muster.”

Lord Avelard smiled. “That is not the way of the King’s grace. He will sit snug in Woodstock and send out intelligencers, and it will be odds against those intelligencers ever returning. Besides, the snow will hamper him. You cannot ride fast on muffled roads.”

Then the two fell to the study of papers and plans. What had hitherto been to Peter a half-understood game which he was content to leave to others had now become a passionate absorption on which his mind worked with precision and speed. He asked a hundred questions; he pressed for exact answers; he made computations of his own, and questioned some of the details of Neville’s plan. Lord Avelard opened his eyes. “These last days you have become a soldier, my son,” he said. “No doubt the gift was in your blood, but what has brought it to birth? Whence got you the light?”

“As Paul got it on the road to Damascus,” said Peter and turned again to the papers.

“I must go abroad,” he said at last. “There are loose nails which need a hammer to drive them home, and the time grows scant. There will be many of the commons that cry out for the Five Wounds and the Holy Blood of Hailes, while the watchword of the lords will be God and the Swan. I must be the one to blend the two into a single army.”

“Then God prosper you, for you will find it no mean labour. There is much wild stuff about in this west of ours. There is a mad Carmelite, who claims that his order descends from Elijah and that he is Elijah reincarnate, sent by God to hew down the groves of Baal — by which groves he signifies the King’s Court and Council. He and his like will need a stout spur to break to harness.”

“I must be that spur,” said Peter.

Lord Avelard looked at him curiously.

“There are ill tidings from Marchington,” he said. “It seems that my lord Abergaveny is mortal sick and like to die. He has been frail these last months, and has ridden his body too hard. He was to be our leader in the field, for he has more skill of war than Norfolk and Suffolk and Shrewsbury joined together. His brother, Sir Thomas, is in Wales, bringing in the hill levies. If my lord should die, the other brother, Sir Edward, must take his place.”

“Nay,” said Peter, “there can be but one commander, and I am he. I, and no other, am Bohun. . . . This afternoon I ride to Marchington.”

A smile, mingled of humorous surprise, respect and kindliness, broke over the waxen face.

“I commend your spirit, my son. You have assuredly seen a great light. . . . But you cannot yet ride to Marchington. The snow has ceased falling, but it lies twelve feet deep in every hollow, and Marchington is in the river meadows. You must wait for friendlier weather. I think the change is nigh, for the wind is shifting. What we want is a binding frost which will last till the new year, to set a crust on the snow and make easy travelling. For, as you well know, our people have far to come.”

But that afternoon the wind moved not to the east as some had foretold, but against the sun into the west. Out in the drifts of the park, which had been hard enough for a man to walk on, Peter noted the thaw beginning before the dark fell. In his bed that night he found his blankets too heavy and the room airless, and when he opened the lattice a mild wind fanned his face. At sunrise he saw a strange sight. A black thundercloud swamped the sky, from which the lightning flashed, and the waning moon in that strange radiance showed red as blood.

Then, in one unbroken and relentless deluge, came the rain.

Never in the memory of the oldest man had the fountains of heaven been thus unloosed. It fell as the snow had fallen — as if the clouds were bags of water which drooped near the ground and then discharged themselves in an even torrent. Under the red dawn the earth had been one vast white counterpane, running into hills and ridges, but otherwise unfeatured. By midday it was already piebald. Forests were showing sodden crests, the scarp of Cotswold had resumed its normal shape, every lane was a rushing river where nothing mortal could live. The silence of the snowbound world was exchanged for a devil’s kitchen of sound — the unending beat of the falling rain, the rumour of cascading waters, the sudden soft crush which told that a slope had melted into mud or that a tall tree had slipped down to join the chaos in the valley.

In such weather no man durst tempt the roads. With bitten lips Peter sat in his chamber, watching the grey mists droop over Severn. In two days the hour of destiny would strike, and how could men muster in a dissolving world? . . . Again and again he essayed the out-of-doors, only to be driven back by the deluge. He had a horse saddled, but the beast could not progress a hundred yards on what had once been dry Cotswold slopes but were now a slippery glacis of mud. . . . What would the rivers be like in another day and night? The air was too thick to give him any prospect, but he could hear Severn — miles away — roaring like an ocean. And what of Usk and Wye and Teme and Clun, which the Marchmen must cross? What of Avon which guarded Warwickshire? What of the little rivers which barred the road to Oxford? What, above all, of the northern streams which lay in the path of Westmoreland and Cumberland and the Stanleys?

It rained for seventy-three hours, till the eve of St Lucy, just before the darkening. There was not a speck of snow left except some dirty streaks in the lee of walls and ditches. Every inch of soil was sodden a yard deep, and when the sky cleared towards sunset Severn was seen to be the better part of a mile wide, a turbid lagoon like an arm of the sea.

At dawn on St Lucy’s day Peter rode to Marchington. The air was as mild as June, the sun shone through a watery mist, and everywhere rose pale exhalations from the infinity of floods. Often he had to swim his horse across meres which had once been Cotswold meads, strange waters indeed, for instead of clumps of rushes to stud them they had the tops of thorn trees. Marchington moat was a swirling torrent, and Peter had to leave his horse on the near side, and make a perilous passage of the drawbridge on foot.

He found death within. The old lord had given up the ghost two days before, and now lay in grim state in the hall under a splendid mortcloth till such time as he could be moved to the family sepulchre. The pale wife flitted in the background like a shade. Beside the dead stood an angry man whose lantern jaws and drooping nose proclaimed his kinship.

“Here is the confusion of Hell,” the man cried. “Brother George is a corpse and brother Thomas is in Wales and Noah’s flood roars between us. The new lord — my nephew and yours, young sir — is with his cousins in Kent. The house of Neville is most plaguily scattered at this hour when it should be bound tight together, and they tell me that Henry is in Woodstock waiting to pounce like a crow on our broken meats. God’s wounds, but the Devil has come to his own these days!”

“There will be no crossing Bran or Towey or Usk or Wye for a sennight,” Sir Edward went on, “and that only if the rain holds off, and a man might as well hope to swim the Narrow Seas as to ford Severn. And there is still rain to come. . . . So says my armourer, and he can smell it a week off in the sky.”

It was long before Peter could divert him from his passionate maledictions, uttered often in a strange tongue, for he had lived much with the mountain folk.

“Our spearhead is the Welsh,” he ended, “who can march thirty miles in a day and then fight like wild-cats; and where in God’s name are the Welsh? Sitting by smoky fires on the sodden ground watching the rivers roar to the sea. Sorry am I for him that comes within a mile of brother Thomas, for his temper will be like a flaming oven. . . . Ay, they could march a circuit by the river heads, but ‘twould take them a month to reach us, and by that time all England would be agog. Our blow was to be secret and swift, and now ’twill be as slow as the stumbling of a woman in labour. . . . ’Tis no better up north. If Severn is swollen, so likewise will be Avon, and Avon, flowing through the marshlands, will not decline till Easter. And what of Shropshire and Cheshire and Lancashire and Westmoreland? We are islanded here on a knuckle of Cotswold and cut off from all England. The King has got a better ally in this devil’s weather than a thousand Norfolks. ’Tis your family blight, my lord. Duke Harry, your grandsire, in Richard’s day perished because of the same accursed floods.”

In the end Sir Edward’s passion spent itself, and he spoke soberly.

“My counsel is to let our levy dissolve, even as the hillsides have melted in the rain. The weather, which has frustrated it, will also conceal it. For a month this west country will be a secret land, with none coming or going, and Henry at Woodstock may guess as he likes, but he will have no proof to offer Council. I will contrive to get word to brother Thomas and to the northern lords. Let my lord Avelard make haste to Woodstock to forestall gossip, and invite his liege lord to a merry-making at Avelard. . . . The Cotswold men, you say? Nay, they are too few, and without the Welsh behind them they will not stir. Sudely and Boteler and Noel are shrewd folk, and the wool-staplers are shrewder. Here and there you may get a mad squire or a mad priest to run his head into the noose, but not the solid men. . . . As for you, my lord, my counsel is that you get you back to Avelard, and lie as close as the fox till the King goes eastward again. You may thank the mercies of God that you have not yet shown yourself in the light of day.”

Peter argued and pled, but the man was stubborn. He had his nephew to think of, whose guardian he now was, and he would not fling away the Neville and Beauchamp lands on any wild hazard.

From Marchington Peter rode north to the squires that lived on the slopes looking toward Avon. From the Traceys he got some comfort; that stout house would mount for God and the Swan though not a Welshman crossed Severn. But the Traceys were alone in their careless valour; elsewhere he found only long faces and heads cautiously shaken. From one spur he got a prospect which confirmed his worst fears. The vale of Evesham was a sea from which the tops of trees and church towers rose like foundered ships. With Avon and Severn thus swollen the road from the north was securely barred.

On his way back to Avelard he fell in with a white friar, the very Carmelite who claimed to be Elijah’s successor. The man sat beside a sheepfold, sodden and travel-worn, muttering prayers. By some strange divination he seemed to recognise Peter — or perhaps took him for some local leader — for he seized his bridle, and poured forth a torrent of ravings, mingled with texts from the Apocalypse.

“Fear not, my son,” he cried. “The word of God is with me, His prophet, to bid you go up against the evil city — the city which is spiritually called Sodom and Babylon, where also our Lord was crucified. The windows of Heaven have been opened, but not in your despite, for the waters will cumber the evil ones, but for you they will be cleft apart as the Red Sea at the command of Moses. I say unto you that a handful will put to flight ten thousand, and three banded in God’s name will become a multitude.”

The man was mad, but there was method in his madness, for he preached what to Peter seemed good strategy. Let them go up at once against the city — whether Oxford or London was not clear — for every delay would enable the ungodly to assemble, whereas, if taken by surprise, they would be shepherdless sheep. The wild figure in that lonely hollow of the hills, rugged as a tree against the twilit sky, affected him strangely. He dismounted, and knelt to receive the Carmelite’s blessing. And, as he cantered through the soaked Avelard meadows, he felt his resolution grow more desperate. If the odds were weighted against him so much the more work for God’s hand. . . . Besides, were the odds really increased? What crippled them and shore their levy of its strength would likewise cripple and lull their enemies.

At Avelard he found Darking. He had come from the east, and reported mighty floods in the Oxford rivers. Nevertheless, they could be passed by men who knew the ways of them. . . . The King had reached Woodstock. He had with him an escort of Shrewsbury’s men, but he had also called for levies from the local lords, avowedly for the Yorkshire campaign, where the rising of peasants and gentry might at any moment be increased by the advent of the King of Scots. . . . Meanwhile he was hunting in the great park, so far as the weather allowed, since the open winter had kept the deer in season. . . . Crummle had been with him, but had now returned to London. He had a posse of secretaries, but none of the great lords of the Council. . . . And then he added a piece of news which made Lord Avelard frown. Sir Gabriel Messynger was with him, specially summoned out of Kent.

It was plain that Lord Avelard was in deep perplexity. He was of a stouter heart than Sir Edward Neville, or maybe had more to gain and lose. He was not ready to give up an enterprise which had been so long the chief preoccupation of his brain. On the other hand, he had none of the simple passion of the Traceys, and had no mind to go crusading unless there was a reasonable chance of victory. He laughed to scorn the Neville advice that he should go forthwith to Woodstock and seek the King’s favour. “I shall bide here,” he said. “The next move is for the Welshman to make. He knows nothing of what we have done, and will know nothing, unless he clap all the west country in prison and put it to the rack. Our secret is confined to true men.”

“What of Sir Gabriel?” Peter asked.

Lord Avelard replied with a laugh in which to Peter’s ear there was a trace of disquiet.

“Sir Gabriel is the deepest involved of any. He was our go-between to the northern lords, and has twice followed Neville into Wales. There is nothing new in his going to Court. He was bred there as a youth, whence the touch of the popinjay in his manners.”

“We cannot sit idle,” said Peter. “Either we must do as Sir Edward advises, send word to Wales and the north, and call off all preparations. Or we must strike now, trusting to win such vantage that, when the floods abate and our army arrives, we shall be able to use it to deadly purpose.”

Darking nodded, as if in agreement, but Lord Avelard flung up his hand impatiently.

“How in God’s name can we strike? We have nothing at our command but our Cotswold neighbours, and you have seen their mood to-day. We might take Oxford by a bold stroke, but we should be scattered long before we were twenty miles on the London road.”

“Assuredly,” said Peter. “My mind was not on London, for it is certain that we must revise our plan.”

“Then where? Oxford is useless, except as a step. Windsor is seventy miles off. . . . ”

“It has come nearer these last days. I think Windsor is now in Woodstock park.”

The old man stared and Darking smiled.

“See, my lord,” Peter went on. He had risen from his chair and stood in the glow of the hearth, tall and straight, tense as a strung bow. His face had lost all the softness of the boy’s, and was set in hard lines.

“See, my lord. I am Bohun, and it is right that I run the chief hazard. The King is at Woodstock by God’s grace, and has but a small force to guard him. What of the Oxford squires?” He turned to Darking.

“Sir Ferdinando Fettiplace with twenty men rode to Woodstock this morning, but he was sent back to Swinbrook to wait further commands. With the waters out the muster will be slow.”

“That is well. The King has but the Shrewsbury men around him and the park rangers. Give me a hundred spears, and, so be they are true folk, I will engage to bring the King’s grace captive to Avelard. . . . Then, when our own men muster, we shall confront a leaderless enemy. We have the chance to seize on the very keep and citadel of the foe, and there are enough stout fellows in Cotswold for the work. . . . If the venture succeed, then we are three parts of the road to the freeing of England. If it fail, some honest lads will go to Paradise, among them a nameless clerk of Oseney.”

The old man gazed at the speaker, and into his face came a sudden flush which told of something deeply stirred in his heart.

“‘Fore God,” he cried, “you are true Bohun! True Bohun and true Percy, for old Hotspur has come to life in you. God go with you, my son. There is a madness that is better than wisdom.”

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