The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter xiv

How Peter Strove with Powers and Principalities

St Thomas’s eve was quiet and very mild. There had been no winds to abate the flood-water and dry the sodden meadows, so the valleys were still lagoons and every rivulet an encroaching mere. The rendezvous was in the distant hollows of Wychwood, and thither the little bands from the western Cotswold moved under cover of night.

Peter, with Dickon and a dozen picked Avelard men, took the road by Stow, where the wolds made easy travelling. Word had come that the bridge at Charlbury could be passed, the only crossing of Evenlode, and such a route would take them over Windrush near its source. All were to move slowly and secretly, keeping to cover by day, and making the next stage in the darkness. There were to be no liveries or badges among them, but each man as drab as a deer~stealer.

At cockcrow, when they stopped for meat on Naunton downs, the Carmelite came out of the shadows, his white gown showing in the half-light like a monstrous owl. He knelt and mumbled Peter’s hand, and then his wild eyes scanned his following, and he cried out like a man in pain:

“Where is the trampling of the horsemen?” he screamed, “the mighty array that should sweep the hosts of Midian into the deep ocean? I see but a handful of country folk! Where is your army, my lord? Remember, you go up against the great city of Babel, and her towers are iron and her battlements of hewn stone.”

The man was not easy to soothe.

“The others will come in good time, father,” Peter told him. “We are only like the scouts sent out by Joshua to spy the land. Get you back to your cell, for you can help best by your prayers. We travel secretly and your exhortations may do us a mischief.”

In the end he flitted off, his arms waving and his voice falling and rising in what seemed now a chant and now a moan; but Peter noted with disquiet that the road he took was not west but east.

At Slaughter, where the little river was ill to ford, there was a mad woman in the hamlet who found their camping place in the woods. She seemed to divine their purpose, for she cried around them like a lost soul. It seemed that she was come to warn, and the Avelard men’s faces blanched at the sight of her.

“Back to your homes, my darlings,” she cried. “I see blood in Evenlode, and blood in Glyme, and blood in Cherwell, which all the floods will not wash away. That road there are pretty lads hanging on every tree. Back to your sweethearts, for there are no honest maids where you be going.”

Over Peter’s shoulder she flung a ragged wreath of holly and ivy, such as are made for the Christmas pleasantries.

“May your lordship’s grace be decked with no harsher crown!” she cried, and then fled babbling into the covert.

It was clear that strange rumours had gone abroad in the countryside, for, stealthy as was their journey, they seemed to be expected. If in the twilight they skirted a village street, the doors were shut, but there were curious eyes at the windows. The children had been forewarned; they stared with open mouths, but spoke no word, and did not run away. The Avelard men, who had been advised of the deep secrecy of the journey, were perturbed by this atmosphere of expectation, and spoke aside among themselves. Peter scarcely noticed it. His thoughts had flung ahead, out of this sheepwalk country to the glades of Woodstock, where somewhere a ruddy man was breathing his horse and looking doubtfully towards the west.

At Chadlington in the early hours of the night Darking met them.

“Evenlode runs like a mill-leat,” he said, “but the causeway holds. I can guide you across, my lord. Others are before you, and I have left those who will lead them to their appointed places. Pity you have drawn your folk from High Cotswold, where there is nought but thorns a man’s height. Our work will be in a forest, and these Tracey lads have never seen the tall trees and are easily mazed among them.”

Darking brought news of the King. “I have passed the word among the Upright Men,” he said, “and there are many quick eyes in the Woodstock coverts. See, my lord, yon spark of light in the valley. That is Little Greece, where old John Naps now sits at the receipt of custom. He will be eyes and brain to us. . . . King Harry is snug at Woodstock with my lord Shrewsbury’s men to guard him. He hunts daily, but only in the park, for the floods have narrowed his venue. Glyme is a young ocean, and Evenlode below Wilcote fills the vale to the brim. I doubt if we have seen the end of this overflow. The snow-cap on High Cotswold is still melting with the mild air, as your lordship has seen this day, and that will prevent the streams abating. Nay, they may rise higher yet, for in certain valleys lakes have formed through the damming of trees and sliding earth, and any hour the dams may break and send down a new deluge. It is fickle weather for our enterprise, and we be terribly at the mercy of God.

“What keeps the King in keeps us out,” he went on. “There is nothing to be done inside the pales of Woodstock, where every furlong has its verderer. We are like a troop sitting round a fortalice which it cannot enter. . . . Heaven send the weather let Harry go forth. That is what he longs for, since the hunting in the park is a child’s game to the hunting in the forest. ’Tis the great yeld hinds of Wychwood that he seeks. Pray for a cold wind and a drying wind, so long as it do not freeze.”

Darking guided them skilfully across the Charlbury bridge. A causeway of hewn stone led up to it at either end, but this was hidden in the acres of eddying water. A man who did not know the road would have slipped into the swirl, but Darking kept them on the causeway, where the stream was not beyond the horses’ withers. Presently they were on the arch of the bridge, and then on the farther causeway, where the eddies were gentle, and then on the hard ground of the forest slopes. By midnight they were encamped in a dingle of dead bracken, hidden as securely as if they had lain in the Welsh hills.

There were five such encampments within the forest bounds, and by the next morning all the men had arrived — a hundred picked spearmen, some of them old soldiers of the French wars, all of them hard and trusty and silent. For the present their task was to lie hidden, and they were safe enough from prying eyes, for the King had appointed no new keeper of Wychwood in the place of the dead Norris, and every ranger and verderer was Darking’s man. Also there was an outer guard of the vagabonds under the orders of John Naps at Little Greece.

Peter inspected the five companies and approved, but Darking shook his head. “They are lithe fellows, but they belong to the bare hills. Stout arms, no doubt, in a mellay, and good horsemen in the open, but I cannot tell how they will shape in our forest work. They are a thought too heavy-footed for that secret business. God send our chance comes in the open.”

It was a blue day, mild and sunny, with but a breath of wind, and that soft from the south.

“We are for Woodstock park, my lord,” said Darking. “You and I alone, and on foot, for we go as spies. Follow my lightest word, for your life may hang on it. And shed most of your garments. The air is mild and there is swimming before us.”

In shirt and hose and deerskin shoes they made for the old bridge below Finstock, which a week before had been swept down to Thames. Here Evenlode ran for ordinary in a narrow stream which spread into a broad mill-pond. Now it was all one waste of brown torrent. Darking led the way to the end of the broken pier of the bridge. “The current will bear us down to the slack water beyond the hazels. Trust your body to it, and swim but a stroke or two, enough to keep your head up. Then, when I give the word, strike hard for the other shore. The rub is to get out of the stream once it has laid hold of you.”

So Peter found it. The torrent swept him down easily and pleasantly, till he was near the submerged hazel clump. Then Darking struck off left handed, and it was no easy task to get rid of the entangling current, which would have carried him into a maelstrom of broken water. It plucked at his shoulders, and gripped his feet with unseen hands. But, breathless and battered, in five minutes they were shaking themselves among the rushes of the farther bank.

“Let us stretch a leg,” said Darking, “or we will chill, and maybe be late for the fair. The King’s grace on a day like this is early abroad.”

They were now within the pale of Woodstock, but they had four miles to go before they reached the wilderness of green glades and coppices which was the favourite hunting-ground. An hour later Darking had his ear to the ground, and then stood like a dog at gaze. “I can hear horses,” he said, “maybe a mile distant. I could hear them better if the earth were less full of rain. Also the hounds are out. I judge they are in Combe Bottom. If they unharbour a deer there, with what there is of wind it will come our way. Let us harbour ourselves, my lord. No, not on the ground, for that might give our scent and turn the deer or lure the hounds. This oak will be screen enough.”

He caught a spreading limb of the tree and swung himself into a crutch. Peter followed, and found that he had a long vista down an aisle of rough grass. Now he could hear the hounds giving tongue in some thicket, but that was the only sound. . . . He might have been listening to mongrels hunting alone in a covert, for there were no horns, or human cries, or the jingle of bridles.

Presently the hounds seemed to come nearer. A cloud of pigeons rose from the opposite trees, and a young buck, a two-year-old at the most, stuck out his head, sniffed the air, and proceeded to amble up the glade. He may have caught a whiff of their wind, for he turned back to covert.

Then the world woke to life. A big old hind, barren by her grey muzzle and narrow flanks, broke from the wood, and behind her the covert was suddenly filled with a babel of noise. The first hounds streamed out, fifty yards behind; and two sweating beaters in blue smocks, who had been stationed there to turn the hind to the open glades, stumbled after them and promptly flung themselves on the ground. In a second they were up again, for a horn was blown behind them.

From an alley in the opposite woods the huntsmen appeared, debouching into the broader aisle. There were five of them — three in livery, with badges in their hats and horns at their saddle bows; one young man with a doublet of crimson velvet, a plumed cap and a monstrous jewel; the fifth a big man who rode first and waved his hand and shouted hoarsely. Peter, from his crutch in the oak, craned his head through the leafless boughs and watched intently. For he knew that he was looking upon the King.

He was plainly dressed, with trunk hose of brown leather and a green doublet with a jewel at his throat. A heavy silver-handled hunting-knife hung at his belt. His horse was a big-boned Fleming with a ewe-neck, and he handled it masterfully; for all his weight his seat was exquisitely balanced and the big hands were light on his beast’s mouth. The face was vast and red as a new ham, a sheer mountain of a face, for it was as broad as it was long, and the small features seemed to give it a profile like an egg. The mouth was comically small, and the voice that came from it was modest out of all proportion to the great body. He swept like a whirlwind up the glade, one hand pawing the air, screaming like a jay. In every line of him was excitement, an excitement naïve and childish, but in his very abandonment there was a careless power.

Peter’s eyes narrowed as he watched the broad back above the flat rump of the Fleming lessen in the distance, till the men behind blocked the view. He had seen his King — his rival — his quarry. Many a picture had he formed of Henry, but none like this. He had looked for gross appetites, cruel jaws, lowering brows, eyes hot with the lust of power. In all his portraits the man had been elderly. But what he had now seen was more like an overgrown boy. There was a preposterous youthfulness in this ageing creature, whinnying like a puppy with the ardour of the game; there was something mirthful in his great, glowing, fleshy face. . . . There was more. One who, with his kingdom afire in the east and north and smouldering in the west, could fling his whole heart like a child into his play, had greatness in him. There was about him an insolent security. What he desired, whether it were deer or gold or kingdoms, he desired so fiercely that he was likely to get it. Peter felt as if some effluence of power had struck him, like a wind in his face.

“What think you of his grace?” Darking asked, as they stole back towards Evenlode.

“I think that he will not easily go down, and that if he falls much will fall with him.”

Darking looked up into the sky.

“The wind freshens, and it has moved back to the south-east — a good wind for the forest. To-morrow belike the King will hunt in Wychwood, and kill a yeld hind. There is a great she-devil harbouring in Finstock brake.”

Darking’s forecast was true. Next morning saw a dawn of lemon and gold, and a sharper tang in the air, while, instead of the spring zephyr which had blown for two days, there was a small, bitter easterly breeze. Peter was abroad at the first light, placing his men. If the King crossed Evenlode and entered the forest it would be by the bridge of Charlbury, for the best harbourage for deer lay to the west of Leafield in the thick coverts above Shipton. He would have an escort, since he was outside the Woodstock pales, but it was certain that, if a strong quarry were unharboured, he would soon leave that escort behind him. With the wind in its present quarter, the deer would run towards Ramsden and Whiteoak Green, where the ground was broken and the vistas short. There, at strategic points, his men would lie hidden, while in the undergrowth would lurk some of Naps’s scouts to pass the word to the posts. Peter and Darking had planned every detail like the ordering of a battle, and had their alternatives in case any item miscarried. “Send the wind holds,” said Darking. “The King will not stay abed to-day, and if the slow-hounds are once out in Shipton Barren, his grace in an hour’s time will be among the Ramsden oaks.”

The King was late. Word came by a lad of Flatsole’s, who had swum Evenlode and stood dripping like a water-rat, that he was on the road for Charlbury, with five huntsmen and two companion lords, and a score of men-at-arms mounted on beasts that would soon founder in the heavy bracken of the forest. But it was noon before Naps sent a message that the cavalcade was passing the Charlbury causeway. Peter, on an Avelard bay, whose strain of Welsh blood made him light and sure-footed as a mountain goat, rode west on the high ground to prospect, while Darking kept ward in the eastern forest.

From the Leafield crest he looked down on Shipton Barren, and soon his keen eyes detected the whereabouts of the hunt. The King was an epicure that day, for no chance beast was to his liking. Peter saw deer break cover unregarded, and once the hounds were flogged off a trail on which they had entered. By and by the horns sounded a rally, and there came the wild notes which meant that the chase had begun. Peter swung his horse round, ready to follow east at a higher level, for it was certain that any deer would at first keep to the riverside ground.

But to his amazement the hunt went otherwise. He got a glimpse of the first hounds with a verderer riding furiously on their flanks, and then, well behind them, a knot of men. They were going westward, upstream — westward or south-westward, for, as he looked, he saw them swing towards Fulbrook Gap. . . . Then he saw the reason. The wind had changed, the sting had gone out of it, and it had moved to west of south, and was now blowing softly down Windrush.

He watched in deep perplexity the hunt wheel towards the high ridges, where the forest opened up into downs, and rose to the Hallows Hill. Beyond that the trees began again, the deep woodland country above Barrington. A yeld hind would need to be the stoutest of her breed to make those distant coverts. More likely she would soon be pulled down in the open, and then the huntsmen would return to draw another of the Wychwood harbours. . . . There was that famous beast in Finstock brake.

Naps’s men were fewer at this end, but he found a prigger lad cutting himself a switch from a hazel. Him he sent back hot-foot to Darking to report what had happened. It was now afternoon, and there were but two hours left of daylight. If the King was benighted, and he could get up his men in time, all might yet be well.

Peter set spurs to his horse, and galloped for the Taynton wolds. The land lay spread out like a map beneath him, pale as the country of a dream, with far down on his left the smoke of Burford town making a haze in the hollow. . . . Soon he had come to a point which gave him a long view. That yeld hind must be a marvel, for she was still going strongly, having puzzled the hounds in the Fulbrook coppice. She was not bound for Hallows Hill, but had turned downward to where the Windrush floods drowsed in the valley. That would mean the end of her. She would never face the water, and if she kept down the left bank she could be brought to bay among the Burford garths. Could she but cross the stream, then indeed she might find sanctuary in the dense thickets above the little valley of Leach.

He had lost sight of the hunters, but presently the hounds came into view, running strongly at gaze. The hind was making for Windrush. Peter was now on a tiny promontory, and had the valley clear beneath him. The river at this point was less of a barrier, for the floods were dammed by fallen timber at Barrington. It might be passed. . . .

It was passed. He saw the head of the swimming deer, and then after an interval the dark beads which meant the hounds. Where were the huntsmen? The hounds had outrun them, and they were now stranded on the Taynton downs. He heard far off the thin but furious notes of the horn. They would return the way they came, and they had far to go, and the dusk would presently fall. The fates were kind to him, if only Darking moved his men west in time.

He had turned his horse to gallop back the road he had come, when over his shoulder he took one last look at the Windrush vale. What he saw made his heart stop. . . . The deer and the hounds were now beyond the river, but all the hunters had not been left behind. One was still following. He was even now crossing, his horse swimming strongly. The light was too dim to see clear, but some instinct gave him certainty. That man was the King.

Peter went down the hill like one possessed. He had no plan or purpose except to keep touch with this lone horseman. There was a furious ardour in him, and awe too. It seemed that the stage was being set otherwise than he had expected, set for a meeting such as he had not dreamed of. Somewhere in that dim land beyond the waters the two of them were destined to come face to face.

He crossed Windrush without trouble, for the dam at Barrington had so shrunken the floods that the stream was little more than its turbid winter flow. But once on the far bank he was at a loss. The light was growing bad, and there was no sign of hounds or hunter. They had not pulled down the quarry, for in that still air he would have heard the savage rumour of the kill. . . . He looked behind him. Dusk had crept down the Taynton slopes, and there was no sign there of following hunters. Even the angry horns had ceased to sound.

He rode a little way up-hill into the coverts, and then halted. Presently the King would find himself benighted, and would give up the chase. He had hunted in Wychwood often, and must know something of the lie of the land. He would make his way downstream, and cross at the Burford bridge, which was intact. Again Peter clapped spurs to his horse. He must watch the southern approaches to the crossing, from Westwell, and by the track from Lechlade.

He took his stand on a piece of high ground, from which he could see in the dusk a light or two beginning to twinkle in the Burford hollow. . . . But he did not wait long, for far on his right he seemed to hear the baying of hounds. They were still hunting, and his ear told him that they were running east by Shilton. The King would still be following, for rumour said that he never left the chase so long as there was hope of a kill. . . . Again, he spurred his horse. In half an hour at the most the dark would have fallen thick. Then the King would give up. He would cross Windrush at Minster Lovell, and take the quickest road to Woodstock. If the Burford bridge still stood, so would that of Minster Lovell, which was sound Roman work. . . .

In an agony of uncertainty he resolved that the only chance was to risk all on the likeliest happening. His horse was still fresh, and he covered the four miles of ground in little time. . . . The bridge was whole. The shell of Lovell’s castle rose black among the trees, and Windrush lay eerie and dim in its wide lagoon. He noted that the isle in the lagoon, which held one of the castle dovecots, was but little diminished in size. The dam at Barrington was doing its work well.

He dismounted, and tied up his horse to a stump on the slopes of the south bank. If Henry came this way, he would let him cross the bridge, and then follow him up the Leafield road, where his own men were as thick as owls in the night. God had wrought a miracle for him, for his enemy was being guided relentlessly into his net. Peter set his teeth hard to curb his impatience. If he only came! . . . But he must come, unless he wanted to lie wet and cold in the Shilton woods.

Come he did. A weary horse, lame in the off foreleg, stumbled down the track. On it sat a bulky man, who leaned back to ease his beast in the descent, and whose great hunting boots stuck out from its sides like the yards of a ship. The man had lost his bonnet, and even in the dark Peter could recognise the round head, baldish at the top, the vast square face and the bull shoulders. It was beyond question the King.

Had he been less intent on the sight he would not have missed a sound like a grumbling thunderstorm which seemed to fill the valley and grew every moment in volume. The horse heard it, for it jibbed at the entrance to the bridge. The place was high-backed and narrow over which two men could not ride abreast, and which the wool-staplers’ pack animals could not cross. . . . The rider dug deep with his spurs, but the horse again refused. Then with a groan of weariness he rolled out of the saddle and attempted to lead it.

Still it refused. He was in front of it and dragging it by the bridle — he stood on the keystone, while the beast was still plunging on the bank. . . . Then came a sound which broke in even on Peter’s preoccupation. It was like a gale in a high wood, or a mighty snowslip on a mountain, with a rumbling undercurrent of thunder. Something huge and dark reared itself high above the stone arch, and the next second Peter was struggling in the side eddies of a monstrous wave.

He had been able to swim like a moorhen from childhood, and he had no trouble in shaking off the clutch of the stream. As he dashed the water from his eyes he knew what had happened. The dam at Barrington had burst, and Windrush, half a mile wide, was driving a furrow through the land — Windrush no more a lagoon but a rending ploughshare.

The King! Was this God’s way of working His purpose? Was that mountain of royal flesh now drowning in the dark wastes of water? The bridge had been swept clean — the very horse was gone — nay, the bridge itself must have been broken, for only a swirl in the dimness marked where a fragment of pier still stood, submerged under three feet of flood. . . .

Peter strained his eyes into the gloom. The coming of the water seemed to have lightened the darkness a little, for he could see the black loom of Lovell’s castle on the far shore, and, downstream, the top of the island dovecot. . . . There was no sound now except the steady lift and gurgle of the tide; the crested wave with its thunder was now far away down the valley. Only the even swish and swirl, with close at hand the murmur of little sucking eddies.

And then in the stillness came a cry. It seemed to come from the island, which was fifty yards below the bridge. . . . It sounded again, a choked cry as from something in panic or pain. Peter knew that it could come from one throat only — of him who some minutes before had ridden down the hill. He had been plucked from the bridge like a straw and borne down, and was now by some miracle washed up like flotsam on the island shore. He was not drowning, for no drowning man could have sent out so strong a cry, but he must be in instant peril of death.

Peter was in the water before he knew, striking transversely across the floods so as to make the island. He did not stop to consider his purpose, for that oldest instinct was uppermost which of itself quickens a man’s limbs to save another’s life.

He swam strongly and cunningly, and forced his way to midstream. Then he let himself drift and listened. Again came the cry — now very near, and it was a cry of desperation. The man was clinging to something which he could not hold. . . . Peter’s long arms in an overhand stroke devoured the waters, and his speed was thrice the speed of the stream. . . . Again a cry, but this time with a choke in it. Peter butted into a tangle of driftwood among the island rushes. Where in God’s name was the King?

Clearly he had lost his hold. Peter stood up in the shallows and shouted. Was that an answer from the dark eddy now sweeping towards the northern bank of Windrush? There seemed to be a sound there which was not the stream. Again he launched himself on the flood, and as his breast caught the current he heard again a cry. This time it was the strangled gasp of a drowning man.

In ten strokes he had overtaken him. The man could only swim feebly, and every second he dipped under the rough tide. A very little longer and he would dip for ever.

Peter raised his head and shouted lustily. The man heard him, for he made several feeble, hurried strokes. Then Peter was on him, and his hand was under his chin.

“Get your breath,” Peter spluttered, for he had swallowed much water in making haste. “I will support you.”

Then: “We must get out of the stream. Hold by my girdle and I will tow you.”

It was a harder business than the crossing of Evenlode the morning before. Happily the main weight of the flood was on the other side of the island, and the stream between the island and the castle ran with less power. But the man was as weighty as a tree-trunk, and his clutch on Peter’s belt was like shackles of lead. The muscles of shoulder and thigh were cracking, before the deadly plucking of the current eased off and they came into slack water. Then the other, who had manfully striven to obey his rescuer’s orders, promptly let go and sank. Peter clutched him by some part of his garments and waded ashore.

He pulled the water-logged body through the selvedge of drift to what had been the quay of the castle. The man was in a swoon, but as Peter rolled him over his senses returned, and he was very sick.

Presently he sat up, coughing.

“God’s name!” he gasped, “that was a rough journey. I am beholden to you, friend, whoever you be. You will not be the worse for this night’s work. I am woundily cold and empty, save for flood water. Likewise my wits are somewhat dazed, and I know not where I have been washen up. Get me to bed and supper, and I will repay you well.”

The man, bone-weary, dripping and chilled to the marrow, still kept a kind of dignity. He tried to rise, and sat down again with a groan.

“A murrain on my leg,” he moaned. “’Twas already sore with the day’s work, and now it has failed me utterly. I cannot put foot to ground, and my horse is drowned long ago. Can you find a way to move me, sirrah, for if I bide here I will freeze and starve?”

Then Peter spoke.

“Your grace must make the best of it. This is the ruin of Minster Lovell, and there will be no leaving it before the morrow. Supper I cannot give you, but I can find you a rough lodging. Kings have slept before in these towers.”

“You know me?” came the sharp question.

“I recognise the King’s grace,” said Peter.

“Majesty, man, majesty,” came the correction. “That is the new word I have commended.”

“The King’s majesty,” Peter assented.

“I have often slept hard and supped bare. Had I but a dry shirt and a cushion for my cursed leg I would be content. But tell me, sir, does aught inhabit that shell? I had heard that it had been long tenantless.”

“Nought but owls and bats and the twittering ghosts of old Lovells.”

The other shivered.

“Like enough. What then can Lovell’s castle offer me?”

“A shelter for your head. With luck I may also get you fire and food and dry raiment. But you must be guided by me, since I have plucked you from the water.”

“I know not who you be, but you seem a good Christian. Give me your shoulder, lad, and I will make shift to hobble.”

Leaving a trail of puddles behind them, they made their way through the blocked postern, called the Water-gate, into the west court, which, since there was no moon, was a trough of ink. They groped among the broken flags to the northern corner under the dovecot, where was the shaft which led to Lovell’s prison.

Suddenly almost under their feet a spark of light flew up, followed by the crackling of twigs. In the glow Peter saw the bent back and elf locks of Madge of Shipton.

“What do you here, mother?” he asked.

She peered at him.

“Your errands, my lord. Since you will not seek your treasure yourself your well-wishers must seek for you. I was casting the runes of the burning ash-cross, for this was in old days a holy e’en.”

Peter’s intention had been to leave Henry and to borrow from Mother Sweetbread on the hill above the means of supper and bed. Now fate had sent him a helper.

“You will first do me a different service, mother,” he said. “Go to Gammer Sweetbread, and bid her bring clothing and food for two starving men. You and she can bear it down the hill. We will await you here by your fire. Bring a lantern, too, and a tinder box.”

The old woman rose to her feet. “You are white, my lord, and there are strange things writ in your face. I do your errand, for you are like two kelpies from the river, and will have ague in your bones in another hour.”

There was a small heap of kindlings, with which Peter fed the fire.

“Get yourself warm, sire,” he said, “and presently you will be better served.”

Henry hunched himself close to the blaze.

“She called you lord,” he said. “Who may you be, lad?”

“’Twas an idle word,” said Peter; “my name is not worthy of your grace’s hearing. I am a common man out of the forest.”

“You are uncommon strong. Not ten men in this nation could have dragged my bulk from that stream. Ugh, the majesty of England came near to being food for eels! A cold ending at which my belly turns. You have put Harry of England deep in your debt, young sir.”

The man was clearly in deep discomfort. Seen in the firelight his face was mottled and streaked, a strong shuddering would take him, and he moved his leg continually as if in pain. Yet there was a rude fortitude in his air. His small, sharp, watchful eyes showed a spirit that would not bow to weariness.

He toasted his steaming body, and for an hour he only spoke twice.

“I have fifty lackeys within two miles,” he groaned, “and not one lubber at hand. That is God’s jest with royalty.”

The second time he said, “I may ride a bushel or two lighter for this. They say cold water lessens weight!” And the strange man laughed.

By and by the two women came out of the darkness, with a bobbing lantern. They had brought blankets, and two deerskin cloaks lined with fustian, and a basket of broken meats. There was a flagon, too, of Mother Sweetbread’s sloeberry cordial. They looked curiously at the great figure crouched by the fire as they laid down their burdens, and Peter followed them back into the shadows.

Madge of Shipton plucked at his arm.

“The half-drowned one will bring you fortune,” she whispered. “I read it in your pale face and the sign on your brow when you wrinkled it. But beware — beware! The burnt cross of ash has called spirits out of the deeps, and there is a strife among the Powers. All night on your behalf I will say the paternoster of the Brethren.” The clutch of her fingers on his arm was like the clutch of an eyas on the falconer’s fist.

Mother Sweetbread said: “You will get the ague, son Peter. Come back with me, and I will bed you both, and roast the fever from your veins.”

Peter put an arm round the old woman’s neck. “I will get no ague, mother of mine. But hearken to me, for a kingdom hangs on it. Get a message to Darking, who is somewhere in the Ramsden bracken. The forest is full of Naps’s folk, and any one of them will carry the word. Say to Darking that I am in Lovell’s castle with him he wots of, and that my men must meet me here an hour before dawn. Say, too, that there is no bridge left on Windrush, and that we must home by the road we came.”

The woman nodded.

“Your message will be carried, my son, though I should have to bunch my skirts and stir my own old bones. Solomon shall have it ere midnight.”

The King grumbled.

“I am no fox to kennel in a hole. Whence came those women? Have they no dwelling near where I may bed me?”

“A mile and more of rough ground distant. And miserable cabins at that, with a plague of rats and the stars shining through the thatch. You will be better in Lovell’s cell.”

“Let me lie by the fire.”

“It is already dying and there is no more fuel. There will be frost ere morning and you will get a chill at the heart.”

“But I will stick in that hole, and you who have dragged me from water may have no power to drag me from earth.”

“The place is wide enough. Two months back I made the passage with a brother of Oseney.”

“A holy man has entered it! That gives a flavour of grace to as graceless a spot as ever my eyes beheld. It looks like some werewolf’s lair. . . . But lead on, sir. Maybe you are right, and I shall be warmer if I have some yards of stone and earth for blanket.”

Peter led the way down the slimy steps and over the prostrate outer door. The first part of the passage was narrow, and in bending the King had some trouble with his leg. When he jarred it on a knuckle of stone he would bellow with pain, and Peter, turning the lantern, saw the great face flushed and furious. Then the roof rose, and Peter’s arm could give him support. At the subsidence it was hard to get the King through, and Peter had to clear away much rubble. Then came the sound of falling water.

“Have we escaped one flood to drown in another?” the King asked tartly.

The corridor broadened, and at last came the iron-bound door. It had been left unlocked on the last visit, and a pull set it creaking on its hinges. The little chamber smelt dry and fresh, and it had the chill neither of the water-logged outer air nor of the mildewed passage.

Peter set the lantern on the floor and dropped his burden.

“Behold your majesty’s lodging for the night,” he said, while Henry sat himself heavily in the chair which had once been Lovell’s.

Peter flung the rotting bedclothes from the pallet, and laid on it Mother Sweetbread’s blankets. He helped the King to strip off his soaked doublet and hose — a task of delicacy owing to the ulcer on his leg, and wrapped his great body in one of the deerskin cloaks.

“Get you among the blankets, sire,” he said, “and I will serve your supper.”

He fed him with Mother Sweetbread’s provender, and he gave him to drink of Mother Sweetbread’s sloeberry cordial. The King made an ample meal and the strong liquor warmed his blood. “Ha!” he cried, “I begin to thaw, and the ice has gone from my belly. This is a rough inn, but the entertainment might be worse. Give me another cup, and I will compose myself to sleep. What mountain is above me?”

“Lovell’s castle,” said Peter. “The abode of the last lord of that house.”

The King cried out and crossed himself.

“It has an ill name,” he murmured. “You say you came here with a brother of Oseney? Did the holy man lustrate this chamber, for wherever Lovell trod Sathanas walked in his tracks?”

“Set your mind at ease, sire. It was lustrated by prayer and tears, and the bones of Lovell were laid in hallowed earth.”

But the King was not at ease. Some notion had arisen to vex him. He watched Peter strip off his clothes, wrap himself in the other cloak and make a bed beside the door.

“Oseney,” he muttered, “what have I heard of a brother of Oseney?” and he raised himself on his elbow, and stared at his companion.

Peter, ever since he had dragged the King ashore, had had a mind empty of thought. He saw the clear hand of God, and let himself follow blindly as it guided. . . . There could be no failure now, for events had turned miraculously in his favour. Before dawn Darking and his men would be at Minster Lovell, and by noon the King would be safe at Avelard. The household at Woodstock would be hunting high and low for its lord and master, but here in this dungeon of Lovell’s he was hidden more securely than if he were in the heart of Wales with all Neville’s pickets to guard him. . . . He had not troubled to think of Henry. The man with his gross body and his ulcerated leg was no more to him than a derelict log plucked from the water.

“Compose yourself to sleep, sire,” he said; “on the morrow I can promise you better fare and a softer bed.”

He was himself very weary, but before he lay down he raised the lantern to see to the candle within. Then he set it and the tinder-box on the floor beside him, blew out the light, and turned to sleep.

But in the moment when his face had been clear in the lantern’s glow, Henry had seen in it something which made his cheek, now ruddy with the cordial, grow mottled and pale again. “By God, it is he,” he whispered. “The Oseney clerk! He is Buckingham’s get, for he has the Bohun lip. . . . ” There was no drowsiness now for the King.

Peter slept lightly, as was his custom, for one trained in the Oseney services, which broke the night into short stages, was not likely to be a sluggard. He was awakened to sudden consciousness by the sound of a creaking pallet. The King was restless; nay, the King was rising.

He lay and listened. He heard Henry fumbling among his discarded clothes, and the clink of something hard — metal or stone. Then he heard the stealthy movements of the heavy body, which seemed to be coming towards him. He had that consciousness of imminence which comes neither from touch, nor sight, nor hearing, but from some subtler sense. He slipped from under his blanket, and rolled very softly a few feet to his left.

The King was approaching the bed. He was close on it, leaning above it. . . . And then there was a rapid movement, the sound of an arm descending, a sudden jar of metal driven through woollen on to stone.

Peter’s brain worked fast. The King had recognised him, had hoped to rid himself of a rival by the speediest way. Had he been sleeping heavily where he had laid himself down, the King’s hunting-knife would now be in his heart.

Wrath plucked him to his feet and hurled him on his enemy. He felt the kneeling King topple over under his impact, and found himself grappling with something as soft and unresisting as a bolster. He wrested the knife from his grasp and sent it spinning into a corner. His hands found the thick throat, but there was no need to choke it, for the man was without strength. . . . Instead he felt along the floor for the tinder-box and relit the lantern.

The King sprawled on his side, almost black in the face, his lips contorted with pain, while one hand groped at his leg. Peter dragged him back to his pallet, and set the lantern on the chair. In the struggle the deerskin had half fallen from Henry, and revealed his misshapen limbs and huge paunch and unwholesome elderly flesh. Peter looked down on him with a shiver of disgust. Then he filled a cup of cordial and put it to his lips, which greedily drained it. The King lay panting for a little while, while the darkness passed from his face, leaving it mottled and pale again. The pain in his leg seemed to have gone, for he opened his eyes, and they were bright and wary with fear.

“That was a foolish enterprise, sire,” said Peter. “We two are alone here in this cell. One is old and one is young, one is sick and one is hale. If two such contend there can be but the one issue. . . . He whom you would have slain has a few hours back saved you from death. . . . I would remind you likewise that murder is a deed on which Heaven frowns.”

The King had recovered his bodily ease, and with it his wits. He lay with the blanket drawn up to his chin, and his little eyes as sharp as a bird’s. There was still panic in them, but also cunning.

“Peccavi,” he said. “’Twas a sudden tempting of the Devil. May God and His saints have mercy on me! I ask your forgiveness, young sir — I, the King of England, abase myself before you.”

“You would have slain me. Why?”

“A sudden madness. I feared you. . . . I took you for one who was plotting my hurt.”

“Whom do I favour? I, a nameless man of the forest! What enemy of your majesty’s have I the ill fortune to recall?”

“None that lives,” said the King, “but one that died long ago.”

“Even so. It seems I bear on my face the proof of my begetting. Your majesty is right. I am the son of Edward of Buckingham.”

The King’s face did not change, but his lips moved.

“You have come into the west to seek me. I, too, sought you, and God has prepared a meeting. I deserve some favour at your majesty’s hands for this night’s work. First, I saved you from the floods, and second, when your majesty would have knifed me, I forbore to strike back.”

There was a new light in Henry’s eyes. His panic was now under command, and he was back in a world which he understood.

“You talk reason, my lord. I bear no ill will to your house — I have ever admitted its splendour. Your father stood in my way, and I had to thrust him aside, but I have no malice towards his son. You speak truth — I am most deeply beholden to you for what has befallen this night. . . . I will make you the second man in the kingdom. The lands and dukedom of Buckingham shall be yours again, and you shall ride by the King’s bridle and sit high in his Council.”

Henry’s eye was alert and watchful, but his smile was that grave and kindly smile that had often beguiled men’s hearts.

Peter lifted his hand.

“Let me tell you of this cell where we now lie,” he said. “Hither after Stoke battle came one who had been the second man in the kingdom, who had ridden by the King’s bridle, and had sat high in his Council. He was a fugitive, but in this place he was safe. Here he could lie till the hunt had passed, and he could get himself and his wealth abroad. But only one other knew the secret of the place, and that other fell sick and died. So the great lord Lovell was left to starve like a rat whose hole had been stopped. Two months back I entered this place, and stumbled over his bones. I came seeking treasure and I found it.”

The King pulled the blanket from his chin. “‘Fore God, I knew it,” he said. “’Twas not Neville nor Avelard that paid for this mischief in the west. . . . ”

“You mistake me. I said I found treasure, but it was not Lovell’s gold. I found the philosopher’s stone, the touch of which dissolves earth’s ambitions. I no longer seek what Lovell sought.”

The King sat up, and as he moved his leg he squealed with pain.

“That is an honest thought,” he cried. “You would go back to Holy Church? I commend you, my lord. I will rejoice to further your purpose. You may have the choice of any abbey in this land. Nay, you will be bishop as soon as I can make room for you. I . . . ”

“Your majesty misreads me. I will never be clerk again. But I will not rest till there is a new England, for I am a fighter on God’s side. I would save my soul.”

“By the rood so would I!” The King’s face had a serious bewilderment. “I am the devoutest man that ever wore ermine. If I have broken with the Pope, I will defend the faith better than he. No heretic shall breathe freely in this land while I sit on the throne. I have confuted in argument Luterano and Sacramentary alike. My chief study in my closet is holy learning. Every day I serve the priest at mass, every Sunday I receive the holy bread, every Good Friday I creep on my knees to the Cross.”

There was a strong passion in the King’s voice. This man, who a little before had been a murderer in intent, believed devoutly that he was on the side of virtue.

“You would serve God by putting yourself in God’s place?” Peter said quietly.

The King looked puzzled.

“I am God’s vicegerent on earth,” he said, “therefore I sit in God’s place. But the creature abaseth itself before the Creator.”

“Is it God’s purpose that you burn honest folk for a little deviation of faith, and likewise send to death those who hold in trust God’s estates because they will not surrender them to your minions?”

The King’s face lit up. Here was ground with which he was familiar.

“Distinguo,” he cried. “No man suffers under me save for denying the catholic faith in which is alone found salvation. You are a strange clerk if you contemn that duty. I am the guardian under God of my people’s hopes of Heaven. I am determined to make this realm one in faith as it is one in law. If I have shouldered his Holiness of Rome from the headship of Christ’s Church in England, the more need that I perform the task in which his Holiness was somewhat negligent. Listen, my lord. Law is above all men, king and peasant alike. Of that law there are two branches, the law of God and the law of England, and both are in my care. The first is based upon God’s Word and that inherited practice of God’s Church which, being inspired by the Holy Ghost, is likewise canonical. I would make the Scriptures free to all in the vulgar tongue — you may have heard of my efforts thereto — but I would not permit ignorant men to interpret them as they please. The interpretation is laid down by Holy Church, and he who rebels against it will burn, be he bishop or noble, clerk or cotter.”

There was no fear now in the small bright eyes. Henry spoke with a fierce authority, and his broad low brow had set in weighty lines.

“As to the second law, the law of England, I am its most devout and humble servant. I have never acted save in obedience to that law. ’Twas that law that shook off the Pope’s burden. ’Tis under that law that I have taken order with certain religious houses. I have made it my care that the blessing of law shall be free to all, the poorest as well as the greatest, and that all shall stand equal before the royal tribunals. That law is not my private will, but the approved judgment of the wisest men. Maybe I have guided it into new channels, but the flow is that which came down through six centuries. I have sworn before God, that if any man, be he never so great, outrage that law I will make his head fly for it, and by God’s help I will keep that vow so long as there is breath in my nostrils.”

“Yet you have made an England,” said Peter, “which is in some sort a stye and in some sort a desert.”

“In what respect, sir?” the King asked sharply. “I have given it peace.”

“That peace which is a desert,” was the answer. “Your loans and benevolences have bled it white. There is as much suffering as in the days of the Black Death. The rich grow richer, and the poor die by thousands in the ditches.”

“Ay,” said the King. “No doubt there is much misery abroad. But mark you, young sir, ’tis a shallow philosophy which judges on what exists but takes no account of what has been prevented. . . . I have had to steer a difficult course among the plots of the Emperor and the French King. Had I steered less skilfully a new Duke William might have landed on English earth. To defeat my enemies cost money, and that my people have cheerfully paid, for they knew it was for them that I fought. . . . For the rest, I say again that I have given them peace. But for my strong hand the nobles would have been at each other’s throats, and at mine, as in the old Wars of the Roses. I have shed blood, doubtless, but, had I been weak, every drop of that blood would have been a river. Quicquid delirant reges, says the poet, plectuntur Achivi. By curbing the madness of the kings I have saved the commons from stripes. Think you that is a small thing? By God, I am the man in all England best loved by the commonalty.”

“I read it otherwise. What know you of the true commonalty of England? Your counsellors are the new men who have risen to power by the oppression of the poor.”

To Peter’s surprise the King assented.

“I do not altogether deny that. Hark you, my lord. These be strange and perilous times in which we live. Men’s minds everywhere and in all things are in a confusion. Europe is a whirlpool because of the ambition of kings and the unsettlement of the Church. Here in England is the same strife in lesser degree. Not in things religious only, but in the things of Mammon, for it would appear that a new world is coming to birth. It is a hard world for many, a kind world to a few, but it needs must come as spring must follow winter. Everywhere in the land men are following new trades, and old customs are passing away. We grow rich, and in growing rich we doubtless grow hard, but that hardness is needful in the narrow portals of a new world. Had I been a slack-mouthed king, this England of mine would have been booty to the proud. Had I summoned to my councils only the ancient nobles, a promising growth would have been nipped in the bud. In a time of unsettlement one thing is needful above all others, and that is a strong hand and an iron law. That law I will give to England, though every shire be in flames against me!”

The man was great. It was borne in on Peter that this vast being, wallowing among Mother Sweetbread’s homespun blankets, had the greatness of some elemental force. He hated him, for he saw the cunning behind the frank smile, the ruthlessness in the small eyes; but he could not blind himself to his power. Power of Mammon, power of Antichrist, power of the Devil, maybe, but something born to work mightily in the world.

The King was speaking again.

“I will have no treason in this land,” he said, “for it is treason not against my person — which matters less — but against the realm of England. In Europe there is Cæsar who has empire over men’s bodies, and the Pope who has empire over men’s souls. I have sworn that I too shall be imperial, and England an empire. No foreign Cæsar or foreign Pope will issue edicts over this English soil. There will be one rule within these isles, not of Henry or Henry’s son, but of English law. The Church will acknowledge its headship. Even now I am bringing my turbulent kinsmen of Wales inside its pale. There is not a noble but will be made to bow his stiff neck to it. Before I die I hope with God’s help to make Scotland my vassal, so that the writ of England shall run from Thule and the Ebudes to the Narrow Seas. Only thus shall my people have peace, and as a peacemaker I shall be called the child of God.”

“It will be a peace without God. You may preserve men’s bodies, but you will damn their souls.”

“Not so. In time the new wealth which this land is getting will spread itself so that the poor will benefit. Some day there will be an England prosperous and content, and what better soil for the flourishing of true religion and sound learning?”

Peter shook his head.

“There may be nobleness in your dreams, but in the meantime you are burdening your soul with evil deeds. Can piety and graciousness spring from what is evil? You are imperilling your salvation in a proud venture.”

The King laughed — a low rumbling laugh, with mirth in it.

“I am willing to run the hazard. Listen, my lord. There is an old tale of a mighty Emperor who died and came to Peter’s Gate. The devil’s advocate had much to say against him — sackings and burnings and politic lies and politic slayings. ‘But,’ said the Emperor, ‘I have had a hard task, fighting all my days with desperate men to put a little decency and order into my world. It is not fair to judge me by the canons of the cloister.’ And the Lord God, who knows how difficult is the labour of government, admitted the plea, and the Emperor passed into Paradise. I am content to leave my own judging to the same wise God.”

“You walk in Lovell’s path,” said Peter. “Would you had been with me when I first came to this place, and had seen the end of Lovell’s glory.”

“Tush, man, I have made account of that. All earthly splendour ends in rottenness. This body of mine is half-rotten already. But the flaming spirit of man outlasts his dust, and till God send for me I will rule England.”

He yawned.

“I am weary and would sleep, for my leg is now at peace. Take you that knife into your bed, if it comfort you. . . . You are an honest lad, but you are a monk in bone. Return to Oseney and I will make you its abbot.”

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