The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter xv

How the Swan of Bohun Went Down

The prigger lad whom Peter found above Shipton Barren duly carried the message to Darking, and about the time when the former was crossing Windrush his men had drawn by secret ways towards the Fulbrook gap. Some of Naps’s scouts were in the river bottom, and presently to Darking, hidden on the heights, they brought strange reports. A hind had crossed the stream with the hounds in full cry after her, and one man after the hounds. Darking guessed that this man might be the King, but he sought confirmation. It came with the first hour of twilight, when the royal escort, guided by the verderers, arrived in hot haste below the Barrington dam. Their master had gone out of their ken, and they had the task of finding him, knowing well that there would be the devil to pay if, when the heat of the chase was over, he found himself without attendants. They roamed the north bank of Windrush like hounds at fault, and at last a party crossed by the Burford bridge to explore the forest on the south shore.

Darking was in doubt about Peter till he got news from one of Flatsole’s people that he had been seen on the high ground towards Westwell. This made his course clear: Peter was following the hounds and the King. His order was for every man to cross, but only half a dozen succeeded. For at that moment came the bursting of the Barrington dam, which drowned two of the Avelard troopers, and put an unfordable width of water between him and the farther bank.

He had now a new problem. The King and Peter were, he believed, somewhere in the thick woods that clothed the ridge between Windrush and Thames. A dozen at the most of the King’s men had followed, and the remainder were aimlessly beating the Taynton slopes. He learned that every bridge on Windrush had been swept to the sea, and that the river could not be forded except far up its valley towards Bourton. This seemed to make his task simpler. The rest of the Woodstock men would doubtless aim at the fords of the upper valley, but he and his folk would outpace them. The dozen who had already crossed — Shrewsbury’s men-at-arms — would make slow going in a land of which they knew nothing. The King was islanded for the better part of the night, cut off in a wild place with Peter on his trail; he himself had men with him who could move fast and sure in the dark; and behind him were Naps’s vagabonds, every man of them skilled like wild things to thread the woods; it would be strange if before morning he did not join hands with Peter and have the King safe. After that a swift ride for Avelard with not one flooded stream to compel a circuit. Things had befallen — or should befall — as if the fates were their eager allies.

So the word was passed to ride west for the Bourton crossings. This was an easy task for the men of High Cotswold, who were now in familiar downland, where they found secrecy an easier matter than in the tangled woods. . . . But the last twelve of them saw something which brought them off their horses and huddled them in the shelter of a coombe. A large mounted force came spurring from Charlbury way. Word of the King’s disappearance must have already fluttered the Woodstock dovecots. “Soon,” thought Darking, “they will have the countryside roused and every squireling will be out to succour majesty. By that time, if God will, majesty will be looking down on Severn.”

They found a crossing under Rissington, and about the time when Mother Sweetbread was bearing food and clothing down the hill, had come by way of Sherborne to the great heath which lined the highway between Witney and Gloucester, the main road to the west. They left it when they saw the Burford lights, and plunged into the shaggy forest which lay between Shilton and the Windrush, the landscape which five hours before they had looked at from the other bank. It was very dark, but they had guides who knew the ground like their wives’ faces, and could see like wild cats in the gloom.

It was a vain quest. Twice they ran into oddments of the King’s escort who had crossed before the bursting of the dam — men lost utterly and wandering blind in the night. These they could have easily made prisoner, but they let them stumble past unharmed. No clue was to be got from such as to the King’s whereabouts. . . . The hounds must have long ceased to hunt, and were probably now snuggled together in some dell. What would the King do when the dark descended? Make for Windrush and Woodstock? But the rise in the river would prevent his crossing, and what would he do then? Maybe sleep cold in the bracken. Maybe ride for Witney village. . . . One of Naps’s lads was sent on to Witney to inquire, and brought word that no man had come out of the forest from the west since nightfall. . . . Slowly Darking came to the conclusion that the King was now in Peter’s charge. Somewhere the two were together, and he and his men would find them at daybreak. He wished that it could have been in the night, for he had hoped to start for Avelard before dawn, since the daylight would bring half the countryside seeking the King. . . . He took up his headquarters on the track between Asthall and Brize Norton, and sent out pickets who all night fruitlessly searched the coverts. There was not a man of Darking’s that night in the original rendezvous in the Ramsden brakes, except a lame horseboy who had been brought to cook for the Stanway troop.

Mother Sweetbread bundled up her petticoats and bestirred her old legs to some purpose. The vagabond folk, who for a week had filled the forest around her cottage like woodcock in the first frost, had now mysteriously gone. She tried all their familiar haunts, she gave the beggars’ call in her cracked old voice, but there was no answer. Then on her own feet she set out for Ramsden. The forest at that part lacked tall trees, and was mostly scrub oak, thorn and holly, but there was a track she knew of. She knew also, she thought, the very dingle where she would find Darking.

But she found that she had presumed on her strength. It was very dark and the lantern burned badly, so that she often tripped over the roots of trees. A badger had made its earth on the little-used path, and in it she wrenched her ankle. Long before she was at the moorish tract which dipped to Ramsden brakes, her legs and breath had begun to fail her. On the hilltop she sank on the ground in despair. She could never herself reach Darking, and the underworld of the forest, lately so populous, had become a desert.

A man was coming up the track. She cowered into the dead bracken and shuttered her light till he came close, and she saw from his garments that he was a friar. A white friar, for, when she lifted the lantern, his robe fluttered in its glare like the wings of a moth. Her hope revived. Here was a holy man, and holy men everywhere were on Peter’s side.

The Carmelite was speaking to himself like one in a frenzy, and it was not till she cried out that he halted and looked towards her. His eyes blinked in the light like those of a great bird, and she saw that they were hollow and wild.

“Father,” she cried, “I ask your mercy. I have an errand to do, and my strength fails me. Know you one Solomon Darking?”

“Who speaks that name?” he boomed. “Solomon Darking is busy on God’s tasks. Who would stay him by carnal errands?”

The old woman was comforted. Here was one who was privy to the business.

“It is of these tasks I speak. I have a message to him from him whom he calls master.”

“Mean you the young lord whom God has sent to deliver His people?”

“Even so. This night there is high work afoot, and he we know of has a word which must be gotten straightway to Darking’s ears. Darking is somewhere in Ramsden brakes, but I cannot stir my feet another yard. Have pity, father, and be my messenger.”

The Carmelite mused.

“I have but now passed through Ramsden brakes,” he said, “and I saw no sign of man or horse. They were there four hours back, two~score stalwart lads from my own nook of Cotswold, but now the fires are cold ashes. Yet I will find Solomon Darking, though I should have to borrow the wings of a bird. Speak on, sister. What is the message?”

“He whom we wot of would have Darking know that he is now in Lovell’s castle, and with him is one whose name he did not speak, but of whom Darking is well aware. Darking is bidden bring his men to the place an hour before dawn. My lord said also that I was to tell him that they must hence by the road they came, since there was no bridge left on Windrush.”

The Carmelite sunk his head on his breast and shut his eyes. When he raised it these eyes were glowing.

“That is the great news, mother,” he crooned; “Minster Lovell! A fitting place for God’s revenge upon evil! Who think you is he that is with my lord? None other than Antichrist, the man of blood. God has wonderfully guided His frail people. I have wept and fasted and prayed against this day, and in my folly I despaired, because I saw no great array, as I had dreamed, trooping from the west. But God follows His own secret ways, and those ways are not as ours. If we have gotten the Antichrist, we have gotten what is better than Oxford town or London city.”

With upraised hand he blessed the old woman, and then turned and fluttered back the road he had come.

His zeal was his undoing. There was no one in Ramsden brakes nor yet in Finstock. He tried to plan, but his sick and fevered brain was incapable of thought. Instead he prayed, and it seemed to him that God answered his prayer, and made him take the road to Shipton. “The good Darking,” he told himself, “will have gone there to greet the further levies from the west.”

Till long after midnight he wandered between Leafield and Shipton Barren, running often in the exuberance of his purpose, and leaving rags of his white clothing on the briers as sheep leave tufts of wool on the downland thorns. But he found no Darking, nor any of Darking’s men. Sometimes he flung himself on his knees and poured out a torrent of prayers; he waded through marshes and scrambled among marl-pits, and always his lips were working and he was communing with his mad heart.

An hour before dawn, as the skies in the east lightened, he had a sudden assurance. “Presently I will find him,” he said, “for God tells me so.” And he fell to crooning the message which Mother Sweetbread had given him.

He was above the track from Charlbury to Burford, and he saw men — a dozen and more — riding fast up from Evenlode. The Carmelite was now at the very limit of his strength, but the sight roused some wild remnant of power. He could not see clearly, but he saw enough to know that these men did not wear royal liveries, nor were they Shrewsbury’s squat midlanders. Beyond doubt they were Darking’s folk — for that he had God’s assurance.

He ran down the slope and stayed the cavalcade with uplifted hand. One who seemed to lead turned aside to him.

“I have a word for Solomon Darking,” he cried.

“Ay. What word for Solomon?” asked the leader.

“He must go forthwith with all his men to Minster Lovell. Haste you, for you should have been there even now. It is not an hour till daybreak.”

“And what is toward at Minster Lovell?” came the question.

“The young lord is there . . . and that other whom ye seek.”

The man turned to his followers.

“Fortune is with us,” he cried. “This is the mad friar who has come out of the west, and he is deep in rebellion. I do not know what his ravings mean, but there is something at Minster Lovell to be looked into. Forward, lads. Then turn to the left up the hill by the old gallows.”

When Peter woke the King was still asleep. He could not be certain of the time, for in that deep cell those tides of air ceased to work which made a clock in his brain, but he believed that it must be close on dawn. Mother Sweetbread could not have failed him. Darking and his men would be without in the west court, with the hoar frost on their bridles, beating their breasts against the cold.

The King slept with his mouth open, his breath coming stertorously from his great chest. What a man! He slept carelessly beside one whom a few hours back he had tried to murder, one whom he knew to be the leader of a plot against his throne. There was the arrogance of greatness here. The man was a king beyond doubt, for power was the one lust of his life. He was the embodied new England, an England that had forsaken God. Peter repeated the phrase like a password. It was a sedative to his doubts. This man was against God, and God himself, not mortal man, would overthrow him.

He almost pitied him. In a little he would be bumping westward with a hundred stout fellows to guard him. And then, while he lay tight at Avelard or maybe in some fortalice of Wales, the vast delayed army would be mustering, hampered no longer by the floods — mustering from north and west and south, to sweep east upon leaderless forces and defenceless cities and courtiers that lacked their master.

A grunt and a succession of volcanic sneezes told him that the King was awake. He lit the lantern.

Henry was at his most vigorous in the morning. He rubbed his eyes, propped himself on one arm, and called for a draught. Peter gave him the last cup of Mother Sweetbread’s cordial.

Recollection slowly flooded back on the King. He frowned and narrowed his eyes.

“What is the order of the day, monk?” he asked.

“I will escort you to breakfast and a more comfortable lodging.”

For an instant suspicion and fear like an animal’s woke in the small eyes. Then he laid some restraint on himself.

“You will guide me to Woodstock,” he said. “Then you will be rewarded for your good deeds and . . . ”

“Punished for my ill ones.” Peter smiled. “Get you ready, sire, and we will taste what weather the morning has brought us.”

Henry, with many groans occasioned by his leg, got himself into trunks, hose and doublet, still damp and wrinkled. He followed Peter’s lantern down the corridor, grumbling at the stiffness of his limbs. The man to Peter’s admiration seemed to have no fear, and to be concerned only with his discomforts.

The open greeted them with a mild frost, which lay white on all the west court, save one little strip which the sun had warmed. The place, to Peter’s surprise, was empty and still. He had looked at least for Darking at the tunnel’s mouth. “Solomon is with the others,” he told himself. “I will find him at the Water-gate.”

He gave Henry a hand as he limped over the broken flags of the court, and squeezed through the choked postern. They came into the little space of flat ground which bordered the river. Windrush had shrunk since the night before, and the jagged piers of the broken bridge stood out of the water, but, though the current was less strong, it was still some furlongs wide.

He saw men and horses. But where was Darking? He looked again. The men wore livery — red and white, it seemed. These were the Howard tinctures. . . . He was seen, and a cry was raised. A man, who sat his horse stiffly like a sentinel, turned and moved towards him.

The man shouted and was answered by a cry from the King.

“To me!” Henry cried, his voice hoarse with the morning chill. “Treason! Treason! I am the King. To me, all honest English!”

The men, a score at least, moved like a flock of rooks scared from stubble, those who had dismounted scrambling into their saddles. The sun caught their faces and Peter knew them for enemies. He turned and ran east down the river bank, under the great southern keep of the castle.

His first impulse was to swim the river — that impulse which comes upon all fugitives to put the greatest immediate barrier between them and pursuit. But he remembered that Darking and his men must be in the Ramsden coverts, and that with them lay his only safety. Had he followed his first instinct he would have been wise, for Darking and every man of High Cotswold were at the moment beyond the river, searching the thickets fruitlessly for traces of Peter and the King.

Instead, by a path between the castle wall and the floods, so narrow that no horse could pass, he turned the eastern buttress and came out on what had once been Lovell’s chase, a broad hillside dotted with thorn and furze. On the crest was the dark loom of Wychwood’s skirts; once there he would be ill to follow. His pursuers could not know the place, and would take time to pass the ruined closes and granges of Minster Lovell, so as to reach the chase from the west. He was right in his guess; for he was nearly at the top of the slope, keeping always the scrub between him and any man looking up from the valley, before he saw horsemen emerge into the open.

He had no fear of capture. How could Norfolk’s men hope to take him in a land of which they knew naught, and which he had conned since childhood. But it was not of himself that he thought. God’s plan, aforetime so miraculous in his eyes, had miscarried. The King was back among his friends. He was no longer lost and derelict and alone, but must now be plucked from the heart of a troop. Peter’s confidence flagged. . . . And meantime where were his folk? Had Mother Sweetbread failed in her errand? Or had Darking been overpowered somewhere in the night and his troop scattered? . . . Peter grew sick with apprehension.

He had learned from Darking all the calls of the vagabond folk — the dull whistle of the palliards, the broken whinny of the priggers, the owl’s hoot of the rufflers, the snipe’s bleat of the whipjacks. He tried each in turn, but there was no reply. Yesterday this forest had been alive with secret dwellers, but now it seemed as lifeless as a tomb. The birds that answered him were not breeched fowls, but pigeons that broke with a crash from the high tree-tops, and owls lumbering in the low coverts, and the soft swish of zigzagging woodcock. Where in Heaven’s name were the vagabonds? What had become of John Naps’s scouts? Where, above all, was Darking?

But if there was no sign of his friends, there was proof of the presence of others. As he crossed the forest road from Charlbury to Witney he saw that it was puddled with fresh hoof marks. A body of mounted men had passed here not an hour before, and the horses had been heavy lowland beasts, not the light mounts of his own people. . . . And then he had a sharp surprise. There were men in the forest, riding like prickers to unharbour deer. From a nook in the scrub he noticed several pass, men with a purpose, men looking for something other than buck, for they were not hunt servants. All wore livery or badges, and on one he recognised the Talbot colours. The enemy had taken the offensive. He was no longer the pursuer, but the pursued.

At last he was in the Ramsden dingles, and there he found only cold ashes. Anxiety for Darking had now fevered his thoughts. Had he and all his folk been driven out of the forest? Somehow, somewhere, there had been a great rallying of the King’s men. He strove to think clearly. Darking in the night watches must have been disturbed, and prevented from receiving Mother Sweetbread’s message, or, if the message had found him, from reaching Minster Lovell. It must have been a strong force that dispossessed him, but dispossessed he must have been — he and all John Naps’s crew. The forest was now full of the King’s folk. Whither had Darking gone? There was only one way — west by the high downs to their own country. Some violent compulsion had made Darking leave without a word of guidance to him; doubtless he trusted to his wits and woodcraft to make the right deduction and follow. . . .

And then came a ray of light in the darkness. In a deep hollow stood a verderer’s hut, which had been the stable of the horse Peter had ridden from Avelard, what time he left it behind after the loosing of the gospeller. There it had remained during the weeks of his fever at Little Greece. He had left it fourteen hours back tied to a stump on the far side of Windrush. Now he was greeted with a whinny, and found the bay ranging in its stall, sniffing after stray grain and chaff in the corners. It had broken its tether and swum Windrush, for its flanks and belly were wet. There was some hay in the rack on the rafters from which he fed it. The stirrup irons and bridle were dark with frost.

His hopes rose. Here was a means by which he could overtake Darking. This was his first business, for the whole plan must be re-ordered. The King was alive to his peril, but that peril might still be turned into doom. Whatever reinforcements he had got at Woodstock — and, since the forest was alive with men, these reinforcements must have been ample — they could be overmatched by the levies from the west. War had been declared, and there could be no turning back. Never had Peter felt such a heat of resolution. Every nerve of mind and body was constrained into one conscious purpose. He had seen his enemy and had understood both his power and his maleficence. His soul seemed now to be drawn to a fine edge of burning light.

They were beating the eastern forest for him; the troops at Minster Lovell, with Henry behind them, would follow hard on his tracks from the south; north lay Woodstock; his only course was westward. He summoned all his remembered lore to his aid. He knew a secret track which would bring him by Leafield to the open land above Shipton Barren. Once there, it would be strange if he could not ride fast by Taynton and Barrington and be past Northleach by midday. His enemies were not likely to have anything in the way of horseflesh that could vie with his bay for speed. He dug in his spurs, and galloped for the high woods of the Leafield crest. . . .

About the same moment Darking, who after two hours of daylight had realised that the King and Peter were not south of Windrush, had issued orders to troops and vagabonds alike to get back to the north bank. Every mile Peter moved was separating him farther from his friends. . . .

In an hour he was looking down on the road from Charlbury to Burford, at almost the point where, in the early dawn, the Carmelite had met the horsemen. A small army was encamped there — not less than a thousand men, and a chain of posts north and south along the highway barred all access to the Taynton downs.

Peter crouched and reflected. If he tried to pass by he would be seen. He might break through at a gap in the posts, but he would certainly be pursued. Was there hope of escape? His hawk eyes scanned the picketed horses, and he saw that they were of a different breed from the heavy beasts now lumbering behind him in the forest. They looked like southerners — Norfolk’s men, maybe, from his Sussex lands. Had he any chance of outdistancing such in open country?

If his soul was on fire, his brain was cool. Calmly he calculated his chances. They were quartering the forest behind him, and if he went back that way he would have to discard his horse and take to crawling in thickets. He might escape discovery, but there was no hope there, with Darking spurring somewhere on the road to the west. Besides, he would presently starve. He thought of sheltering with Mother Sweetbread, but only to discard the notion. Whatever befell him, he could not involve her in his danger. But indeed the forest was useless now. The campaign had moved to a different country. It was the west, High Cotswold, that mattered, the place where Darking had gone. . . .

At that moment John Naps’s men were filtering back into Wychwood. Darking and half his force had fetched a circuit, crossed Windrush below Witney, and were even now approaching the Ramsden brakes. One company of the King’s men had been surprised by them, disarmed, and dismounted, and were now, mostly with broken heads, sitting in Finstock meadow. . . .

All quarters seemed shut to Peter but the north. An idea came to him. What about the road he had ridden three days back? Charlbury bridge was indeed on the direct track from Woodstock, but for that reason it would be the less closely guarded. The bold road might be the wise road. . . . He moved farther north on the crest. The pickets only occupied the higher ground, and did not extend to the meadows by Evenlode. He could not see the bridge nor the causeway, but he could see the track winding down to within half a mile of it, and it was empty.

His mind was made up. He would cross at Charlbury, where he was not looked for, and take the high road by Stow to the west. He had worn no sword the day before, for he had not looked for fighting, and had feared lest any weapon might obstruct his passage in the thickets. But a weapon he needed now. With his knife he cut and trimmed a great cudgel from an ash tree, and made it sing round his head. “If there is a sentinel on Charlbury bridge he will get a cracked skull,” he thought. He felt strangely exalted. An issue would yet be found out of his perplexities.

Very carefully he made his way, leading his horse, round the butt of the hill till Charlbury bridge came in view. Evenlode had ebbed and the current no longer swirled over the two causeways; it barely lipped them. There was nobody at the near end of the bridge. The far end he could not see, for the high central arch blocked it. There was a hovel or two there, he knew, but the little town lay well to the right on the hill. He could see the smoke going up straight from its chimneys in the windless morning.

He came to the edge of the forest, beyond which some furlongs of meadowland separated him from the bridge. Less than a mile lay between him and safety, but he knew that that mile held the crisis of his life. He had the exaltation but also the anxiety of a great purpose. He knelt and prayed to the Virgin, her of whom he had had a vision in the snowy wood, but he had no answering comfort. “The Blessed Ones have left me to face this business alone,” he told himself. “Well, here’s for fortune!”

He mounted his horse and rode towards the bridge with his great cudgel carried at the rest, as a man might ride the lists at a tourney. Not a soul was visible in the wide landscape.

There was a little rise of ground before he reached the first causeway, and there his eye could just surmount the high bridge back. Something he saw beyond, and that something was like the summit of a pleached hedge. He knew it for the tips of spears. There were men stationed on the other side.

His eyes dimmed and then cleared, and out of his heart went all carefulness. That awoke in him which had sent his forbears rending the Scottish footmen and driving through the mellay at Poictiers. He felt light-hearted and unconquerable. His great stick was like a straw in his hands. He had in him the power to subdue thousands. He was singing to himself, singing small and low, and the words were Sabine’s song.

The spurs were in the bay’s flanks, and in a mad gallop he was on the causeway. . . . Summer is come with love to town. . . . The light lip of the tide flew around him in spray. . . . Sweet mistress, why so pale O? . . . With a bound he was on the bridge’s keystone. . . . The deer draw to the dale O! He saw below him a blur of men . . . and spear-points. Their faces seemed strangely white. They blocked the path, most of them dismounted, and they stared — stared with blank eyes. Could such feeble folk stay him? He saw one man on a horse with a blue surcoat over mail, and he saw him draw his sword. Down the steep descent from the arch to the far causeway he thundered, and men gave way for him and two fell sprawling. The horseman took his cudgel on his sword arm and promptly rolled from his horse.

Peter was not humming now, for the fury of an older England was on him. For the last time men heard a cry once more terrible than trumpets — the cry of “God and the Swan.” . . . They divided and some ran, for the ash stick was breaking their heads and snapping their spear-shafts.

But there was a stout man at the back, one Jonas Turph, the Swinbrook armourer, and he bore a great hammer. Likewise he had a steel cap under his felt bonnet. On his head the ash stick shivered into a dozen pieces, and the hard skull beneath took no scaith. Peter was almost through — in three strides more he would be beyond the causeway with the road open for the west. But the armourer, shaking his head like a dog coming out of water, swung his hammer. It struck the bay’s rump, there was the squeal of a beast in pain, and down it came with a palsied back. . . . A great hand plucked at Peter’s neck from behind, and in an instant he was on the ground with a press of men atop of him.

Sir Ferdinando Fettiplace, nursing a broken arm, looked at the trussed and half-senseless figure with a wry face.

“Curse on the madcap,” he said. “’Twill be a month of Sundays ere I can sup broth again. This day will be worth a capful of gold to you, Jonas Turph, for beyond doubt ’tis the lad the King’s grace is seeking. Well-grown, they said, and comely, and habited in russet and green. By the Blood of Hailes, but he is ripe for hanging, for with such abroad there can be no peace in England. He came down on us like the lightnings of God.”

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