The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter xvi

How Peter Returned to the Greenwood

He was brought next morning before the King. Henry sat in the banqueting-house at Woodstock, with every window open, for the day was mild and he heated quickly. The guards were no longer Shrewsbury’s hundred spears, for Norfolk had sent a thousand men under Surrey his son, and Sir John Denton had brought his Epping riders, and half the squires of east Oxfordshire and Berkshire had hastened each with his mounted lackeys to honour the King. The park was like a tented field in the foreign wars.

Peter had been well enough treated by the Fettiplace men. They had forborne to question him, and one, who knew something of leechcraft, had tended his bruises. That morning he had been heavily manacled and handed over by them to the royal guards, after listening to a stammering speech of loyalty from Sir Ferdinando and Henry’s gracious reply — Sir Ferdinando whose name had been on the Avelard muster-roll. Peter did not grumble. He hoped that no thick-witted country lording would suffer in his cause, since that cause was now doomed and destroyed. . . . Darking would know of his capture, and, he trusted, would lead his men safely back to High Cotswold. Avelard would hear of it, and Neville, and all the rest, and the levies would melt like snow in an April sun. Only he himself would suffer, which was just, since he was Bohun and might have been king.

He was in a strange mood, equable, almost happy. A load of care seemed to have fallen from him. He had no longer to think of others, only of himself, and that was a light task. . . . For him there was but the one fate. The great mill of destiny with which he had conversed two nights before, would grind him small. A miracle, and he might have overthrown it, but that miracle had miscarried. God had other purposes. It was His celestial will that the Beast should rule a little longer in England. . . . But he would not see that rule, for he would be under the sod. “Only the dead are beautiful and free”— why should fear vex any man, when so easy a gate gave upon a land where fears were at rest?

He looked curiously at the tall guards on each side of his settle, at the mob of Woodstock townsmen who thronged the doors in lively terror of the yeoman of the hall with his silver wand, at the dust~motes dancing in the sunlight which slanted through the windows, at the King in his crimson chair at the table on the dais, and the councillors about him. He saw Sir John Denton, and Chartley, and a red-faced ecclesiastic whom he knew for Dr John London of Oxford. One other, too, a stout man in a furred black gown, with a large pale face, a host of chins, a low voice, and steady ruminant eyes — a familiar face, it seemed. He asked one of the guards, and was told “the lord Crummle.”

Henry was in a high humour. He had had an adventure out of which he had come with credit and safety. He felt confirmed in his self~confidence and in the approbation of God. That morning he had served at High Mass, and the odour of the black ropy incense which he loved still clung to him. He had eaten for breakfast the best part of a pasty of quails, and a great dish of buttered kidneys. The glow of conscious holiness and good feeding was in his veins.

He had many despatches to read, which he passed among his lords. Then he looked round the hall and saw Peter.

“Ha!” he said. “’Tis the mad monk. Bring the man forward that my lords may see him. This is he that threatened the majesty of England, and held it in durance for a winter’s night. But for your timely appearance, Sir John, it might be now lying in a ditch with a slit throat. Mark the fellow — he has thews like Goliath and the eye of a wrestler. Dangerous stuff to be abbey-bred!”

The lords looked at Peter incuriously. Battered and pale, his clothes torn and soiled, he looked a common vagabond, of whom the land had many. He had fallen in with the King, when lost a~hunting, and had threatened him. For that he must swing, but it did not concern them. The King’s story might or might not be true — he was a ripe liar on occasion — but it mattered little whether there was one unfrocked priest the less in the world. Only Crummle looked at him sharply. The guards would have led Peter away, but Crummle motioned to them to withdraw to the side of the hall.

“Will your majesty see the other?” he asked, and Henry, who was telling the young Howard of a new falcon, nodded.

Peter was in the dusk now, out of the way of the sunbeams. He saw the crowd cleared at the doorway, and a tall man enter with a rope at his wrists. His face had a great gash on the left cheek, from which blood still oozed. He held his head stiffly, and Peter saw for the first time since Little Greece the high bold countenance of Simon Rede.

Henry knitted his brows.

“This is the Luterano,” he said. “A pest on the fellow for a crack-brain! Once he promised well, you say?” And he turned to Crummle.

“He carried letters, your majesty, for the Council to the Court of Denmark,” said Crummle in his soft even voice.

“And now he must needs abet the traitors who would have England godless, and blaspheme the holy mysteries.” Henry, with the incense of the mass still in his nostrils, grew hot. He consulted a paper. “He assisted the escape of one of the most pernicious of the foul brood called gospellers, deforced the servants of King and Church, and, when taken at last, broke sundry honest skulls and was heady in his impenitence. He has uttered blasphemies, says this indictment, too shocking to reiterate to godly ears, and he has altogether refused to confess his sins. . . . Hark you, sirrah!” Henry’s face was mottled with passion. “I will have no heretics in England, be they gentle or simple. You are born, they tell me, of an honourable house, and have served with credit in the wars. The more shame to you for your errors! I have said it, and I say it now, that I will root out of the land every seed of false doctrine, till this England be the very apple of God’s eye for its sweet and united faith.”

“What is your majesty’s will concerning him?” Crummle asked. He seemed to be about to put forward some plea on the prisoner’s behalf. But the King’s face was stern.

“He will go to the court of my lord Bishop of Lincoln. He will be given the chance to acknowledge his errors and to recant them. If he continue obdurate, he shall burn, by God, burn as if he were a common blasphemer from the kennels.”

Henry signed to Sir John Denton, his temporary marshal. “I would be alone with my Vicar–General. Have the rabble cleared from the door, and do you, my dear lord, wait on me again in an hour’s space. . . . No. Remove the Luterano, but leave the monk. I may have a word to speak to him.”

The hall was emptied, and the great door shut on the curious Woodstock townsmen. Henry sat in his crimson chair, with the portly Crummle beside him, and he signed to Peter to come out of the gloom. “Get you to the door,” he told the guards, “and wait till you be summoned. The fellow is safe, for he has a load of iron on his wrists.”

It was a different Henry. The complacency, the jollity, the sudden passion had all gone out of face and voice. He looked infinitely wary, and cunning, and wise. He smiled upon Crummle, who smiled also, craftily.

“It is he,” said the King, “he we were told of. Nay, man, there is no need of proof to one who has seen Edward Stafford. Every inch of him is Buckingham’s get.”

The fat man looked Peter over slowly, shrewdly, not unkindly.

“He is a child,” he said.

“No child, by God!” said Henry, “but one with more wits than any six Bohuns since William Conqueror. My lord, this realm has escaped a great peril. We know something of what is afoot in the west. But for the blessed weather, sent by God’s own providence, all Severn might have been on us. This stripling was their hope, and without him they are scattered sheep. How great were Heaven’s mercies usward! First the floods, and then this lad in some wild folly stumbles upon me, and puts his neck into the noose.”

“I have heard your majesty’s tale,” said Crummle. “’Twas a most happy deliverance.”

“Well may you say so. Our troubles thin, my lord, and the sky clears. The east is quiet again. Aske in the north sues for mercy, and the mischief in the west dies still-born.”

“What fate have you decreed for him?” Crummle asked.

“He will hang comfortably and quietly,” said Henry, purring like a great cat. “No new Lambert Simnel tales — only a nameless monk who dabbles in hedge-treason and dangles for it. I purpose to send him into Berkshire with Sir Miles Flambard to hang at Reading. He is condemned of English law under the sanction given to a commander in the field, such as at this moment am I. The name in the death record is that which he bore at Oseney — Peter Pentecost.”

“Your majesty has gone deep into the matter,” said Crummle. “That is a name none of my intelligencers told to me.”

Henry smiled and whispered something in the other’s ear, and Peter thought that he caught the word “Messynger.”

“You are confident that the danger is overpast?” Crummle asked.

“As I hope for salvation. I have sent one post to Avelard and another to Marchington. There will be a hasty spurring of horses eastward to make peace with a merciful King, nor will the suppliants be repelled.” Again Henry smiled, and again he spoke low in the other’s ear, and this time there was no doubt that Messynger was among the words he uttered.

“Leave me now, friend Thomas,” he said. “I would have one word alone with this youth before he is sent to the judgment of an offended God.”

Crummle arose and moved slowly from the hall, limping heavily, for he had a fit of the gout. The guards were back at the door out of earshot. Peter and the King were as secluded as they had been in Lovell’s castle.

Henry was grinning. Peter’s eyes dazzled, and the winter sunlight seemed to darken. It was dusk now, and in it the great red face glowed like a moon.

“You are he that would have ruled England?” The words came with a rich gusto of contempt. “Man, you had me at your mercy. You could have squeezed my life out with these strong hands of yours, and Henry would have been as lost to the world as the rotting bones of Lovell. What brain-sick whimsy made you dream that you were the metal of which kings are wrought?”

The glowing face mesmerised Peter. It was like that moon of blood which he had seen at Avelard when the thundercloud broke at dawn.

“I offered you an abbacy — with the reversion of a bishopric,” the voice went on. “You heeded me not, which was wise, for a promise wrung under durance is no promise. But that was due to no wit of yours, but to your pride of dreams. ‘Faith, you will presently have peace to dream — the dream from which there is no awaking. In the space of twenty-four hours you will be carrion. You will learn what is the penalty of sinning against Henry of England.”

The countenance was no longer a moon, but that of a great cat tormenting its prey. It seemed that the cat was disappointed, for the brows knitted in anger. There was no answering shadow of fear in Peter’s face, for to him the whole scene was like some crazy mumming-play. His eyes regarded the King as incuriously as if he were a guizard at Hallowmas. What they saw was the blanket of the dark rolling over all England, not this angry glow in the heart of it.

“I am merciful,” said the voice. “You saved my life in the floods for your own purpose and out of no love for my person. Nevertheless, for that I will make return. There will be no blazoning abroad of the treason of Buckingham’s son. You will die decently in the name you bore as a monk, and you and your race will be forgotten utterly. . . . Nay, nay — there will be no cherishing in the west of a tender memory. Avelard and Neville and the rest will be on their knees to make their peace with me, and will be glad to banish the very thought of you. You and your proud stock will have vanished out of the world like the flood waters which are now draining to the sea. In a little men will not know how to spell the forgotten names of Stafford and Bohun.”

At last Peter spoke.

“I am content,” he said. “I perish with the older England. I welcome oblivion.”

Henry’s lips puckered, but the smile was rather of bewilderment than mirth.

“You are for certain a madman or a fool,” he cried, “and the land is well rid of you. Carry your whimsies to the worms.” He rang his silver bell, and Crummle limped from a side door to the dais. He cast one sharp glance at Peter, and he too smiled, but the smile had comprehension in it. He was more familiar than the King with men who sat loose to earthly fears.

Sir Miles Flambard, a knight of the shire who had a small place in Crummle’s retinue, was a heavy anxious man with no love for his mission. He started the instant dinner was over, for he had a mind to sleep at Wallingford, and he wanted to pass Stowood before the twilight. He had twenty-five armed men with him, Sussex choughs from Norfolk’s band — none too many, he held, to guard two desperate men on a journey through broken country. The prisoners were tied leg to leg with loose ropes, so that their beasts were constrained to keep together; each had his hands manacled and fastened loosely to the saddle-bow, and his feet joined by a cord under his horse’s belly; while, for greater security, a light chain ran from the waist of each to the waist of an adjacent guard. The cavalcade clattered into Woodstock market-place half an hour after noon.

Simon Rede still held his head high — it would never willingly droop except in death. He looked ill and weary, and the blood oozed from his cheek.

“It seems that our fates are bound together,” he said, as his knee rubbed against Peter’s when they jogged across the cobbles. There was kindness in his voice and eyes.

“Nunc ex diverso sedem veniemus in unam,” was Peter’s answer.

“’Twill be a long cold home, I fear. I have not your philosophy,” and Simon looked sideways at the other. “Please God, I will have another stroke for freedom before the faggots. But for these cursed bonds we might have a chance, for you and I are a match for a dozen choughs. Would God but send fog or snow instead of this sunshine.”

At the market-cross, where the inn stood, there was a crowd which delayed the party. A little group of riders was dismounting in the inner courtyard. Most were servants, but two were gentlefolk — a young man in a rose-coloured cloak and a woman wearing a bonnet of white ermine. There was no mistaking the red hair of Sir Gabriel Messynger, and the bonnet had ridden by Peter’s side on the eve of the great snowstorm.

A strangled cry told that Simon Rede had recognised the pair.

“The popinjay has won,” he groaned. “God’s curse on all women!”

“Do not curse her. She has found a fitting mate,” said Peter gently. “May Heaven be kind to her.”

After that there was little speech between them. At last Simon’s proud head had sunk, and Peter was far away in a world of fancies.

“Islip bridge stands,” Simon muttered. “We must go by Gosford and the bridge, and the skirts of Shotover. Had I known betimes, I could have had twenty stout lads waiting in the Shotover glades.”

As they left the Oxford road for the track across the Campsfield downs the cavalcade had to pass through a narrow stone postern. A beggar, hideously scarred and heavily bandaged, sat by the gate crying for alms — an abraham apparently, for his eyes rolled and his lips frothed like a madman’s. He was on his feet as the prisoners made the passage, and, since it was narrow and they had to move sidelong, there was a minute’s delay. He clawed at Peter’s arm, and for a second Peter looked into his eyes, and saw something there which was not frenzy. That something momentarily shook him out of his absorption.

“How far to the skirts of Wychwood?” he whispered.

“As far as to Peter’s Gate,” came the answer.

“Alack . . . I . . . shall . . . not . . . be . . . there . . . in . . . time.” The words were jolted from him by a sudden jib of his horse, and the pauses between them fell naturally. He cast a look behind, but the abraham seemed to have sunk into the ground.

After that he was back in his dreams. . . . He had no fear of death and no shrinking from it, but indeed the thought of it was scarcely in his mind. Nor did he dwell on the gross figure behind him at Woodstock, whose mastery of the land was confirmed by his own fall. Scarcely even on Bohun — the proud name which would never again rally England. All these things seemed to have faded into a very dim past, to be only the echoes of what befell long ago. . . . His heart was filled with a different memory, the vision of her who had appeared to him in his hour of peril in the snowy forest and had promised him everlasting life.

He felt rapt above all the sorrows of earth. Six months ago he had been eating out his heart in vain ambitions; now he had ridden the full range of them and found the mountain-top beyond. He almost laughed aloud to think of the callow child who had once dreamed of glory. He had had glory within his grasp, and had brought it as an offering to the feet of her whose glory was beyond sun, moon and stars. The blanket of the dark covered the earth, but it made only the brighter that heavenly radiance which burned for him and made a path of light to immortality. . . . Peter in his exaltation seemed to be lifted out of the body. . . . He had no cognisance of Simon’s grim face by his side, or the jostling horses and the thick Sussex speech, or the wild birds calling over Campsfield. His thoughts had become music, and he made that hymn to the Queen of Heaven which is still to be read in the books. It is in Latin, with echoes of Adam of Saint–Victor, but with something of the human longing of the songs which Aucassin sang to Nicolette in the forest. For his Queen walked in spring meadows and had flowers in her hair.

At the Gosford crossing there was delay. The fisherman, who lived near-by and was the guide to the ford, could not be found, and the Sussex man who attempted to lead the way floundered into deep water and had to be dragged out by the hair. The better part of an hour was spent in crossing, while Sir Miles’s maledictions rumbled like a thunderstorm. Beyond the river the floods filled the meadows, and the road was not easy. A loutish boy appeared and offered himself as guide, but he was little good at the job, and the party were several times bogged to the girths. It seemed as if the boy sought to catch Peter’s eye, and as he fled, after the flat of Sir Miles’s sword had descended on his back, he made the priggers’ sign.

At Islip also there was a hitch. Two ox-carts had jammed in the narrow bridge, and had to be removed with a grinding of broken timber. Vagabondage was abroad that day. There was a troop of crowders in the little town, and as many cozeners and dommerers as if it had been an abbey-gate, and a knot of dark men at the bridge~end who had the air of rufflers and whose long knives were plain beneath their shirts.

Simon was roused from his moodiness. “What means this muster of rogues?” he asked.

But Peter did not hear him. They had begun to ascend the long slopes of Wood Eaton, and something in the aspect and scent of the place brought him back to earth. It was already almost dusk, and a light haze filled the hollows. The air was balmy like spring, and one planet shone bright in the eastern sky. There was a faint music of bells — from Islip church behind them, from the famous Wood Eaton Flageolets, and a distant murmur from the Oxford towers. He remembered that it was the eve of Noël. Even now in Oseney Great Church the brethren would be at vespers.

But he did not think of Oseney, and the sound in his ear was not the chanting of choirs, or the smell in his nostrils the odour of incense. He was feeling in every nerve, in that midwinter twilight, the tumult of the coming spring. This was the place he had loved best, and where he had spent so many summer hours; it was the sanctuary of his youth, that part of earth with which his very soul was interfused. The opal haze, rising out of the moist ground, cloaked its winter bareness; beneath it the flowers were already springing; was that a clump of early primroses by the hazels? . . . Might there not be a world of light under the blanket of the dark?

Once again, as in the snowy forest, he seemed to be granted a revelation. He had been promised life, but he had thought it meant a life beyond the grave, and all day his thoughts had been on Paradise. Now they were back in the terrestrial world, and he was aware that the Queen of Heaven was walking these familiar fields. In the dark he saw the gleam of her robes, blue as a speedwell. What was her message for him? Was some miracle preparing? His heart leaped in a sudden hope.

There was another marvel. The air had become jubilant with birds. It was a mid-winter dusk when no feathered things should have been heard except owls and homing crows. But the thickets seemed to be loud with song. There were skylarks soaring to heaven, and woodlarks uttering their quiet sweet notes, and blackbirds with their pipes and cymbals. And, surely, from the hazels came the throb of the nightingale.

Dimly he heard Simon’s excited whisper. “The thickets are full of folk. . . . There is something afoot. A malison on these bonds!” He felt him straining at his foot shackles, and their horses jostled.

Sir Miles Flambard was violently out of temper. No hope now of making Wallingford that night — the best they could do was Dorchester, or maybe the hedge tavern at Horspath. And here they were in Stowood and twilight was upon them. He was afraid of the common road up the defile — there was too good a chance of an ambush between those steep shaggy banks. So he gave the order for a flank turn, and, leaving the chase of Wood Eaton on the right, to take the spur which would bring them to the cleared ground of Elsfield. That at least was open country, save for one or two coppices. He bade his troopers close in on the prisoners, and himself rode in front.

As they topped the Wood Eaton crest the moon rose and gave Sir Miles a prospect. The land looked open and safe and his spirits lightened. In two hours they would be snug in Dorchester. The scrub was empty except for cowering birds. . . . The Sussex men were not woodlanders, and could not discern that faint rustle in the bracken which was not due to any animal, or that pad in the hollow below which could come only from bare human feet. Simon had forest-tuned ears and knew it, and to Peter every sound told an authentic tale.

A miracle was preparing. He knew that he would not die, and with this knowledge came the passionate desire to live — not in bliss, but in the lowly world under the dark blanket to which his Queen seemed to beckon him. He heard her promise whispered in the still air —“And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways.”

They dipped from the Wood Eaton slope to the green hollow, where was the spring mentioned in that Oseney parchment which had first given him the clue to the Painted Floor. Now he knew the place for which the miracle had been ordained. . . . He spoke low to Simon.

“You see that coppice on the hill before us. Be ready there, for something will happen.”

“The undergrowth is like a coney-warren for folk.” Simon spoke through clenched teeth. “In God’s name who are they? We are trussed like dressed woodcock. . . . Had I but one free hand!”

“Have no fear! I have the promise. Be still and wait on God.”

The horses squelched through a marshland, and then with much heaving and lurching were on the hard ground of the forest slopes. They jingled up the glade where the spring bubbled, splashing sometimes in the little runnel which it fed. The haze on this higher ground had gone, and in the moonlight the coppice with its tall trees stood up like a mound of ebony. “Imperatrix supernorum”— Peter whispered his prayer which was also a chant of triumph:

“Coeli regina per quam medicina

Datur ægrotis, gratia devotis,

Gaudium moestis, mundo lux coelestis,

Spesque salutis.”

They were in the deep brake at the wood’s edge when a low thin whistle cleft the air, clear as a bird’s call and no louder. Sir Miles did not hear it, and was conscious of no danger till a long arm plucked him from his horse.

Out of the bracken under their feet men rose, as stealthily as a fog oozes from wet soil. There was a movement by Peter’s left foot, and he felt the shackle cut which bound his feet below his horse’s belly and which attached his leg to Simon’s. The trooper on his right had moved away so that the rope between them was taut, and it parted with a twang that set him free but for his gyved hands.

Suddenly there was a wild confusion. He saw Simon bring down his manacles with a crash on the head of the rider on his left. The glade seemed to be full of rearing horses, and thick Sussex oaths. He saw men on the ground struggling and the flash of knives. . . . There was a dark beetle-browed face near him, and he knew it for Catti the Welshman. . . . He felt himself pulled from his saddle and hands clutching his throat, hands which suddenly relaxed. Somewhere in the mellay a horse kicked him, and for a second or two his senses swam. . . . Then a great peace came over him. Hands not unkindly were dragging him, for his cramped legs tottered. He was out of the glade among trees. A man was beside him, speaking in a soft crooning voice, a man with a shrunken face and deep-set eyes and wild black hair. The man was giving him water out of his cap, and staunching with a rag the blood from the scalp-wound made by the horse’s hoof.

But Peter saw the figure by his side dimly, for his eyes were on the scene before him. He lay above the Painted Floor, in the very spot where he had been used to make his seat on holidays. The world seemed to have grown very quiet. The moon shone on the Floor, washing the tiles with silver, so that the place looked like a summer sea. And over its waters moved the presence that he had invoked, proud and tender and grave. She wore no crown, and there was no gold on her breast, only the robes of celestial blue. “I have given you life,” she seemed to say, and when he stretched out longing arms towards her she smiled like a mother.

Catti was cleaning his knife, and fingering now and then a new gash on his forehead.

“We must be in the deeps of Bernwood ere morning,” he said. “It appears that our new king is to rule not in England but in the greenwood.”

Pierce the Piper was whittling at a boxwood flute.

“I have found another of my trade,” he said. “My lord here is one that dreams dreams and sees visions.”

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