The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan

Chapter viii

How Peter Saw Death in the Swan Inn

In the light of Mother Sweetbread’s rush candle Peter stared at the sparrow-like child, and the sparrow-like child stared at Peter.

There was no manner of doubt as to his peril. If the Fettiplace men laid hands on him, he would have the evidence of the Bishop’s servants against him — honest evidence, for it would rest upon the sight of his own cloak on the back of the man who had freed the gospeller. To rebut it he must proclaim his connection with Avelard and reveal the details of his journey, and that meant that he, who for the moment must court obscurity, would stand out glaringly to the whole shire — nay, even to Oxford and the Bishop of Lincoln. The thing was not to be thought of.

“I am trysted with Solomon in Oxford,” he told the woman, “but not till the dark hours, so I must get me to cover. I am for Stowood. . . . Feed the child, mother, for he has earned it well.” Then to the boy, “What is your name?”

“They call me Dickon,” was the answer. “Dickon of the Holt!”

“Then, Dickon, get you back the road you came. Put yourself in the way of the Swinbrook men and let them drag from you news of me. You saw me on the Witney road with the prisoner, riding like one possessed. . . . This horse of mine, mother, you will send into the forest till I can recover him. Hide him where no Fettiplace can penetrate, for he is a damning link with Avelard. Then give me some provender for the road, for I will be hungry before tomorrow’s e’en.”

“This is the vigil of Hallowmas,” said the old woman anxiously. “’Tis an ill night to take to the greenwood.”

“Better Hallowe’en witches than the rough hands of Squire Fettiplace. Haste you, mother. I must be beyond Cherwell ere daybreak.”

Ten minutes later Peter — cloakless, for he must travel light — had slipped from the hut, where a hungry lad was supping bear-meal porridge, and an old woman was saying spells by the fire for his protection. The snow had ceased to fall, but it lay an inch and more deep on the ground. The wind had dropped, a few stars showed, and on the horizon there was the prelude of moonrise. It was bitter cold, so he ran — first across the slushy pastures, then through the scrub of the forest bounds, and then by a path he knew, which in the shadow of the trees was almost bare of snow, and which took him down the southern ridge of the Evenlode vale.

Now that he had leisure to think, his anger surged up against Simon Rede. The man was a foe to God, for he had freed a heretic — Peter made the reflection mechanically and without conviction, for it seemed to set his grievance on higher grounds than his own pride. Simon was certainly an enemy to himself, for he had deforced the Bishop’s men in such a way as to lay the blame on his innocent head. Doubtless, too, he had earlier in the day made the two Avelard men drunk. For what purpose? To free the gospeller? But why incriminate Peter?

He was of the opposite party, and must suspect something — Lord Avelard had feared this — Sir Ralph Bonamy had feared it — that was why he himself had had to take the road again. The man was as cunning as he was bold. Peter thought bitterly of how he had thawed to this enemy, and a few hours ago had looked on him almost as a comrade. He remembered ruefully his admiration of the man’s carriage and conversation. And he had been nobly duped. The stolen cloak, the tale of a journey post-haste to Boarstall, the friendly parting — every incident rankled in his memory. . . . Well, it was for him to defeat Master Simon’s conspiracies. He had something against him — the knowledge, the certain knowledge, that he was in league with those who defied the King’s grace in matters of religion. . . . And then he laughed sardonically, for he himself was about to defy the King’s grace in things of greater moment.

He strove to keep his mind on the notion that Simon’s hostility to him was because of state policy. But it would not stay there. The unpleasing reflection would edge its way in that the cause was Sabine Beauforest. The man had not come to Avelard to please Crummle’s commissary, but to be near the girl. Of that he was as certain as that he was now stumbling through the scrub oaks above Evenlode with owls hooting like lost souls around him. Presently the thought became a conviction, and the conviction an oppression. Simon was a rival, a deadly rival, and he had won the first bout by turning the heir of Avelard into a mockery. He saw that lean face puckered with mirth, and those cool, arrogant, contemptuous eyes, and he had a miserable consciousness of weakness in the face of such an antagonist. Decked with the pomp of Avelard he could condescend on one who was no more than a squire of modest estate, but now Simon was mounted and fronting the world, while he was afoot and a fugitive.

In his depression the picture of Sabine seemed to limn itself on the dark night — Sabine, not as he had last seen her, distracted and sullen, but Sabine on that night when she had opened her arms to him, her pale loveliness suddenly become a fire. Once he had thought of a fair woman as something dim and infinitely distant, like a sickle moon in an April twilight. Now he had seen the fairest of all, her eyes dewy with kindness, her lips tremulous with surrender. . . . The picture entranced and maddened him, but it also drove Simon Rede from his head. He was Bohun, and his business was to win in the lists which had been set for him. To victory there all other things would be added, chief of which was a laughing girl.

Before dawn the snow returned, big powdery flakes with no wind behind them. In a crook of Bladon heath, just outside the deer~park of Woodstock, he stumbled upon a small encampment of horse~priggers, round a hissing fire. Half a dozen weedy garrons, with their heads muffled in sacking, were tethered near by. John Naps’s watchword saved him a slit throat, and secured him a bed of moderately dry bracken and enough of the fire to warm his toes. There he slept till an hour after daybreak, when he was roused by the encampment shifting ground. He breakfasted on some of the food he had brought from Mother Sweetbread, distrusting the stew of the priggers. The ruffians were civil enough and a little abashed in his presence, for Flatsole ruled the clan with an iron hand. They showed some relief when he prepared to leave them, and they gave him a useful bit of news. Catti the Welshman was in the alehouse at Gosford, lying hid because of a broken rib. Peter must find a place to spend the daylight hours, and in such weather he preferred the shelter of a roof to a cold hollow of Stowood. Where Catti lay he might reckon on a safe sanctuary.

The snow grew heavier as he crossed the open moorlands towards the sharp spire of Kidlington church. He skirted the village and came to the tiny hamlet of Gosford, hard upon a ford of Cherwell. He remembered the alehouse, a pleasant place where, in a garden beside a colony of bees, he had had many a summer draught. Now the bush at its door was turned upside down — the innkeeper’s sign that there was sickness in the hostelry and that no guests could be entertained. There was an utter silence in the hamlet, not a soul showed or a dog stirred, nothing but the even descent of the snow. But behind doors and windows he seemed to catch a glimpse of furtive faces.

Peter made for the back-quarters of the tavern. There he found a sluttish girl plucking a cockerel, and tossing the white feathers to mix with the falling snow. “Will you carry a message, Mother Goose,” said Peter, “to him who lodges here?”

“There be no one lodging here, master,” she said. “Feyther has the autumn sickness, and mother is new brought to bed.”

“Nevertheless, you will take my message and give it to whom you will,” and he spoke the first part of John Naps’s watchword.

She looked up at Peter, and, seeing him young and well-favoured, relaxed her stubbornness. She flung the half-plucked fowl to him with a laugh. “I dare not idle, master, with all the work of the house on my hands. Do ‘ee finish my job and I will carry your word indoors.”

In an instant she was back, giggling.

“Feyther he says, ‘Far as to Peter’s gate.’ What play be it, master? Wychwood’s no more’n six miles.”

“Say, ‘Alack, I shall not be there in time.’”

She nodded. “Ay, that was what I was bidden wait for. Come ‘ee indoors, but first shake the clots from your feet, lest you muck up my floor.”

Catti was not in the house, but in a chamber, the remnant of an old priory, which was connected with the building by a vaulted passage. There he lay on a couch of straw and rags in a darkness illumined only by a brazier which burned beside him and such light as came from above through the slats of the roof. But even in the dimness Peter saw the beetle brows and the fierce black eyes and the hilt of a long knife.

The man was genial and open, for Naps’s pass was clearly a master word. When he heard that Peter — whose name he did not ask — was on his way to meet Darking and in some peril from the law, he became reassuring. Peter was safe for the daylight hours, and what easier than to slip into Oxford by the east gate in weather which would keep the inquisitive at home? Thereafter Solomon would see to him, Solomon who could, if he wanted, pass a red-handed felon through the guards of a palace.

He had got his own hurt on the Worcester road. It was near healed, and he proposed to move towards London, where trade would be brisk, since the King’s law was gone Lincoln way. Peter, with Lord Avelard’s talk in his head, was amazed to find how well informed this bandit was on every matter they had spoken of with hushed voices. He knew what was stirring on the western marches, and named the very numbers which Neville and Latimer had under arms.

Peter asked about Simon Rede, and Catti scratched his head.

“He is a ready man with his blade,” he said, “as some of us know to our cost. But he is merry, too, and Boarstall has a good name among us wandering folk. They say he is hot for some new thing called Gospel, which the King mislikes. There are many that hate him, but more that fear him, and he goes his own road unquestioned. . . . Nay, he is not one of us. They say that Gospel is harder on an honest man than the King’s justices. Job Cherryman that took up with it fell to groaning and weeping and died of a wasting in a twelvemonth. ’Tis some madness of the gentles, and not for the poor.”

Peter ate the rest of his food in Catti’s company, and noted how messages came all day to the recluse — a head thrust past the door, a question asked and answered, all in the jargon which he had heard at Little Greece. When the time came for him to leave, Catti appointed a ragged urchin to show him the road down the right bank of Cherwell.

“You are well served,” said Peter.

Catti laughed. “Needs must in a trade like mine. This morning, master, you came from Brother Friday’s priggers on Bladon heath. I had news of you before you passed Kidlington granges, and, had you not come from honest company, you had never had speech with Cis here, and gotten entrance to this cell of mine.”

An hour after dark Peter entered Oxford by the side-gate adjoining Magdalen College. The snow had passed, and the air had sharpened to a still frost, but a light fog held the upper heavens, and there was no moon or star. There had been a glow by the east gate, which lit up everything, for Magdalen College, which was without the city wall, had fired a great bonfire to drive away the plague. The High Street was dark in patches, but opposite University College there was a glare also, for in its quadrangle was another bonfire. Though the hour was yet early, the place seemed empty and quiet. Farther on, where Peter had to grope his way to avoid the swollen gutter, there came the music of an organ and young voices across the way. Peter remembered that it was the Eve of All Souls, and that, according to custom, masses were being sung in Chichele’s college for the repose of the dead fallen in France. There was an echo of singing, too, from Brasenose, and Haberdashers’ Hall had lights in all its upper windows. But beyond that it was very dark. The Ram inn had shut its outer door, so that only a narrow thread of light escaped to the cobbles. The flesher near by had shuttered his shop, but the carcase of a buck from Shotover was hanging outside from a hook of the balcony, and Peter’s forehead took the beast’s rump with such force that he sat down heavily in the slush.

At the place called Quarvex, where the church of St Martin hung above the meeting of four streets, stood a stone seat called the Pennyless Bench, built for the comfort of the market-folk. The little square was deserted, and Peter stepped out with more confidence, for he was now on the confines of the west part of the city, which was his own quarter. But from the shadows of the Pennyless Bench a voice spoke:

“’Tis a raw night to go cloakless, friend,” it said.

Peter started and slipped in a puddle of snow. He understood now that the faint glow from the east window of the church must have illumined his figure to one sitting in the shadows. Moreover, he knew the voice. He took a step forward, and saw in the corner of the bench what seemed to be the figure of a tall man.

Even as he stared the figure twitched a cloak from its shoulders and tossed it towards him.

“Take it, friend,” said the voice. “You have the better right to it.” And Peter caught in his hands his own murry-coloured cloak of woollen.

The voice spoke again.

“You would fly at my throat, but I pray you consider. This is no place to brawl for one or t’other of us. Also you are unarmed, and I bear a sword. Doubtless I used you scurvily last night, but I had weighty reasons, which some day I may recount to you. Thank God for a restored garment, and go in peace.”

Peter’s anger flared up at the cool air of authority.

“I have no sword, but, if you are a man, you will unbuckle yours. Come with me across Bookbinders bridge to a corner I know of where we may be undisturbed. There I will fight you with the weapons that God gave us both at birth, and bring you to task for last night’s work.”

A laugh came from the shadow.

“‘Twould be good play, doubtless, and would warm our blood in this nipping weather. But I have no time for such sport, nor, methinks, have you, Master Bonamy. I am within easy hail of Boarstall, but you are very far from Avelard. Get you to Oseney and your supper.”

There was a noise farther down the Cornmarket street and a sudden gleam of light, which announced the watch.

“I have but to wait,” Peter said, “and proclaim that you are he that loosed the heretic from the Bishop’s men.”

Again the man laughed. “You would not be credited,” he said. “I am better known in Oxford town than the reputed heir of my Lord Avelard out of the west country. Besides”— he paused —“bethink you what, if so minded, I could proclaim of you. Begone, my priestling. A cell at Oseney is healthier for you than the cobbles of Quarvex on a November night.”

The sound of the oncoming watch grew nearer, and Peter let prudence govern his temper. This was not the place or hour for a reckoning with Simon Rede. He flung the cloak round his shoulders, and turned down a lane that led to the Castle. He was angry and shamed. Once again his enemy had had the laugh of him, and at the thought of the scornful merriment in Simon’s voice he shivered, but not with the cold.

It was darker and quieter among the lanes beside the Castle which sloped to the river. Down in Fisherrow there were moving lights, and high in the sky Peter saw the lamp in the bell-tower of Oseney. Even as he gazed Thomas began to strike the hour of eight. He passed no one except a lay brother hurrying to Rewley, and a party of young bloods from one of the colleges, who had come from hawking in Botley fen, and had been making a great clamour at the west gate. At the said gate a band of west-country clothiers were setting out, hoping to lie the night at Witney, so as to make Gloucester on the morrow. Peter slipped round the shaggy cavalcade, and found himself without the walls, on the Oseney causeway.

From there it was but a step to the Ox Pens, a piece of open ground where a cattle-market was held of a Tuesday. Beyond it was a cluster of small houses, huddled round the approach to the river bridge called the Fennel. It was rough going, for the ground was slippery with dung and offal, and there were many miry puddles now crackling with frost. The Swan tavern was not hard to find, for it had an open door from which slanted a broad band of light that illuminated a white swan on a scarlet ground on a board surmounting a pollarded willow. The place, now that Thomas’s strokes had died on the night, was as silent as the heart of Wychwood. Even the lit tavern made no sound.

It was a very humble place, but the rushes on the floor were fresh and the logs on the hearth crackled cheerfully. There was no one there.

Peter shook the powder of snow from his cloak, stamped his feet clear, and warmed himself at the blaze. The place had the air of a room much frequented and expecting guests. He called loudly for a drawer.

A little girl peeped round the corner of an inner door, and laid her finger on her lips, her eyes wide with apprehension.

“Whisht!” she said. “Ye manna make no noise — he be near his dead~throes.”

“Master Darking?” Peter began, but the child had gone. He noticed that at least a dozen lights, besides that of the fire, were burning in the little room, so that the place was as bright as a high altar at Candlemas. There was no sound except the logs crackling. The door was pinned open to its widest, and from the silent tavern an eerie radiance flooded out into the silent night.

Peter felt a spell creeping upon him. He took off his cloak, sat down on a stool, and stared into the fire. This was the place that Darking had appointed, and his task was done in coming here. Meantime he could rest, for he felt listless and out of temper.

A hand was laid on his arm, and he saw that it was Darking, who had come in by the door through which the child had peeped. He wore a townsman’s clothes, so that he looked like some prosperous trader, save for his lean, outland face.

“God’s mercy has brought you here, my lord,” he said. “I feared my message would not be in time, or that you might have some pressing business at Avelard. But indeed no business could be more pressing than this. One lies dying in this house that has something to say to you.”

Darking pulled another stool to the hearth.

“’Tis the outcome of Mother Sweetbread’s care and the spells of Madge of Shipton. They have sought treasure for you, and maybe they have found it. . . . You have heard of the great Lord Lovell?”

Peter nodded. “Him that died after the Stoke battle — drowned in Trent?”

“Nay, he did not drown in Trent. He came in secret to his own house of Minster Lovell, and what befell him after that is known only to God. But he is dead long since, for that is fifty years back. But mark you what manner of man was this Francis Lovell. With Catesby and Ratcliffe he ruled the land under King Richard. You have heard the country rhyme:

“‘The Cat, the Rat, and Lovell our dog

Ruled all England under the Hog.’

He brought your grandsire, Harry of Buckingham, to his death, and got his office of Constable. He had the plundering of the whole nation, and, being no spender, he amassed uncounted riches. Where, think you, has that wealth gone? Harry the King had never a groat of it. ’Tis buried somewhere among the ruinous courts of Minster Lovell, and it may be yours for the finding. A third of it, my lord, would give you the sinews of war, and make you master indeed, for you would have your own privy purse, and be dependent on none.”

Peter was stirred to the liveliest interest. “But what hope? . . . Who can know? . . . ”

“Listen! My tale goes on. At Minster Lovell there was one household thirled above all others to the wicked lord. Its name was Blackthorn, and Giles Blackthorn was at my lord’s bridle hand in all his iniquity. Where Lovell pricked Blackthorn slew, and where Lovell pinched Blackthorn skinned. Well, this Giles died beyond question on Stoke field from an arrow in the throat, but he left a widow more evil than himself. ’Twas to Mother Blackthorn at Minster Lovell that my lord fled after his cause had gone down, and Mother Blackthorn alone knew what end he made. She lived for but a month after Stoke, and died in the terrors of hell, screaming that she could not leave her lord, and, as I have been told, being held down in bed by four men to control her frenzy. With her an ugly stock passed out of the world, save for her son Jack. He had been page to Lovell, and had been at Stoke with him and had accompanied him home, and, though only a stripling, was as wicked as his master. Whatever black secrets Lovell had this Rustling Jack, as they called him, was their sure repository. After his mother’s death he disappeared, like my lord, and was believed long since to be in the devil’s hands. But it seems the world was wrong. He was in far countries, fighting for the Spaniards, and a prisoner for years among the heathen. Now, by the arts of Goody Littlemouse, he has been discovered.”

“Where?” Peter asked breathlessly.

“In this very house, where he is now at the point of death. The priest of St Thomas awaits to shrive him. But he cannot save his soul by confession like a Christian, for it seems that he has done things which cannot be told even to holy ears. Also he has some restitution to make, and till he make it his soul will not leave his body. He has a horror of darkness on him, and that is why these lights burn. Also he has a horror of sound, and cries that the pealing of Oseney bells are the yells of the damned.”

“What has he to restore?”

“My guess is that it is the clue to Lovell’s treasure. Mother Littlemouse, who has her own ways of getting knowledge, is assured that he has such a secret in his keeping. But he will not surrender it to any chance comer. He cries out for one of the blood of Lovell to help him die. You, my lord, are of that blood, for Lovell and Stafford and Bohun were all intermingled. They say, too, that you are the living image of your grandsire, Duke Harry. Maybe, when he sees you, he may be moved to make you his confessor. But we must make haste, for his thread of life wears thin.”

The boy’s mood in a violent revulsion was now one of excited triumph. It seemed like God’s hand leading him by strange paths to recover that heritage of which he had been harshly robbed. Lovell’s treasure was Buckingham’s treasure, since Lovell had clomb to power on Buckingham’s ruin. . . . A sudden memory gave him assurance. The sign of this place was the swan, and the swan was the badge of Bohun.

The frontage of the tavern was narrow, but the building was deep, since behind it lay a nest of small rooms, dug out of a fragment of old masonry which may have gone back to Norman days. Peter found himself in a crooked passage, blazing with tallow dips in iron sconces. There was a little window with a broken hasp, through which came eddies of air that set the lights smoking. As he passed it he had a glimpse without of swollen rushing waters. This place abutted on the river — a fine strategic point for lawless folk.

Darking ushered him into a big room which looked like the girnel of an ancient mill. Here, too, many lights blazed, which revealed the cobwebbed rafters, the floor deep in dust, and a vast rusty pin projecting from the wall. On a pallet in the centre lay the dying man, with beside him an old woman, the inn-wife, who from time to time moistened his lips with sour wine. A man in a priest’s gown stood by the far wall, a timid youth who was busy with his beads. As they entered Darking fell back, the old woman rose and withdrew to the priest’s side, and Peter found himself alone by the pallet, looking down at a grey face distorted with fear.

The man whom they called Rustling Jack was very old. His neck was a mere string of sinews, his cheeks were fallen into ghastly hollows, and the lips he moved incessantly were blue like the blackthorn fruit. A great scar ran athwart his brow, and the wrists which lay on the coverlet were grooved deep with the manacles which had once attached him to his oar in the Moors’ galleys. The eyes were shut, and through his clenched teeth came a slow moaning.

Peter stood awestruck, regarding the tortured face. He had never seen a man die, and this one was having a cruel passage. In spite of age and weakness the man on the pallet seemed to him a fearful thing, for on his face was printed as in a book a long odyssey of evil.

Suddenly he saw that the eyes had opened and were staring at him, and so hungry was their stare that he stepped back a pace. A voice filtered painfully between the lips.

“Who is it?” it croaked. “In God’s name what are you that vexes me? Your name? Your name? You have eyes I mind of . . . .”

“I am Bohun,” said Peter, and he was not conscious of what he said.

There came an exulting laugh.

“There is no Bohun in England — not these fifty years — it is Lovell I see — Lovell.”

“I am the grandson of Henry of Buckingham.”

A gleam of intelligence came into the frenzied eyes.

“You are Henry of Buckingham. . . . I saw him die at Salisbury . . . his head rolled a good yard beyond the sawdust, and I sopped my kerchief in the blood of it. . . . Yea, you have his eyes . . . he had pretty eyes to beguile hearts, but they could not save him. . . . Harry Stafford . . . my lord liked him ill.”

A last spasm of life galvanised him into action. He half raised himself, and Peter saw the neck muscles knot like eggs.

“Be you from Heaven or Hell I care not . . . Lovell slew you, but you have Lovell’s blood, and I summon you to give my master peace. If you are a blessed one, I plead in Christ’s name. My lord never leaves me . . . his voice whinnies and sobs in my ears, and I cannot go to meet him till I have done his commands. Angel or devil, I charge you to lay his spirit. . . . Listen. . . . Bend down, ghost, for my breath is short. . . . ”

Peter bent till his ear was close to the dying man’s lips. The words came slow and faint but very clear. “The west court,” it said, “the corner under the dovecot. . . . Three paces from the east wall. . . . Haste ye in the name of God the Father and God the Son and . . . ”

He fell back choking on the bed, and at the same moment all the lights in the room swayed and flickered as if from a rush of wind. Peter, white with awe, thought it was the waft of death, till he saw that the door by which he had entered had opened, and that the scared little girl he had already seen was standing in it. There was a noise beyond as of men’s heavy feet and men’s speech.

At the same moment he felt Darking’s hand on his arm. “You have the word?” was his excited whisper. “Then this is no place for you and me. There are men here seeking Jack, and they will find only clay. Quick — follow me.”

Someone in a hurry blew out the lights, all but two at the bed head and one at the foot. Peter found himself dragged by Darking into a passage, narrower than that by which they had entered, and dark as a pit. Presently cold air blew in his face, and he was at a window, through which he was made to clamber. “Drop,” said Darking’s voice, and he was sprawling in the bottom of a wherry, riding on a rough current. A second later Darking joined him, untied a mooring rope, and took up the oars, and the boat shot under the bridge called the Fennel.

“You heard the words clear,” Darking asked, and made Peter repeat them. “God be thanked, my lord. ’Twas a race between us and the Devil, and we won by a hair.”

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