The Blanket of the Dark, by John Buchan


In the pleasant shire of Kent the manor of Roodhurst has long lost its rustic peace. The old house disappeared in the reign of Anne, and the park this twenty years has been carved into suburban roads and gardens. But the ancient flint-built church still stands, and on the left of the altar are the Messynger tombs. There, on a plinth of black marble, my lord lies carved in alabaster, with his robes curiously coloured and a gilded Garter jewel at his breast. For Sir Gabriel became a great man and the master of broad lands over all south England. Henry made him the Lord Messynger of Roodhurst, and under Mary he won an earl’s coronet and an ample fortune. Nor did Elizabeth degrade him. He trimmed his faith opportunely, and died in full possession of the wealth he had won and in the sunshine of his Queen’s favour.

On the shelf beneath him is the figure of his countess, less resplendent, but with a gilt coif above her marble face. On the entablature, among the heraldic scutcheons, may be read in lapidary Latin how Sabina, Comitessa de Roodhurst, died in the odour of sanctity in the year after her lord, hasting to rejoin him in Heaven. The inscription tells of her wifely merits, her pieties, her meekness, her assured hope of salvation. It enumerates her children, one son who continued the name, and no less than seven daughters, who found fitting husbands, so that, though the title died out soon after the Restoration, the blood of Messynger and Beauforest is still perpetuated in high places.

The name of the Countess Sabine flashes now and then into the national story — in state papers, in court memoirs, in the dedicatory addresses of many poets. But more is to be gathered from the local histories. She was a great lady in Kent, a figure like Anne Clifford in the North. Her beauty is extolled; her hair was unstreaked with grey till her death, and her figure, owing perhaps to her passion for horsemanship, remained to the end that of a slim nymph and not of a mother of children. She was the best of wives, and there is a tale of how, in her husband’s interest, she won by her arts the grace of a queen who did not love her own sex. Her virtues were eminent and high-handed; she ruled her lord’s estates with far-sighted skill, generous to those who obeyed her, but adamant to opposition, loved by some, feared by many, deeply respected by all. In her rural domain she was a lesser Gloriana, and men spoke of her as they spoke of Elizabeth, with pride and awe and a remote affection. In very truth, says her epitaph, a virtuous woman, a true mother in Israel, whose price was above rubies.

Sir Ralph Bonamy dwelt peacefully in Wood Eaton until his death at a ripe age in the same year as King Henry, keeping open house, breakfasting magnificently on beef and ale, hunting in Stowood, and fowling on Otmoor, and training such falcons as were not to be matched in England. To his house came Brother Tobias, when the community of Oseney was scattered, and there he spent his declining years as the family chaplain. Tobias became a silent old man, who stirred little from his chamber, where he was busy with a Latin version of Euripides in the manner of Seneca — a work which has not survived. Sometimes, seated among his books, he would receive in conference uncouth men out of the woods, and on a winter’s night by the hall fire he and Sir Ralph would speak of dangerous things. They agreed that the blanket of the dark had fallen on England, and that long before it lifted they would be both in Paradise. Sometimes they spoke of the Lady Messynger, and Brother Tobias would propound a fancy. He would tell how, in Euripides’ play, the true Helen was carried to Egypt, and how it was only a phantom Helen that went to Troy with Paris and brought on Greeks and Trojans unnumbered ills. So it was, he said, with the Lady Sabine. There was a true woman of that name, who was beloved by two noble youths, but where that woman was gone, said he, was known only to God. What survived was but a phantom, a hollow thing with much beauty and more cunning, who was mated to another hollow thing, and shone resplendently in a hollow world. The real Sabine was no doubt laid up in Heaven. And then he would laugh, and remind himself that such fancies might be Platonism but were not orthodoxy.

Tobias was dead and Sir Ralph was dead before Simon Rede returned to England. He had sailed with Breton captains to the coasts of the New World, and had been much engaged in the early religious wars of France. He returned in the eighth year of Elizabeth to a moiety of his estate — a man far older than his age. To Court he never went, nor did he find a wife, but lived solitary in the Boarstall tower, dying at last of a fever in his sixtieth year. The manor went to a great-nephew, who pulled down the old walls and built that noble house which Sir William Campion in the Civil Wars defended for King Charles.

You will find a note of Simon and of Sir Ralph in the local histories, but not of Peter. After that Christmas Eve on the Painted Floor he disappears clean out of any record. Avelard and Neville papers reveal nothing, for there was no more talk of trouble in the west. He went down into a world of which there has never been a chronicle, the heaths and forests of old England. But somewhere in Bernwood or Savernake or Charnwood or Sherwood he may have found a home, or on the wild Welsh marches, or north among the heather of the dales. Or he may have been a wanderer, taking for his domicile the whole of the dim country whose border is the edge of the highroad and the rim of the tillage and the last stone walls of the garths. The blanket of the dark might lift for England, but no light will ever reveal those ancient recesses.

Yet I cherish the belief that of Peter we have one faint record. I present it, such as it is, in the words of a letter from my friend, the rector of a Northants parish, who desires to be unnamed, but who is very learned in the antiquities of that wide forest country, which is now a thing of patches, but which once flowed over half the midlands:

“There died here last week,” he writes, “an old man, the last of his name, one Obadiah Bunn. He was an extraordinary old fellow, a real forester — not a gipsy, but an adept in all gipsy lore. I am sorry he has gone, for I learned a lot from him, and I am sorry that the family is extinct, for it interested me enormously. The Boons, Boones, Bunns — the spelling varies — seem to have been in this neighbourhood for at least three hundred years. According to local tradition, they have always been of the same type — the men tall and well-made, the women (there was rarely more than one in any Bunn family) remarkably handsome. They were a queer folk, silent and self-contained, and keeping very much to themselves — odd-tempered at times — decent on the whole, for they never produced a drunkard — wonderful horse-breakers and horse-copers and dog~trainers and poachers — relics of an earlier England. They had not the gipsy colouring, being mostly fair, and nothing annoyed them more than to be taken for gipsies. One feature which local gossip says characterised the whole strain was a slight cleft in the upper lip, which, combined with their fine carriage, gave them an odd air of masterfulness. They were great wanderers, for only one or two of the men in each generation remained at home, the others emigrating or joining the army. I believe I can put up a good case for the view that Daniel Boone, the American hunter and frontiersman, came of their stock.

“You remember Chief Justice Crewe’s famous question: ‘Where is Bohun? where is Mowbray? where is Mortimer?’ . . . Gone in name, but not perhaps in blood. Somewhere those high strains are in the commonalty of England, for it is the commonalty that endures. Can I answer one part of the question? Will you think me fantastic if I look on those stiff dwellers in our forest bounds, those men and women with the curl of the lip and the quiet eyes, as the heirs of Bohun? If so, old Obadiah Bunn was the last of a proud race.”

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