In the days of which you read all classes, save perhaps the very poor, fared better in meat and in drink than they have ever done since. The country was covered with woodlands — there were seventy separate forests in England alone, some of them covering half a shire. Within these forests the great beasts of the chase were strictly preserved, but the smaller game, the hares, the rabbits, the birds, which swarmed round the coverts, found their way readily into the poor man’s pot. Ale was very cheap, and cheaper still was the mead which every peasant could make for himself out of the wild honey in the tree-trunks. There were many tea-like drinks also, which were brewed by the poor at no expense: mallow tea, tansy tea, and others the secret of which has passed.
Amid the richer classes there was rude profusion, great joints ever on the sideboard, huge pies, beasts of the field and beasts of the chase, with ale and rough French or Rhenish wines to wash them down. But the very rich had attained to a high pitch of luxury in their food, and cookery was a science in which the ornamentation of the dish was almost as important as the dressing of the food. It was gilded, it was silvered, it was painted, it was surrounded with flame. From the boar and the peacock down to such strange food as the porpoise and the hedgehog, every dish had its own setting and its own sauce, very strange and very complex, with flavorings of dates, currants, cloves, vinegar, sugar and honey, of cinnamon, ground ginger, sandalwood, saffron, brawn and pines. It was the Norman tradition to eat in moderation, but to have a great profusion of the best and of the most delicate from which to choose. From them came this complex cookery, so unlike the rude and often gluttonous simplicity of the old Teutonic stock.
Sir John Buttesthorn was of that middle class who fared in the old fashion, and his great oak supper-table groaned beneath the generous pastries, the mighty joints and the great flagons. Below were the household, above on a raised dais the family table, with places ever ready for those frequent guests who dropped in from the high road outside. Such a one had just come, an old priest, journeying from the Abbey of Chertsey to the Priory of Saint John at Midhurst. He passed often that way, and never without breaking his journey at the hospitable board of Cosford.
“Welcome again, good Father Athanasius!” cried the burly Knight. “Come sit here on my right and give me the news of the country-side, for there is never a scandal but the priests are the first to know it.”
The priest, a kindly, quiet man, glanced at an empty place upon the farther side of his host. “Mistress Edith?” said he.
“Aye, aye, where is the hussy?” cried her father impatiently. “Mary, I beg you to have the horn blown again, that she may know that the supper is on the table. What can the little owlet do abroad at this hour of the night?”
There was trouble in the priest’s gentle eyes as he touched the Knight upon the sleeve. “I have seen Mistress Edith within this hour,” said he. “I fear that she will hear no horn that you may blow, for she must be at Milford ere now.”
“At Milford? What does she there?”
“I pray you, good Sir John, to abate your voice somewhat, for indeed this matter is for our private discourse, since it touches the honor of a lady.”
“Her honor?” Sir John’s ruddy face had turned redder still, as he stared at the troubled features of the priest. “Her honor, say you — the honor of my daughter? Make good those words, or never set your foot over the threshold of Cosford again!”
“I trust that I have done no wrong, Sir John, but indeed I must say what I have seen, else would I be a false friend and an unworthy priest.”
“Haste man, haste! What in the Devil’s name have you seen?”
“Know you a little man, partly misshapen, named Paul de la Fosse?”
“I know him well. He is a man of noble family and coat-armor, being the younger brother of Sir Eustace de la Fosse of Shalford. Time was when I had thought that I might call him son, for there was never a day that he did not pass with my girls, but I fear that his crooked back sped him ill in his wooing.”
“Alas, Sir John! It is his mind that is more crooked than his back. He is a perilous man with women, for the Devil hath given him such a tongue and such an eye that he charms them even as the basilisk. Marriage may be in their mind, but never in his, so that I could count a dozen and more whom he has led to their undoing. It is his pride and his boast over the whole countryside.”
“Well, well, and what is this to me or mine?”
“Even now, Sir John, as I rode my mule up the road I met this man speeding toward his home. A woman rode by his side, and though her face was hooded I heard her laugh as she passed me. That laugh I have heard before, and it was under this very roof, from the lips of Mistress Edith.”
The Knight’s knife dropped from his hand. But the debate had been such that neither Mary nor Nigel could fail to have heard it. Mid the rough laughter and clatter of voices from below the little group at the high table had a privacy of their own.
“Fear not, father,” said the girl —“indeed, the good Father Athanasius hath fallen into error, and Edith will be with us anon. I have heard her speak of this man many times of late, and always with bitter words.”
“It is true, sir,” cried Nigel eagerly. “It was only this very evening as we rode over Thursley Moor that Mistress Edith told me that she counted him not a fly, and that she would be glad if he were beaten for his evil deeds.”
But the wise priest shook his silvery locks. “Nay, there is ever danger when a woman speaks like that. Hot hate is twin brother to hot love. Why should she speak so if there were not some bond between them?”
“And yet,” said Nigel, “what can have changed her thoughts in three short hours? She was here in the hall with us since I came. By Saint Paul, I will not believe it!”
Mary’s face darkened. “I call to mind,” said she, “that a note was brought her by Hannekin the stable varlet when you were talking to us, fair sir, of the terms of the chase. She read it and went forth.”
Sir John sprang to his feet, but sank into his chair again with a groan. “Would that I were dead,” he cried, “ere I saw dishonor come upon my house, and am so tied with this accursed foot that I can neither examine if it be true, nor yet avenge it! If my son Oliver were here, then all would be well. Send me this stable varlet that I may question him.”
“I pray you, fair and honored sir,” said Nigel, “that you will take me for your son this night, that I may handle this matter in the way which seems best. On jeopardy of my honor I will do all that a man may.”
“Nigel, I thank you. There is no man in Christendom to whom I would sooner turn.”
“But I would lean your mind in one matter, fair sir. This man, Paul de la Fosse, owns broad acres, as I understand, and comes of noble blood. There is no reason if things be as we fear that he should not marry your daughter?”
“Nay, she could not wish for better.”
“It is well. And first I would question this Hannekin; but it shall be done in such a fashion that none shall know, for indeed it is not a matter for the gossip of servants. But if you will show me the man, Mistress Mary, I will take him out to tend my own horse, and so I shall learn all that he has to tell.”
Nigel was absent for some time, and when he returned the shadow upon his face brought little hope to the anxious hearts at the high table. “I have locked him in the stable loft, lest he talk too much,” said he, “for my questions must have shown him whence the wind blew. It was indeed from this man that the note came, and he had brought with him a spare horse for the lady.”
The old Knight groaned, and his face sank upon his hands.
“Nay, father, they watch you!” whispered Mary. “For the honor of our house let us keep a bold face to all.” Then, raising her young clear voice, so that it sounded through the room: “If you ride eastward, Nigel, I would fain go with you, that my sister may not come back alone.”
“We will ride together, Mary,” said Nigel, rising; then in a lower voice: “But we cannot go alone, and if we take a servant all is known. I pray you to stay at home and leave the matter with me.”
“Nay, Nigel, she may sorely need a woman’s aid, and what woman should it be save her own sister? I can take my tire-woman with us.”
“Nay, I shall ride with you myself if your impatience can keep within the powers of my mule,” said the old priest.
“But it is not your road, father?”
“The only road of a true priest is that which leads to the good of others. Come, my children, and we will go together.”
And so it was that stout Sir John Buttesthorn, the aged Knight of Duplin, was left alone at his own high table, pretending to eat, pretending to drink, fidgeting in his seat, trying hard to seem unconcerned with his mind and body in a fever, while below him his varlets and handmaids laughed and jested, clattering their cups and clearing their trenchers, all unconscious of the dark shadow which threw its gloom over the lonely man upon the dais above.
Meantime the Lady Mary upon the white jennet which her sister had ridden on the same evening, Nigel on his war-horse, and the priest on the mule, clattered down the rude winding road which led to London. The country on either side was a wilderness of heather moors and of morasses from which came the strange crying of night-fowl. A half-moon shone in the sky between the rifts of hurrying clouds. The lady rode in silence, absorbed in the thought of the task before them, the danger and the shame.
Nigel chatted in a low tone with the priest. From him he learned more of the evil name of this man whom they followed. His house at Shalford was a den of profligacy and vice. No woman could cross that threshold and depart unstained. In some strange fashion, inexplicable and yet common, the man, with all his evil soul and his twisted body, had yet some strange fascination for women, some mastery over them which compelled them to his will. Again and again he had brought ruin to a household, again and again his adroit tongue and his cunning wit had in some fashion saved him from the punishment of his deeds. His family was great in the county, and his kinsmen held favor with the King, so that his neighbors feared to push things too far against him. Such was the man, malignant and ravenous, who had stooped like some foul night-hawk and borne away to his evil nest the golden beauty of Cosford. Nigel said little as he listened, but he raised his hunting-dagger to his tightened lips, and thrice he kissed the cross of its handle.
They had passed over the moors and through the village of Milford and the little township of Godalming, until their path turned southward over the Pease marsh and crossed the meadows of Shalford. There on the dark hillside glowed the red points of light which marked the windows of the house which they sought. A somber arched avenue of oak-trees led up to it, and then they were in the moon-silvered clearing in front.
From the shadow of the arched door there sprang two rough serving-men, bearded and gruff, great cudgels in their hands, to ask them who they were and what their errand. The Lady Mary had slipped from her horse and was advancing to the door, but they rudely barred her way.
“Nay, nay, our master needs no more!” cried one, with a hoarse laugh. “Stand back, mistress, whoever you be! The house is shut, and our lord sees no guests to-night.”
“Fellow,” said Nigel, speaking low and clear, “stand back from us! Our errand is with your master.”
“Bethink you, my children,” cried the old priest, “would it not be best perchance, that I go in to him and see whether the voice of the Church may not soften this hard heart? I fear bloodshed if you enter.”
“Nay, father, I pray you to stay here for the nonce,” said Nigel. “And you, Mary, do you bide with the good priest, for we know not what may be within.”
Again he turned to the door, and again the two men barred his passage.
“Stand back, I say, back for your lives!” said Nigel. “By Saint Paul! I should think it shame to soil my sword with such as you, but my soul is set, and no man shall bar my path this night.”
The men shrank from the deadly menace of that gentle voice.
“Hold!” said one of them, peering through the darkness, “is it not Squire Loring of Tilford?”
“That is indeed my name.”
“Had you spoken it I for one would not have stopped your way. Put down your staff, Wat, for this is no stranger, but the Squire of Tilford.”
“As well for him,” grumbled the other, lowering his cudgel with an inward prayer of thanksgiving. “Had it been otherwise I should have had blood upon my soul to-night. But our master said nothing of neighbors when he ordered us to hold the door. I will enter and ask him what is his will.”
But already Nigel was past them and had pushed open the outer door. Swift as he was, the Lady Mary was at his very heels, and the two passed together into the hall beyond.
It was a great room, draped and curtained with black shadows, with one vivid circle of light in the center, where two oil lamps shone upon a small table. A meal was laid upon the table, but only two were seated at it, and there were no servants in the room. At the near end was Edith, her golden hair loose and streaming down over the scarlet and black of her riding-dress.
At the farther end the light beat strongly upon the harsh face and the high-drawn misshapen shoulders of the lord of the house. A tangle of black hair surmounted a high rounded forehead, the forehead of a thinker, with two deep-set cold gray eyes twinkling sharply from under tufted brows. His nose was curved and sharp, like the beak of some cruel bird, but below the whole of his clean-shaven powerful face was marred by the loose slabbing mouth and the round folds of the heavy chin. His knife in one hand and a half-gnawed bone in the other, he looked fiercely up, like some beast disturbed in his den, as the two intruders broke in upon his hall.
Nigel stopped midway between the door and the table. His eyes and those of Paul de la Fosse were riveted upon each other. But Mary, with her woman’s soul flooded over with love and pity, had rushed forward and cast her arms round her younger sister. Edith had sprung up from her chair, and with averted face tried to push the other away from her.
“Edith, Edith! By the Virgin, I implore you to come back with us, and to leave this wicked man!” cried Mary. “Dear sister, you would not break our father’s heart, nor bring his gray head in dishonor to the grave! Come back Edith, come back and all is well.”
But Edith pushed her away, and her fair cheeks were flushed with her anger. “What right have you over me, Mary, you who are but two years older, that you should follow me over the country-side as though I were a runagate villain and you my mistress? Do you yourself go back, and leave me to do that which seems best in my own eyes.”
But Mary still held her in her arms, and still strove to soften the hard and angry heart. “Our mother is dead, Edith. I thank God that she died ere she saw you under this roof! But I stand for her, as I have done all my life, since I am indeed your elder. It is with her voice that I beg and pray you that you will not trust this man further, and that you will come back ere it be too late!”
Edith writhed from her grasp, and stood flushed and defiant, with gleaming, angry eyes fixed upon her sister. “You may speak evil of him now,” said she, “but there was a time when Paul de la Fosse came to Cosford, and who so gentle and soft-spoken to him then as wise, grave, sister Mary? But he has learned to love another; so now he is the wicked man, and it is shame to be seen under his roof! From what I see of my good pious sister and her cavalier it is sin for another to ride at night with a man at your side, but it comes easy enough to you. Look at your own eye, good sister, ere you would take the speck from that of another.”
Mary stood irresolute and greatly troubled, holding down her pride and her anger, but uncertain how best to deal with this strong wayward spirit.
“It is not a time for bitter words, dear sister,” said she, and again she laid her hand upon her sister’s sleeve. “All that you say may be true. There was indeed a time when this man was friend to us both, and I know even as you do the power which he may have to win a woman’s heart. But I know him now, and you do not. I know the evil that he has wrought, the dishonor that he has brought, the perjury that lies upon his soul, the confidence betrayed, the promise unfulfilled — all this I know. Am I to see my own sister caught in the same well-used trap? Has it shut upon you, child? Am I indeed already too late? For God’s sake, tell me, Edith, that it is not so?”
Edith plucked her sleeve from her sister and made two swift steps to the head of the table. Paul de la Fosse still sat silent with his eyes upon Nigel. Edith laid her hand upon his shoulder: “This is the man I love, and the only man that I have ever loved. This is my husband,” said she.
At the word Mary gave a cry of joy.
“And is it so?” she cried. “Nay, then all is in honor, and God will see to the rest. If you are man and wife before the altar, then indeed why should I, or any other, stand between you? Tell me that it is indeed so, and I return this moment to make your father a happy man.”
Edith pouted like a naughty child. “We are man and wife in the eyes of God. Soon also we shall be wedded before all the world. We do but wait until next Monday when Paul’s brother, who is a priest at St. Albans, will come to wed us. Already a messenger has sped for him, and he will come, will he not, dear love?”
“He will come,” said the master of Shalford, still with his eyes fixed upon the silent Nigel.
“It is a lie; he will not come,” said a voice from the door.
It was the old priest, who had followed the others as far as the threshold.
“He will not come,” he repeated as he advanced into the room. “Daughter, my daughter, hearken to the words of one who is indeed old enough to be your earthly father. This lie has served before. He has ruined others before you with it. The man has no brother at Saint Albans. I know his brothers well, and there is no priest among them. Before Monday, when it is all too late, you will have found the truth as others have done before you. Trust him not, but come with us!”
Paul de la Fosse looked up at her with a quick smile and patted the hand upon his shoulder.
“Do you speak to them, Edith,” said he.
Her eyes flashed with scorn as she surveyed them each in turn, the woman, the youth and the priest.
“I have but one word to say to them,” said she. “It is that they go hence and trouble us no more. Am I not a free woman? Have I not said that this is the only man I ever loved? I have loved him long. He did not know it, and in despair he turned to another. Now he knows all and never again can doubt come between us. Therefore I will stay here at Shalford and come to Cosford no more save upon the arm of my husband. Am I so weak that I would believe the tales you tell against him? Is it hard for a jealous woman and a wandering priest to agree upon a lie? No, no, Mary, you can go hence and take your cavalier and your priest with you, for here I stay, true to my love and safe in my trust upon his honor!”
“Well spoken, on my faith, my golden bird!” said the little master of Shalford. “Let me add my own word to that which has been said. You would not grant me any virtue in your unkindly speech, good Lady Mary, and yet you must needs confess that at least I have good store of patience, since I have not set my dogs upon your friends who have come between me and my ease. But even to the most virtuous there comes at last a time when poor human frailty may prevail, and so I pray you to remove both yourself, your priest and your valiant knight errant, lest perhaps there be more haste and less dignity when at last you do take your leave. Sit down, my fair love, and let us turn once more to our supper.” He motioned her to her chair, and he filled her wine-cup as well as his own.
Nigel had said no word since he had entered the room, but his look had never lost its set purpose, nor had his brooding eyes ever wandered from the sneering face of the deformed master of Shalford. Now he turned with swift decision to Mary and to the priest.
“That is over,” said he in a low voice. “You have done all that you could, and now it is for me to play my part as well as I am able. I pray you, Mary, and you, good father, that you will await me outside.”
“Nay, Nigel, if there is danger —”
“It is easier for me, Mary, if you are not there. I pray you to go. I can speak to this man more at my ease.”
She looked at him with questioning eyes and then obeyed.
Nigel plucked at the priest’s gown.
“I pray you, father, have you your book of offices with you?”
“Surely, Nigel, it is ever in my breast.”
“Have it ready, father!”
“For what, my son?”
“There are two places you may mark; there is the service of marriage and there is the prayer for the dying. Go with her, father, and be ready at my call.”
He closed the door behind them and was alone with this ill-matched couple. They both turned in their chairs to look at him, Edith with a defiant face, the man with a bitter smile upon his lips and malignant hatred in his eyes.
“What,” said he, “the knight errant still lingers? Have we not heard of his thirst for glory? What new venture does he see that he should tarry here?”
Nigel walked to the table.
“There is no glory and little venture,” said he; “but I have come for a purpose and I must do it. I learn from your own lips, Edith, that you will not leave this man.”
“If you have ears you have heard it.”
“You are, as you have said, a free woman, and who can gainsay you? But I have known you, Edith, since we played as boy and girl on the heather-hills together. I will save you from this man’s cunning and from your own foolish weakness.”
“What would you do?”
“There is a priest without. He will marry you now. I will see you married ere I leave this hall.”
“Or else?” sneered the man.
“Or else you never leave this hall alive. Nay, call not for your servants or your dogs! By Saint Paul! I swear to you that this matter lies between us three, and that if any fourth comes at your call you, at least, shall never live to see what comes of it! Speak then, Paul of Shalford! Will you wed this woman now, or will you not?”
Edith was on her feet with outstretched arms between them. “Stand back, Nigel! He is small and weak. You would not do him a hurt! Did you not say so this very day? For God’s sake, Nigel, do not look at him so! There is death in your eyes.”
“A snake may be small and weak, Edith, yet every honest man would place his heel upon it. Do you stand back yourself, for my purpose is set.”
“Paul!” she turned her eyes to the pale sneering face. “Bethink you, Paul! Why should you not do what he asks? What matter to you whether it be now or on Monday? I pray you, dear Paul, for my sake let him have his way! Your brother can read the service again if it so please him. Let us wed now, Paul, and then all is well.”
He had risen from his chair, and he dashed aside her appealing hands. “You foolish woman,” he snarled, “and you, my savior of fair damsels, who are so bold against a cripple, you have both to learn that if my body be weak there is the soul of my breed within it! To marry because a boasting, ranting, country Squire would have me do so — no, by the soul of God, I will die first! On Monday I will marry, and no day sooner, so let that be your answer.”
“It is the answer that I wished,” said Nigel, “for indeed I see no happiness in this marriage, and the other may well be the better way. Stand aside, Edith!” He gently forced her to one side and drew his sword.
De la Fosse cried aloud at the sight. “I have no sword. You would not murder me?” said he, leaning back with haggard-face and burning eyes against his chair. The bright steel shone in the lamp-light. Edith shrank back, her hand over her face.
“Take this sword!” said Nigel, and he turned the hilt to the cripple. “Now!” he added, as he drew his hunting knife. “Kill me if you can, Paul de la Fosse, for as God is my help I will do as much for you!”
The woman, half swooning and yet spellbound and fascinated, looked on at that strange combat. For a moment the cripple stood with an air of doubt, the sword grasped in his nerveless fingers. Then as he saw the tiny blade in Nigel’s hand the greatness of the advantage came home to him, and a cruel smile tightened his loose lips. Slowly, step by step he advanced, his chin sunk upon his chest, his eyes glaring from under the thick tangle of his brows like fires through the brushwood. Nigel waited for him, his left hand forward, his knife down by his hip, his face grave, still and watchful.
Nearer and nearer yet, with stealthy step, and then with a bound and a cry of hatred and rage Paul de la Fosse had sped his blow. It was well judged and well swung, but point would have been wiser than edge against that supple body and those active feet. Quick as a flash, Nigel had sprung inside the sweep of the blade, taking a flesh wound on his left forearm, as he pressed it under the hilt. The next instant the cripple was on the ground and Nigel’s dagger was at his throat.
“You dog!” he whispered. “I have you at my mercy! Quick ere I strike, and for the last time! Will you marry or no?”
The crash of the fall and the sharp point upon his throat had cowed the man’s spirit. He looked up with a white face and the sweat gleamed upon his forehead. There was terror in his eyes.
“Nay, take your knife from me!” he cried. “I cannot die like a calf in the shambles.”
“Will you marry?”
“Yes, yes, I will wed her! After all she is a good wench and I might do worse. Let me up! I tell you I will marry her! What more would you have?”
Nigel stood above him with his foot upon his misshapen body. He had picked up his sword, and the point rested upon the cripple’s breast.
“Nay, you will bide where you are! If you are to live — and my conscience cries loud against it — at least your wedding will be such as your sins have deserved. Lie there, like the crushed worm that you are!” Then he raised his voice. “Father Athanasius!” he cried. “What ho! Father Athanasius!”
The old priest ran to the cry, and so did the Lady Mary. A strange sight it was that met them now in the circle of light, the frightened girl, half-unconscious against the table, the prostrate cripple, and Nigel with foot and sword upon his body.
“Your book, father!” cried Nigel. “I know not if what we do is good or ill; but we must wed them, for there is no way out.”
But the girl by the table had given a great cry, and she was clinging and sobbing with her arms round her sister’s neck.
“Oh, Mary, I thank the Virgin that you have come! I thank the Virgin that it is not too late! What did he say? He said that he was a de la Fosse and that he would not be married at the sword-point. My heart went out to him when he said it. But I, am I not a Buttesthorn, and shall it be said that I would marry a man who could be led to the altar with a knife at his throat? No, no, I see him as he is! I know him now, the mean spirit, the lying tongue! Can I not read in his eyes that he has indeed deceived me, that he would have left me as you say that he has left others? Take me home, Mary, my sister, for you have plucked me back this night from the very mouth of Hell!”
And so it was that the master of Shalford, livid and brooding, was left with his wine at his lonely table, while the golden beauty of Cosford, hot with shame and anger, her fair face wet with tears, passed out safe from the house of infamy into the great calm and peace of the starry night.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53