A proud man was Ivo Taillebois, as he rode next morning out of Spalding town, with hawk on fist, and hound at heel, and a dozen men-at-arms at his back, who would, on due or undue cause shown, hunt men while he hunted game.
An adventurer from Anjou, brutal, ignorant, and profligate — low-born, too (for his own men whispered, behind his back, that he was no more than his name hinted, a wood-cutter’s son), he still had his deserts. Valiant he was, cunning, and skilled in war. He and his troop of Angevine ruttiers had fought like tigers by William’s side, at Hastings; and he had been rewarded with many a manor, which had been Earl Algar’s, and should now have been Earl Edwin’s, or Morcar’s, or, it may be, Hereward’s own.
“A fat land and fair,” said he to himself; “and, after I have hanged a few more of these barbarians, a peaceful fief enough to hand down to the lawful heirs of my body, if I had one. I must marry. Blessed Virgin! this it is to serve and honor your gracious majesty, as I have always done according to my poor humility. Who would have thought that Ivo Taillebois would ever rise so high in life as to be looking out for a wife — and that a lady, too?”
Then thought he over the peerless beauties of the Lady Lucia, Edwin and Morcar’s sister, almost as fair as that hapless aunt of hers — first married (though that story is now denied) to the wild Griffin, Prince of Snowdon, and then to his conqueror, and (by complicity) murderer, Harold, the hapless king. Eddeva faira, Eddeva pulcra, stands her name in Domesday-book even now, known, even to her Norman conquerors, as the Beauty of her time, as Godiva, her mother, had been before her. Scarcely less beautiful was Lucia, as Ivo had seen her at William’s court, half captive and half guest: and he longed for her; love her he could not. “I have her father’s lands,” quoth he; “what more reasonable than to have the daughter, too? And have her I will, unless the Mamzer, in his present merciful and politic mood, makes a Countess of her, and marries her up to some Norman coxcomb with a long pedigree — invented the year before last. If he does throw away his daughter on that Earl Edwin, in his fancy for petting and patting these savages into good humor, he is not likely to throw away Edwin’s sister on a Taillebois. Well, I must put a spoke in Edwin’s wheel. It will not be difficult to make him, or Morcar, or both of them, traitors. We must have a rebellion in these parts. I will talk about it to Gilbert of Ghent. We must make these savages desperate, and William furious, or he will be soon giving them back their lands, beside asking them to Court; and then, how are valiant knights, like us, who have won England for him, to be paid for their trouble? No, no. We must have a rebellion, and a confiscation, and then, when English lasses are going cheap, perhaps the Lady Lucia may fall to my share.”
And Ivo Taillebois kept his word; and without difficulty, for he had many to help him. To drive the English to desperation, and get a pretext for seizing their lands, was the game which the Normans played, and but too well.
As he rode out of Spalding town, a man was being hanged on the gallows there permanently provided.
That was so common a sight, that Ivo would not have stopped, had not a priest, who was comforting the criminal, ran forward, and almost thrown himself under the horse’s feet.
“Mercy, good my Lord, in the name of God and all his saints!”
Ivo went to ride on.
“Mercy!” and he laid hands on Ivo’s bridle. “If he took a few pike out of your mere, remember that the mere was his, and his father’s before him; and do not send a sorely tempted soul out of the world for a paltry pike.”
“And where am I to get fish for Lent, Sir Priest, if every rascal nets my waters, because his father did so before him? Take your hand off my bridle, or, par le splendeur Dex” (Ivo thought it fine to use King William’s favorite oath), “I will hew it off!”
The priest looked at him, with something of honest English fierceness in his eyes, and dropping the bridle, muttered to himself in Latin: “The bloodthirsty and deceitful man shall not live out half his days. Nevertheless my trust shall be in Thee, O Lord!”
“What art muttering, beast? Go home to thy wife” (wife was by no means the word which Ivo used) “and make the most of her, before I rout out thee and thy fellow-canons, and put in good monks from Normandy in the place of your drunken English swine. Hang him!” shouted he, as the by-standers fell on their knees before the tyrant, crouching in terror, every woman for her husband, every man for wife and daughter. “And hearken, you fen-frogs all. Who touches pike or eel, swimming or wading fowl, within these meres of mine, without my leave, I will hang him as I hanged this man — as I hanged four brothers in a row on Wrokesham bridge but yesterday.”
“Go to Wrokesham bridge and see,” shouted a shrill cracked voice from behind the crowd.
All looked round; and more than one of Ivo’s men set up a yell, the hangman loudest of all.
“That’s he, the heron, again! Catch him! Stop him! Shoot him!”
But that was not so easy. As Ivo pushed his horse through the crowd, careless of whom he crushed, he saw a long lean figure flying through the air seven feet aloft, with his heels higher than his head, on the further side of a deep broad ditch; and on the nearer side of the same one of his best men lying stark, with a cloven skull.
“Go to Wrokesham!” shrieked the lean man, as he rose and showed a ridiculously long nose, neck, and legs — a type still not uncommon in the fens — a quilted leather coat, a double-bladed axe slung over his shoulder by a thong, a round shield at his back, and a pole three times as long as himself, which he dragged after him, like an unwieldy tail.
“The heron! the heron!” shouted the English.
“Follow him, men, heron or hawk!” shouted Ivo, galloping his horse up to the ditch, and stopping short at fifteen feet of water.
“Shoot, some one! Where are the bows gone?”
The heron was gone two hundred yards, running, in spite of his pole, at a wonderful pace, before a bow could be brought to bear. He seemed to expect an arrow; for he stopped, glanced his eye round, threw himself flat on his face, with his shield, not over his body, but over his bare legs; sprang up as the shaft stuck in the ground beside him, ran on, planted his pole in the next dike, and flew over it.
In a few minutes he was beyond pursuit; and Ivo turned, breathless with rage, to ask who he was.
“Alas, sir! he is the man who set free the four men at Wrokesham Bridge last night.”
“Set free! Are they not hanged and dead?”
“We — we dared not tell you. But he came upon us —”
“Single-handed, you cowards?”
“Sir, he is not a man, but a witch or a devil. He asked us what we did there. One of our men laughed at his long neck and legs, and called him heron. ‘Heron I am,’ says he, ‘and strike like a heron, right at the eyes’; and with that he cuts the man over the face with his axe, and laid him dead, and then another, and another.’
“Till you all ran away, villains!”
“We gave back a step — no more. And he freed one of those four, and he again the rest; and then they all set on us, and went to hang us in their own stead.”
“When there were ten of you, I thought?”
“Sir, as we told you, he is no mortal man, but a fiend.”
“Beasts, fools! Well, I have hanged this one, at least!” growled Ivo, and then rode sullenly on.
“Who is this fellow?” cried he to the trembling English.
“Wulfric Raher, Wulfric the Heron, of Wrokesham in Norfolk.”
“Aha! And I hold a manor of his,” said Ivo to himself. “Look you, villains, this fellow is in league with you.”
A burst of abject denial followed. “Since the French — since Sir Frederick, as they call him, drove him out of his Wrokesham lands, he wanders the country, as you see: today here, but Heaven only knows where he will be tomorrow.”
“And finds, of course, a friend everywhere. Now march!” And a string of threats and curses followed.
It was hard to see why Wulfric should not have found friends; as he was simply a small holder, or squire, driven out of house and land, and turned adrift on the wide world, for the offence of having fought in Harold’s army at the battle of Hastings. But to give him food or shelter was, in Norman eyes, an act of rebellion against the rightful King William; and Ivo rode on, boiling over with righteous indignation, along the narrow drove which led toward Deeping.
A pretty lass came along the drove, driving a few sheep before her, and spinning as she walked.
“Whose lass are you?” shouted Ivo.
“The Abbot of Crowland’s, please your lordship,” said she, trembling.
“Much too pretty to belong to monks. Chuck her up behind you, one of you.”
The shrieking and struggling girl was mounted behind a horseman and bound, and Ivo rode on.
A woman ran out of a turf-hut on the drove side, attracted by the girl’s cries. It was her mother.
“My lass! Give me my lass, for the love of St. Mary and all saints!” and she clung to Ivo’s bridle.
He struck her down, and rode on over her.
A man cutting sedges in a punt in the lode alongside looked up at the girl’s shrieks, and leapt on shore, scythe in hand.
“Father! father!” cried she.
“I’ll rid thee, lass, or die for it,” said he, as he sprang up the drove-dike and swept right and left at the horses’ legs.
The men recoiled. One horse went down, lamed for life; another staggered backwards into the further lode, and was drowned. But an arrow went through the brave serf’s heart, and Ivo rode on, cursing more bitterly than ever, and comforted himself by flying his hawks at a covey of patridges.
Soon a group came along the drove which promised fresh sport to the man-hunters: but as the foremost person came up, Ivo stopped in wonder at the shout of —
“Ivo! Ivo Taillebois! Halt and have a care! The English are risen, and we are all dead men!”
The words were spoken in French; and in French Ivo answered, laughing —
“Thou art not a dead man yet it seems, Sir Robert; art going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, that thou comest in this fashion? Or dost mean to return to Anjou as bare as thou camest out of it?”
For Sir Robert had, like Edgar in Shakespear’s Lear, “reserved himself a blanket, else had we all been shamed.”
But very little more did either he, his lady, and his three children wear, as they trudged along the drove, in even poorer case than that
Robert of Coningsby,
Who came out of Normandy,
With his wife Tiffany,
And his maid Maupas,
And his dog Hardigras.
“For the love of heaven and all chivalry, joke me no jokes, Sir Ivo, but give me and mine clothes and food! The barbarians rose on us last night — with Azer, the ruffian who owned my lands, at their head, and drove us out into the night as we are, bidding us carry the news to you, for your turn would come next. There are forty or more of them in West Deeping now, and coming eastward, they say, to visit you, and, what is more than all, Hereward is come again.”
“Hereward?” cried Ivo, who knew that name well.
Whereon Sir Robert told him the terrible tragedy of Bourne.
“Mount the lady on a horse, and wrap her in my cloak. Get that dead villain’s clothes for Sir Robert as we go back. Put your horses’ heads about and ride for Spalding.”
“What shall we do with the lass?”
“We cannot be burdened with the jade. She has cost us two good horses already. Leave her in the road, bound as she is, and let us see if St. Guthlac her master will come and untie her.”
So they rode back. Coming from Deeping two hours after, Azer and his men found the girl on the road, dead.
“Another count in the long score,” quoth Azer. But when, in two hours more, they came to Spalding town, they found all the folk upon the street, shouting and praising the host of Heaven. There was not a Frenchman left in the town.
For when Ivo returned home, ere yet Sir Robert and his family were well clothed and fed, there galloped into Spalding from, the north Sir Ascelin, nephew and man of Thorold, would-be Abbot of Peterborough, and one of the garrison of Lincoln, which was then held by Hereward’s old friend, Gilbert of Ghent.
“Not bad news, I hope,” cried Ivo, as Ascelin clanked into the hall. “We have enough of our own. Here is all Kesteven, as the barbarians call it, risen, and they are murdering us right and left.”
“Worse news than that, Ivo Taillebois,” (“Sir,” or “Sieur,” Ascelin was loath to call him, being himself a man of family and fashion; and holding the nouveaux venus in deep contempt,)—“worse news than that: the North has risen again, and proclaimed Prince Edgar King.”
“A king of words! What care I, or you, as long as the Mamzer, God bless him! is a king of deeds?”
“They have done their deeds, though, too. Gospatrick and Marlesweyn are back out of Scotland. They attacked Robert de Comines 27 at Durham, and burnt him in his own house. There was but one of his men got out of Durham to tell the news. And now they have marched on York; and all the chiefs, they say, have joined them — Archill the Thane, and Edwin and Morcar, and Waltheof too, the young traitors.”
27 Ancestor of the Comyns of Scotland.
“Blessed Virgin!” cried Ivo, “thou art indeed gracious to thy most unworthy knight!”
“What do you mean?”
“You will see some day. Now, I will tell you but one word. When fools make hay, wise men can build ricks. This rebellion — if it had not come of itself, I would have roused it. We wanted it, to cure William of this just and benevolent policy of his, which would have ended in sending us back to France as poor as we left it. Now, what am I expected to do? What says Gilbert of Ghent, the wise man of Lic — nic — what the pest do you call that outlandish place, which no civilized lips can pronounce?”
“Lic-nic-cole?” replied Ascelin, who, like the rest of the French, never could manage to say Lincoln. “He says, ‘March to me, and with me to join the king at York.’”
“Then he says well. These fat acres will be none the leaner, if I leave the English slaves to crop them for six months. Men! arm and horse Sir Robert of Deeping. Then arm and horse yourselves. We march north in half an hour, bag and baggage, scrip and scrippage. You are all bachelors, like me, and travel light. So off with you! — Sir Ascelin, you will eat and drink?”
“That will I.”
“Quick, then, butler! and after that pack up the Englishman’s plate-chest, which we inherited by right of fist — the only plate and the only title-deeds I ever possessed.”
“Now, Sir Ascelin,”— as the three knights, the lady, and the poor children ate their fastest — “listen to me. The art of war lies in this one nutshell — to put the greatest number of men into one place at one time, and let all other places shift. To strike swiftly, and strike heavily. That is the rule of our liege lord, King William; and by it he will conquer England, or the world, if he will; and while he does that, he shall never say that Ivo Taillebois stayed at home to guard his own manors while he could join his king, and win all the manors of England once and for all.”
“Pardieu! whatever men may say of thy lineage or thy virtues, they cannot deny this — that thou art a most wise and valiant captain.”
“That am I,” quoth Taillebois, too much pleased with the praise to care about being tutoyé by younger men. “As for my lineage, my lord the king has a fellow-feeling for upstarts; and the woodman’s grandson may very well serve the tanner’s. Now, men! is the litter ready for the lady and children? I am sorry to rattle you about thus, madame, but war has no courtesies; and march I must.”
And so the French went out of Spalding town.
“Don’t be in a hurry to thank your saints!” shouted Ivo to his victims. “I shall be back this day three months; and then you shall see a row of gibbets all the way from here to Deeping, and an Englishman hanging on every one.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56