Christopher was six weeks ere he could come and go as he was wont; but it was but a few days ere he was well enough to tell his tale to Jack of the Tofts and his seven bold sons; and they cherished him and made much of him, and so especially did David, the youngest son, to his board-fellow and troth-brother.
On a day when he was well-nigh whole, as he sat under an oak-tree nigh the house, in the cool of the evening, Jack of the Tofts came to him and sat beside him, and made him tell his tale to him once more, and when he was done he said to him: “Foster-son, for so I would have thee deem of thyself, what is the thing that thou rememberest earliest in thy days?”
Said Christopher: “A cot without the Castle walls at the Uttermost Marches, and a kind woman therein, big, sandy-haired, and freckled, and a lad that was white-haired and sturdy, somewhat bigger than I. And I mind me standing up against the door-post of the cot and seeing men-at-arms riding by in white armour, and one of them throwing an apple to me, and I raised my arm to throw it back at him, but my nurse (for somehow I knew she was not my mother) caught my hand and drew me back indoors, and I heard the men laughing behind me. And then a little after my nurse took me into the Castle court, and there was again the man who had thrown me the apple, sitting on a bench therein, clad in a scarlet gown furred with brown fur; and she led me up to him, and he stooped down and chucked me under the chin and put his hand on my head, and looked at my nurse and said: ‘Yea, he is a big lad, and groweth apace, whereas he is but of six winters.’ ‘Nay, Lord,’ said my nurse, ‘he is but scantly five.’ He knit his brows and said: ‘Nay, I tell thee he is six.’ She shook her head, but said nought, and the great man scowled on her and said: ‘Mistress, wilt thou set thy word against mine? Know now that this child is of six years. Now then, how old is he?’ She said faintly: ‘Six years.’ Said he: ‘Look to it that thy head and thy mouth forget it not, else shall we make thy back remember it.’ Then he put his hand on my head again, and said: ‘Well, I say thou art a big lad for six years;’ and therewith he gave me a silver penny; and even as he spake, came up a grey-clad squire to him and looked on me curiously. Then I went away with my nurse, and wondered why she was grown so pale, whereas she was mostly red-cheeked and jolly. But when she had brought me into the cot again, she kissed me and clipped me, weeping sorely the while; wherefore I wept, though I knew not why. Sithence, I soon came to know that the man was the lord and governor of the Castle, as ye may well wot; but to this hour I know not what he meant by threatening my nurse.”
Said Jack: “And how old art thou now, Christopher mine?”
Said the youngling, laughing: “By my lord the Castellan’s reckoning I am twenty and two years; but if thou wilt trow my good and kind nurse, that yet liveth a kind dame, thou must take twelve months off the tale.”
Jack sat silent a little; then he laughed and said: “Well, thou art a mickle babe, Christopher, and it may be that one day many a man shall know it. But now tell me again; thou hadst said to me before that thou hast known neither father nor mother, brother nor sisters: is it so, verily?”
Said Christopher: “Never a kinsman of blood have I, though many well-wishers.”
Said Jack: “Well, now hast thou father and mother, brethren and sisters, though they be of the sort of man-slayers and strong-thieves and outlaws; yet they love thee, lad, and thou mayst one day find out how far thou mayst trust them.”
Christopher nodded and smiled at him merrily; then he fell silent awhile, and the outlaw sat looking on him; at last he said suddenly: “Foster-father, tell me what I am, and of what kindred, I pray thee; for, methinks, thou knowest thereof; and what wonder, wise man as thou art.”
“Forsooth, son Christopher, I have a deeming thereof, or somewhat more, and when it is waxen greater yet, I will tell it thee one day, but not now. But hearken! for I have other tidings for thee. Thou art now whole and strong, and in a few days thou mayst wend the wild-wood as stoutly as e’er a one of us. Now, therefore, how sayest thou, if I bid thee fare a two days’ journey with David and Gilbert thy brethren, and thy sister Joanna, till they bring thee to a fair little stead which I call mine own, to dwell there awhile? For, meseemeth, lad, that the air of the Tofts here may not be overwholesome unto thee.”
Christopher reddened, and he half rose up, and said: “What is this, foster-father? Is it that there shall be battle at the Tofts, and that thou wouldst have me away thence? Am I then such a weakling?”
Said Jack, laughing: “Be still now, thou sticked one. The Tofts go down to battle at some whiles; but seldom comet battle to the Tofts; and no battle do I look for now. But do my bidding, sweet fosterling, and it will be better for me and better for thee, and may, perchance, put off battle for awhile; which to me as now were not unhandy. If thou wilt but abide at Littledale for somewhile, there shall be going and coming betwixt us, and thou shalt drink thy Yule at the Tofts, and go back afterwards, and ever shalt thou have thy sweet fellows with thee; so be wise, since thou goest not perforce.”
“Yea, yea,” said Christopher, laughing; “thou puttest force on no man, is it not so, foster-father? Wherefore I will go, and uncompelled.”
Therewith came up to them, from out of the wild-wood, David, and with him Joanna, who was the wife of Gilbert, and one of those fair maidens from the Wailful Castle, though not the fairest of them; they had been a-hunting, for ever those three would willingly go together, Gilbert, David, and Joanna; and now Gilbert had abided behind, to dight the quarry for fetching home. Christopher looked on the two joyfully, as a man getting whole after sickness smiles on goodly things; and Joanna was fair to see in her hunter’s attire, with brogues tied to her naked feet, and the shapeliness of her legs bare to the knee beneath the trussing up of her green skirts.
They greeted Christopher kindly, and Joanna sat down by him to talk, but Jack of the Tofts took his son by the arm, and went toward the house with him in earnest speech.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53