THE FOREST LOVERS
MRS. W. K. CLIFFORD
THE AUTHOR'S HOMAGE
I. PROSPER LE GAI RIDES OUT II. MORGRAUNT, AND A DEAD KNIGHT III. HOLY THORN AND HOLY CHURCH IV. DOM GALORS V. LA DESIROUS VI. THE VIRGIN MARRIAGE VII. GALORS ABJURES VIII. THE SALLY AT DAWN IX. THE BLOOD-CHASE AND THE LOVE CHASE X. FOREST ALMS XI. SANCTUARY XII. BROKEN SANCTUARY XIII. HIGH MARCH, AND A GREAT LADY XIV. A RECORDER XV. THREE AT TORTSENTIER XVI. BOY AND GIRL XVII. ROY XVIII. BOY'S LOVE XIX. LADY'S LOVE XX. HOW PROSPER HELD A REVIEW XXI. HOW THE NARRATIVE SMACKS AGAIN OF THE SOIL XXII GALORS CONQUAESTOR XXIII. FALVE THE CHARCOAL-BURNER XXIV. SECRET THINGS AT HAUTERIVE XXV. THE ROAD TO GOLTRES XXVI. GUESS-WORK AT GOLTRES XXVII. GALORS RIDES HUNTING XXVIII. MERCY WITH THE BEASTS. XXIX. WANMEETING CRIES, 'HA! SAINT JAMES!' XXX. THE CHAINED VIRGIN OF SAINT THORN XXXI. 'ENTRA PER ME' XXXII 'BIDE THE TIME' XXXIII. SALOMON IS DRIVEN HOME XXXIV. LA DESIREE XXXV. FOREST LOVE XXXVI. THE LADY PIETOSA DE BREAUTE
THE FOREST LOVERS
PROSPER LE GAI RIDES OUT
My story will take you into times and spaces alike rude and uncivil. Blood will be spilt, virgins suffer distresses; the horn will sound through woodland glades; dogs, wolves, deer, and men, Beauty and the Beasts, will tumble each other, seeking life or death with their proper tools. There should be mad work, not devoid of entertainment. When you read the word Explicit, if you have laboured so far, you will know something of Morgraunt Forest and the Countess Isabel; the Abbot of Holy Thorn will have postured and schemed (with you behind the arras); you will have wandered with Isoult and will know why she was called La Desirous, with Prosper le Gai, and will understand how a man may fall in love with his own wife. Finally, of Galors and his affairs, of the great difference there may be between a Christian and the brutes, of love and hate, grudging and open humour, faith and works, cloisters and thoughts uncloistered—all in the green wood—you will know as much as I do if you have cared to follow the argument. I hope you will not ask me what it all means, or what the moral of it is. I rank myself with the historian in this business of tale-telling, and consider that my sole affair is to hunt the argument dispassionately. Your romancer must be neither a lover of his heroine nor (as the fashion now sets) of his chief rascal. He must affect a genial height, that of a jigger of strings; and his attitude should be that of the Pulpiteer:—Heaven help you, gentlemen, but I know what is best for you! Leave everything to me.
It is related of Prosper le Gai, that when his brother Malise, Baron of Starning and Parrox, showed him the door of their father's house, and showed it with a meaning not to be mistaken, he stuck a sprig of green holly in his cap. He put on his armour; his horse and sword also he took: he was for the wilds. Baron Jocelyn's soul, the priests reported, was with God; his body lay indubitably under a black effigy in Starning Church. Baron Malise was lord of the fee, with a twisted face for Prosper whenever they met in the hall: had there been scores no deeper this was enough. Prosper was a youth to whom life was a very pretty thing; he could not afford to have tarnish on the glass; he must have pleasant looks about him and a sweet air, or at least scope for the making of them. Baron Malise blew like a miasma and cramped him like a church-pew: then Adventure beaconed from far off, and his heart leapt to greet the light. He left at dawn, and alone. Roy, his page, had begged as hard as he dared for pillion or a donkey. He was his master's only friend, but Prosper's temper needed no props. "Roy," said he, "what I do I will do alone, nor will I imperil any man's bread. The bread of my brother Malise may be a trifle over-salt to my taste, but to you it is better than none at all. Season your tongue, Roy, enure it. Drink water, dry your eyes, and forget me not."
He kissed him twice and went his way without any more farewells than the boy's snivelling. He never looked behind at Starning demesne, where he had been born and bred and might have followed his father to church, nor sideways at the broad oaks, nor over to the well-tilled fields on either side his road; but rather pricked forward at a nimble pace which tuned to the running of his blood. The blood of a lad sings sharpest in the early morning; the air tingles, the light thrills, all the great day is to come. This lad therefore rode with a song towards the West, following his own shadow, down the deep Starning lanes, through the woods and pastures of Parrox, over the grassy spaces of the Downs, topping the larks in thought, and shining beam for beam against the new-risen sun. The time of his going-out was September of the harvest: a fresh wet air was abroad. He looked at the thin blue of the sky, he saw dew and gossamer lie heavy on the hedge-rows. All his heart laughed. Prosper was merry.
Whither he should go, what find, how fare, he knew not at all. Morgraunt was before him, and of Morgraunt all the country spoke in a whisper. It as far, it was deep, it was dark as night, haunted with the waving of perpetual woods; it lay between the mountains and the sea, a mystery as inviolate as either. In it outlaws, men desperate and hungry, ran wild. It was a den of thieves as well as of wolves. Men, young men too, had ridden in, high-hearted, proud of their trappings, horses, curls, and what not; none had ever seen them come out. They might be roaming there yet, grown old with roaming, and gaunt with the everlasting struggle to kill before they were killed: who could tell? Or they might have struck upon the vein of savage life; they might go roaring and loving and robbing with the beasts— why not? Morgraunt had swallowed them up; who could guess to what wild uses she turned her thralls? That was a place, pardieu! Prosper, very certain that at twenty-three it is a great thing to be hale and astride a horse, felt also that to grow old without having given Morgraunt a chance of killing you young would be an insipid performance. "As soon be a priest!" he would cry, "or, by the Rood, one of those flat-polled monks kept there by the Countess Isabel." Morgraunt then for Prosper, and the West; beyond that—"One thing at a time," thought he, for he was a wise youth in his way, and held to the legend round his arms. Seeing that south of him he could now smell the sea, and beyond him lay Morgraunt, he would look no further till Morgraunt lay below him appeased or subjugate.
A tall and lean youth was Prosper le Gai, fair-haired and sanguine, square-built and square-chinned. He smiled at you; you saw two capital rows of white teeth, two humorous blue eyes; you would think, what a sweet-tempered lad! So in the main he was; but you would find out that he could be dangerous, and that (curiously) the more dangerous he was, the sweeter his temper seemed to be. If you crossed him once, he would stare; twice, he would laugh; three times, you would swear he was your humble servant; but before you could cross him again he would have knocked you down. The next moment he would give you a hand up, and apologize; after that, so far as he was concerned, you might count him your friend for life. The fact is, that he was one of those men who, like kings, require a nominal fealty before they can love you with a whole heart: it is a mere nothing. But somebody, they think, must lead. Prosper always felt so desperately sure it must be he. That was apt to lend a frenzy to his stroke and a cool survey to his eye (as being able to take so much for granted), which made him a good friend and a nasty enemy.
It also made him, as you will have occasion to see, a born fighter. He went, indeed, through those years of his life on tiptoe, as it were, for a fight. He had a light and springing carriage of the head, enough to set his forelock nodding; his eye roved like a sea-bird's; his lips often parted company, for his breath was eager. He had a trick of laughing to himself softly as he went about his business; or else he sang, as he was now singing. These qualities, little habits, affectations, whatever you choose to call them, sound immaterial, but they really point to the one thing that made him remarkable—the curious blend of opposites in him. He blent benevolence with savagery, reflectiveness with activity. He could think best when thought and act might jump together, laugh most quietly when the din of swords and horses drowned the voice, love his neighbour most sincerely when about to cut his throat. The smell of blood, the sight of wounds, or the flicker of blades, made him drunk; but he was one of those who grow steady in their cups. You might count upon him at a pinch. Lastly, he was no fool, and was disposed to credit other people with a balance of wit.
He disliked frippery, yet withal made a brave show in the sun. His plain black mail was covered with a surcoat of white and green linen; over this a narrow baldrick of red bore in gold stitches his device of a hooded falcon, and his legend on a scroll, many times repeated and intercrossed—I bide my time. In his helmet were three red feathers, on his shield the blazon of his house of Gai—On a field sable, a fesse dancettee or, with a mullet for difference. He carried no spear; for a man of his light build the sword was the arm. Thus then, within and without, was Messire Prosper le Gai, youngest son of old Baron Jocelyn, deceased, riding into the heart of the noon, pleased with himself and the world, light-minded, singing of the movement and the road.
Labourers stayed their reaping to listen to him; but there was nothing for them. He sang of adventure. Girls leaned at cottage doorways to watch him down the way. There was nothing for them either, for all he sang of love.
"She who now hath my heart is so in every part;" etc., etc.
The words came tripping as a learnt lesson; but he had never loved a girl, and fancied he never would. Women? Petticoats! For him there was more than one adventure in life. Rather, my lady's chamber was the last place in which he would have looked for adventure.
On the second day of his journey—in a country barren and stony, yet with a hint of the leafy wildernesses to come in the ridges spiked with pines, the cropping of heather here and there, and the ever- increasing solitude of his way—he was set upon by four foot-pads, who thought to beat the life out of his body as easily as boys that of a dog. He asked nothing better than that they should begin; and he asked so civilly that they very soon did. The fancy of glorious youth transformed them into knights-at-arms, and their ashen cudgels into blades. The only pity was that the end came so soon.
His sword dug its first sod, and might have carved four cowards instead of one; but he was no vampire, so thereafter laid about him with the flat of the tool. The three survivors claimed quarter. "Quarter, you rogues!" cried he. "Kindly lend me one of your staves for the purpose." He gave them a drubbing as one horsed his brother in turn, and dropped them, a chapfallen trio, beside their dead. "Now," said he, "take that languid gentleman with you, and be so good for the rest of your journey as to imitate his indifference to strangers. Thus you will have a prosperous passage. Good day to you."
He slept on the scene of his exploit, rose early, rode fast, and by noon was plainly in the selvage of the great woods. The country was split into bleak ravines, a pell-mell of rocks and boulders, and a sturdy crop of black pines between them. An overgrowth of brambles and briony ran riot over all. Prosper rode up a dry river-bed, keeping steadily west, so far as it would serve him; found himself quagged ere a dozen painful miles, floundered out as best he might, and by evening was making good pace over a rolling bit of moorland through which ran a sandy road. It was the highway from Wanmouth to Market Basing and the north, if he had known. Ahead of him a solitary wayfarer, a brown bunch of a friar, from whose hood rose a thin neck and a shag of black hair round his tonsure—like storm-clouds gathering about a full moon —struck manfully forward on a pair of bare feet.
"God be with you, brother gentleman," cried the friar, turning a crab- apple face upwards.
"And with you, my brother, who carry your slippers," Prosper replied.
"Eh, eh, brother! They go softer than steel for a gouty toe."
"Poor gout, Master Friar, I hope, for Saint Francis' peace of mind."
"My gentleman," said the friar, "let me tell you the truth. I am a poor devil out of Lucca, built for matrimony and the chimney corner, as Grandfather Adam was before me. Brother Bonaccord of Outremer they call me in religion, but ill-accord I am in temper, by reason of the air of this accursed land, and a most tempestuous blood of my own. For why! I go to the Dominicans of Wanmouth, supplicating that I am new landed, and have no convent to my name and establishment in the Church. They take me in. Ha! they do that. Look now. 'A sop of bread and wine,' I cry, 'for the love of God.' It is a Catholic food, very comfortable for the stomach. Ha! they give me beer. Beer? Wet death! I am by now as gouty as a cardinal, and my eye is inflamed. I think of the Lucchese—those shafts of joy miscalled women—when I should be thinking of my profession. I am ready as ever to admit two vows, but Saint Paul himself cannot reconcile me to the third. Beer, my friend, beer."
"You will do well enough, friar, if you are going the forest road. You will find no Lucchesan ladies thereabouts."
"I am none so sure, gentleman. There were tales told at the Wanmouth hostel. Do you know anything of a very holy place in these parts, the Abbey of Saint Giles of the Thorn? Black monks, my brother; black as your stallion."
"I think they are white monks," said Prosper, "Bernardines."
"I spoke of the colour of their deeds, young sir," answered Brother Bonaccord.
"I know as little of them as of any monks in Christendom, friar," Prosper said. "But I have seen the Abbot and spoken with him. Richard Dieudonne is his name, well friended by the Countess."
"He is well friended by many ladies, some of account, and some of none at all, by what I hear," said the friar, rather dryly for such a twinkling spirit.
"Ah, with ladies," Prosper put in, "you have me again; for I know less of them than of monks, save that both have petticoats. Your pardon, brother."
"Not a bit, not a bit, brother again," replied the friar. "I admit the hindrance; and could tell you of the advantages if I had the mind. But as to the ladies, suffer me to predict that you will know more of them before you have done."
"I think not," said Prosper. Brother Bonaccord began to laugh.
"They will give you no peace yet awhile," said he. "And let me tell you this, from a man who knows what he is talking about, that if you think to escape them by neglecting them, you are going the devil's way to work. If you wish them to let you alone, speak them fair, drop easily to your knee, be a hand-kisser, a cushion-disposer, a goer on your toes. They will think you a lover and shrug you away. Never do a woman a service as if to oblige her; do it as if to oblige yourself. Then she will believe you her slave. Then you are safe. That is your game, brother."
"You have studied ladies, friar?"
"Ah, ah! I have indeed. They are a wondrous fair book. I know no other. Why should I?"
"Oh, why indeed?" Prosper assented. "For my part, I find other studies more engrossing."
With such talk they went until they reached a little wood, and then disposed of themselves for the night. When Prosper woke next morning the good man had gone. He had left a written message to the effect that, petticoats or none, he had stolen a march on steel, and might be looked for at Malbank.
"I wonder how much stuff for his mind that student of ladies will win at Malbank," laughed Prosper to himself, little knowing, indeed.
MORGRAUNT, AND A DEAD KNIGHT
Leaving the high road on his right hand, Prosper struck over the heath towards a solemn beech-wood, which he took to be the very threshold of Morgraunt. As a fact it was no more than an outstretched finger of its hand, by name Cadnam Thicket. He skirted this place, seeking an entry, but found nothing to suit him for an hour or more. Then at last he came to a gap in the sandy bank, and saw that a little mossy ride ran straight in among the trees. He put his horse at the gap, and was soon cantering happily through the wood. Thus he came short upon an adventure. The path ran ahead of him in a tapering vista, but just where it should meet in a point it broadened out suddenly so as to make a double bay. The light fell splashing upon this cleared space, and he saw what he saw.
This was a tall lady, richly dressed in some gauzy purple stuff, dragging a dead man by the heels, and making a very bad business of it. She was dainty to view, her hands and arms shone like white marble; but apart from all this it was clear to Prosper that she lacked the mere strength for the office she had proposed herself. The dead man was not very tall, but he was too tall for the lady. The roughness of the ground, the resistance of the underwood, the incapacity of the performers, made the procession unseemly.
Prosper, forgetting Brother Bonaccord, quickened his horse to a gallop, and was soon up with the toiling lady. She stopped when she heard him coming, stood up to wait for him, quick-breathing and a little flushed, and never took her eyes off him.
It was clearly a time for discretion: so much she signalled from her brown eyes, which were watchful, but by no means timid. He remembered afterwards that they had been apt to fall easily into set stares, and thus to give her a bold look which seemed to invite you to be bold also. But though he could not see this now, and though he had no taste for women, it was certain she was handsome in a profuse way. She had a broad full bust; her skin, dazzling white at the neck, ran into golden russet before it reached the burnt splendour of her cheeks; her mouth, rather long and curved up at the corners, had lips rich and crimson; of which, however, the upper was short to a fault, and so curled back as to give her, a pettish or fretful look. Her dark hair, which was plentiful and drawn low over her ears into a heavy knot at the nape of her neck, was dressed within a fine gold net. Her arms were bare to the elbow, large and snowy white; from her fingers gems and gold flashed at him. Prosper, who knew nothing whatever about it, judged her midway between thirty and forty. Such was the lady; the man he had no chance of overlooking, for the other had dropped her handkerchief upon his face before she left him. "Sir," she now said, in a smooth and distinguishable voice, when Prosper had saluted her, "you may do me a great service if you will, which is to carry this dead man to his grave in the wood."
"By the faith I have," Prosper replied, "I will help you all I can. But when we have buried him you shall tell me how he came by his death, and how it is that his grave is waiting for him."
"I can tell you that at once," she said quickly; "I have but just dug it with a mattock I was so lucky as to find by a stopped earth on the bank yonder. The rest I will gladly acquaint you with by and by. But first let us be rid of him."
Prosper dismounted and went to take up his burden. First of all, however, he deliberately removed the handkerchief and looked it in the face. The dead man lay stiff and staring, with open eyes and a wry mouth. Hands and face were livid, a light froth had gathered on his lips. He looked to have suffered horribly—as much in mind as body: the agony must have bitten deep into him for the final peace of death never to have come. Now Prosper knew very little of death as yet, save that he had an idea that he himself would never come to endure it; but he knew enough to be sure that neither battle nor honour had had any part here. The man had been well-dressed in brown and tawny velvet, was probably handsome in a sharp, foreign sort. There was a ring upon his finger, a torn badge upon his left breast, with traces of a device in white threads which could not be well made out. Puzzling over it, Prosper thought to read three white forms on it—water-bougets, perhaps, or billets—he could not be sure. The whole affair seemed to him to hold some shameful secret behind: he thought of poison, or the just visitation of God; but then he thought of the handsome lady, and was ashamed to see that such a conclusion must involve her in the mess. Pitying, since he could not judge, he lifted the body in his arms and followed the lady's lead through the brushwood. At the end of some two hundred yards or more of battling with the boughs, she stopped, and pointed to a pit, with a mattock lying on the heaped earth close by. "There is the grave," she said.
"The grave is a shallow grave," said Prosper.
"It is deeper than he was," quoth the lady. There was a ring in this rather ugly to hear, as all scorn is out of tune with a dead presence. You might as well be contemptuous of a baby. But Prosper was no fool, to think at the wrong time. He laid the body down in the grave, and busied himself to compose it into some semblance of the rest there should be in that bed at least. This was hard to be done, since it was as stiff as a board, and took time. The lady grew impatient, fidgeted about, walked up and down, could not stand for a moment: but she said nothing. At last Prosper stood up by the side of the grave, having done his best.
"I am no priest," says he, "God knows; but I cannot put a man's body into the earth without in some sort commending his soul. I must do what I can, and you must pardon an indifferent advocate, as God will."
"If you are advised by me," said the lady, "you will leave that affair where it is. The man was worthless."
"We cannot measure his worth, madam: we have no tools for that. The utmost we can do is to bury part of him, and pray for the other part."
"You speak as a priest whom I had thought a soldier," said she with some asperity. "If you are what you now seem, I will remind you of a saying which should be familiar—Let the dead bury their dead."
"As I live by bread," Prosper cried out, "I will commend this man's soul whither it is going."
"Then I will not listen to you, sir," she answered in a pale fume. "I cannot listen to you."
Prosper grew extremely polite. "Madam, there is surely no need," he said. "If you cannot you will not. Moreover, I should in any case address myself elsewhere."
He had folded the dead man's arms over his breast, and shut his eyes. He had wiped his lips. The thing seemed more at peace. So he crossed himself and began, In nomine patris, etc., and then recited the Paternoster. This almost exhausted his stock, though it did not satisfy his aspirations. His words burst from him. "O thou pitiful dead!" he cried out, "go thou where Pity is, in the hope some morsels may be justly thine. Rest thou there, who wast not restful in thine end, and quitted not willingly thy tenement; rest thou there till thou art called. And when thou art called to give an account of thyself and thine own works, may that which men owe thee be remembered with that which thou dost owe! Per Christum dominum," etc.
He bowed his head, crossed himself very piously; then stood still, smiling gently upon the man he knew nothing of, save that he had been young and had lost his race. He did not see the lady; she was, however, near by, not looking at the man at the grave, but first at Prosper and then at the ground. Her fingers were twisting and tangling together, and her bosom, restless as the sea, rose and fell fitfully. She was pale, save at the lips; like Prosper she smiled, but the smile was stiff. Prosper set to work with the shovel and soon filled up the grave. Then he turned to the lady.
"And now, madam, we will talk a little, if you please." He had a cool and level voice; yet it came upon her as if it could have but one answer.
She looked at him for some seconds without reply. For his part, Prosper had kept his eyes fixed equally on her; hers fell first.
She coloured a little as she said-"Very willingly. You have done me a service for which I am very much in your debt. You shall command me as you will, and find me ready to recompense you with what I have." She stopped as if to judge the weight of her words, then went on slowly— "I know not, indeed, how could I deny you anything."
Prosper could have seen, if he would, the quickened play of her breath.
"Let us go into the open," said he, "and find my horse. Then you shall tell me whence you are, and whither I may speed you, and how safeliest—with other things proper to be known."
They went together. "My lord," said she then, "my lodging is far from here and ill to come by. Nevertheless, I know of a hermitage hard at hand where we could rest a little, and thereafter we could find the way to my house. Will you come with me thither?"
"Whither?" asked Prosper.
"Ah, the hermitage, or wheresoever you will."
Prosper looked steadily at her.
"Tell me the name and condition of the dead man," said he.
"Ranulf de Genlis, a knight of Brittany."
"The badge on his breast was of our blazonry," said Prosper, half to himself, "and he looked to have been of this side the Southern Sea."
"Do you doubt my word, Sir Knight?"
"Madam, I do not question it. Will you tell, me how he came by his death?"
"I was hunting very early in the morning with my esquires and ladies, and by ill-hap lost them and my way. After many wanderings in search of either, I encountered this man now dead, and inquired news of him. He held me some time in talk, delayed me with sham diligence, and at last and, suddenly professed an ardent love for me. I was frightened, for I was alone in the wood with him, in a glade not far from here. And it seemed that I had reason, since from words he went on to force and clamour and violence. I had almost succumbed—I know not how to hint at the fate which threatened me, or guess how long I could have struggled against it. He had closed with me, he held me in a vice; then all at once he loosed hold of me and shuddered. Some seizure or sudden stroke of judgment overtook him, I suppose, so that he fell and lay writhing, with a foam on his lips, as you saw. You may judge," she added, after waiting for some comment from Prosper, which did not come, "you may judge whether this is a pleasant tale for me to tell, and whether I should tell it willingly to any man. For what one attempted against me another might also try—and not fail."
She stopped and glanced at her companion. The manner in each of them was changed; the lady was not the scornful beauty she had seemed, while Prosper's youth was dry within him. She seemed a suppliant, he a judge, deliberate. Such a story from such an one would have set him on fire an hour ago; but now his words came sharply from him, whistling like a shrill wind.
"The grave was dug overnight," was what he said.
The lady started and paled. Then she drew a deep breath, and said—"Do you again doubt my word, sir?"
"I do not question it," he replied as before. It is a fact that he had noticed the turned earth by the pit. There was gossamer upon it, but that said little. Rabbits had been there also, and that said everything.
The lady said nothing more, and in silence they went on until they reached a fork in the path. Prosper stopped here. One path led north, the other west.
"Here is my road," said he, pointing to the west.
"The hermitage is close by, my lord," urged the lady in a low voice. "I pray my lord to rest him there."
"That I cannot do," says he.
She affected indignation. "Is it then in the honour of a knight to desert a lonely lady? I am learning strange doctrine, strange chivalry! Farewell, sir. You are young. Maybe you will learn with years that when a lady stoops to beg it is more courtly to forestall her."
Prosper stood leaning on his shield. "The knight's honour," he said, "is in divers holds—in his lady's, in God's, and in the king's. These three fly not always the same flag, but two at least of them should be in pact."
"Ah," said she slyly, "ah, Sir Discreet, I see that you have the lady first."
Prosper grew graver. "I said 'his lady,'" he repeated.
"And could not I, for such service as yours, be your lady, fair sir?" she asked in a very low and troubled voice. "At least I am here— alone—in the wood—and at your mercy."
Prosper looked straight in front of him, grave, working his mouth. Those who knew him would have gone by the set of his chin. He may have been thinking of Brother Bonaccord's prediction, or of the not very veiled provocation of the lady's remarkable candour. There grew to be a rather bleak look in his face, something blenched his blue eyes. He turned sharply upon the woman, and his voice was like a frost.
"Having slain one man this day," he said, "I should recommend you to be wary how you tread with another."
She stared open-mouthed at him for a full minute and a half. Then, seeing he never winked or budged, she grew frightened and piteous, threw her arms up, turned, and fled up the north path, squealing like a wounded rabbit.
Prosper clapped-to his spurs and made after her with his teeth grinding together. Very soon, however, he pulled up short. "The man is dead. Let her go for this present. And I am not quite sure. I will bide my time."
That was the motto of the Gais—"I bide my time." He was, nevertheless, perfectly sure in his private mind; but then he was always perfectly sure, and recognized that it was a weakness of his. So the woman went her way, and he his for that turn...
Riding forward carelessly, with a loose rein, he slept that night in the woods. Next day he rode fast and long without meeting a living soul, and so came at last into Morgraunt Forest, where the trees shut out the light of the day, and very few birds sing. He entered the east purlieus in the evening of his fifth day from Starning, and slept in a rocky valley. Tall black trees stood all round him, the vanguards of the forest host.
HOLY THORN AND HOLY CHURCH
In South Morgraunt stands Holy Thorn, more properly the Abbey of Saint Giles of Holy Thorn, a broad and fair foundation, one of the two set up in the forest by the Countess Isabel, Dowager of March and Bellesme, Countess of Hauterive and Lady of Morgraunt in her own right. Where the Wan river makes a great loop, running east for three miles, and west again for as many before it drives its final surge towards the Southern Sea, there stands Holy Thorn, Church and Convent, watching over the red roofs of Malbank hamlet huddled together across the flood. Here are green water-meadows and good corn-lands, the abbey demesne; here also are the strips of tillage which the tenants hold; here the sluices which head up the river for the Abbey mills, make thunderous music all day long. Over this cleared space and over some leagues of the virgin forest, the Abbot of Saint Thorn has sac and soc, tholl and theam, catch-a-thief-in, catch-a-thief-out, as well as other sovereign prerogatives, all of which he owes to the regret and remorse of the Countess Isabel over the death of her first husband and only lover, Fulk de Breaute. Further north, in Mid-Morgraunt, is Gracedieu, her other foundation—equally endowed, but holding white nuns instead of white monks.
Now it so happened that as Prosper le Gai entered the purlieus of Morgraunt, the Countess Isabel sat in the Abbey parlour of Saint Thorn, knitting her fine brows over a business of the Abbot's, no less than the granting of a new charter of pit and gallows, pillory and tumbril to him and his house over the villeins of Malbank, and the whole fee and soke. The death of these unfortunates, or the manner of it, was of little moment; but the Countess, having much power, was jealous how she lent it. She sat now, therefore, in the Abbot's great chair, and before her stood the Abbot himself, holding in his hands the charter fairly written out on parchment, with the twisted silk of three colours ready to receive her seal. It was exactly this which she was not very ready to give, for though she knew nothing of his villeins, she knew much of the Abbot, and was of many minds concerning him. There was yet time; their colloquy was in secret; but now she tapped with her foot upon the stool, and the Abbot watched her narrowly. He was a tall and personable man, famous for his smile, stout and smooth, his skin soft as a woman's, his robe, his ring, his cross and mere slippers all in accord.
At length, says he, "Madam, for the love of the Saints, but chiefly for Mary's love; to the glory of God and of Saint Giles of Holy Thorn; to the ease of his monks and the honour of the Church, I beseech your Ladyship this small boon."
The clear-cold eyes of the Countess Isabel looked long at him before she said—"Do I then show love to the Saints and give God honour, Lord Abbot, by helping you swing your villeins? Pit and gallows, pillory and tumbril! You go too far."
"Dear lady," said he, "I go no further, if I have them, than my Sisters of Gracedieu. That hedged community of Christ's brides hath all these commodities and more, even the paramount privilege of Sanctuary, which is an appanage of the very highest in the Holy Fold. And I must consider it as scarcely decent, as (by the Mass) not seemly at all, that your Holy Thorn, this sainted sprig of your planting, should lack the power to prick. Our people, madam, do indeed expect it. It is not much. Nay!"—for he saw his Lady frown and heard her toe-taps again—"indeed, it is not much. A little pit for your female thief to swim at large, for your witch and bringer-in of hell's ordinances; a decent gallows a-top for your proper male rascal; a pillory for your tenderer blossom of sin while he qualify for an airy crown, or find space for repentance and the fruits of true contrition; lastly, a persuasive tumbril, a close lover for your incorrigible wanton girls—homely chastisement such as a father Abbot may bestow, and yet wear a comely face, and yet be loved by those he chasteneth. Madam, is this too much for so great a charge as ours? We of Holy Thorn nurture the good seed with scant fortune, being ridden down by evil livers, deer-stealers, notorious persons, scandalous persons. A little pit, therefore! a little limber gallows!"
But the Countess mused with her hand to her chin, by no means persuaded. She was still a young woman, and a very lonely one; her great prerogatives (which she took seriously) tired her to death, but the need of exercising them through other people was worst of all. Now she said doubtfully, "I have no reason in especial to trust you, Abbot."
The Abbot, who knew better than she how true this was, bit his lip and remained silent. He was a very comely man and leaned much to persuasion, particularly with women. He was always his own audience: the check, therefore, amounted to exposure, almost put him to open shame. The Countess went on to ask, who in particular of his villeins he had dread of, who was turbulent, who a deer-stealer, who notorious as a witch or wise woman, who wanton and a scandalous liver? And here the Abbot was apt with his names. There was Red Sweyn, half an outlaw already, and by far too handy with his hunting-knife; there was Pinwell, as merry a little rogue as ever spoiled for a cord. There were Rogerson and Cutlaw; there was Tom Sibby, the procuress. Mald also, a withered malignant old wife, who had once blighted a year's increase by her dealing with the devil. Here was stuff for gallows, pit and pillory, all dropping-ripe for the trick. For tumbril, he went on (watching his adversary like a cat), "who so proper as black-haired Isoult, witch, and daughter of a witch, called by men Isoult la Desirous—and a gaunt, half-starved, loose-legged baggage she is," he went on; "reputed of vile conversation for all the slimness of her years—witch, and a witch's brat."
He looked sideways at the great lady as he spoke of this creature, and saw that all was going exactly as he would wish it. He had not been the Countess' confessor for nothing, nor had he learnt in vain the story of her secret marriage with Fulk de Breaute, and of the murder of this youth on Spurnt Heath one blowy Bartlemy Eve. And for this reason he had dared to bring the name of Isoult into his catalogue of rogues, that he knew his woman, and all woman-kind; how they hate most in their neighbours that which they are tenderest of in themselves. Let there be no mistake here. The Countess had been no luxurious liver, though a most unhappy one. The truth is that, beautiful woman as she still was, she had been a yet more beautiful girl, Countess of Hauterive in her own right, and as such betrothed to the great Earl Roger of March and Bellesme. Earl Roger, who was more than double her age, went out to fight; she stayed at home, in the nursery or near it, and Fulk de Breaute came to make eyes. These he made with such efficacy that Isabel lost her heart first and her head afterwards, wedded Fulk in secret, bore him a child, and was the indirect means of his stabbing by the Earl's men as he was riding through the dark over Spurnt Heath. The child was given to the Abbot's keeping (whence it promptly and conveniently vanished), the Countess was married to the Earl; then the Earl died. Whereupon she, still young, childless so far as she could learn, and possessed of so much, founded her twin abbeys in Morgraunt to secure peace for the soul of Fulk and her own conscience. This will suffice to prove that the Abbot had some grounds for his manoeuvring. The breaking of her troth to the Earl she held to make her an adulteress; the stabbing of Fulk by the Earl to prove her a murderess. There was neither mercy nor discernment in these reproaches. She believed herself a wanton when she had been but a lover. For no sin, therefore, had she so little charity as for that which the Abbot had imputed to his candidate for the tumbril. Isoult la Desirous it was who won the charter, as the Abbot had intended she should, to serve his end and secure her own according to his liking.
For the charter was sealed and seisin delivered in the presence of Dom Galors, almoner of the Abbey, of Master Porges, seneschal of High March, and of one or two mesne lords of those parts. Then the Countess went to bed; and at this time Prosper le Gai was also lying in the fringes of Morgraunt, asleep on his shield with his red cloak over him, having learned from a hind whom he met on the hill that at Malbank Saint Thorn he would find hospitality, and that his course must lie in such and such a direction.
Next day, as soon as the Countess had departed for High March, the Abbot Richard called Dom Galors, his almoner, into the parlour and treated him in a very friendly manner, making him sit down in his presence, and putting fruit and wine before him. This Galors, who I think merits some scrutiny, was a bullet-headed, low-browed fellow, too burly for his monkish frock (which gave him the look of a big boy in a pinafore), with the jowl of a master-butcher, and a sullen slack mouth. His look at you, when he raised his eyes from the ground, had the hint of brutality—as if he were naming a price—which women mistake for mastery, and adore. But he very rarely crossed eyes with any one; and with the Abbot he had gained a reputation for astuteness by seldom opening his lips and never shutting his ears. He was therefore a most valuable book of reference, which told nothing except to his owner. With all this he was a great rider and loved hunting. His Sursum Corda was like a view-holloa, and when he said, Ite missa est, you would have sworn he was crying a stag's death instead of his Saviour's. In matters of gallantry his reputation was risky: it was certain that he had more than a monk, and suspected that he had less than a gentleman should have. The women of Malbank asseverated that venison was not his only game. That may or may not have been. The man loved power, and may have warred against women for lack of something more difficult of assault. He was hardly the man to squander himself at the bidding of mere appetite; he was certainly no glutton for anything but office. Still, he was not one to deny himself the flutter of the caught bird in the hand. He had, like most men who make themselves monks by calculation, a keen eye for a girl's shape, carriage, turn of the head, and other allies of the game she loves and always loses: such things tickled his fancy when they came over his path; he stooped to take them, and let them dangle for remembrances, as you string a coin on your chain to remind you at need of a fortunate voyage. At this particular moment he was tempted, for instance, to catch and let dangle. The chance light of some shy eye had touched and then eluded him. I believe he loved the chase more than the quarry. He knew he must go a-hunting from that moment in which the light began to play will-o'-the-wisp; for action was his meat and dominion what he breathed. If you wanted to make Galors dangerous you had to set him on a vanishing trail. The girl had been a fool to run, but how was she to know that?
To him now spoke the Abbot Richard after this fashion. "Galors," he said, "I will speak to you now as to my very self, for if you are not myself you may be where I sit some day. A young monk who is almoner already may go far, especially when he is young in religion, but in years ripe. If you prove to be my other self, you shall go as far as myself can push you, Galors. Rest assured that the road need not stop at a mitred abbey. In the hope, then, that you may go further, and I with you, it is time that I speak my full mind. We have our charter, as you have seen—and at what cost of sweat and urgency, who can tell so surely as I? But there, we have it: a great weapon, a lever whereby we may raise Holy Thorn to a height undreamed of by the abbots of this realm, and our two selves (perched on the top of Holy Thorn) yet higher. Yet this charter, gotten for God's greater glory (as He knoweth who readeth hearts!), may not work its appointed way without an application which poor and frail men might scarcely dare for any less object. There is abroad, Galors, dear brother, a most malignant viper, lurking, as I may say, in the very bosom of Holy Church; warmed there, nesting there, yet fouling the nest, and grinding her tooth that she may strike at the heart of us, and shiver what hath been so long a-building up. Of that viper you, Galors, are the chosen instrument—you and the charter—to draw the tooth."
The Abbot spoke in a low voice, and was breathless; it was not hard to see that he was uncommonly in earnest. Galors turned over in his mind all possible plots against an Abbey's peaceful being—tale-bearing to the Archbishop, a petition for a Papal Legate, a foreshore trouble, a riot among the fishermen of Wanmouth, some encroachment by the ragged brethren of Francis and Dominic—and dismissed them all as not serious enough to lose breath about.
"Who is your viper, father?" was what he said.
"It is the girl Isoult of Matt-o'-the-Moor; Isoult whom they call La Desirous," replied his spiritual father. The heart of Galors gave a hot jump; he knew the girl well enough—too well for her, not well enough yet for himself. It was precisely to win the woeful beauty of her that he had set his snares and unleashed his dogs. Did the Abbot know anything? Impossible; his reference forbad the fear. Was the girl something more than a dark woodland elf, a fairy, haggard and dishevelled, whose white shape shining through rags had made his blood stir? The mask of his face safeguarded him through this maze of surmise; nothing out of the depths of him was ever let to ruffle that dead surface. He commanded his voice to ask, How should he find such a girl? "For," said he, "in Malbank girls and boys swarm like dies on a sunny wall." The deceit implied was gross, yet the Abbot took it in his haste.
"Thus you shall know her, Galors," he said. "A slim girl, somewhat under the common size of the country, and overburdened with a curtain of black hair; and a sullen, brooding girl who says little, and that nakedly and askance; and in a pale face two grey eyes a-burning."
All this Galors knew better than his Abbot. Now he asked, "But what is her offence, father? For even with power of life and member the law of the land has force, that neither man nor maid, witch nor devil, may be put lightly away."
For this "put away" the Abbot thanked him with a look, and added, that she was suspected of witchcraft, seeing Mald her mother was a notorious witch, and the wench herself the byword and scorn of all the country-side. Sorcery, therefore, or incontinence—"whichever you will," said he. "Any stick will do to beat a dog with."
Galors had much to say, but said nothing. There was something behind all this, he was sure, knowing his man by heart. He judged the Abbot to be bursting with news, and watched him pace the parlour now struggling with it. Sure enough the murder was out before he had taken a dozen turns. "Now, Galors," he said, in a new and short vein, "listen to me. I intend to do what I should have done fourteen years ago, when I held this girl in my two hands. I let slip my chance, and blame myself for it; but having slipt it indeed, it was gone until this charter of ours brought it back fresh. You know how we stand here, you and I and the Convent-all of us at the disposition of her ladyship. A great lady, my friend, and a young one, childless, it is said, without heir of her own. Morgraunt may go to the Crown or Holy Thorn and Gracedieu may divide it."
"She may marry again," put in Galors.
"She is twice a widow," the Abbot snapped him up, and gave his first shock. "She is twice a widow, once against her will. She will never marry again."
"Then, my father," said Galors, "we should be safe as against the Crown, which the Countess probably loves as little as the rest of her kind."
"The Countess Isabel," said the Abbot, speaking like an oracle, "is not childless."
"Do not misunderstand me in this, Brother Galors," said the Abbot. "We will do the girl no unnecessary harm. We will slip her out of the country if we can get any one to take her. Put it she shall be married or hanged." Galors again thought that he understood. The Abbot went on. "There shall be no burning, though that were deserved; not even tumbril, though that were little harm to so hot a piece. There shall be, indeed, that which the Countess believes to have been already-a sally at dawn and a flitting. There will then be no harm done. The tithing will be free of a sucking witch, and the heart of our benefactress turned from the child of her sin (for such it was to break troth to the earl, and sin she deems it) to the child of her spiritual adoption, to wit, our Holy Thorn." He added "You are in my obedience, Galors. I love you much, and will see to your advancement. You have a great future. But, my brother, remember this. Between a woman's heart and her conscience there can be no fight. There is, rather, a triumph, wherein the most glorious of the' victor's spoils is that same conscience, shackled and haled behind the . That you should know, and on that you must act. Remember you are fighting for Saint Giles of Holy Thorn, and be speedy while the new tool still burns in your hand."
So with his blessing he dismissed Dom Galors for the day.
Prosper le Gai—all Morgraunt before him—rose from his bed before the Countess had turned in hers; and long before the Abbot could get alone with Dom Galors he was sighing for his breakfast. He had, indeed, seen the dawn come in, caught the first shiver of the trees, the first tentative chirp of the birds, watched the slow filling of the shadowy pools and creeks with the grey tide of light. From brake to brake he struggled, out of the shade into the dark, thence into what seemed a broad lake of daylight. He met no living thing; or ever the sun kissed the tree-tops he was hungry. He was well within Morgraunt now, though only, as it might be, upon the hem of its green robe; the adventurous place opened slowly to him like some great epic whose majesty and force dawns upon you by degrees not to be marked. It was still twilight in the place where he was when he heard the battling of birds' wings, the screaming of one bird's grief, and the angry purr of another, or of others. He peered through the bush as the sound swelled. Presently he saw a white bird come fluttering with a dropt wing, two hen-harriers in close pursuit. They were over her, upon her, there was a wrangle of wings—brown and white—even while he watched; then the white got clear again, and he could see that she bled in the breast. The sound of her screaming, which was to him like a girl crying, moved him strangely. He jumped from his saddle, ran to the entangled birds and cuffed the two hawks off; but seeing that they came on again, hunger-bold no doubt, he strangled them and freed the white pigeon. He took her up in his hands to look at her; she was too far gone for fear; she bled freely, but he judged she would recover. So she did, after he had washed out the wound; sufficiently at least to hop and flutter into covert. Prosper took to his horse and journey with her voice still ringing in his head.
In another hour's travel he reached a clearing in the wood, hedged all about with yew-trees and holm oaks very old; and in the midst of it saw a little stone altar with the figure of a woman upon it. He was not too hungry to be curious, so he dismounted and went to examine. The saint was Saint Lucy the Martyr, he saw; the altar, hoary as it was with lichen and green moss, had a slab upon it well-polished, with crosses let into the four corners and into the middle of the stone; there were sockets for tapers, and marks of grease new and thick. Before he approached it a hind and her calf had been cropping the grass between the cracks of the altar-steps; all else was very still, yet had a feeling of habitancy and familiar use.
His instinct when he saw an altar being to say his prayers, he knelt down then and there, facing the image, yet a little remote from it. A very soft tread behind him broke in upon his exercises; some one was coming, whence or how he did not then know. The comer was a young girl clothed in a white woollen garment, which was bound about her waist with a green cord; she was bareheaded; on her feet were thick sandals, bound also with thongs of green. Prosper watched her spread a white cloth upon the altar-slab, and set a Mass-book upon a stand; he saw her go and return with two lighted tapers for the sockets, he saw a silver crucifix shine between them. The girl, when all this business was done, stepped backwards down the steps, and stood at the foot of the altar with hands clasped upon her bosom and head bent lowly. "By the Saints," thought Prosper, "Morgraunt is a holy place, it seems. There is to be a Mass."
So it was. An old priest came out of the thicket in a vestment of yellow and gold thread, bearing in his hands the Sacrament under a green silk veil. The girl knelt down as he passed up the steps; he began his Mass, but in so low a voice that it hardly touched the forest peace.
Rabbits came creeping out of bush and bracken, a wood-dove began her moan, two or three deer stood up. Then Prosper thought—"If the beasts come to prayers, it behoves me as a Christian man to hear Mass also. Moreover, it were fitting that adventure should begin in that manner, to be undertaken in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." He went forward accordingly, flush with the girl, and knelt down by her. When it was the time of Communion, both drew nearer and received Christ's body. Prosper, for his part, did not forget the soul of the dead man, De Genlis or another, whose body he had buried in Cadnam Wood, but commended it to God together with the sacrifice of the altar. The woman came into his mind. "No, by God," thought he; "she is the devil, or of him; I will never pray for her," which was Prosper all over.
Mass done, he remembered that he had the honour to be uncommonly hungry. The priest had gone back into the wood, the girl was removing the altar furniture, and seemed unconscious of his presence; but Prosper could not afford that.
"My young gentlewoman," he said with a bow, "you will see before you, if you turn your head, a very hungry man."
"Are you hungry, sir?" she said, looking and smiling at him, "then in three minutes you shall be filled." Whereupon she went away with her load, and quickly returned with another more to Prosper's mind. She gave him bread and hot milk in a great bowl, she gave him a dishful of wild raspberries, and waited on him herself in the prettiest manner. Without word said she watered his horse for him; and all the while she talked to him, but of nothing in the world but the birds and beasts, the falling of the leaf, and the thousand little haps and chances of her quiet life. Prosper suited his conversation to her book. He told her of the white bird's rescue, and she opened her blue eyes in wonder.
"Why, I dreamed of it last night," she said very solemnly.
"You dreamed of it, Alice?" he echoed. She was called, she had told him, Alice of the Hermitage.
"Yes, yes. A white bird and two hen-harriers. Ah, and there was more. You have not yet done all. You have not yet begun!" She was full of the thing.
"By my faith, I have wrung the necks of the pair of them," said Prosper. "I know not how they can expect more of me than that."
"Listen," said Alice of the Hermitage, "the bird will be again chased, again wounded. Morgraunt is full of hawks. You will see her again. My dream was very precise. You will see her again; but this time the chase will be long, and achievement only at the peril of your own honour. But it seems that you shall win in the end what you have thought to have won already, and the wound in the breast will be staunched."
"Hum," said Prosper. "Now you shall tell me what I ought to do, how I ought to begin. For you know the saw—'The sooner begun, the sooner done.'"
"Oh, sir,". cries she, "you shall ride forward in the name of God, remembering your manhood and the vows you made when you took up your arms." She blushed as she spoke, kindling with her thoughts.
"I will do that," said Prosper, kindled in his turn. And so he left her, and travelled all day towards Malbank Saint Thorn. He lay at night in the open wood, not far, as he judged, from Spurnt Heath, upon whose westernmost border ran Wan; there, or near by, he looked to find the Abbey.
He spent the night at least better than did Dom Galors, whose thoughts turned equally to Spurnt Heath. That strenuous man had taken the Abbot's counsel to bed with him, a restless partner. An inordinate partner also it proved to be, not content to keep the monk awake. Turning every traffic of his mind to its own advantage, it shook out the bright pinions of adventure over the dim corridors of Holy Thorn, and with every pulse of the ordering bell came a reiteration of its urgency. All night long, through all the task work of the next morning, the thought was with him—"By means of this woman I may be free. Free!" he cried. "I may be set up on high through her. Lord of this land and patron of Holy Thorn; a maker and unmaker of abbots to whom now I must bow my knees. Is it nothing to be master of a lovely wife? Ha, is it nothing to rule a broad fee? A small thing to have abbots kiss my hands? Lord of the earth! is this not worth a broken vow, which in any case I have broken before? Oh, Isoult la Desirous, if I desired you before when you went torn and shamefaced through the mire, what shall I say to you going in silk, in a litter, with a crown, Isoult la Desiree!" He called her name over and over, Isoult la Desiree, la Moult-Desiree, and felt his head spinning.
Matins, Lauds, and Prime, he endured this obsession. The day's round was filled with the amazing image of a crowned, hollow-eyed, tattered little drab, the mock and wonder of throngs of witnesses, appreciable only by himself as a pearl of priceless value. The heiress of Morgraunt, the young Countess of Hauterive, La Desirous, La Desiree. Desirable she had been before, but dealing no smarter scald than could be drowned in the well of love which for him she might have been for an hour. But now his burn glowed; the Abbot had blown it red. Ambition was alight; he was the brazier. It danced in him like a leaping flame. Certainly Prosper slept better on his side of Spurnt Heath.
At dusk the monk could bear himself and his burden of knowledge no longer. He went to look for Isoult on the heath in a known haunt of hers. He found her without trouble, sitting below the Abbot's new gallows. She was a girl, childishly formed, thin as a haggard-hawk, with a white resentful face, and a pair of startled eyes which, really grey, had a look of black as the pupil swam over the iris. The rags which served her for raiment covered her but ill; her legs were bare, she was without head-covering; all about her face her black hair fell in shrouds. She sat quite still where she was, with her elbows on her knees, and chin between her two hands, gazing before her over the heath. Above her head two thieves, first-fruits of the famous charter, creaked as they swung in their chains. If Isoult saw Galors coming, she made no effort to escape him; when her eyes met his her brooding stare held its spell.
The monk drew near, stood before her, and said—"Isoult la Desirous, you shall come with me into the quarry, for I have much to say to you."
"Let it be said here," she replied, without moving. But he answered— "Nay, you shall come with me into the quarry."
"I am dead tired. Can you not let me be, Dom Galors?"
"I have what will freshen you, Isoult. Come with me."
"If I must, I must."
Then he led her away, and she went tamely enough to the quarry.
There he took her by both her hands, and so held her, waiting till she should be forced to look up at him. When at last, sick and sullen, she raised her eyes, he could hardly contain himself. But he did.
"What were you doing by the Abbot's new gallows, Isoult?"
"I would rather be there now than here. The company is more to my liking."
"You may be near enough by to-morrow, if what I have learned be true."
The girl's eyes grew larger and darker. "Are they going to hang me?" she asked.
"Are you not a witch?"
"It is said."
"Your mother Mald is a witch—eh?"
"Yes, she is a witch."
"And are not you? You know Deerleap—eh?"
"It is said that I do."
"And you know what must be done to witches."
"They will hang me, Dom Galors! Will they hang me by Cutlaw and Rogerson?"
"There is room for you there."
"What can they prove?"
"Pshaw! Is proof needed? Are you not a baggage?"
"I know not."
"Ah, you should know that!"
"If it depended upon me, Isoult, I could save you. But the Abbot means to make an example and set a terror up before the evil-doers in this walk of Morgraunt. What am I before the Abbot, or what is my love for you to be brought to his ears? It is doom more certain still, my dear."
"Then I shall be hanged."
"Listen to me now, Isoult. Listen close. No, leave your hands where they are; they are safer there than elsewhere. So leave them and listen close. No soul in Malbank but myself and the Lord Abbot knows of what I have told you now. Me he told this morning. Judge if that was good news for your lover's ear!"
Isoult shivered and hung her head. Galors went on—"At the risk of everything a monk should fear, and of everything, by God, that such a monk as I am should care to win, I contended with my spiritual father. Spare me the particulars; I got some shrewd knocks over it, but I did win this much. You are to be hanged to-morrow, Isoult, or noosed in another way. A ring is to play a part. You shall be bride of the tree or a man's bride. I won this, and left the Abbot chuckling, for much as he knows he has not guessed that the goose-girl, the tossed-out kitchen-girl, the scarecrow haunter of the heath, should be sought in marriage. But I knew more than he; and now," he said, stooping over the bent girl,—"and now, Isoult la Desirous, come with me!"
He tried to draw her towards him, but she trembled in his hands so much that he had to give over. He began his arguments again, reasoned, entreated, threatened, cajoled; he could not contain himself now, being so near fruition. The spell of the forest was upon him. "Let Love be the master," he said, "for there is no gainsaying him, nor can cloister walls bar his way; but his flamy wings top even these. Ah, Isoult!" he cried out in his passion; "ah, Isoult la Desiree, come, lest I die of love and you of the tree."
The girl, who feared him much more than the death he had declared, was white now and desperate. But she still held him off with her stiffened arms and face averted. She tried to cheapen herself. "I am Matt's bad daughter, I am Matt's bad daughter! All the tithing holds me in scorn. Never speak of love to such as I am, Galors." And when he tried to pull her she made herself rigid as a rod, and would not go.
So love made the man mad, and spread and possessed him. Contest goaded Galors: action was his meat and dominion what he breathed; by resisting she had made the end more sure. By her imprisoned wrists he drew her in, and when she was so close that her head was almost upon his breast, he breathed over her. "A mitred abbey have I trampled down for your love; yes, and to be bishop of a see. Therefore you must come."
She fell to whining and entreaty, white to the lips and dry with fear. All that she could say was, "I am bad. I am bad, but not so bad! Never ruin me, Dom Galors." Then it was that she heard the voice of Prosper singing afar off on the heath. Prosper sang—
"What if my metal Be proved as high as a hawk's in good fettle! Then you shall see The world my fee, And the hearts of men for my Seigniory."
And the girl thought to herself, "Help cometh!" and changed the voice of her grief and the beating of her heart. By this the guile a woman has always by her tongue had play: she could talk more gently to her gaoler, and beg a little time—a short hour or so—to plan and arrange their affairs. He thought her won and grew very tender; he kissed her hands many times, called her his dear heart, became, in a word, the clumsy gallant he claimed to be. All this too she endured: she began to gabble at random, sprightly as a minion, with all the shifts of a girl in a strait place ready at command. Her fear was double now: she must learn the trend of the singer and his horse, and prevent Galors from hearing either. This much she did. The sound came steadily on. She heard the horse's hoofs strike on a flint outside the quarry, she heard Prosper, singing softly to himself. Her time had come. She sprang at arm's-length from Galors and called out, "Help, for charity!" with all her might.
Prosper started, drew his sword, and headed his horse for the quarry. In the mouth of it he reined up to look about him. He was sure of his direction, but not of his way, "Help is here!" he cried with his sword on high and red plumes nodding. Air and the light of the sun seemed to follow him, as if he had cut a slit in a shroud and let in the day. Then it was that Isoult found strength to shake free from her enemy, to run to Prosper, to clasp his knee, to babble broken words, entreaties for salvation, and to stoop to his foot and kiss it.
"What is all this about, my child?" asked Prosper wondering.
"Oh" cried the girl, "my lord! the monk seeks to do me a wrong, and a shame greater than all!"
Prosper looked deeper into the quarry. There he saw Galors, the white monk, who stood fixed, biting his nails keenly there. Then he laughed, saying, "I cannot fight a monk," and sheathed his sword. He did not love monks, none of his house did. He had seen the new gallows, could measure the build of the fellow in the quarry; and though he could not plumb the girl's soul through her misty eyes, he could read her shaking lips and clinging hands; he could see, and be shocked to see, how young she was to be acquainted with grief, and with sin how likely familiar. The hint of the thing revolted him; he dared not leave her there.
"See here, child," said he, "I will set you before me, and we will ride together for a while. Perhaps the evening chills will temper the monk; but if not, I am to lodge at his abbey this night, and may prepare that for him which will cool him. Will you come up to me?"
The ghost of a smile hovered over her white drawn face for a minute. "I will go where you will take me, my lord," said she.
"Come up with you then," he replied. He stooped there and then, took her below the arms, and lightly swung her into the saddle before him. There she sat, modern fashion, with his sword arm for her stay. "I should like to read that hulk a lesson," said her protector wistfully, "but I doubt he will have it before night. Oh, let him hang!" So he turned and rode out of the quarry on to the heath.
Galors stood a long time in the place where they left him, drawing blood from his bitten fingers. Darkness gathered fast with a storm of wind and rain. Nevertheless he stayed on; and night came down to find him still there.
THE VIRGIN MARRIAGE
He had to talk, and as the girl gave him no help, Prosper found himself asking questions and puzzling out the answers he got, trying to make them fit with the facts. He was amazed that one so delicately formed should go barefooted and bareheaded, clad in torn rags. To all his questions she replied in a voice low and tremulous, and very simply—that is to say, to such of them as she would answer at all. To many—to all which touched upon Galors and his business with her in the quarry—she was as dumb as a fish. Prosper was as patient as you could expect.
He asked her who she was, and how called. She told him—"I am Matt-of- the-Moors child, and men call me Isoult la Desirous."
"That is a strange name," said he. "How came you by such a name as that?"
"Sir," said Isoult, "I have never had any other; and I suppose that I have it because I am unhappy, and not at peace with those who seek me."
"Who seeks you, Isoult?"
To that she gave no reply. So Prosper went on.
"If many sought you, child," he said, "you were rightly called Isoult la Desiree, but if you, on the other hand, sought something or somebody, then you were Isoult la Desirous. Is it not so?"
"My lord," said Isoult, "the last is my name."
"Then it must be that you too seek something. What is it that you seek, that all the tithing knows of it?"
But she hung her head and had nothing to say. He went on to speak of Galors, to her visible disease. When he asked what the monk wanted with her, he felt her tremble on his arm. She began to cry, suddenly turned her face into his shoulder, and kept it there while her sobs shook through her.
"Well, child," said he, "dry your tears, and turn your face to such light as there is, being well assured of this, that whatever he asked of you he did not get, and that he will ask no more."
"I fear him, I fear him," she said very low—and again, "I fear him, I fear him."
"Drat the monk," said Prosper, laughing, "is he to cut me out of a compliment?"
Whereupon she turned a very woebegone and tearful face up to his. He looked smilingly down; a sudden wave of half-humbrous pity for a thing so frail and amazed swam about him; before he knew he had kissed her cheek. This set her blushing a little; but she seemed to take heart, smiled rather pitifully, and turned again with a sigh, like a baby's for sleep.
The night gathered apace with a chill wind; some fine rain began to fall, then heavy drops. Gradually the wind increased, and the rain with it. "Now we shall have it," said Prosper, sniffing for the storm. He covered Isoult with his cloak, folded it about her as best he could, and tucked it in; she lay in his arms snug enough, and slept while he urged his horse over the stubbed heath. The water hissed and ran over the baked earth; where had been dry channels, rents and scars, full of dust, were now singing torrents and broad pools fetlock deep. Prosper let his good beast go his own gait, which was a sober trot, and ever and again as he heard the ripple of running water and the swirl and suck of the eddies in it, he judged that he must soon or late touch the Wan river, whereon stood the Abbey and his bed. What to do with the girl when he got there? That puzzled him. "A well-ordered abbey," he thought, "has no place for a girl, and one ill-ordered has too many. In the first case, therefore, Holy Thorn would leave her at the gate, and in the second, that is where I myself would let her stay. So it seems that she must needs have a wet skin." He felt carefully about the sleeping child; the cloak kept her dry and warm as a toast. She was sound asleep. "Good Lord!" cried Prosper, "it's a pity to disturb this baby of mine. Saracen and I had better souse. Moreover, I make no nearer, by all that appears, to river Wan or Holy Thorn. Come up, horse; keep us moving."
The stream he had followed he now had lost. It was pitchy dark, with a most villainous storm of rain and wind. Saracen caught the infection of his master's doubts; he stopped short, and bowed his head to snuff the ground. Prosper laughed at the plight they were both in, and looked about him, considering what he should do. Very far off he could see a feeble light flickering; it was the only speck of brightness within his vision, and he judged it too steady for a fen-flame. Lodging of some sort should be there, for where there is a candle there is a candlestick. This was not firelight. To it he turned his tired beast, and found that he had been well advised. He was before a mud-walled hovel; there through the horn he saw the candle-flame. He drew his sword and beat upon the door. For answer the light was blown swiftly out, and the darkness swam about him like ink.
"Scared folk!" he laughed to himself, hammering at the door with a will.
Then Isoult stirred on his arm and awoke with a little whimper, half dreaming still, and not knowing where she was. She sat up in the saddle dazed with sleep.
"The night is wild," said Prosper, "and I have found us the shadow of a shade, but as yet we lack the substance." Then he set-to, pounding at the door again, and crying to those within to open for the sake of all the saints he could remember.
Isoult freed herself from the cloak, and slid down from her seat in the saddle. Putting her face close to the door she whistled a low note. The candle was re-lit, many bolts were withdrawn; finally the door opened a little way, and an old man put his head through the chink, staring out into the dark.
"God's life, you little rip," said the anxious rogue, "you gave us a turn!"
Isoult spoke eagerly and fast, but too low for Prosper to hear what she said. The man was in no mind to open further, and the more he speered at the horseman the less he seemed to like it. Nevertheless, after a time the girl was let into the hut, and the door slammed and bolted as before. Between the shocks of the storm Prosper could now hear a confusion of voices—Isoult's, low, even, clear and quick; the grating comments of the old rogue who kept the door, and another voice that trembled and wailed as if passion struggled with the age in it, to see which should be master. Once he thought to catch a fourth—a brisk man's voice, with laughter and some sort of authority in it, which seemed familiar; but he could not be sure about this. In the main three persons held the debate.
After a long wrangle it seemed that the women were to have their way. Again the door-bolts were drawn, again the door opened by the old man, and this time opened wide. With bows lower than the occasion demanded, Prosper was invited to be pleased to enter. He saw to his horse first, and made what provision he could for him in an outhouse. Then he stooped his head and entered the cottage.
He came directly into a bare room, which was, you may say, crouched under a pent of turves and ling, and stank very vilely. The floor was of beaten clay, like the walls; for furniture it had a table and bench. Sooty cobwebs dripped from the joists, and great spiders ran nimbly over them; there were no beds, but on a heap of rotting skins in one corner two rats were busy, and in another were some dry leaves and bracken. There was no chimney either, though there was a peat fire smouldering in what you must call the hearth. The place was dense with the fog of it; it was some time, therefore, before Prosper could leave blinking and fit his eyes to see the occupants of his lodging.... Isoult, he saw, stood in the middle of the room leaning on the table with both her hands; her bead was hanging, and her hair veiled all her face. Near her, also standing, was the old man—a sturdy knowing old villain, with a world of cunning and mischief in his pair of pig's eyes. His scanty hair, his beard, were white; his eyebrows were white and altogether monstrous. He blinked at Prosper, but said nothing. The third was a woman, infinitely old as it seemed, crouched over the fired peats with her back to the room. She never looked up at all, but muttered and sighed vainly to herself and warmed her hands. Lastly, in a round-backed chair, cross-legged, twirling his thumbs, twinkling with comfortable repletion, sat Prosper's friend of the road, Brother Bonaccord of Lucca.
"God save you, gentleman," he chirped. "I see we have the same taste in lodgings. None of your Holy Thorns for us—hey? But a shakedown under a snug thatch, with a tap of red wine such as I have not had out of my own country. What a port for what a night—hey?"
Prosper nodded back a greeting as he looked from one to another of these ill-assorted hosts of his, and whenever he chanced on the motionless girl he felt that he could not understand it. Look at her! how sweet and delicate she was, how small and well-set her head, her feet and hands how fine, her shape how tender. "How should a lily spring in so foul a bed?" thought he to himself. Morgraunt had already taught him an odd thing or two; no doubt it was Morgraunt's way.
The old man set bread and onions on the table, with some sour red wine in a jug. "Sit and eat, my lord, while you may," he said.
So Prosper and Isoult sat upon the bench and made the most of it, and he, being a cheerful soul, talked and joked with Brother Bonaccord. Isoult never raised her eyes once, nor spoke a word; as for the numbed old soul by the fire; she kept her back resolutely on the room, muttered her charms and despair, and warmed her dry hands as before.
When they had eaten what they could there came a change. The friar ceased talking; the old man faced Prosper with a queer look. "Sir, have you well-eaten and drunken?" he asked.
Prosper thanked him; he had done excellently.
"Well, now," said the man, "as I have heard, after the bride-feast comes the bridal. Will your worship rest with the bride brought home?"
Prosper got up in an awkward pause. He looked at the man as if he were possessed of the devil. Then he laughed, saying, "Are you merry, old rogue?"
"Nay, sir," said the ancient, "it is no jest. If she mate not this night—and it's marriage for choice with this holy man—come sunrise she'll be hanged on the Abbot's new gallows. For, she is suspected of witchcraft and many abominations."
"Is she your daughter, you dog, and do you speak thus of your daughter?" cried Prosper in a fury.
"Sir," said the man, "who would own himself father to a witch? Nevertheless she is my daughter indeed."
"What is the meaning of all this? Would you have me marry a witch, old fool?" Prosper shouted at him. The man shrugged.
"Nay, sir, but I said it was marriage for choice—seeing the friar was to hand. We know their way, to marry as soon as look at you. But it's as you will, so you get a title to her, to take her out of the country."
Prosper turned to look at Isoult. He saw her standing before the board, her head hung and her two hands clasped together. Her breathing was troubled—that also he saw. "God's grace!" thought he to himself, "is she so fair without and within so rotten? Who has been ill- ordering the world to this pass?" He watched her thoughtfully for some time; then he turned to her father.
"See now, old scamp," he said, "I have sworn an oath to high God to succour the weak, to right wrong, and to serve ladies. Nine times under the moon I sware it, watching my arms before the cross on Starning Waste. Judge you, therefore, whether I intend to keep it or not. As for your daughter, she can tell you whether some part of it I have not kept even now. But understand me, that I do not marry on compulsion or where love is not. For that were a sin done toward God, and me, and a maid."
The old rascal blinked his eyes, jerking his head many times at the shameful girl. Then he said, "Love is there fast and sure. She is all for loving. They call her Isoult la Desirous, you must know."
"Yes," said Prosper, "I do know it, for she has told me so already.'
"And to-morrow she will desire no more, since she will be hanged," said Matt-o'-the-Moor.
Prosper started and flushed, and—
"That is a true gospel, brother," put in the friar. "The Abbot means to air his gallows at her expense; but there is worse than a gallows to it. What did I tell you of the Black Monks when you called 'em White? There is a coal-black among them who'll have her if the gallows have her not. It is Galors or gallows, fast and sure."
Prosper rubbed his chin, looked at the friar, looked at Matt, looked at Isoult. She neither lifted her head nor eyes, though the others had met him sturdily enough. She stood like a saint on a church porch; he thought her a desperate Magdalen.
"Isoult, come here," said he. She came as obediently as you please, and stood before him; but she would not look up until he said again, "Isoult, look me in the face." Then she did as she was told, and her eyes were unwinking and very wide open, full of dark. She parted her lips and sighed a little, shivering somewhat. It seemed to him as if she had been with the dead already and seen their kingdom. Prosper said, "Isoult is this true that thou wilt be hanged to-morrow?"
"Yes, lord," said Isoult in a whisper.
"Yes, lord," she said again, quivering.
"Save only thy lot be a marriage this night?"
"Yes, lord," she said a third time. So he asked,
"Art thou verily what this old man thy father hath testified against thee—a witch, a worker of iniquity and black things, and of abominations with the devil?"
Isoult said in a very still voice—"Men say that I am all this, my lord."
But Prosper with a cry called out, "Isoult, Isoult, now tell me the truth. Dost thou deserve this death?"
She sighed, and smiled rather pitifully as she said—
"I cannot tell, lord; but I desire it."
"Dost thou desire death, child?" cried he, "and is this why thou art called La Desirous?"
"I desire to be what I am not, my lord, and to have that which I have never had," she answered, and her lip trembled.
"And what is that which you are not, Isoult?"
She answered him "Clean."
"And what is that which you have never had, my child?"
"Peace," said Isoult, and wept bitterly.
Then Prosper crossed himself very devoutly, and covered his face while he prayed to his saint. When he had done he said, "Cease crying, Isoult, and tell me the truth, by God and His Christ, and Saint Mary, and by the face of the sky. Art thou such a one as I would wed if love were to grow between me and thee, or art thou other?"
She ceased her crying at this and looked him full in the face, deadly pale. "What is the truth to you concerning me?" she said.
He answered her, "The truth is everything, for without it nothing can have good beginning or good ending."
This made her meek again and her eyes misty. She held out a hand to him, saying, "Come into the night, and I will tell my lord."
He took it. Hand-in-hand they went out of the cottage, and hand-in- hand stood together alone under the sky. It was still black and heavy weather, but without rain. Isoult dropped his hand and stood before him. She shut her arms over her breast so that her two wrists crossed at her throat. Looking full at him from under her brows she said—
"By God and His Christ, and Saint Mary, and by the face of the sky, I will tell you the truth, lord. If the witch's wax be not as abominable as the witch, or the vessel not foul that hath held a foul liquor, then thou couldst never point scorn at me."
"Speak openly to me, my child," said Prosper, "and fear nothing."
So she said, "I will speak openly. I am no witch, albeit I have seen witchcraft and the revelry of witches on Deerleap. And though I have seen evil also I am a maiden, my lord, and such as you would have your own sister to be before she were wed."
But Prosper put her from him at an arm's-length. He was not yet satisfied.
"What was thy meaning then," he asked, "to say that thou wouldst be that which thou wert not?" He could not bring himself to use the word which she had used; but she used it again.
"Ah, clean!" she said with a weary gesture. "Lord, how shall I be clean in this place? Or how shall I be clean when all say that I am unclean, and so use towards me?" She began to cry again, quite silently. Prosper could hear the drips fall from her cheeks to her breast, but no other sound. She began to moan in her trouble—"Ah, no, no, no!" she whispered, "I would not wed with thee, I dare not wed with thee."
"Why not?" said Prosper.
"I dare not, I dare not!" she answered through her teeth, and he felt her trembling under his hand. He thought before he spoke again. Then he said—
"I have vowed a vow to my saint that I will save you, soul and body; and if it can be done only by a wedding, then we will be married, you and I, Isoult. But if by battle I can serve your case as well, and rid the suspicion and save your neck, why, I will do battle."
"Nay, lord," said the girl, "I must be hanged, for so the Lord Abbot has decreed." And then she told him all that Galors had given her to understand when he had her in the quarry.
Prosper heard her to the end: it was clear that she spoke as she believed.
"Well, child," said he, "I see that all this is likely enough, though for the life of me I cannot bottom it. But how then," he cried, after a little more thinking, "shall I let you be hanged, and your neck so fine and smooth!"
"Lord," she said, "let be for that; for since I was born I have heard of my low condition, and if my neck be slim 'tis the sooner broke. Let me go then, but only grant me this grace, to stand beside me at the tree and not leave me till I am dead. For there may be a worse thing than death preparing for me." Again she cried out at her own thoughts "Ah, no, no, no, I dare not let thee wed me!" He heard the wringing of her hands, and guessed her beside herself.
He stood, therefore, reasoning it all out something after this fashion. "Look now, Prosper," thought he, "this child says truer than she knows. It is an ill thing to be hanged, but a worse to deserve a hanging, and worst of all for her, it seems, to escape a hanging. And it is good to find death sweet when he comes (since come he must), but better to prove life also a pleasant thing. And life is here urgent, though in fetters, in this child's breast; but death is not yet here. Yet if I leave her she gains death, or life (which is worse), and if I take her with me it can only be one way. What then! a man can lay down his life in many ways, giving it for the life that needeth, whether by jumping a red grave or by means slower but not less sure. And if by any deed of mine I pluck this child out of the mire, put clear light into her eyes (which now are all dark), and set the flush on her grey cheeks which she was assuredly designed to carry there; and if she breathe sweet air and grow in the grace of God and sight of men—why then I have done well, however else I do."
He thought no more, but took the girl's hand again in both of his. "Well, Isoult," he said cheerfully, "thou shalt not be hanged yet awhile, nor shall that worse thing befall thee. I will wed thee as soon as I may. At cock-crow we two will seek a priest."
"Lord," she said, "a priest is here in this place."
"Why, yes! Brother Bonaccord. Well," said Prosper, "let us go in."
But Isoult was troubled afresh, and put her hand against his chest to stay him; breathing very short.
"Lord," she said, "thou wilt wed me to save my soul from hell and my body from hanging; but thou hast no love for me in thy heart, as I know very well."
Here was a bother indeed. The girl was fair enough in her peaked elfin way; but the fact was that he did not love her—nor anybody. He had nothing to say therefore. She waited a little, and then, with her voice sunk to a low murmur, she said—
"We two will never come together except in love. Shall it not be so?"
Prosper bowed, saying—
"It shall be so."
The girl knelt suddenly down and kissed his foot. Then she rose and stood near him.