THE PATH OF THE KING
by John Buchan
TO MY WIFE I DEDICATE THESE CHAPTERS FIRST READ BY A COTSWOLD FIRE
PROLOGUE 1. HIGHTOWN UNDER SUNFELL 2. THE ENGLISHMAN 3. THE WIFE OF FLANDERS 4. EYES OF YOUTH 5. THE MAID 6. THE WOOD OF LIFE 7. EAUCOURT BY THE WATERS 8. THE HIDDEN CITY 9. THE REGICIDE 10. THE MARPLOT 11. THE LIT CHAMBER 12. IN THE DARK LAND 13. THE LAST STAGE 14. THE END OF THE ROAD EPILOGUE
Linum fumigans non exstinguet; in veritate educet judicium. ISA. XLII.3.
THE PATH OF THE KING
by John Buchan
The three of us in that winter camp in the Selkirks were talking the slow aimless talk of wearied men.
The Soldier, who had seen many campaigns, was riding his hobby of the Civil War and descanting on Lee's tactics in the last Wilderness struggle. I said something about the stark romance of it—of Jeb Stuart flitting like a wraith through the forests; of Sheridan's attack at Chattanooga, when the charging troops on the ridge were silhouetted against a harvest moon; of Leonidas Polk, last of the warrior Bishops, baptizing his fellow generals by the light of a mess candle. "Romance," I said, "attended the sombre grey and blue levies as faithfully as she ever rode with knight-errant or crusader."
The Scholar, who was cutting a raw-hide thong, raised his wise eyes.
"Does it never occur to you fellows that we are all pretty mixed in our notions? We look for romance in the well-cultivated garden-plots, and when it springs out of virgin soil we are surprised, though any fool might know it was the natural place for it."
He picked up a burning stick to relight his pipe.
"The things we call aristocracies and reigning houses are the last places to look for masterful men. They began strongly, but they have been too long in possession. They have been cosseted and comforted and the devil has gone out of their blood. Don't imagine that I undervalue descent. It is not for nothing that a great man leaves posterity. But who is more likely to inherit the fire—the elder son with his flesh-pots or the younger son with his fortune to find? Just think of it! All the younger sons of younger sons back through the generations! We none of us know our ancestors beyond a little way. We all of us may have kings' blood in our veins. The dago who blacked my boots at Vancouver may be descended by curious byways from Julius Caesar.
"Think of it!" he cried. "The spark once transmitted may smoulder for generations under ashes, but the appointed time will come, and it will flare up to warm the world. God never allows waste. And we fools rub our eyes and wonder, when we see genius come out of the gutter. It didn't begin there. We tell ourselves that Shakespeare was the son of a woolpedlar, and Napoleon of a farmer, and Luther of a peasant, and we hold up our hands at the marvel. But who knows what kings and prophets they had in their ancestry!"
After that we turned in, and as I lay looking at the frosty stars a fancy wove itself in my brain. I saw the younger sons carry the royal blood far down among the people, down even into the kennels of the outcast. Generations follow, oblivious of the high beginnings, but there is that in the stock which is fated to endure. The sons and daughters blunder and sin and perish, but the race goes on, for there is a fierce stuff of life in it. It sinks and rises again and blossoms at haphazard into virtue or vice, since the ordinary moral laws do not concern its mission. Some rags of greatness always cling to it, the dumb faith that sometime and somehow that blood drawn from kings it never knew will be royal again. Though nature is wasteful of material things, there is no waste of spirit And then after long years there comes, unheralded and unlooked-for, the day of the Appointed Time....
This is the story which grew out of that talk by the winter fire.
CHAPTER I. HIGHTOWN UNDER SUNFELL
When Biorn was a very little boy in his father's stead at Hightown he had a play of his own making for the long winter nights. At the back end of the hall, where the men sat at ale, was a chamber which the thralls used of a morning—a place which smelt of hams and meal and good provender. There a bed had been made for him when he forsook his cot in the women's quarters. When the door was shut it was black dark, save for a thin crack of light from the wood fire and torches of the hall. The crack made on the earthen floor a line like a golden river. Biorn, cuddled up on a bench in his little bear-skin, was drawn like a moth to that stream of light. With his heart beating fast he would creep to it and stand for a moment with his small body bathed in the radiance. The game was not to come back at once, but to foray into the farther darkness before returning to the sanctuary of bed. That took all the fortitude in Biorn's heart, and not till the thing was dared and done could he go happily to sleep.
One night Leif the Outborn watched him at his game. Sometimes the man was permitted to sleep there when he had been making sport for the housecarles.
"Behold an image of life!" he had said in his queer outland speech. "We pass from darkness to darkness with but an instant of light between. You are born for high deeds, princeling. Many would venture from the dark to the light, but it takes a stout breast to voyage into the farther dark."
And Biorn's small heart swelled, for he detected praise, though he did not know what Leif meant.
In the long winter the sun never topped Sunfell, and when the gales blew and the snow drifted there were lights in the hall the day long. In Biorn's first recollection the winters were spent by his mother's side, while she and her maids spun the wool of the last clipping. She was a fair woman out of the Western Isles, all brown and golden as it seemed to him, and her voice was softer than the hard ringing speech of the Wick folk. She told him island stories about gentle fairies and good-humoured elves who lived in a green windy country by summer seas, and her air would be wistful as if she thought of her lost home. And she sang him to sleep with crooning songs which had the sweetness of the west wind in them. But her maids were a rougher stock, and they stuck to the Wicking lullaby which ran something like this:
Hush thee, my bold one, a boat will I buy thee, A boat and stout oars and a bright sword beside, A helm of red gold and a thrall to be nigh thee, When fair blows the wind at the next wicking-tide.
There was a second verse, but it was rude stuff, and the Queen had forbidden the maids to sing it.
As he grew older he was allowed to sit with the men in the hall, when bows were being stretched and bowstrings knotted and spear-hafts fitted. He would sit mum in a corner, listening with both ears to the talk of the old franklins, with their endless grumbles about lost cattle and ill neighbours. Better he liked the bragging of the young warriors, the Bearsarks, who were the spear-head in all the forays. At the great feasts of Yule-tide he was soon sent packing, for there were wild scenes when the ale flowed freely, though his father, King Ironbeard, ruled his hall with a strong hand. From the speech of his elders Biorn made his picture of the world beyond the firths. It was a world of gloom and terror, yet shot with a strange brightness. The High Gods might be met with in beggar's guise at any ferry, jovial fellows and good friends to brave men, for they themselves had to fight for their lives, and the End of All Things hung over them like a cloud. Yet till the day of Ragnarok there would be feasting and fine fighting and goodly fellowship, and a stout heart must live for the hour.
Leif the Outborn was his chief friend. The man was no warrior, being lame of a leg and lean and sharp as a heron. No one knew his begetting, for he had been found as a child on the high fells. Some said he was come of the Finns, and his ill-wishers would have it that his birthplace had been behind a foss, and that he had the blood of dwarves in him. Yet though he made sport for the company, he had respect from them, for he was wise in many things, a skilled leech, a maker of runes, and a crafty builder of ships. He was a master hand at riddles, and for hours the housecarles would puzzle their wits over his efforts. This was the manner of them. "Who," Leif would ask, "are the merry maids that glide above the land to the joy of their father; in winter they bear a white shield, but black in summer?" The answer was "Snowflakes and rain." Or "I saw a corpse sitting on a corpse, a blind one riding on a lifeless steed?" to which the reply was "A dead horse on an ice-floe." Biorn never guessed any of the riddles, but the cleverness of them he thought miraculous, and the others roared with glee at their own obtuseness.
But Leif had different moods, for sometimes he would tell tales, and all were hushed in a pleasant awe. The fire on the hearth was suffered to die down, and men drew closer to each other, as Leif told of the tragic love of Helgi and Sigrun, or how Weyland outwitted King Nidad, or how Thor went as bride to Thrym in Giantland, and the old sad tale of how Sigurd Fafnirsbane, noblest of men, went down to death for the love of a queen not less noble. Leif told them well, so that his hearers were held fast with the spell of wonder and then spurred to memories of their own. Tongues would be loosened, and there would be wild recollections of battles among the skerries of the west, of huntings in the hills where strange sights greeted the benighted huntsman, and of voyaging far south into the lands of the sun where the poorest thrall wore linen and the cities were all gold and jewels. Biorn's head would be in such a whirl after a night of story-telling that he could get no sleep for picturing his own deeds when he was man enough to bear a sword and launch his ship. And sometimes in his excitement he would slip outside into the darkness, and hear far up in the frosty sky the whistle of the swans as they flew southward, and fancy them the shield-maids of Odin on their way to some lost battle.
His father, Thorwald Thorwaldson, was king over all the firths and wicks between Coldness in the south and Flatness and the mountain Rauma in the north, and inland over the Uplanders as far as the highest springs of the rivers. He was king by more than blood, for he was the tallest and strongest man in all the land, and the cunningest in battle. He was for ordinary somewhat grave and silent, a dark man with hair and beard the colour of molten iron, whence came his by-name. Yet in a fight no Bearsark could vie with him for fury, and his sword Tyrfing was famed in a thousand songs. On high days the tale of his descent would be sung in the hall—not by Leif, who was low-born and of no account, but by one or other of the chiefs of the Shield-ring. Biorn was happy on such occasions, for he himself came into the songs, since it was right to honour the gentle lady, the Queen. He heard how on the distaff side he was sprung from proud western earls, Thorwolf the Black, and Halfdan and Hallward Skullsplitter. But on the spear side he was of still loftier kin, for Odin was first in his pedigree, and after him the Volsung chiefs, and Gothfred the Proud, and—that no magnificence might be wanting—one Karlamagnus, whom Biorn had never heard of before, but who seemed from his doings to have been a puissant king.
On such occasions there would follow a braggingmatch among the warriors, for a recital of the past was meant as an augury for the future. The time was towards the close of the Wicking-tide, and the world was becoming hard for simple folk. There were endless bickerings with the Tronds in the north and the men of More in the south, and a certain Shockhead, an upsetting king in Norland, was making trouble with his neighbours. Likewise there was one Kristni, a king of the Romans, who sought to dispute with Odin himself. This Kristni was a magic-worker, who clad his followers in white linen instead of byrnies, and gave them runes in place of swords, and sprinkled them with witch water. Biorn did not like what he heard of the warlock, and longed for the day when his father Ironbeard would make an end of him.
Each year before the coming of spring there was a lean season in Hightown. Fish were scarce in the ice-holes, the stock of meal in the meal-ark grew low, and the deep snow made poor hunting in wood or on fell-side. Belts were tightened, and there were hollow cheeks among the thralls. And then one morning the wind would blow from the south, and a strange smell come into the air. The dogs left their lair by the fire and, led by the Garm the old blind patriarch, made a tour of inspection among the outhouses to the edge of the birch woods. Presently would come a rending of the ice on the firth, and patches of inky water would show between the floes. The snow would slip from the fell-side, and leave dripping rock and clammy bent, and the river would break its frosty silence and pour a mighty grey-green flood to the sea. The swans and geese began to fly northward, and the pipits woke among the birches. And at last one day the world put on a new dress, all steel-blue and misty green, and a thousand voices woke of flashing streams and nesting birds and tossing pines, and the dwellers in Hightown knew that spring had fairly come.
Then was Biorn the happy child. All through the long day, and through much of that twilight which is the darkness of a Norland summer, he was abroad on his own errands. With Grim the Hunter he adventured far up on the fells and ate cheese and bannocks in the tents of the wandering Skridfinns, or stalked the cailzie-cock with his arrows in the great pine forest, which in his own mind he called Mirkwood and feared exceedingly. Or he would go fishing with Egil the Fisherman, spearing salmon in the tails of the river pools. But best he loved to go up the firth in the boat which Leif had made him—a finished, clinker-built little model of a war galley, christened the Joy-maker—and catch the big sea fish. Monsters he caught sometimes in the deep water under the cliffs, till he thought he was destined to repeat the exploit of Thor when he went fishing with the giant Hymi, and hooked the Midgard Serpent, the brother of Fenris-wolf, whose coils encircle the earth.
Nor was his education neglected. Arnwulf the Bearsark taught him axe-play and sword-play, and he had a small buckler of his own, not of linden-wood like those of the Wick folk, but of wickerwork after the fashion of his mother's people. He learned to wrestle toughly with the lads of his own age, and to throw a light spear truly at a mark. He was fleet of foot and scoured the fells like a goat, and he could breast the tide in the pool of the great foss up to the very edge of the white water where the trolls lived.
There was a wise woman dwelt on the bay of Sigg. Katla was her name, a woman still black-browed though she was very old, and clever at mending hunters' scars. To her house Biorn went with Leif; and when they had made a meal of her barley-cakes and sour milk, and passed the news of the coast, Leif would fall to probing her craft and get but surly answers. To the boy's question she was kinder. "Let the dead things be, prince," she said. "There's small profit from foreknowledge. Better to take fates as they come sudden round a turn of the road than be watching them with an anxious heart all the way down the hill. The time will come soon enough when you must stand by the Howe of the Dead and call on the ghost-folk."
But Leif coaxed and Biorn harped on the thing, as boys do, and one night about the midsummer time her hour came upon Katla and she spoke without their seeking. There in the dim hut with the apple-green twilight dimming the fells Biorn stood trembling on the brink of the half-world, the woman huddled on the floor, her hand shading her eyes as if she were looking to a far horizon. Her body shook with gusts of passion, and the voice that came from her was not her own. Never so long as he lived did Biorn forget the terrible hour when that voice from beyond the world spoke things he could not understand. "I have been snowed on with snow," it said, "I have been beaten with the rain, I have been drenched with the dew, long have I been dead." It spoke of kings whose names he had never heard, and of the darkness gathering about the Norland, and famine and awe stalking upon the earth.
Then came a whisper from Leif asking the fortune of the young prince of Hightown.
"Death," said the weird-wife, "death—but not yet. The shears of the Norns are still blunt for him, and Skuld has him in keeping."
There was silence for a space, for the fit was passing from Katla. But the voice came again in broken syllables. "His thread runs westward—beyond the Far Isles... not he but the seed of his loins shall win great kingdoms ... beyond the sea-walls.... The All-Father dreams.... Nay, he wakes... he wakes..."
There was a horrible choking sound, and the next Biorn knew was that Leif had fetched water and was dashing it on Katla's face.
It was nearly a week before Biorn recovered his spirits after this adventure, and it was noticeable that neither Leif nor he spoke a word to each other on the matter. But the boy thought much, and from that night he had a new purpose. It seemed that he was fated to travel far, and his fancy forsook the homely life of his own wicks and fells and reached to that outworld of which he had heard in the winter's talk by the hall fire.
There were plenty of folk in Hightown to satisfy his curiosity. There were the Bearsarks, who would spin tales of the rich Frankish lands and the green isles of the Gael. From the Skridfinns he heard of the bitter country in the north where the Jotuns dwelt, and the sun was not and the frost split the rocks to dust, while far underground before great fires the dwarves were hammering gold. But these were only old wives' tales, and he liked better the talk of the sea-going franklins, who would sail in the summer time on trading ventures and pushed farther than any galleys of war. The old sailor, Othere Cranesfoot, was but now back from a voyage which had taken him to Snowland, or, as we say, Iceland. He could tell of the Curdled Sea, like milk set apart for cheese-making, which flowed as fast as a river, and brought down ghoulish beasts and great dragons in its tide. He told, too, of the Sea-walls which were the end of the world, waves higher than any mountain, which ringed the whole ocean. He had seen them, blue and terrible one dawn, before he had swung his helm round and fled southwards. And in Snowland and the ports of the Isles this Othere had heard talk from others of a fine land beyond the sunset, where corn grew unsown like grass, and the capes looked like crusted cow-pats they were so thick with deer, and the dew of the night was honey-dew, so that of a morning a man might breakfast delicately off the face of the meadows.
Full of such marvels, Biorn sought Leif and poured out his heart to him. For the first time he spoke of the weird-wife's spaeing. If his fortune lay in the west, there was the goal to seek. He would find the happy country and reign over it. But Leif shook his head, for he had heard the story before. "To get there you will have to ride over Bilrost, the Rainbow Bridge, like the Gods. I know of the place. It is called Gundbiorn's Reef and it is beyond the world."
All this befell in Biorn's eleventh summer. The winter which followed brought ill luck to Hightown and notably to Ironbeard the King. For in the autumn the Queen, that gentle lady, fell sick, and, though leeches were sought for far and near, and spells and runes were prepared by all who had skill of them, her life ebbed fast and ere Yule she was laid in the Howe of the Dead. The loss of her made Thorwald grimmer and more silent than before, and there was no feasting at the Yule high-tide and but little at the spring merry-making. As for Biorn he sorrowed bitterly for a week, and then, boylike, forgot his grief in the wonder of living.
But that winter brought death in another form. Storms never ceased, and in the New Year the land lay in the stricture of a black frost which froze the beasts in the byres and made Biorn shiver all the night through, though in ordinary winter weather he was hardy enough to dive in the ice-holes. The stock of meal fell low, and when spring tarried famine drew very near. Such a spring no man living remembered. The snow lay deep on the shore till far into May. And when the winds broke they were cold sunless gales which nipped the young life in the earth. The ploughing was backward, and the seed-time was a month too late. The new-born lambs died on the fells and there fell a wasting sickness among the cattle. Few salmon ran up the streams, and the sea-fish seemed to have gone on a journey. Even in summer, the pleasant time, food was scarce, for the grass in the pastures was poor and the cows gave little milk, and the children died. It foreboded a black harvest-time and a blacker winter.
With these misfortunes a fever rose in the blood of the men of Hightown. Such things had happened before for the Norland was never more than one stage distant from famine; and in the old days there had been but a single remedy. Food and wealth must be won from a foray overseas. It was years since Ironbeard had ridden Egir's road to the rich lowlands, and the Bearsarks were growing soft from idleness. Ironbeard himself was willing, for his hall was hateful to him since the Queen's death. Moreover, there was no other way. Food must be found for the winter or the folk would perish.
So a hosting was decreed at harvest-tide, for few men would be needed to win the blasted crops; and there began a jointing of shields and a burnishing of weapons, and the getting ready of the big ships. Also there was a great sortilege-making. Whither to steer, that was the question. There were the rich coasts of England, but they were well guarded, and many of the Norland race were along the wardens. The isles of the Gael were in like case, and, though they were the easier prey, there was less to be had from them. There were soon two parties in the hall, one urging Ironbeard to follow the old track of his kin westward, another looking south to the Frankish shore. The King himself, after the sacrifice of a black heifer, cast the sacred twigs, and they seemed to point to Frankland. Old Arnwulf was deputed on a certain day to hallow three ravens and take their guidance, but, though he said three times the Ravens' spell, he got no clear counsel from the wise birds. Last of all, the weird-wife Katla came from Sigg, and for the space of three days sat in the hall with her head shrouded, taking no meat or drink. When at last she spoke she prophesied ill. She saw a red cloud and it descended on the heads of the warriors, yea of the King himself. As for Hightown she saw it frozen deep in snow like Jotunheim, and rime lay on it like a place long dead. But she bade Ironbeard go to Frankland, for it was so written. "A great kingdom waits," she said—"not for you, but for the seed of your loins." And Biorn shuddered, for they were the words spoken in her hut on that unforgotten midsummer night.
The boy was in an agony lest he should be left behind. But his father decreed that he should go. "These are times when manhood must come fast," he said. "He can bide within the Shield-ring when blows are going. He will be safe enough if it holds. If it breaks, he will sup like the rest of us with Odin."
Then came days of bustle and preparation. Biorn was agog with excitement and yet solemnised, for there was strange work afoot in Hightown. The King made a great festival in the Gods' House, the dark hall near the Howe of the Dead, where no one ventured except in high noon. Cattle were slain in honour of Thor, the God who watched over forays, and likewise a great boar for Frey. The blood was caught up in the sacred bowls, from which the people were sprinkled, and smeared on the altar of blackened fir. Then came the oath-taking, when Ironbeard and his Bearsarks swore brotherhood in battle upon the ship's bulwarks, and the shield's rim, and the horse's shoulder, and the brand's edge. There followed the mixing of blood in the same footprint, a rite to which Biorn was admitted, and a lesser oath for all the people on the great gold ring which lay on the altar. But most solemn of all was the vow the King made to his folk, warriors and franklins alike, when he swore by the dew, the eagle's path, and the valour of Thor.
Then it was Biorn's turn. He was presented to the High Gods as the prince and heir.
Old Arnwulf hammered on his left arm a torque of rough gold, which he must wear always, in life and in death.
"I bring ye the boy, Biorn Thorwaldson When the Gods call for Thorwald it will be his part to lead the launchings and the seafarings and be first when blows are going. Do ye accept him, people of Hightown?"
There was a swelling cry of assent and a beating of hafts on shields. Biorn's heart was lifted with pride, but out of a corner of his eye he saw his father's face. It was very grave, and his gaze was on vacancy.
Though it was a time of bustle, there was no joy in it, as there had been at other hostings. The folk were too hungry, the need was too desperate, and there was something else, a shadow of fate, which lay over Hightown. In the dark of night men had seen the bale-fires burning on the Howe of the Dead. A grey seal had been heard speaking with tongues off Siggness, and speaking ill words, said the fishermen who saw the beast. A white reindeer had appeared on Sunfell, and the hunter who followed it had not been seen again. By day, too, there was a brooding of hawks on the tide's edge, which was strange at that season. Worst portent of all, the floods of August were followed by high north-east winds that swept the clouds before them, so that all day the sky was a scurrying sea of vapour, and at night the moon showed wild grey shapes moving ever to the west. The dullest could not mistake their meaning; these were the dark horses, and their riders, the Helmed Maidens, mustering for the battle to which Hightown was faring.
As Biorn stared one night at the thronged heavens, he found Leif by his elbow. In front of the dark company of the sky a white cloud was scudding, tinged with the pale moon. Leif quoted from the speech of the Giant-wife Rimegerd to Helgi in the song:
"Three nines of maiden, ride, But one rides before them, A white maid helmed: From their manes the steeds shake Dew into the deep dales, Hail upon the high woods."
"It bodes well," said Biorn. "They ride to choose those whom we slay. There will be high doings ere Yule."
"Not so well," said Leif. "They come from the Norland, and it is our folk they go to choose. I fear me Hightown will soon be full of widow women."
At last came the day of sailing. The six galleys of war were brought down from their sheds, and on the rollers for the launching he-goats were bound so that the keels slid blood-stained into the sea. This was the 'roller-reddening,' a custom bequeathed from their forefathers, though the old men of the place muttered darkly that the ritual had been departed from, and that in the great days it was the blood not of goats, but of captive foemen that had reddened the galleys and the tide.
The thralls sat at the thwarts, for there was no breeze that day in the narrow firth. Then came the chief warriors in short fur jackets, splendid in glittering helms and byrnies, and each with his thrall bearing his battle-axe. Followed the fighting commonalty with axe and spear. Last came Ironbeard, stern as ever, and Biorn with his heart torn between eagerness and regret. Only the children, the women, and the old men were left in Hightown, and they stood on the shingle watching till the last galley had passed out of sight beyond Siggness, and was swallowed up in the brume that cloaked the west. There were no tears in that grim leave-taking. Hightown had faced the like before with a heavy heart, but with dry eyes and a proud head. Leif, though a cripple, went with the Wickings, for he had great skill of the sea.
There was not a breath of wind for three days and three nights, as they coasted southward, with the peaks of the Norland on their port, and to starboard the skerries that kept guard on the firths. Through the haze they could now and then see to landward trees and cliffs, but never a human face. Once there was an alarm of another fleet, and the shields were slung outboard, but it proved to be only a wedding-party passing from wick to wick, and they gave it greeting and sailed on. These were eerie cheerless days. The thralls sweated in shifts at the oars, and the betterborn talked low among themselves, as if the air were full of ears. "Ran is heating her ovens," said Leif, as he watched the warm fog mingle with the oarthresh.
On the fourth morning there came a break in the clouds, and the sight of a high hill gave Leif the clue for his reckoning. The prows swung seaward, and the galleys steered for the broad ocean. That afternoon there sprang up the north-east wind for which they had been waiting. Sails were hoisted on the short masts, oars were shipped and lashed under the bulwarks, and the thralls clustered in the prows to rest their weary limbs and dice with knucklebones. The spirits of all lightened, and there was loud talk in the sterns among the Bearsarks. In the night the wind freshened, and the long shallow boats rolled filthily so that the teeth shook in a man's head, and over the swish of the waves and the creaking of the sheets there was a perpetual din of arms clashing. Biorn was miserably ill for some hours, and made sport for the seasoned voyagers.
"It will not hold," Leif prophesied. "I smell rime ahead and quiet seas."
He had spoken truly, for the sixth day the wind fell and they moved once more over still, misty waters. The thralls returned to their oars and the voices of the well-born fell low again These were ghoulish days for Biorn, who had been accustomed to the clear lights and the clear darkness of his own land. Only once in four days they saw the sun, and then it was as red as blood, so that his heart trembled.
On the eleventh day Ironbeard summoned Leif and asked his skill of the voyage. "I know not," was the answer. "I cannot steer a course except under clean skies. We ran well with the wind aback, but now I am blind and the Gods are pilots. Some day soon we must make landfall, but I know not whether on English or Frankish shores."
After that Leif would sit in long spells of brooding, for he had a sense in him of direction to which he sought to give free play—a sense built up from old voyages over these very seas. The result of his meditations was that he swung more to the south, and events proved him wise. For on the fifteenth day came a lift in the fog and with it the noise of tides washing near at hand on a rough coast. Suddenly almost overhead they were aware of a great white headland, on the summit of which the sun shone on grass.
Leif gave a shout. "My skill has riot failed me," he cried. "We enter the Frankish firth. See, there is the butt of England!"
After that the helms were swung round, and a course laid south by west. And then the mist came again, but this time it was less of a shroud, for birds hovered about their wake, so that they were always conscious of land. Because of the strength of the tides the rowers made slow progress, and it was not till the late afternoon of the seventeenth day that Leif approached Ironbeard with a proud head and spoke a word. The King nodded, and Leif took his stand in the prow with the lead in his hand. The sea mirroring the mist was leaden dull, but the old pilot smelt shoal water.
Warily he sounded, till suddenly out of the gloom a spit of land rose on the port, and it was clear that they were entering the mouth of a river. The six galleys jolted across the sandbar, Leif in the foremost peering ahead and shouting every now and then an order. It was fine weather for a surprise landing. Biorn saw only low sand-dunes green with coarse grasses and, somewhere behind, the darkness of a forest. But he could not tear his eyes from it, for it was the long-dreamed-of Roman land.
Then a strange thing befell. A madness seemed to come on Leif. He left his pilot's stand and rushed to the stern where the King stood. Flinging himself on his knees, he clasped Ironbeard's legs and poured out supplications.
"Return!" he cried. "While there is yet time, return. Seek England, Gael-land, anywhere, but not this place. I see blood in the stream and blood on the strand. Our blood, your blood, my King! There is doom for the folk of Thorwald by this river!"
The King's face did not change. "What will be, will be," he said gravely. "We abide by our purpose and will take what Thor sends with a stout heart. How say you, my brave ones?"
And all shouted to go forward, for the sight of a new country had fired their blood. Leif sat huddled by the bulwarks, with a white face and a gasp in his throat, like one coming out of a swoon.
They went ashore at a bend of the stream where was a sandy cape, beached the galleys, felled trees from the neighbouring forest and built them a stockade. The dying sun flushed water and wood with angry crimson, and Biorn observed that the men wrought as it were in a world of blood. "That is the meaning of Leif's whimsies," he thought, and so comforted himself.
That night the Northmen slept in peace, but the scouts brought back word of a desert country, no men or cattle, and ashes where once had been dwellings.
"Our kinsfolk have been here before us," said King Ironbeard grimly. He did not love the Danes, though he had fought by their side.
Half the force was left as a guard by the ships, and next day the rest went forward up the valley at a slant from the river's course. For that way, ran the tale, lay a great Roman house, a palace of King Kristni, where much gold was to be had for the lifting. By midday they were among pleasant meadows, but the raiders had been there, for the houses were fired and the orchards hacked down. Then came a shout and, turning back, they saw a flame spring to the pale autumn skies. "The ships!" rose the cry, and the lightest of foot were sent back for news.
They returned with a sorry tale. Of the ships and the stockade nothing remained but hot cinders. Half the guard were dead, and old Arnwulf, the captain, lay blood-eagled on the edge of the tide. The others had gone they knew not where, but doubtless into the forests.
"Our kinsfolks' handiwork," said Ironbeard. "We are indeed forestalled, my heroes."
A council was held and it was resolved to make a camp by the stream and defend it against all comers, till such time as under Leif's guidance new ships could be built.
"Axes will never ring on them," said Leif under his breath. He walked now like a man who was fey and his face was that of another world.
He spoke truth, for as they moved towards the riverbank, just before the darkening, in a glade between two forests Fate met them. There was barely time to form the Shield-ring ere their enemies were upon them—a mass of wild men in wolves' skins and at their head mounted warriors in byrnies, with long swords that flashed and fell.
Biorn saw little of the battle, wedged in the heart of the Shield-ring. He heard the shouts of the enemy, and the clangour of blows, and the sharp intake of breath, but chiefly he heard the beating of his own heart. The ring swayed and moved as it gave before the onset or pressed to an attack of its own, and Biorn found himself stumbling over the dead. "I am Biorn, and my father is King," he repeated to himself, the spell he had so often used when on the fells or the firths he had met fear.
Night came and a young moon, and still the fight continued. But the Shield-ring was growing ragged, for the men of Hightown were fighting one to eight, and these are odds that cannot last. Sometimes it would waver, and an enemy would slip inside, and before he sank dead would have sorely wounded one of Ironbeard's company.
And now Biorn could see his father, larger than human, it seemed, in the dim light, swinging his sword Tyrfing, and crooning to himself as he laid low his antagonists. At the sight a madness rose in the boy's heart. Behind in the sky clouds were banking, dark clouds like horses, with one ahead white and moontipped, the very riders he had watched with Leif from the firth shore. The Walkyries were come for the chosen, and he would fain be one of them. All fear had gone from him. His passion was to be by his father's side and strike his small blow, beside those mighty ones which Thor could not have bettered.
But even as he was thus uplifted the end came. Thorwald Thorwaldson tottered and went down, for a hurled axe had cleft him between helm and byrnie. With him fell the last hope of Hightown and the famished clan under Sunfell. The Shield-ring was no more. Biorn found himself swept back as the press of numbers overbore the little knot of sorely wounded men. Someone caught him by the arm and snatched him from the mellay into the cover of a thicket. He saw dimly that it was Leif.
He was giddy and retching from weariness, and something inside him was cold as ice, though his head burned. It was not rage or grief, but awe, for his father had fallen and the end of the world had come. The noise of the battle died, as the two pushed through the undergrowth and came into the open spaces of the wood. It was growing very dark, but still Leif dragged him onwards. Then suddenly he fell forward on his face, and Biorn, as he stumbled over him found his hands wet with blood.
"I am for death," Leif whispered. "Put your ear close, prince. I am Leif the Outborn and I know the hidden things.... You are the heir of Thorwald Thorwaldson and you will not die.... I see a long road, but at the end a great kingdom. Farewell, little Biorn. We have been good comrades, you and I. Katla from Sigg spoke the true word..."
And when Biorn fetched water in his horn from a woodland pool he found Leif with a cold brow.
Blind with sorrow and fatigue, the boy stumbled on, without purpose. He was lonely in the wide world, many miles from his home, and all his kin were slain. Rain blew from the south-west and beat in his face, the brambles tore his legs, but he was dead to all things. Would that the Shield Maids had chosen him to go with that brave company to the bright hall of Odin! But he was only a boy and they did not choose striplings.
Suddenly in a clearing a pin-point of light pricked the darkness.
The desire for human companionship came over him, even though it were that of enemy or outcast. He staggered to the door and beat on it feebly. A voice spoke from within, but he did not hear what it said.
Again he beat and again the voice came. And now his knocking grew feebler, for he was at the end of his strength.
Then the bar was suddenly withdrawn and he was looking inside a poor hut, smoky from the wood-fire in the midst of it. An old woman sat by it with a bowl in her hand, and an oldish man with a cudgel stood before him. He did not understand their speech, but he gathered he was being asked his errand.
"I am Biorn," he said, "and my father was Ironbeard, the King."
They shook their heads, but since they saw only a weary, tattered boy they lost their fears. They invited him indoors, and their voices were kindly. Nodding with exhaustion, he was given a stool to sit on and a bowl of coarse porridge was put into his hands. They plied him with questions, but he could make nothing of their tongue.
Then the thrall rose, yawned, and dropped the bar over the door. The sound was to the boy like the clanging of iron gates on his old happy world. For a moment he was on the brink of tears. But he set his teeth and stiffened his drooping neck.
"I am Biorn," he said aloud, "and my father was a king."
They nodded to each other and smiled. They though his words were a grace before meat.
CHAPTER 2. THE ENGLISHMAN
The little hut among the oak trees was dim in the October twilight on the evening of St. Callixtus' Day. It had been used by swineherds, for the earthen floor was puddled by the feet of generations of hogs, and in the corner lay piles of rotting acorns. Outside the mist had filled the forest, and the ways were muffled with fallen leaves, so that the four men who approached the place came as stealthily as shades.
They reconnoitred a moment at the entrance, for it was a country of war.
"Quarters for the night," said one, and put his shoulder to the door of oak-toppings hinged on strips of cowhide.
But he had not taken a step inside before he hastily withdrew.
"There is something there," he cried—"something that breathes. A light, Gil."
One of the four lit a lantern from his flint and poked it within. It revealed the foul floor and the rotting acorns, and in the far corner, on a bed of withered boughs, something dark which might be a man. They stood still and listened. There was the sound of painful breathing, and then the gasp with which a sick man wakens. A figure disengaged itself from the shadows. Seeing it was but one man, the four pushed inside, and the last pulled the door to behind him.
"What have we here?" the leader cried. A man had dragged himself to his feet, a short, square fellow who held himself erect with a grip on a side-post. His eyes were vacant, dazzled by the light and also by pain. He seemed to have had hard usage that day, for his shaggy locks were matted with blood from a sword-cut above his forehead, one arm hung limp, and his tunic was torn and gashed. He had no weapons but a knife which he held blade upwards in the hollow of his big hand.
The four who confronted him were as ill-looking a quartet as Duke William's motley host could show. One, the leader, was an unfrocked priest of Rouen; one was a hedge-robber from the western marches who had followed Alan of Brittany; a third had the olive cheeks and the long nose of the south; and the fourth was a heavy German from beyond the Rhine. They were the kites that batten on the offal of war, and the great battle on the seashore having been won by better men, were creeping into the conquered land for the firstfruits of its plunder.
"An English porker," cried the leader. "We will have the tusks off him." Indeed, in the wild light the wounded man, with his flat face and forked beard, had the look of a boar cornered by hounds.
"'Ware his teeth," said the one they called Gil. "He has a knife in his trotter."
The evil faces of the four were growing merry. They were worthless soldiers, but adepts in murder. Loot was their first thought, but after that furtive slaying. There seemed nothing to rob here, but there was weak flesh to make sport of.
Gil warily crept on one side, where he held his spear ready. The ex-priest, who had picked up somewhere a round English buckler, gave the orders. "I will run in on him, and take his stroke, so you be ready to close. There is nothing to be feared from the swine. See, he is blooded and faints."
The lantern had been set on the ground by the door and revealed only the lower limbs of the four. Their heads were murky in shadow. Their speech was foreign to the wounded man, but he saw their purpose. He was clearly foredone with pain, but his vacant eyes kindled to slow anger, and he shook back his hair so that the bleeding broke out again on his forehead. He was as silent as an old tusker at bay.
The ex-priest gave the word and the four closed in on him. He defeated their plan by hurling himself on the leader's shield, so that his weight bore him backwards and he could not use his weapon. The spears on the flanks failed for the same reason, and the two men posted there had well-nigh been the death of each other. The fourth, the one from the south, whose business it had been to support the priest, tripped and fell sprawling beside the lantern.
The Englishman had one arm round the priest's neck and was squeezing the breath out of him. But the blood of the four was kindling, and they had vengeance instead of sport to seek. Mouthing curses, the three of them went to the rescue of the leader, and a weaponless and sore-wounded man cannot strive with such odds. They overpowered him, bending his arms viciously back and kicking his broken head. Their oaths filled the hut with an ugly clamour, but no sound came from their victim.
Suddenly a gust of air set the lantern flickering, and a new-comer stood in the doorway. He picked up the light and looked down on the struggle. He was a tall, very lean man, smooth faced, and black haired, helmetless and shieldless, but wearing the plated hauberk of the soldier. There was no scabbard on his left side, but his right hand held a long bright sword.
For a second he lifted the light high, while he took in the scene. His eyes were dark and dancing, like the ripples on a peat stream. "So-ho!" he said softly. "Murder! And by our own vermin!"
He appeared to brood for a second, and then he acted. For he set the light very carefully in the crook of a joist so that it illumined the whole hut. Then he reached out a hand, plucked the ex-priest from his quarry, and, swinging him in both arms, tossed him through the door into the darkness. It would seem that he fell hard, for there was a groan and then silence.
"One less," he said softly.
The three had turned to face him, warned by Gil's exclamation, and found themselves looking at the ominous bar of light which was his sword. Cornered like rats, they took small comfort from the odds. They were ready to surrender, still readier to run, and they stood on their defence with no fight in their faces, whining in their several patois. All but the man from the south. He was creeping round in the darkness by the walls, and had in his hands a knife. No mailed hauberk protected the interloper's back and there was a space there for steel to quiver between his shoulder blades.
The newcomer did not see, but the eyes of the wounded man seemed to have been cleared by the scuffle. He was now free, and from the floor he snatched the round shield which the ex-priest had carried, and hurled it straight at the creeping miscreant. It was a heavy oaken thing with rim and boss of iron, and it caught him fairly above the ear, so that he dropped like a poled ox. The stranger turned his head to see what was happening. "A lucky shot, friend," he cried. "I thank you." And he addressed himself to the two pitiful bandits who remained.
But their eyes were looking beyond him to the door, and their jaws had dropped in terror. For from outside came the sound of horses' hooves and bridles, and two riders had dismounted and were peering into the hut. The first was a very mountain of a man, whose conical helmet surmounted a vast pale face, on which blond moustaches hung like the teeth of a walrus. The said helmet was grievously battered, and the nose-piece was awry as if from some fierce blow, but there was no scar on the skin. His long hauberk was wrought in scales of steel and silver, and the fillets which bound his great legs were of fine red leather. Behind him came a grizzled squire, bearing a kite-shaped shield painted with the cognisance of a dove.
"What have we here?" said the knight in a reedy voice like a boy's. His pale eyes contemplated the figures—the wounded man, now faint again with pain and half-fallen on the litter of branches; his deliverer, tall and grim, but with laughing face; the two murderers cringing in their fear; in a corner the huddled body of the man from the south half hidden by the shield. "Speak, fellow," and he addressed the soldier. "What work has been toward? Have you not had your bellyfull of battles that you must scrabble like rats in this hovel? What are you called, and whence come you?"
The soldier lifted his brow, looked his questioner full in the face, and, as if liking what he found there, bowed his head in respect. The huge man had the air of one to be obeyed.
"I am of the Duke's army," he said, "and was sent on to reconnoitre the forest roads I stumbled on this hut and found four men about to slay a wounded English. One lies outside where I flung him, another is there with a cracked skull, and you have before you the remnant."
The knight seemed to consider. "And why should a soldier of the Duke's be so careful of English lives?" he asked.
"I would help my lord Duke to conquer this land," was the answer. "We have broken their army and the way is straight before us. We shall have to fight other armies, but we cannot be fighting all our days, and we do not conquer England till England accepts us. I have heard enough of that stubborn people to know that the way to win them is not by murder. At fair fight, and then honest dealing and mercy, say I."
The knight laughed. "A Solomon in judgment," he cried. "But who are you that bear a sword and wear gold on your finger?"
The old squire broke in. "My lord Count, I know the man. He is a hunter of the Lord Odo's, and has a name for valour. He wrought mightily this morning on the hill. They call him Jehan the Hunter, and sometimes Jehan the Outborn, for no man knows his comings. There is a rumour that he is of high blood, and truly in battle he bears himself like a prince. The monks loved him not, but the Lord Odo favoured him."
The knight looked steadily for the space of a moment at the tall soldier, and his light eyes seemed to read deep. "Are you that man," he asked at last, and got the reply: "I am Jehan the Hunter."
"Bid my fellows attend to yon scum," he told his squire. "The camp marshal will have fruit for his gallows. The sweepings of all Europe have drifted with us to England, and it is our business to make bonfire of them before they breed a plague.... See to the wounded man, likewise. He may be one of the stout house-carles who fought with Harold at Stamford, and to meet us raced like a gale through the length of England. By the Mount of the Archangel, I would fain win such mettle to our cause."
Presently the hut was empty save for the two soldiers, who faced each other while the lantern flickered to its end on the rafters.
"The good Odo is dead," said the knight. "An arrow in the left eye has bereft our Duke of a noble ally and increased the blessedness of the City of Paradise. You are masterless now. Will you ride with me on my service, you Jehan the Hunter? It would appear that we are alike in our ways of thinking. They call me the Dove from the shield I bear, and a dove I seek to be in the winning of England. The hawk's task is over when the battle is won, and he who has but the sword for weapon is no hawk, but carrion-crow. We have to set our Duke on the throne, but that is but the first step. There are more battles before us, and when they are ended begins the slow task of the conquest of English hearts. How say you, Jehan? Will you ride north with me on this errand, and out of the lands which are granted me to govern have a corner on which to practise your creed?"
So it befell that Jehan the Hunter, sometimes called Jehan the Outborn, joined the company of Ivo of Dives, and followed him when Duke William swept northward laughing his gross jolly laughter and swearing terribly by the splendour of God.
Two years later in the same month of the year Jehan rode east out of Ivo's new castle of Belvoir to visit the manor of which, by the grace of God and the King and the favour of the Count of Dives, he was now the lord. By the Dove's side he had been north to Durham and west to the Welsh marches, rather on falcon's than on dove's errands, for Ivo held that the crooning of peace notes came best after hard blows. But at his worst he was hawk and not crow, and malice did not follow his steps. The men he beat had a rude respect for one who was just and patient in victory, and whose laughter did not spare himself. Like master like man; and Jehan was presently so sealed of Ivo's brotherhood that in the tales of the time the two names were rarely separate. The jealous, swift to deprecate good fortune, spared the Outborn, for it was observed that he stood aside while others scrambled for gain. Also, though no man knew his birth, he bore himself with the pride of a king.
When Ivo's raw stone towers faded in the blue distance, the road led from shaggy uplands into a forested plain, with knolls at intervals which gave the traveller a prospect of sullen levels up to the fringe of the fens and the line of the sea. Six men-at-arms jolted at his back on little country-red horses, for Jehan did his tasks with few helpers; and they rode well in the rear, for he loved to be alone. The weather was all October gleams and glooms, now the sunshine of April, now the purple depths of a thunderstorm. There was no rain in the air, but an infinity of mist, which moved in fantastic shapes, rolling close about the cavalcade, so that the very road edge was obscured, now dissolving into clear light, now opening up corridors at the end of which some landmark appeared at an immeasurable distance. In that fantastic afternoon the solid earth seemed to be dissolving, and Jehan's thoughts as he journeyed ranged like the mists.
He told himself that he had discovered his country. He, the Outborn, had come home; the landless had found his settlement. He loved every acre of this strange England—its changing skies, the soft pastures in the valleys, the copses that clung like moss to the hills, the wide moorland that lay quiet as a grave from mountain to mountain. But this day something new had been joined to his affection. The air that met him from the east had that in it which stirred some antique memory. There was brine in it from the unruly eastern sea, and the sourness of marsh water, and the sweetness of marsh herbage. As the forest thinned into scrub again it came stronger and fresher, and he found himself sniffing it like a hungry man at the approach of food. "If my manor of Highstead is like this," he told himself, "I think I will lay my bones there."
At a turn of the road where two grassy tracks forked, he passed a graven stone now chipped and moss-grown, set on noble eminence among reddening thorns. It was an altar to the old gods of the land, there had been another such in the forest of his childhood. The priest had told him it was the shrine of the Lord Apollo and forbade him on the pain of a mighty cursing to do reverence to it. Nevertheless he had been wont to doff his cap when he passed it, for he respected a god that lived in the woods instead of a clammy church. Now the sight of the ancient thing seemed an omen. It linked up the past and the present. He waved a greeting to it. "Hail, old friend," he said. "Bid your master be with me, whoever he be, for I go to find a home."
One of his fellows rode up to his side. "We are within a mile of Highstead," he told him. "Better go warily, for the King's law runs limpingly in the fanlands. I counsel that a picket be sent forward to report if the way be clear. Every churl that we passed on the road will have sent news of our coming."
"So much the better," said Jehan. "Man, I come not as a thief in the night. This is a daylight business. If I am to live my days here I must make a fair conquest."
The man fell back sullenly, and there were anxious faces in the retinue jogging twenty yards behind. But no care sat on Jehan's brow. He plucked sprays of autumn berries and tossed and caught them, he sang gently to himself and spoke his thoughts to his horse. Harm could not come to him when air and scene woke in his heart such strange familiarity.
A last turn of the road showed Highstead before him, two furlongs distant. The thatched roof of the hall rose out of a cluster of shingled huts on a mound defended by moat and palisade. No smoke came from the dwelling, and no man was visible, but not for nothing was Jehan named the Hunter. He was aware that every tuft of reed and scrog of wood concealed a spear or a bowman. So he set his head stiff and laughed, and hummed a bar of a song which the ferry-men used to sing on Seine side. "A man does not fight to win his home," he told his horse, "but only to defend it when he has won it. If God so wills I shall be welcomed with open gates: otherwise there will be burying ere nightfall."
In this fashion he rode steadfastly toward the silent burg. Now he was within a stone's throw of it, and no spear had been launched; now he was before the massive oaken gate. Suddenly it swung open and a man came out. He was a short, square fellow who limped, and, half hidden by his long hair, a great scar showed white on his forehead.
"In whose name?" he asked in the English tongue.
"In the name of our lord the King and the Earl Ivo."
"That is no passport," said the man.
"In my own name, then,—in the name of Jehan the Hunter."
The man took two steps forward and laid a hand on the off stirrup. Jehan leaped to the ground and kissed him on both cheeks.
"We have met before, friend," he said, and he took between his palms the joined hands of his new liege.
"Two years back on the night of Hastings," said the man. "But for that meeting, my lord, you had tasted twenty arrows betwixt Highstead and the forest."
"I go to visit my neighbours," said Jehan next morning.
Arn the Steward stared at his master with a puzzled face. "You will get a dusty welcome," he said. "There is but the Lady Hilda at Galland, and her brother Aelward is still at odds with your Duke."
Nevertheless Jehan rode out in a clear dawn of St. Luke's summer, leaving a wondering man behind him, and he rode alone, having sent back his men-at-arms to Ivo. "He has the bold heart," said Arn to himself. "If there be many French like him there will assuredly be a new England."
At Galland, which is low down in the fen country, he found a sullen girl. She met him at the bridge of the Galland fen and her grey eyes flashed fire. She was a tall maid, very fair to look upon, and the blue tunic which she wore over her russet gown was cunningly embroidered. Embroidered too with gold was the hood which confined her plaited yellow hair.
"You find a defenceless house and a woman to conquer," she railed.
"Long may it need no other warder," said Jehan, dismounting and looking at her across the water.
"The fortune of war has given me a home, mistress. I would dwell in amity with my neighbours."
"Amity!" she cried in scorn. "You will get none from me. My brother Aelward will do the parleying."
"So be it," he said. "Be assured I will never cross this water into Galland till you bid me."
He turned and rode home, and for a month was busied with the work of his farms. When he came again it was on a dark day in November, and every runnel of the fens was swollen. He got the same answer from the girl, and with it a warning "Aelward and his men wait for you in the oakshaw," she told him. "I sent word to them when the thralls brought news of you." And her pretty face was hard and angry.
Jehan laughed. "Now, by your leave, mistress, I will wait here the hour or two till nightfall. I am Englishman enough to know that your folk do not strike in the dark."
He returned to Highstead unscathed, and a week later came a message from Aelward. "Meet me," it ran, "to-morrow by the Danes' barrow at noon, and we will know whether Englishman or Frenchman is to bear rule in this land."
Jehan donned his hauberk and girt himself with his long sword. "There will be hot work to-day in that forest," he told Arn, who was busied with the trussing of his mail.
"God prosper you, master," said the steward. "Frenchman or no, you are such a man as I love. Beware of Aelward and his downward stroke, for he has the strength of ten."
At noon by the Danes' barrow Jehan met a young tow-headed giant, who spoke with the back of his throat and made surly-response to the other's greeting. It was a blue winter's day, with rime still white on the grass, and the forest was very still. The Saxon had the shorter sword and a round buckler; Jehan fought only with his blade.
At the first bout they strove with steel, and were ill-matched at that, for the heavy strength of the fenman was futile against the lithe speed of the hunter. Jehan ringed him in circles of light, and the famous downward stroke was expended on vacant air. He played with him till he breathed heavily like a cow, and then by a sleight of hand sent his sword spinning among the oak mast. The young giant stood sulkily before him, unarmed, deeply shamed, waiting on his death, but with no fear in his eyes.
Jehan tossed his own blade to the ground, and stripped off his hauberk. "We have fought with weapons," he said, "now we will fight in the ancient way."
There followed a very different contest. Aelward lost his shamefastness and his slow blood fired as flesh met flesh and sinew strained against sinew. His great arms crushed the Frenchman till the ribs cracked, but always the other slipped through and evaded the fatal hug. And as the struggle continued Aelward's heart warmed to his enemy. When their swords crossed he had hated him like death; now he seemed to be striving with a kinsman.
Suddenly, when victory looked very near, he found the earth moving from beneath him, and a mountain descended on his skull. When he blinked himself into consciousness again, Jehan was laving his head from a pool in an oak-root.
"I will teach you that throw some day, friend," he was saying. "Had I not known the trick of it, you had mauled me sadly. I had liefer grapple with a bear."
Aelward moistened his lips. "You have beat me fairly, armed and weaponless," he said, and his voice had no anger in it.
"Talk not of beating between neighbours," was the answer. "We have played together and I have had the luck of it. It will be your turn to break my head to-morrow."
"Head matters little," grumbled Aelward. "Mine has stood harder dints. But you have broken my leg, and that means a month of housekeeping."
Jehan made splints of ash for the leg, and set him upon his horse, and in this wise they came to the bridge of Galland fen. On the far side of the water stood the Lady Hilda. He halted and waited on her bidding. She gazed speechless at the horse whereon sat her brother with a clouted scalp.
"What ails you, Frenchman?" said Aelward. "It is but a half-grown girl of my father's begetting."
"I have vowed not to pass that bridge till yonder lady bids me."
"Then for the pity of Christ bid him, sister. He and I are warm with play and yearn for a flagon."
In this manner did Jehan first enter the house of Galland, whence in the next cowslip-time he carried a bride to Highstead.
The months passed smoothly in the house on the knoll above the fat fen pastures. Jehan forsook his woodcraft for the work of byre and furrow and sheepfold, and the yield of his lands grew under his wardenship. He brought heavy French cattle to improve the little native breed, and made a garden of fruit trees where once had been only bent and sedge. The thralls wrought cheerfully for him, for he was a kindly master, and the freemen of the manor had no complaint against one who did impartial justice and respected their slow and ancient ways. As for skill in hunting, there was no fellow to the lord of Highstead between Trent and Thames.
Inside the homestead the Lady Hilda moved happily, a wife smiling and well content. She had won more than a husband; it seemed she had made a convert; for daily Jehan grew into the country-side as if he had been born in it. Something in the soft woodland air and the sharper tang of the fens and the sea awoke response from his innermost soul. An aching affection was born in him for every acre of his little heritage. His son, dark like his father, who made his first diffident pilgrimages in the sunny close where the pigeons cooed, was not more thirled to English soil.
They were quiet years in that remote place, for Aelward over at Galland had made his peace with the King. But when the little Jehan was four years old the tides of war lapped again to the forest edges. One Hugo of Auchy, who had had a usurer to his father and had risen in an iron age by a merciless greed, came a-foraying from the north to see how he might add to his fortunes. Men called him the Crane, for he was tall and lean and parchment-skinned, and to his banner resorted all malcontents and broken men. He sought to conduct a second Conquest, making war on the English who still held their lands, but sparing the French manors. The King's justice was slow-footed, and the King was far away, so the threatened men, banded together to hold their own by their own might.
Aelward brought the news from Galland that the Crane had entered their borders. The good Ivo was overseas, busy on the Brittany marches, and there was no ruler in Fenland.
"You he will spare," Aelward told his sister's husband. "He does not war with you new-comers. But us of the old stock he claims as his prey. How say you, Frenchman? Will you reason with him? Hereaways we are peaceful folk, and would fain get on with our harvest."
"I will reason with him," said Jehan, "and by the only logic that such carrion understands. I am by your side, brother. There is but the one cause for all us countrymen."
But that afternoon as he walked abroad in his cornlands he saw a portent. A heron rose out of the shallows, and a harrier-hawk swooped to the pounce, but the long bird flopped securely into the western sky, and the hawk dropped at his feet, dead but with no mark of a wound.
"Here be marvels," said Jehan, and with that there came on him the foreknowledge of fate, which in the brave heart wakes awe, but no fear. He stood silent for a time and gazed over his homelands. The bere was shaking white and gold in the light evening wind; in the new orchard he had planted the apples were reddening; from the edge of the forest land rose wreaths of smoke where the thralls were busy with wood-clearing. There was little sound in the air, but from the steading came the happy laughter of a child. Jehan stood very still, and his wistful eyes drank the peace of it.
"Non nobis, Domine," he said, for a priest had once had the training of him. "But I leave that which shall not die."
He summoned his wife and told her of the coming of the Crane. From a finger of his left hand he took the thick ring of gold which Ivo had marked years before in the Wealden hut.
"I have a notion that I am going a long journey," he told her. "If I do not return, the Lord Ivo will confirm the little lad in these lands of ours. But to you and for his sake I make my own bequest. Wear this ring for him till he is a man, and then bid him wear it as his father's guerdon. I had it from my father, who had it from his, and my grandfather told me the tale of it. In his grandsire's day it was a mighty armlet, but in the famine years it was melted and part sold, and only this remains. Some one of us far back was a king, and this is the badge of a king's house. There comes a day, little one, when the fruit of our bodies shall possess a throne. See that the lad be royal in thought and deed, as he is royal in blood."
Next morning he kissed his wife and fondled his little son, and with his men rode northward, his eyes wistful but his mouth smiling.
What followed was for generations a tale among humble folk in England, who knew nothing of the deeds of the King's armies. By cottage fires they wove stories about it and made simple songs, the echo of which may still be traced by curious scholars. There is something of it in the great saga of Robin Hood, and long after the fens were drained women hushed their babies with snatches about the Crane and the Falcon, and fairy tales of a certain John of the Shaws, who became one with Jack the Giant-killer and all the nursery heroes.
Jehan and his band met Aelward at the appointed rendezvous, and soon were joined by a dozen knots of lusty yeomen, who fought not only for themselves but for the law of England and the peace of the new king. Of the little force Jehan was appointed leader, and once again became the Hunter, stalking a baser quarry than wolf or boar. For the Crane and his rabble, flushed with easy conquest, kept ill watch, and the tongues of forest running down to the fenland made a good hunting ground for a wary forester.
Jehan's pickets found Hugo of Auchy by the Sheen brook and brought back tidings. Thereupon a subtle plan was made. By day and night the invaders' camp was kept uneasy; there would be sudden attacks, which died down after a few blows; stragglers disappeared, scouts never returned; and when a peasant was brought in and forced to speak, he told with scared face a tale of the great mustering of desperate men in this or that quarter. The Crane was a hardy fighter, but the mystery baffled him, and he became cautious, and—after the fashion of his kind credulous. Bit by bit Jehan shepherded him into the trap he had prepared. He had but one man to the enemy's six, and must drain that enemy's strength before he struck. Meantime the little steadings went up in flames, but with every blaze seen in the autumn dusk the English temper grew more stubborn. They waited confidently on the reckoning.
It came on a bleak morning when the east wind blew rain and fog from the sea. The Crane was in a spit of open woodland, with before him and on either side deep fenland with paths known only to its dwellers. Then Jehan struck. He drove his enemy to the point of the dry ground, and thrust him into the marshes. Not since the time of the Danes had the land known such a slaying. The refuse of France and the traitor English who had joined them went down like sheep before wolves. When the Lord Ivo arrived in the late afternoon, having ridden hot-speed from the south coast when he got the tidings, he found little left of the marauders save the dead on the land and the scum of red on the fen pools.
Jehan lay by a clump of hazels, the blood welling from an axe-wound in the neck. His face was ashen with the oncoming of death, but he smiled as he looked up at his lord.
"The Crane pecked me," he said. "He had a stout bill, if a black heart."
Ivo wept aloud, being pitiful as he was brave. He would have scoured the country for a priest.
"Farewell, old comrade," he sobbed. "Give greeting to Odo in Paradise, and keep a place for me by your side. I will nourish your son, as if he had been that one of my own whom Heaven has denied me. Tarry a little, dear heart, and the Priest of Glede will be here to shrive you."
Through the thicket there crawled a mighty figure, his yellow hair dabbled in blood, and his breath labouring like wind in a threshing-floor. He lay down by Jehan's side, and with a last effort kissed him on the lips.
"Priest!" cried the dying Aelward. "What need is there of priest to help us two English on our way to God?"
CHAPTER 3. THE WIFE OF FLANDERS
From the bed set high on a dais came eerie spasms of laughter, a harsh cackle like fowls at feeding time.
"Is that the last of them, Anton?" said a voice.
A little serving-man with an apple-hued face bowed in reply. He bowed with difficulty, for in his arms he held a huge grey cat, which still mewed with the excitement of the chase. Rats had been turned loose on the floor, and it had accounted for them to the accompaniment of a shrill urging from the bed. Now the sport was over, and the domestics who had crowded round the door to see it had slipped away, leaving only Anton and the cat.
"Give Tib a full meal of offal," came the order, "and away with yourself. Your rats are a weak breed. Get me the stout grey monsters like Tuesday se'ennight."
The room was empty now save for two figures both wearing the habit of the religious. Near the bed sat a man in the full black robe and hood of the monks of Cluny. He warmed plump hands at the brazier and seemed at ease and at home. By the door stood a different figure in the shabby clothes of a parish priest, a curate from the kirk of St. Martin's who had been a scandalised spectator of the rat hunt. He shuffled his feet as if uncertain of his next step—a thin, pale man with a pinched mouth and timid earnest eyes.
The glance from the bed fell on him "What will the fellow be at?" said the voice testily. "He stands there like a sow about to litter, and stares and grunts. Good e'en to you, friend. When you are wanted you will be sent for Jesu's name, what have I done to have that howlet glowering at me?"
The priest at the words crossed himself and turned to go, with a tinge of red in his sallow cheeks. He was faithful to his duties and had come to console a death bed, though he was well aware that his consolations would be spurned.
As he left there came again the eerie laughter from the bed. "Ugh, I am weary of that incomparable holiness. He hovers about to give me the St. John's Cup, and would fain speed my passing. But I do not die yet, good father. There's life still in the old wolf."
The monk in a bland voice spoke some Latin to the effect that mortal times and seasons were ordained of God. The other stretched out a skinny hand from the fur coverings and rang a silver bell. When Anton appeared she gave the order "Bring supper for the reverend father," at which the Cluniac's face mellowed into complacence.
It was a Friday evening in a hard February. Out-of-doors the snow lay deep in the streets of Bruges, and every canal was frozen solid so that carts rumbled along them as on a street. A wind had risen which drifted the powdery snow and blew icy draughts through every chink. The small-paned windows of the great upper-room were filled with oiled vellum, but they did not keep out the weather, and currents of cold air passed through them to the doorway, making the smoke of the four charcoal braziers eddy and swirl. The place was warm, yet shot with bitter gusts, and the smell of burning herbs gave it the heaviness of a chapel at high mass. Hanging silver lamps, which blazed blue and smoky, lit it in patches, sufficient to show the cleanness of the rush-strewn floor, the glory of the hangings of cloth-of-gold and damask, and the burnished sheen of the metal-work. There was no costlier chamber in that rich city.
It was a strange staging for death, for the woman on the high bed was dying. Slowly, fighting every inch of the way with a grim tenacity, but indubitably dying. Her vital ardour had sunk below the mark from which it could rise again, and was now ebbing as water runs from a little crack in a pitcher. The best leeches in all Flanders and Artois had come to doctor her. They had prescribed the horrid potions of the age: tinctures of earth-worms; confections of spiders and wood-lice and viper's flesh; broth of human skulls, oil, wine, ants' eggs, and crabs' claws; the bufo preparatus, which was a live toad roasted in a pot and ground to a powder; and innumerable plaisters and electuaries. She had begun by submitting meekly, for she longed to live, and had ended, for she was a shrewd woman, by throwing the stuff at the apothecaries' heads. Now she ordained her own diet, which was of lamb's flesh lightly boiled, and woman's milk, got from a wench in the purlieus of St. Sauveur. The one medicine which she retained was powdered elk's horn, which had been taken from the beast between two festivals of the Virgin. This she had from the foresters in the Houthulst woods, and swallowed it in white wine an hour after every dawn.
The bed was a noble thing of ebony, brought by the Rhine road from Venice, and carved with fantastic hunting scenes by Hainault craftsmen. Its hangings were stiff brocaded silver, and above the pillows a great unicorn's horn, to protect against poisoning, stood out like the beak of a ship. The horn cast an odd shadow athwart the bed, so that a big claw seemed to lie on the coverlet curving towards the throat of her who lay there. The parish priest had noticed this at his first coming that evening, and had muttered fearful prayers.
The face on the pillows was hard to discern in the gloom, but when Anton laid the table for the Cluniac's meal and set a lamp on it, he lit up the cavernous interior of the bed, so that it became the main thing in the chamber. It was the face of a woman who still retained the lines and the colouring of youth. The voice had harshened with age, and the hair was white as wool, but the cheeks were still rosy and the grey eyes still had fire. Notable beauty had once been there. The finely arched brows, the oval of the face which the years had scarcely sharpened, the proud, delicate nose, all spoke of it. It was as if their possessor recognised those things and would not part with them, for her attire had none of the dishevelment of a sickroom. Her coif of fine silk was neatly adjusted, and the great robe of marten's fur which cloaked her shoulders was fastened with a jewel of rubies which glowed in the lamplight like a star.
Something chattered beside her. It was a little brown monkey which had made a nest in the warm bedclothes.
She watched with sharp eyes the setting of the table. It was a Friday's meal and the guest was a monk, so it followed a fashion, but in that house of wealth, which had links with the ends of the earth, the monotony was cunningly varied. There were oysters from the Boulogne coast, and lampreys from the Loire, and pickled salmon from England. There was a dish of liver dressed with rice and herbs in the manner of the Turk, for liver, though contained in flesh, was not reckoned as flesh by liberal churchmen. There was a roast goose from the shore marshes, that barnacle bird which pious epicures classed as shell-fish and thought fit for fast days. A silver basket held a store of thin toasted rye-cakes, and by the monk's hand stood a flagon of that drink most dear to holy palates, the rich syrupy hippocras.
The woman looked on the table with approval, for her house had always prided itself upon its good fare. The Cluniac's urbane composure was stirred to enthusiasm. He said a Confiteor tibi Domine, rolling the words on his tongue as if in anticipation of the solider mouthfuls awaiting him. The keen weather had whetted his appetite and he thanked God that his northern peregrinations had brought him to a house where the Church was thus honoured. He had liked the cavalier treatment of the lean parish priest, a sour dog who brought his calling into disfavour with the rich and godly. He tucked back his sleeves, adjusted the linen napkin comfortably about his neck, and fell to with a will. He raised his first glass of hippocras and gave thanks to his hostess. A true mother in Israel!
She was looking at him with favour. He was the breed of monk that she liked, suave, well-mannered, observant of men and cities. Already he had told her entertaining matter about the French King's court, and the new Burgrave of Ghent, and the escapades of Count Baldwin. He had lived much among gentlefolk and kept his ears open.... She felt stronger and cheerfuller than she had been for days. That rat-hunt had warmed her blood. She was a long way from death in spite of the cackle of idiot chirurgeons, and there was much savour still in the world. There was her son, too, the young Philip.... Her eye saw clearer, and she noted the sombre magnificence of the great room, the glory of the brocade, the gleam of silver. Was she not the richest woman in all Bruges, aye, and in all Hainault and Guelderland? And the credit was her own. After the fashion of age in such moods her mind flew backward, and she saw very plain a narrow street in a wind-swept town looking out on a bleak sea. She had been cold, then, and hungry, and deathly poor. Well, she had travelled some way from that hovel. She watched the thick carved stems of the candlesticks and felt a spacious ease and power.
The Cluniac was speaking. He had supped so well that he was in love with the world.
"Your house and board, my lady, are queen-like. I have seen worse in palaces."
Her laugh was only half pleased. "Too fine, you would add, for a burgher wife. Maybe, but rank is but as man makes it. The Kings of England are sprung of a tanner. Hark you, father! I made a vow to God when I was a maid, and I have fulfilled my side of the bargain. I am come of a nobler race than any Markgrave, aye, than the Emperor himself, and I swore to set the seed of my body, which the Lord might grant me, again among the great ones. Have I not done it? Is not Philip, my son, affianced to that pale girl of Avesnes, and with more acres of pleasant land to his name than any knightlet in Artois?"
The Cluniac bowed a courtly head. "It is a great alliance—but not above the dignity of your house."
"House you call it, and I have had the making of it. What was Willebald but a plain merchant-man, one of many scores at the Friday Market? Willebald was clay that I moulded and gilded till God put him to bed under a noble lid in the New Kirk. A worthy man, but loutish and slow like one of his own hookers. Yet when I saw him on the plainstones by the English harbour I knew that he was a weapon made for my hand."
Her voice had become even and gentle as of one who remembers far-away things. The Cluniac, having dipped his hands in a silver basin, was drying them in the brazier's heat. Presently he set to picking his teeth daintily with a quill, and fell into the listener's pose. From long experience he knew the atmosphere which heralds confidences, and was willing to humour the provider of such royal fare.
"You have never journeyed to King's Lynn?" said the voice from the bed. "There is little to see there but mudbars and fens and a noisy sea. There I dwelt when I was fifteen years of age, a maid hungry in soul and body. I knew I was of the seed of Forester John and through him the child of a motley of ancient kings, but war and famine had stripped our house to the bone. And now I, the last of the stock, dwelt with a miserly mother's uncle who did shipwright's work for the foreign captains. The mirror told me that I was fair to look on, though ill-nourished, and my soul assured me that I had no fear. Therefore I had hope, but I ate my heart out waiting on fortune."
She was looking at the monk with unseeing eyes, her head half turned towards him.
"Then came Willebald one March morning. I saw him walk up the jetty in a new red cloak, a personable man with a broad beard and a jolly laugh. I knew him by repute as the luckiest of the Flemish venturers. In him I saw my fortune. That night he supped at my uncle's house and a week later he sought me in marriage. My uncle would have bargained, but I had become a grown woman and silenced him. With Willebald I did not chaffer, for I read his heart and knew that in a little he would be wax to me. So we were wed, and I took to him no dowry but a ring which came to me from my forebears, and a brain that gold does not buy."
The monkey by her side broke into a chattering.
"Peace, Peterkin," she said. "You mind me of the babbling of the merchant-folk, when I spurred Willebald into new roads. He had done as his father before him, and bought wool and salted fish from the English, paying with the stuffs of our Flemish looms. A good trade of small and sure profits, but I sought bigger quarries. For, mark you, there was much in England that had a value in this country of ours which no Englishman guessed."
"Of what nature?" the monk asked with curiosity in his voice.
"Roman things. Once in that land of bogs and forests there were bustling Roman towns and rich Roman houses, which disappeared as every tide brought in new robbers from the sea. Yes, but not all. Much of the preciousness was hidden and the place of its hiding forgotten. Bit by bit the churls found the treasure-trove, but they did not tell their lords. They melted down jewels and sold them piecemeal to Jews for Jews' prices, and what they did not recognise as precious they wantonly destroyed. I have seen the marble heads of heathen gods broken with the hammer to make mortar of, and great cups of onyx and alabaster used as water troughs for a thrall's mongrels.. .. Knowing the land, I sent pedlars north and west to collect such stuff, and what I bought for pence I sold for much gold in the Germanies and throughout the French cities. Thus Willebald amassed wealth, till it was no longer worth his while to travel the seas. We lived snug in Flanders, and our servants throughout the broad earth were busy getting us gear."
The Cluniac was all interest. The making of money lay very near the heart of his Order. "I have heard wondrous tales of your enterprise," he told her. "I would fain know the truth."
"Packman's tricks," she laughed. "Nevertheless it is a good story. For I turned my eyes to the East, whence come those things that make the pride of life. The merchants of Venice were princes, and it was in my head to make those of Bruges no worse. What did it profit that the wind turned daily the sails of our three hundred mills if we limited ourselves to common burgher wares and the narrow northern markets? We sent emissaries up the Rhine and beyond the Alps to the Venice princes, and brought hither the spices and confections of Egypt and the fruits and wines of Greece, and the woven stuffs of Asia till the marts of Flanders had the savour of Araby. Presently in our booths could be seen silks of Italy, and choice metals from Innsbruck, and furs from Muscovy, and strange birds and beasts from Prester John's country, and at our fairs such a concourse of outlandish traders as put Venice to shame. 'Twas a long fight and a bitter for Willebald and me, since, mark you, we had to make a new road over icy mountains, with a horde of freebooters hanging on the skirts of our merchant trains and every little burg on the way jealous to hamper us. Yet if the heart be resolute, barriers will fall. Many times we were on the edge of beggary, and grievous were our losses, but in the end we triumphed. There came a day when we had so many bands of the Free Companions in our pay that the progress of our merchandise was like that of a great army, and from rivals we made the roadside burgs our allies, sharing modestly in our ventures. Also there were other ways. A pilgrim travels unsuspect, for who dare rob a holy man? and he is free from burgal dues; but if the goods be small and very precious, pilgrims may carry them."
The monk, as in duty bound, shook a disapproving head.
"Sin, doubtless," said the woman, "but I have made ample atonement. Did I not buy with a bushel of gold a leg of the blessed St. George for the New Kirk, and give to St. Martin's a diamond as big as a thumb nail and so bright that on a dark day it is a candle to the shrine? Did not I give to our Lady at Aix a crown of ostrich feathers the marrow of which is not in Christendom?"
"A mother in Israel, in truth," murmured the cleric.
"Yea, in Israel," said the old wife with a chuckle. "Israel was the kernel of our perplexities. The good Flemings saw no farther than their noses, and laughed at Willebald when he began his ventures. When success came, it was easy to win them over, and by admitting them to a share in our profits get them to fling their caps in the air and huzza for their benefactors. But the Jews were a tougher stock. Mark you, father, when God blinded their eyes to the coming of the Lord Christ, He opened them very wide to all lower matters. Their imagination is quick to kindle, and they are as bold in merchantcraft as Charlemagne in war. They saw what I was after before I had been a month at it, and were quick to profit by my foresight. There are but two ways to deal with Israelites—root them from the face of the earth or make them partners with you. Willebald would have fought them; I, more wise, bought them at a price. For two score years they have wrought faithfully for me. You say well, a mother in Israel!"
"I could wish that a Christian lady had no dealings with the accursed race," said the Cluniac.
"You could wish folly," was the tart answer. "I am not as your burgher folk, and on my own affairs I take no man's guiding, be he monk or merchant. Willebald is long dead; may he sleep in peace, He was no mate for me, but for what he gave me I repaid him in the coin he loved best. He was a proud man when he walked through the Friday Market with every cap doffed. He was ever the burgher, like the child I bore him."
"I had thought the marriage more fruitful. They spoke of two children, a daughter and a son."
The woman turned round in her bed so that she faced him. The monkey whimpered and she cuffed its ears. Her face was sharp and exultant, and for a sick person her eyes were oddly bright.
"The girl was Willebald's. A poor slip of vulgar stock with the spirit of a house cat. I would have married her well, for she was handsome after a fashion, but she thwarted me and chose to wed a lout of a huckster in the Bredestreet. She shall have her portion from Willebald's gold, but none from me. But Philip is true child of mine, and sprung on both sides of high race. Nay, I name no names, and before men he is of my husband's getting. But to you at the end of my days I speak the truth. That son of wrath has rare blood in him. Philip..."
The old face had grown kind. She was looking through the monk to some happy country of vision. Her thoughts were retracing the roads of time, and after the way of age she spoke them aloud imperiously she had forgotten her company.
"So long ago," came the tender voice. "It is years since they told me he was dead among the heathen, fighting by the Lord Baldwin's side. But I can see him as if it were yesterday, when he rode into these streets in spring with April blooms at his saddle-bow. They called him Phadbus in jest, for his face was like the sun.... Willebald, good dull man, was never jealous, and was glad that his wife should be seen in brave company. Ah, the afternoons at the baths when we sported like sea-nymphs and sang merry ballads! And the proud days of Carnival where men and women consorted freely and without guile like the blessed in Paradise! Such a tide for lovers!... Did I not lead the dance with him at the Burgrave's festival, the twain of us braver than morning? Sat I not with him in the garden of St. Vaast, his head in my lap, while he sang me virelays of the south? What was Willebald to me or his lean grey wife to him? He made me his queen, me the burgher wife, at the jousting at Courtrai, when the horses squealed like pigs in the mellay and I wept in fear for him. Ah, the lost sweet days! Philip, my darling, you make a brave gentleman, but you will not equal him who loved your mother."
The Cluniac was a man of the world whom no confidences could scandalise. But he had business of his own to speak of that night, and he thought it wise to break into this mood of reminiscence.
"The young lord, Philip, your son, madam? You have great plans for him? What does he at the moment?"
The softness went out of the voice and the woman's gaze came back to the chamber. "That I know not. Travelling the ways of the world and plucking roadside fruits, for he is no home-bred and womanish stripling. Wearing his lusty youth on the maids, I fear. Nay, I forget. He is about to wed the girl of Avesnes and is already choosing his bridal train. It seems he loves her. He writes me she has a skin of snow and eyes of vair. I have not seen her. A green girl, doubtless with a white face and cat's eyes. But she is of Avesnes, and that blood comes pure from Clovis, and there is none prouder in Hainault. He will husband her well, but she will be a clever woman if she tethers to her side a man of my bearing. He will be for the high road and the battle-front."
"A puissant and peaceable knight, I have heard tell," said the Cluniac.
"Puissant beyond doubt, and peaceable when his will is served. He will play boldly for great things and will win them. Ah, monk! What knows a childless religious of a mother's certainty? 'Twas not for nothing that I found Willebald and changed the cobbles of King's Lynn for this fat country. It is gold that brings power, and the stiffest royal neck must bend to him who has the deep coffers. It is gold and his high hand that will set my Philip by the side of kings. Lord Jesus, what a fortune I have made for him! There is coined money at the goldsmiths' and in my cellars, and the ships at the ports, and a hundred busy looms, and lands in Hainault and Artois, and fair houses in Bruges and Ghent. Boats on the Rhine and many pack trains between Antwerp and Venice are his, and a wealth of preciousness lies in his name with the Italian merchants. Likewise there is this dwelling of mine, with plenishing which few kings could buy. My sands sink in the glass, but as I lie a-bed I hear the bustle of wains and horses in the streets, and the talk of shipfolk, and the clatter of my serving men beneath, and I know that daily, hourly, more riches flow hither to furnish my son's kingdom."
The monk's eyes sparkled at this vision of wealth, and he remembered his errand.
"A most noble heritage. But if the Sire God in His inscrutable providence should call your son to His holy side, what provision have you made for so mighty a fortune? Does your daughter then share?"
The face on the pillows became suddenly wicked and very old. The eyes were lit with hate.
"Not a bezant of which I have the bequeathing. She has something from Willebald, and her dull husband makes a livelihood. 'Twill suffice for the female brats, of whom she has brought three into the world to cumber it.... By the Gospels, she will lie on the bed she has made. I did not scheme and toil to make gold for such leaden souls."
"But if your most worthy son should die ere he has begot children, have you made no disposition?" The monk's voice was pointed with anxiety, for was not certainty on this point the object of his journey? The woman perceived it and laughed maliciously.
"I have made dispositions. Such a chapel will be builded in the New Kirk as Rome cannot equal. Likewise there will be benefactions for the poor and a great endowment for the monks at St. Sauveur. If my seed is not to continue on earth I will make favour in Paradise."
"And we of Cluny, madam?" The voice trembled in spite of its training.
"Nay I have not forgotten Cluny. Its Abbot shall have the gold flagons from Jerusalem and some wherewithal in money. But what is this talk? Philip will not die, and like his mother he loves Holy Church and will befriend her in all her works.... Listen, father, it is long past the hour when men cease from labour, and yet my provident folk are busy. Hark to the bustle below. That will be the convoy from the Vermandois. Jesu, what a night!"
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Flurries of snow beat on windows, and draughts stirred the hot ashes in the braziers and sent the smoke from them in odd spirals about the chamber. It had become perishing cold, and the monkey among the bedclothes whimpered and snuggled closer into his nest. There seemed to be a great stir about the house-door. Loud voices were heard in gusts, and a sound like a woman's cry. The head on the pillow was raised to listen.
"A murrain on those folk. There has been bungling among the pack-riders. That new man Derek is an oaf of oafs."
She rang her silver bell sharply and waited on the ready footsteps. But none came. There was silence now below, an ominous silence.
"God's curse upon this household," the woman cried. The monkey whimpered again, and she took it by the scruff and tossed it to the floor. "Peace, ape, or I will have you strangled. Bestir yourself, father, and call Anton. There is a blight of deafness in this place."