THE VIRGIN OF THE SUN
By H. Rider Haggard
First Published in 1922.
My Dear Little,
Some five-and-thirty years ago it was our custom to discuss many matters, among them, I think, the history and romance of the vanished Empires of Central America.
In memory of those far-off days will you accept a tale that deals with one of them, that of the marvellous Incas of Peru; with the legend also that, long before the Spanish Conquerors entered on their mission of robbery and ruin, there in that undiscovered land lived and died a White God risen from the sea?
Ever sincerely yours, H. Rider Haggard. Ditchingham, Oct. 24, 1921.
James Stanley Little, Esq.
THE VIRGIN OF THE SUN
There are some who find great interest, and even consolation, amid the worries and anxieties of life in the collection of relics of the past, drift or long-sunk treasures that the sea of time has washed up upon our modern shore.
The great collectors are not of this class. Having large sums at their disposal, these acquire any rarity that comes upon the market and add it to their store which in due course, perhaps immediately upon their deaths, also will be put upon the market and pass to the possession of other connoisseurs. Nor are the dealers who buy to sell again and thus grow wealthy. Nor are the agents of museums in many lands, who purchase for the national benefit things that are gathered together in certain great public buildings which perhaps, some day, though the thought makes one shiver, will be looted or given to the flames by enemies or by furious, thieving mobs.
Those that this Editor has in mind, from one of whom indeed he obtained the history printed in these pages, belong to a quite different category, men of small means often, who collect old things, for the most part at out-of-the-way sales or privately, because they love them, and sometimes sell them again because they must. Frequently these old things appeal, not because of any intrinsic value that they may have, not even for their beauty, for they may be quite unattractive even to the cultivated eye, but rather for their associations. Such folk love to reflect upon and to speculate about the long-dead individuals who have owned the relics, who have supped their soup from the worn Elizabethan spoon, who have sat at the rickety oak table found in a kitchen or an out-house, or upon the broken, ancient chair. They love to think of the little children whose skilful, tired hands wrought the faded sampler and whose bright eyes smarted over its innumerable stitches.
Who, for instance, was the May Shore ("Fairy" broidered in a bracket underneath, was her pet name), who finished yonder elaborate example on her tenth birthday, the 1st of May—doubtless that is where she got her name—in the year 1702, and on what far shore does she keep her birthdays now? None will ever know. She has vanished into the great sea of mystery whence she came, and there she lives and has her being, forgotten upon earth, or sleeps and sleeps and sleeps. Did she die young or old, married or single? Did she ever set her children to work other samplers, or had she none? was she happy or unhappy, was she homely or beautiful? Was she a sinner or a saint? Again none will ever know. She was born on the 1st of May, 1692, and certainly she died on some date unrecorded. So far as human knowledge goes that is all her history, just as much or as little as will be left of most of us who breathe to-day when this earth has completed two hundred and eighteen more revolutions round the sun.
But the kind of collector alluded to can best be exemplified in the individual instance of him from whom the manuscript was obtained, of which a somewhat modernized version is printed on these pages. He has been dead some years, leaving no kin; and under his will, such of his motley treasures as it cared to accept went to a local museum, while the rest and his other property were sold for the benefit of a mystical brotherhood, for the old fellow was a kind of spiritualist. Therefore, there is no harm in giving his plebeian name, which was Potts. Mr. Potts had a small draper's shop in an undistinguished and rarely visited country town in the east of England, which shop he ran with the help of an assistant almost as old and peculiar as himself. Whether he made anything out of it or whether he lived upon private means is now unknown and does not matter. Anyway, when there was something of antiquarian interest or value to be bought, generally he had the money to pay for it, though at times, in order to do so, he was forced to sell something else. Indeed these were the only occasions when it was possible to purchase anything, indifferent hosiery excepted, from Mr. Potts.
Now, I, the Editor, who also love old things, and to whom therefore Mr. Potts was a sympathetic soul, was aware of this fact and entered into an arrangement with the peculiar assistant to whom I have alluded, to advise me of such crises which arose whenever the local bank called Mr. Potts's attention to the state of his account. Thus it came about that one day I received the following letter:—
The Guv'nor has gone a bust upon some cracked china, the ugliest that ever I saw though no judge. So if you want to get that old tall clock at the first price or any other of his rubbish, I think now is your chance. Anyhow, keep this dark as per agreement.
Your obedient, Tom.
(He always signed himself Tom, I suppose to mystify, although I believe his real name was Betterly.)
The result of this epistle was a long and disagreeable bicycle ride in wet autumn weather, and a visit to the shop of Mr. Potts. Tom, alias Betterly, who was trying to sell some mysterious undergarments to a fat old woman, caught sight of me, the Editor aforesaid, and winked. In a shadowed corner of the shop sat Mr. Potts himself upon a high stool, a wizened little old man with a bent back, a bald head, and a hooked nose upon which were set a pair of enormous horn-rimmed spectacles that accentuated his general resemblance to an owl perched upon the edge of its nest-hole. He was busily engaged in doing nothing, and in staring into nothingness as, according to Tom, was his habit when communing with what he, Tom, called his "dratted speerits."
"Customer!" said Tom in a harsh voice. "Sorry to disturb you at your prayers, Guv'nor, but not having two pair of hands I can't serve a crowd," meaning the old woman of the undergarments and myself.
Mr. Potts slid off his stool and prepared for action. When he saw, however, who the customer was he bristled—that is the only word for it. The truth is that although between us there was an inward and spiritual sympathy, there was also an outward and visible hostility. Twice I had outbid Mr. Potts at a local auction for articles which he desired. Moreover, after the fashion of every good collector he felt it to be his duty to hate me as another collector. Lastly, several times I had offered him smaller sums for antiques upon which he set a certain monetary value. It is true that long ago I had given up this bargaining for the reason that Mr. Potts would never take less than he asked. Indeed he followed the example of the vendor of the Sibylline books in ancient Rome. He did not destroy the goods indeed after the fashion of that person and demand the price of all of them for the one that remained, but invariably he put up his figure by 10 per cent. and nothing would induce him to take off one farthing.
"What do you want, sir?" he said grumpily. "Vests, hose, collars, or socks?"
"Oh, socks, I think," I replied at hazard, thinking that they would be easiest to carry, whereupon Mr. Potts produced some peculiarly objectionable and shapeless woollen articles which he almost threw at me, saying that they were all he had in stock. Now I detest woollen socks and never wear them. Still, I made a purchase, thinking with sympathy of my old gardener whose feet they would soon be scratching, and while the parcel was being tied up, said in an insinuating voice, "Anything fresh upstairs, Mr. Potts?"
"No, sir," he answered shortly, "at least, not much, and if there were what's the use of showing them to you after the business about that clock?"
"It was L15 you wanted for it, Mr. Potts?" I asked.
"No, sir, it was L17 and now it's 10 per cent. on to that; you can work out the sum for yourself."
"Well, let's have another look at it, Mr. Potts," I replied humbly, whereon with a grunt and a muttered injunction to Tom to mind the shop, he led the way upstairs.
Now the house in which Mr. Potts dwelt had once been of considerable pretensions and was very, very old, Elizabethan, I should think, although it had been refronted with a horrible stucco to suit modern tastes. The oak staircase was good though narrow, and led to numerous small rooms upon two floors above, some of which rooms were panelled and had oak beams, now whitewashed like the panelling—at least they had once been whitewashed, probably in the last generation.
These rooms were literally crammed with every sort of old furniture, most of it decrepit, though for many of the articles dealers would have given a good price. But at dealers Mr. Potts drew the line; not one of them had ever set a foot upon that oaken stair. To the attics the place was filled with this furniture and other articles such as books, china, samplers with the glass broken, and I know not what besides, piled in heaps upon the floor. Indeed where Mr. Potts slept was a mystery; either it must have been under the counter in his shop, or perhaps at nights he inhabited a worm-eaten Jacobean bedstead which stood in an attic, for I observed a kind of pathway to it running through a number of legless chairs, also some dirty blankets between the moth-riddled curtains.
Not far from this bedstead, propped in an intoxicated way against the sloping wall of the old house, stood the clock which I desired. It was one of the first "regulator" clocks with a wooden pendulum, used by the maker himself to check the time-keeping of all his other clocks, and enclosed in a chaste and perfect mahogany case of the very best style of its period. So beautiful was it, indeed, that it had been an instance of "love at first sight" between us, and although there was an estrangement on the matter of settlements, or in other words over the question of price, now I felt that never more could that clock and I be parted.
So I agreed to give old Potts the L20 or, to be accurate, L18 14s. which he asked on the 10 per cent. rise principle, thankful in my heart that he had not made it more, and prepared to go. As I turned, however, my eye fell upon a large chest of the almost indestructible yellow cypress wood of which were made, it is said, the doors of St. Peter's at Rome that stood for eight hundred years and, for aught I know, are still standing, as good as on the day when they were put up.
"Marriage coffer," said Potts, answering my unspoken question.
"Italian, about 1600?" I suggested.
"May be so, or perhaps Dutch made by Italian artists; but older than that, for somebody has burnt 1597 on the lid with a hot iron. Not for sale, not for sale at all, much too good to sell. Just you look inside it, the old key is tied to the spring lock. Never saw such poker-work in my life. Gods and goddesses and I don't know what; and Venus sitting in the middle in a wreath of flowers with nothing on, and holding two hearts in her hands, which shows that it was a marriage chest. Once it was full of some bride's outfit, sheets and linen and clothes, and God knows what. I wonder where she has got to to-day. Some place where the moth don't eat clothes, I hope. Bought it at the break-up of an ancient family who fled to Norfolk on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes—Huguenot, of course. Years ago, years ago! Haven't looked into it for many years, indeed, but think there's nothing there but rubbish now."
Thus he mumbled on while he found and untied the old key. The spring lock had grown stiff from disuse and want of oil, but at length it turned and reopened the chest revealing the poker-work glories on the inner side of the lid and elsewhere. Glories they were indeed, never had I seen such artistry of the sort.
"Can't see it properly," muttered Potts, "windows want washing, haven't been done since my wife died, and that's twenty years ago. Miss her very much, of course, but thank God there's no spring-cleaning now. The things I've seen broken in spring-cleaning! yes, and lost, too. It was after one of them that I told my wife that now I understood why the Mahomedans declare that women have no souls. When she came to understand what I meant, which it took her a long time to do, we had a row, a regular row, and she threw a Dresden figure at my head. Luckily I caught it, having been a cricketer when young. Well, she's gone now, and no doubt heaven's a tidier place than it used to be—that is, if they will stand her rummagings there, which I doubt. Look at that Venus, ain't she a beauty? Might have been done by Titian when his paints ran out, and he had to take to a hot iron to express his art. What, you can't see her well? Wait a bit and I'll get a lantern. Can't have a naked candle here—things too valuable; no money could buy them again. My wife and I had another row about naked candles, or it may have been a paraffin lamp. You sit in that old prayer-stool and look at the work."
Off he went crawling down the dusky stairs and leaving me wondering what Mrs. Potts, of whom now I heard for the first time, could have been like. An aggravating woman, I felt sure, for upon whatever points men differ, as to "spring-cleaning" they are all of one mind. No doubt he was better without her, for what did that dried-up old artist want with a wife?
Dismissing Mrs. Potts from my mind, which, to tell the truth, seemed to have no room for her shadowy and hypothetical entity, I fell to examining the chest. Oh! it was lovely. In two minutes the clock was deposed and that chest became the sultana in my seraglio of beauteous things. The clock had only been the light love of an hour. Here was the eternal queen, that is, unless there existed a still better chest somewhere else, and I should happen to find it. Meanwhile, whatever price that old slave-dealer Potts wanted for it, must be paid to him even if I had to overdraw my somewhat slender account. Seraglios, of whatever sort, it must be remembered, are expensive luxuries of the rich indeed, though, if of antiques, they can be sold again, which cannot be said of the human kind for who wants to buy a lot of antique frumps?
There were plenty of things in the chest, such as some odds and ends of tapestry and old clothes of a Queen Anne character, put here, no doubt, for preservation, as moth does not like this cypress wood. Also there were some books and a mysterious bundle tied up in a curious shawl with stripes of colour running through it. That bundle excited me, and I drew the fringes of the shawl apart and looked in. So far as I could see it contained another dress of rich colours, also a thick packet of what looked like parchment, badly prepared and much rotted upon one side as though by damp, which parchment appeared to be covered with faint black-letter writing, done by some careless scribe with poor ink that had faded very much. There were other things, too, within the shawl, such as a box made of some red foreign wood, but I had not time to investigate further for just then I heard old Potts's foot upon the stair, and thought it best to replace the bundle. He arrived with the lantern and by its light we examined the chest and the poker work.
"Very nice," I said, "very nice, though a good deal knocked about."
"Yes, sir," he replied with sarcasm, "I suppose you'd like to see it neat and new after four hundred years of wear, and if so, I think I can tell you where you can get one to your liking. I made the designs for it myself five years ago for a fellow who wanted to learn how to manufacture antiques. He's in quod now and his antiques are for sale cheap. I helped to put him there to get him out of the way as a danger to Society."
"What's the price?" I asked with airy detachment.
"Haven't I told you it ain't for sale. Wait till I'm dead and come and buy it at my auction. No, you won't, though, for it's going somewhere else."
I made no answer but continued my examination while Potts took his seat on the prayer-stool and seemed to go off into one of his fits of abstraction.
"Well," I said at length when decency told me that I could remain no longer, "if you won't sell it's no use my looking. No doubt you want to keep it for a richer man, and of course you are quite right. Will you arrange with the carrier about sending the clock, Mr. Potts, and I will let you have a cheque. Now I must be off, as I've ten miles to ride and it will be dark in an hour."
"Stop where you are," said Potts in a hollow voice. "What's a ride in the dark compared with a matter like this, even if you haven't a lamp and get hauled before your own bench? Stop where you are, I'm listening to something."
So I stopped and began to fill my pipe.
"Put that pipe away," said Potts, coming out of his reverie, "pipes mean matches; no matches here."
I obeyed, and he went on thinking till at last what between the chest and the worm-eaten Jacobean bed and old Potts on the prayer-stool, I began to feel as if I were being mesmerized. At length he rose and said in the same hollow voice:
"Young man, you may have that chest, and the price is L50. Now for heaven's sake don't offer me L40, or it will be L100 before you leave this room."
"With the contents?" I said casually.
"Yes, with the contents. It's the contents I'm told you are to have."
"Look here, Potts," I said, exasperated, "what the devil do you mean? There's no one in this room except you and me, so who can have told you anything unless it was old Tom downstairs."
"Tom," he said with unutterable sarcasm, "Tom! Perhaps you mean the mawkin that was put up to scare birds from the peas in the garden, for it has more in its head than Tom. No one here? Oh! what fools some men are. Why, the place is thick with them."
"Thick with whom?"
"Who? why, ghosts, of course, as you would call them in your ignorance. Spirits of the dead I name them. Beautiful enough, too, some of them. Look at that one there," and he lifted the lantern and pointed to a pile of old bed posts of Chippendale design.
"Good day, Potts," I said hastily.
"Stop where you are," repeated Potts. "You don't believe me yet, but when you are as old as I am you will remember my words and believe—more than I do and see—clearer than I do, because it's in your soul, yes, the seed is in your soul, though as yet it is choked by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Wait till your sins have brought you trouble; wait till the fires of trouble have burned the flesh away; wait till you have sought Light and found Light and live in Light, then you will believe; then you will see."
All this he said very solemnly, and standing there in that dusky room surrounded by the wreck of things that once had been dear to dead men and women, waving the lantern in his hand and staring—at what was he staring?—really old Potts looked most impressive. His twisted shape and ugly countenance became spiritual; he was one who had "found Light and lived in Light."
"You won't believe me," he went on, "but I pass on to you what a woman has been telling me. She's a queer sort of woman; I never saw her like before, a foreigner and dark-hued with strange rich garments and something on her head. There, that, that," and he pointed through the dirty window-place to the crescent of a young moon which appeared in the sky. "A fine figure of a woman," he went on, "and oh! heaven, what eyes—I never saw such eyes before. Big and tender, something like those of the deer in the park yonder. Proud, too, she is, one who has ruled, and a lady, though foreign. Well, I never fell in love before, but I feel like it now, and so would you, young man, if you could see her, and so I think did someone else in his day."
"What did she say to you?" I asked, for by now I was interested enough. Who wouldn't be when old Potts took to describing beautiful women?
"It's a little difficult to tell you for she spoke in a strange tongue, and I had to translate it in my head, as it were. But this is the gist of it. That you were to have that chest and what was in it. There's a writing there, she says, or part of a writing for some has gone—rotted away. You are to read that writing or to get it read and to print it so that the world may read it also. She said that 'Hubert' wishes you to do so. I am sure the name was Hubert, though she also spoke of him with some other title which I do not understand. That's all I can remember, except something about a city, yes, a City of Gold and a last great battle in which Hubert fell, covered with glory and conquering. I understood that she wanted to talk about that because it isn't in the writing, but you interrupted and of course she's gone. Yes, the price is L50 and not a farthing less, but you can pay it when you like for I know you're as honest as most, and whether you pay it or not, you must have that chest and what's in it and no one else."
"All right," I said, "but don't trust it to the carrier. I'll send a cart for it to-morrow morning. Lock it now and give me the key."
In due course the chest arrived, and I examined the bundle for the other contents do not matter, although some of them were interesting. Pinned inside the shawl I found a paper, undated and unsigned, but which from the character and style of the writing was, I should say, penned by a lady about sixty years ago. It ran thus:—
"My late father, who was such a great traveller in his young days and so fond of exploring strange places, brought these things home from one of his journeys before his marriage, I think from South America. He told me once that the dress was found upon the body of a woman in a tomb and that she must have been a great lady, for she was surrounded by a number of other women, perhaps her servants who were brought to be buried with her here when they died. They were all seated about a stone table at the end of which were the remains of a man. My father saw the bodies near the ruins of some forest city, in the tomb over which was heaped a great mound of earth. That of the lady, which had a kind of shroud made of the skins of long-wooled sheep wrapped about it as though to preserve the dress beneath, had been embalmed in some way, which the natives of the place, wherever it was, told him showed that she was royal. The others were mere skeletons, held together by the skin, but the man had a long fair beard and hair still hanging to his skull, and by his side was a great cross-hilted sword that crumbled to fragments when it was touched, except the hilt and the knob of amber upon it which had turned almost black with age. I think my father said that the packet of skins or parchment of which the underside is badly rotted with damp was set under the feet of the man. He told me that he gave those who found the tomb a great deal of money for the dress, gold ornaments, and emerald necklace, as nothing so perfect had been found before, and the cloth is all worked with gold thread. My father told me, too, that he did not wish the things to be sold."
This was the end of the writing.
Having read it I examined the dress. It was of a sort that I had never seen before, though experts to whom I have shown it say that it is certainly South American of a very early date, and like the ornaments, probably pre-Inca Peruvian. It is full of rich colours such as I have seen in old Indian shawls which give a general effect of crimson. This crimson robe clearly was worn over a skirt of linen that had a purple border. In the box that I have spoken of were the ornaments, all of plain dull gold: a waist-band; a circlet of gold for the head from which rose the crescent of the young moon and a necklace of emeralds, uncut stones now much flawed, for what reason I do not know, but polished and set rather roughly in red gold. Also there were two rings. Round one of these a bit of paper was wrapped upon which was written, in another hand, probably that of the father of the writer of the memorandum:—
"Taken from the first finger of the right hand of a lady's mummy which I am sorry, in our circumstances, it was quite impossible to carry away."
This ring is a broad band of gold with a flat bezel upon which something was once engraved that owing to long and hard wear now cannot be distinguished. In short, it appears to be a signet of old European make but of what age and from what country it is impossible to determine. The other ring was in a small leathery pouch, elaborately embroidered in gold thread or very thin wire, which I suppose was part of the lady's costume. It is like a very massive wedding ring, but six or eight times as thick, and engraved all over with an embossed conventional design of what look like stars with rays round them, or possibly petalled flowers. Lastly there was the sword-hilt, of which presently.
Such were the trinkets, if so they may be called. They are of little value intrinsically except for their weight in gold, because, as I have said, the emeralds are flawed as though they have been through a fire or some other unknown cause. Moreover, there is about them nothing of the grace and charm of ancient Egyptian jewellery; evidently they belonged to a ruder age and civilization. Yet they had, and still have, to my imagining, a certain dignity of their own.
Also—here I became infected with the spirit of the peculiar Potts—without doubt these things were rich in human associations. Who had worn that dress of crimson with the crosses worked on it in gold wire (they cannot have been Christian crosses), and the purple-bordered skirt underneath, and the emerald necklace and the golden circlet from which rose the crescent of the young moon? Apparently a mummy in a tomb, the mummy of some long-dead lady of a strange and alien race. Was she such a one as that old lunatic Potts had dreamed he saw standing before him in the filthy, cumbered upper-chamber of a ruinous house in an England market town, I wondered, one with great eyes like to those of a doe and a regal bearing?
No, that was nonsense. Potts had lived with shadows until he believed in shadows that came out of his own imagination and into it returned again. Still, she was a woman of some sort, and apparently she had a lover or a husband, a man with a great fair beard. How at this date, which must have been remote, did a golden-bearded man come to foregather with a woman who wore such robes and ornaments as these? And that sword hilt, worn smooth by handling and with an amber knob? Whence came it? To my mind—this was before expert examination confirmed my view—it looked very Norse. I had read the Sagas and I remembered a tale recovered in them of some bold Norsemen who about the years eight or nine hundred had wandered to the coast of what is known now to be America—I think a certain Eric was their captain. Could the fair-haired man in the grave have been one of these?
Thus I speculated before I looked at the pile of parchments so evidently prepared from sheep skins by one who had only a very rudimentary knowledge of how to work such stuff, not knowing that in those parchments was hid the answer to many of my questions. To these I turned last of all, for we all shrink from parchments; their contents are generally so dull. There was a great bundle of them that had been lashed together with a kind of straw rope, fine straw that reminded me of that used to make Panama hats. But this had rotted underneath together with all the bottom part of the parchments, many sheets of them, of which only fragments remained, covered with dry mould and crumbling. Therefore the rope was easy to remove and beneath it, holding the sheets in place, was only some stout and comparatively modern string—it had a red thread in it that marked it as navy cord of an old pattern.
I slipped these fastenings off and lifted a blank piece of skin set upon the top. Beneath appeared the first sheet of parchment, closely, very closely covered with small "black-letter" writing, so faint and faded that even if I were able to read black-letter, which I cannot, of it I could have made nothing at all. The thing was hopeless. Doubtless in that writing lay the key to the mystery, but it could never be deciphered by me or any one else. The lady with the eyes like a deer had appeared to old Potts in vain; in vain had she bidden him to hand over this manuscript to me.
So I thought at the time, not knowing the resources of science. Afterwards, however, I took that huge bundle to a friend, a learned friend whose business in life it was and is, to deal with and to decipher old manuscripts.
"Looks pretty hopeless," he said, after staring at these. "Still, let's have a try; one never knows till one tries."
Then he went to a cupboard in his muniment room and produced a bottle full of some straw-coloured fluid into which he dipped an ordinary painting brush. This charged brush he rubbed backwards and forwards over the first lines of the writing and waited. Within a minute, before my astonished eyes, that faint, indistinguishable script turned coal-black, as black as though it had been written with the best modern ink yesterday.
"It's all right," he said triumphantly, "it's vegetable ink, and this stuff has the power to bring it up as it was on the day when it was used. It will stay like that for a fortnight and then fade away again. Your manuscript is pretty ancient, my friend, time of Richard II, I should say, but I can read it easily enough. Look, it begins, 'I, Hubert de Hastings, write this in the land of Tavantinsuyu, far from England where I was born, whither I shall never more return, being a wanderer as the rune upon the sword of my ancestor, Thorgrimmer, foretold that I should be, which sword my mother gave me on the day of the burning of Hastings by the French,' and so on." Here he stopped.
"Then for heaven's sake, do read it," I said.
"My dear friend," he answered, "it looks to me as though it would mean several months' work, and forgive me for saying that I am paid a salary for my time. Now I'll tell you what you have to do. All this stuff must be treated, sheet by sheet, and when it turns black it must be photographed before the writing fades once more. Then a skilled person—so-and-so, or so-and-so, are two names that occur to me—must be employed to decipher it again, sheet by sheet. It will cost you money, but I should say that it was worth while. Where the devil is, or was, the land of Tavantinsuyu?"
"I know," I answered, glad to be able to show myself superior to my learned friend in one humble instance. "Tavantinsuyu was the native name for the Empire of Peru before the Spanish Invasion. But how did this Hubert get there in the time of Richard II? That is some centuries earlier than Pizarro set foot upon its shores."
"Go and find out," he answered. "It will amuse you for quite a long while and perhaps the results may meet the expenses of decipherment, if they are worth publishing. I expect they are not, but then, I have read so many old manuscripts and found most of them so jolly dull."
Well, that business was accomplished at a cost that I do not like to record, and here are the results, more or less modernised, since often Hubert of Hastings expressed himself in a queer and archaic fashion. Also sometimes he used Indian words as though he had talked the tongue of these Peruvians, or rather the Chanca variety of it, so long that he had begun to forget his own language. Myself I have found his story very romantic and interesting, and I hope that some others will be of the same opinion. Let them judge.
But oh, I do wonder what was the end of it, some of which doubtless was recorded on the rotted sheets though of course there can have been no account of the great battle in which he fell, since Quilla could not write at all, least of all in English, though I suppose she survived it and him.
The only hint of that end is to be found in old Potts's dream or vision, and what is the worth of dreams and visions?
THE SWORD AND THE RING
I, Hubert of Hastings, write this in the land of Tavantinsuyu, far from England, where I was born, whither I shall never more return, being a wanderer as the rune upon the sword of my ancestor, Thorgrimmer, foretold that I should be, which sword my mother gave me on the day of the burning of Hastings by the French. I write it with a pen that I have shaped from a wing feather of the great eagle of the mountains, with ink that I have made from the juices of certain herbs which I discovered, and on parchment that I have split from the skins of native sheep, with my own hands, but badly I fear, though I have seen that art practised when I was a merchant of the Cheap in London Town.
I will begin at the beginning.
I am the son of a fishing-boat owner and was a trader in the ancient town of Hastings, and my father was drowned while following his trade at sea. Afterwards, being the only child left of his, I took on his business, and on a certain day went out to sea to net fish with two of my serving men. I was then a young man of about three and twenty years of age and not uncomely. My hair, which I wore long, was fair in colour and curled. My eyes, set wide apart, were and still are large and blue, although they have darkened somewhat and sunk into the head in this land of heat and sunshine. My nose was wide-nostrilled and large, my mouth also was over-large, although my mother and some others used to think it well-shaped. In truth, I was large all over though not so tall, being burly, with a great breadth of chest and uncommon thickness through the body, and very strong; so strong that there were few who could throw me when I was young.
For the rest, like King David, I, who am now so tanned and weather worn that at a little distance were my hair and beard hidden I might almost be taken for one of the Indian chiefs about me, was of a ruddy and a pleasant countenance, perhaps because of my wonderful health, who had never known a day of sickness, and of an easy nature that often goes with health. I will add this, for why should I not—that I was no fool, but one of those who succeed in that upon which they set their minds. Had I been a fool I should not to-day be the king of a great people and the husband of their queen; indeed, I should not be alive.
But enough of myself and my appearance in those years that seem as far off as though they had never been save in the land of dreams.
Now I and my two serving men, sailors both of them like myself and most of the folk of Hastings set out upon a summer eve, purposing to fish all night and return at dawn. We came to our chosen ground and cast out the net, meeting with wonderful fortune since by three in the morning the big boat was full of every kind of fish. Never before, indeed, had we made so large a haul.
Looking back at that great catch, as here in this far land it is my habit to do upon everything, however small, that happened to me in my youth before I became a wanderer and an exile, I seem to see in it an omen. For has it not always been my lot in life to be kissed of fortune and to gather great store, and then of a sudden to lose it all as I was to lose that rich multitude of fishes?
To-day, when I write this, once more I have great wealth of pomp and love and power, of gold also, more than I can count. When I go forth, my armies, who still look on me as half a god, shout their welcome and kiss the air after their heathen fashion. My beauteous queen bows down to me and the women of my household abase themselves into the dust. The people of the Ancient City of Gold turn their faces to the wall and the children cover their eyes with their hands that they may not look upon my splendour as I pass, while maidens throw flowers for my feet to tread. Upon my judgment hangs life or death, and my lightest word is as though it were spoken from heaven. These and many other things are mine, the trappings of power, the prerogative of the Lord-from-the-Sea who brought victory to the Chanca people and led them back to their ancient home where they might live safe, far from the Inca's rage.
And yet often, as I sit alone in my splendour upon the roof of the ancient halls or wander through the starlit palace gardens, I call to mind that great catch of fishes in the English sea and of what followed after. I call to mind also my prosperity and wealth as one of the first merchants of London Town and what followed after. I call to mind, too, the winning of Blanche Aleys, the lady so far above me in rank and station and what followed after. Then it is that I grow afraid of what may follow after this present hour of peace and love and plenty.
Certainly one thing will follow, and that is death. It may come late or it may come soon. But yesterday a rumour reached me through my spies that Kari Upanqui, the Inca of Tavantinsuyu, he who once was as my brother, but who now hates me because of his superstitions, and because I took a Virgin of the Sun to be my wife, gathers a great host to follow on the path we trod many years ago when the Chancas fled from the Inca tyranny back to their home in the ancient City of Gold and to smite us here. That host, said the rumours, cannot march till next year, and then will be another year upon its journey. Still, knowing Kari, I am sure that it will march, yes, and arrive, after which must befall the great battle in the mountain passes wherein, as of old, I shall lead the Chanca armies.
Perchance I am doomed to fall in that battle. Does not the rune upon Wave-Flame, the sword of Thorgrimmer my ancestor, say of him that holds it that,
"Conquering, conquered shall he be, And far away shall sleep with me"?
Well, if the Chancas conquer, what care I if I am conquered? 'Twould be a good death and a clean, to fall by Kari's spear, if I knew that Kari and his host fell also, as I swear that fall they shall, St. Hubert helping me. Then at least Quilla and her children would live on in peace and greatness since they can have no other foe to fear.
Death, what is death? I say that it is the hope of every one of us and most of all the exile and the wanderer. At the best it may be glory; at the worst it must be sleep. Moreover, am I so happy that I should fear to die? Quilla cannot read this writing, and therefore I will answer, No. I am a Christian, but she and those about her, aye, my own children with them, worship the moon and the host of heaven. I am white-skinned, they are the hue of copper, though it is true that my little daughter, Gudruda, whom I named so after my mother, is almost white. There are secrets in their hearts that I shall never learn and there are secrets in mine from which they cannot draw the veil because our bloods are different. Yet God knows, I love them well enough, and most of all that greatest of women, Quilla.
Oh! the truth is that here on earth there is no happiness for man.
It is because of this rumour of the coming of Kari with his host that I set myself to this task, that I have long had in my mind, to write down something of my history, both in England and in this land which, at any rate for hundreds of years, mine is the first white foot to press. It seems a foolish thing to do since when I have written who will read, and what will chance to that which I have written? I shall leave orders that it be placed beneath my feet in the tomb, but who will ever find that tomb again? Still I write because something in my heart urges me to the task.
I return to the far-off days. Our boat being full with merry hearts we set sail before a faint wind for Hastings beach. As yet there was little light and much fog, still the landward breeze was enough to draw us forward. Then of a sudden we heard sounds as of men talking upon ships and the clank of spars and blocks. Presently came a puff of air lifting the fog for a little and we saw that we were in the midst of a great fleet, a French fleet, for the Lilies of France flew at their mast-heads, saw, too, that their prows were set for Hastings, though for the while they were becalmed, since the wind that was enough for our light, large-sailed fishing-boat could not stir their bulk. Moreover, they saw us, for the men-at-arms on the nearest ship shouted threats and curses at us and followed the shouts with arrows that almost hit us.
Then the fog closed down again, and in it we slipped through the French fleet.
It may have been the best part of an hour later that we reached Hastings. Before the boat was made fast to the jetty, I sprang to it shouting:
"Stir! stir! the French are upon you! To arms! We have slipped through a whole fleet of them in the mist."
Instantly the sleepy quay seemed to awaken. From the neighbouring fish market, from everywhere sailormen and others came running, followed by children with gaping mouths, while from the doors of houses far away shot women with scared faces, like ferreted rabbits from their burrows. In a minute the crowd had surrounded me, all asking questions at once in such a fashion that I could only answer them with my cry of:
"Stir! the French are upon you. To arms, I say. To arms!"
Presently through the throng advanced an old white-bearded man who wore a badge of office, crying as he came, "Make way for the bailiff!"
The crowd obeyed, opening a path, and soon we were face to face.
"What is it, Hubert of Hastings?" he asked. "Is there fire that you shout so loudly?"
"Aye, Worship," I answered. "Fire and murder and all the gifts that the French have for England. The Fleet of France is beating up for Hastings, fifty sail of them or more. We crept through them in the fog, for the wind which would scarce move them served our turn and beyond an arrow or two, they took no note of a fishing-boat."
"Whence come they?" asked the bailiff, bewildered.
"I know not, but those in another boat we passed in the midst shouted that these French were ravaging the coast and heading for Hastings to put it to fire and sword. Then that boat vanished away, I know not where, and that is all I have to tell save that the French will be here within an hour."
Without staying to ask more questions, the bailiff turned and ran towards the town, and presently the alarm bells rang out from the towers of All Saints and St. Clement's, while criers summoned all men to the market-place. Meanwhile I, not without a sad look at my boat and the rich catch within, made my way into the town, followed by my two men.
Presently I reached an ancient, timbered house, long, low, and rambling, with a yard by its side full of barrels, anchors, and other marine stores such as rope, that had to do with the trade I carried on at this place.
I, Hubert, with a mind full of fears, though not for myself, and a stirring of the blood such as was natural to my age at the approach of my first taste of battle, ran fast up to that house which I have described, and paused for a moment by the big elm tree that grew in front of the door, of which the lower boughs were sawn off because they shut out the light from the windows. I remember that elm tree very well, first because when I was a child starlings nested in a hole in the trunk, and I reared one in a wicker cage and made a talking bird of it which I kept for several years. It was so tame that it used to go about sitting on my shoulder, till at last, outside the town a cat frightened it thence, and before I could recapture it, it was taken by a hawk, which hawk I shot afterwards with an arrow out of revenge.
Also this elm is impressed upon me by the fact that on that morning when I halted by it, I noted how green and full of leaf it was. Next morning, after the fire, I saw it again, all charred and blackened, with its beautiful foliage withered by the heat. This contrast remained upon my memory, and whenever I see any great change of fortune from prosperity to ruin, or from life to death, always I bethink me of that elm. For it is by little things which we ourselves have seen and not by those written of or told by others, that we measure and compare events.
The reason that I ran so hard and then paused by the elm, was because my widowed mother lived in that house. Knowing that the French meant mischief for a good reason, because one of their arrows, or perhaps a quarrel from a cross-bow, whistled just past my head out there upon the sea, my first thought was to get her away to some place of safety, no easy task seeing that she was infirm with age. My second, that which caused me to pause by the tree, was how I should break the news to her in such a fashion that she would not be over-frightened. Having thought this over I went on into the house.
The door opened into the sitting-room that had a low roof of plaster and big oak beams. There I found my mother kneeling by the table upon which food was set for breakfast: fried herrings, cold meat, and a jug of ale. She was saying her prayers after her custom, being very religious though in a new fashion, since she was a follower of a preacher called Wycliffe, who troubled the Church in those days. She seemed to have gone to sleep at her prayers, and I watched her for a moment, hesitating to waken her. My mother, as even then I noted, was a very handsome woman, though old, for I was born when she had been married twenty years or more, with white hair and well-cut features that showed the good blood of which she came, for she was better bred than my father and quarrelled with her kin to marry him.
At the sound of my footsteps she woke up and saw me.
"Strange," she said, "I slept at my prayers who did so little last night, as has become a habit with me when you are out a-fishing, for which God forgive me, and dreamed that there was some trouble forward. Scold me not, Hubert, for when the sea has taken the father and two sons, it is scarcely wonderful that I should be fearful for the last of my blood. Help me to rise, Hubert, for this water seems to gather in my limbs and makes them heavy. One day, the leech says, it will get to the heart and then all will be over."
I obeyed, first kissing her on the brow, and when she was seated in her armed chair by the table, I said,
"You dream too well, Mother. There is trouble. Hark! St. Clement's bells are talking of it. The French come to visit Hastings. I know for I sailed through their fleet just after dawn."
"Is it so?" she asked quietly. "I feared worse. I feared lest the dream meant that you had gone to join your brothers in the deep. Well, the French are not here yet, as thank God you are. So eat and drink, for we of England fight best on full bellies."
Again I obeyed who was very hungry after that long night and needed food and ale, and as I swallowed them we heard the sound of folk shouting and running.
"You are in haste, Hubert, to join the others on the quay and send a Frenchman or two to hell with that big bow of yours?" she said inquiringly.
"Nay," I answered, "I am in haste to get you out of this town, which I fear may be burnt. There is a certain cave up yonder by the Minnes Rock where I think you might lie safe, Mother."
"It has come down to me from my fathers, Hubert, that it was never the fashion of the women of the north to keep their men to shield them when duty called them otherwhere. I am helpless in my limbs and heavy, and cannot climb, or be borne up yonder hill to any cave. Here I stop where I have dwelt these five-and-forty years, to live or die as God pleases. Get you to your duty, man. Stay. Call those wenches and bid them fly inland to their folk, out Burwash way. They are young and fleet of foot, and no Frenchman will catch them."
I summoned the girls who were staring, white-faced, from the attic window-place. In three minutes they were gone, though it is true that one of them, the braver, wished to bide with her mistress.
I watched them start up the street with other fugitives who were pouring out of Hastings, and came back to my mother. As I did so a great shout told me that the French fleet had been sighted.
"Hubert," she said, "take this key and go to the oak chest in my sleeping room, lift out the linen at the top and bring me that which lies wrapped in cloth beneath."
I did so, returning with a bundle that was long and thin. With a knife she cut the string that tied it. Within were a bag of money and a sword in an ancient scabbard covered with a rough skin which I took to be that of a shark, which scabbard in parts was inlaid with gold.
"Draw it," said my mother.
I did so, and there came to light a two-edged blade of blue steel, such as I had never seen before, for on the blade were engraved strange characters whereof I could make nothing, although as it chanced I could read and write, having been taught by the monks in my childhood. The hilt, also, that was in the form of a cross, had gold inlaid upon it; at the top of it, a large knob or apple of amber, much worn by handling. For the rest it was a beauteous weapon and well balanced.
"What of this sword?" I asked.
"This, Son. With the black bow that you have," and she pointed to the case that leaned against the table, "it has come down in my family for many generations. My father told me that it was the sword of one Thorgrimmer, his ancestor, a Norseman, a Viking he called him, who came with those who took England before the Norman time; which I can well believe since my father's name, like mine, till I married, was Grimmer. This sword, also, has a name and it is Wave-Flame. With it, the tale tells, Thorgrimmer did great deeds, slaying many after their heathen fashion in his battles by land and sea. For he was a wanderer, and it is said of him that once he sailed to a new land far across the ocean, and won home again after many strange adventures, to die at last here in England in some fray. That is all I know, save that a learned man from the north once told my father's father that the writing on the sword means:—
"He who lifts Wave-Flame on high In love shall live and in battle die; Storm-tossed o'er wide seas shall roam And in strange lands shall make his home. Conquering, conquered shall he be, And far away shall sleep with me.
"Those were the words which I remember because of the jingle of them; also because such seems to have been the fate of Thorgrimmer and the sword that his grandson took from his tomb."
Here I would have asked about this grandson and the tomb, but having no time, held my peace.
"All my life have I kept that sword," went on my mother, "not giving it to your father or brothers, lest the fate written on it should befall them, for those old wizards of the north, who fashioned such weapons with toil and skill, could foresee the future—as at times I can, for it is in my blood. Yet now I am moved to bid you take it, Hubert, and go where its flame leads you and dree your gloom, whatever it may be, for I know you will use it like Thorgrimmer's self."
She paused for a moment, then went on:
"Hubert, perhaps we part for the last time, for I think that my hour is at hand. But let not that trouble you, since I am glad to go to join those who went before, and others with them, perchance Thorgrimmer's self. Hearken, Hubert. If aught befalls me, or this place, stay not here. Go to London town and seek out John Grimmer, my brother, the rich merchant and goldsmith who dwells in the place called Cheap. He knew you as a child and loved you, and lacking offspring of his own will welcome you for both our sakes. My father would not give John the sword lest its fate should be on him, but I say that John will be glad to welcome one of our race who holds it in his hand. Take it then, and with it that bag of gold, which may prove of service ere all be done.
"Aye, and there is one more thing—this ring which, so says the tale, came down with the sword and the bow, and once had writing on it like the sword, though that is long since rubbed away. Take it and wear it till perchance, in some day to come, you give it to another as I did."
Wondering at all this tale which, after her secret fashion, my mother had kept from me till that hour, I set the ring upon my finger.
"I gave yonder ring to your father on the day that we were betrothed," went on my mother, "and I took it back again from his corpse after he had been found floating in the sea. Now I pass it on to you who soon will be all that is left of both of us."
"Hark!" she continued, "the crier summons all men with their arms to the market-place to fight England's foes. Therefore one word more while I buckle the sword Wave-Flame on to you, as doubtless his women folk did on to Thorgrimmer, your ancestor. My blessing on you, Hubert. Be you such a one as Thorgrimmer was, for we of the Norse blood desire that our loves and sons should prove not backward when swords are aloft and arrows fly. But be you more than he, be you a Christian also, remembering that however long you live, and the Battle-maidens have not marked you yet, at last you must die and give account.
"Hubert, you are such a one as women will love; one, too, who, I fear me, will be a lover of women, for that weakness goes with strength and manhood by Nature's laws. Be careful of women, Hubert, and if you may, choose those who are not false and cling to her who is most true. Oh, you will wander far; I read it in your eyes that you will wander far, yet shall your heart stay English. Kiss me and begone! Lad, are you forgetting your spare arrows and the bull-hide jerkin that was your father's? You will want them both to-day. Farewell, farewell! God and His Christ be with you—and shoot you straight and smite you hard. Nay, no tears, lest my eyes should be dimmed, for I'll climb to the attic and watch you fight."
THE LADY BLANCHE
So I went, with a sore heart, for I remembered that when my father and brothers were drowned, although I was then but a little one, my mother had foreseen it, and I feared much lest it might be thus in her own case also. I loved my mother. She was a stern woman, it was true, with little softness about her, which I think came with her blood, but she had a high heart, and oh! her last words were noble. Yet through it all I was pleased, as any young man would have been, with the gift of the wonderful sword which once had been that of Thorgrimmer, the sea-rover, whose blood ran in my body against which it lay, and I hoped that this day I might have chance to use it worthily as Thorgrimmer did in forgotten battles. Having imagination, I wondered also whether the sword knew that after its long sleep it had come forth again to drink the blood of foes.
Also I was pleased with another thing, namely, that my mother had told me that I should live my life and not die that day by the hand of Frenchmen; and that in my life I should find love, of which to tell truth already I knew a little of a humble sort, for I was a comely youth, and women did not run away from me, or if they did, soon they stopped. I wanted to live my life, I wanted to see great adventures and to win great love. The only part of the business which was not to my taste was that command of my mother's, that I should go to London to sit in a goldsmith's shop. Still, I had heard that there was much to be seen in London, and at least it would be different from Hastings.
The street outside our doors was crowded with folk, some of the men making their way to the market-place, about whom hung women and children weeping; others, old people, wives and girls and little ones fleeing from the town. I found the two sailormen who had been with me on the boat, waiting for me. They were brawny fellows named Jack Grieves and William Bull, who had been in our service since my childhood, good fishermen and fighters both; indeed one of them, William Bull, had served in the French wars.
"We knew that you were coming, Master, so we bided here for you," said William, who having once been an archer was armed with a bow and a short sword, whereas Jack had only an axe, also a knife such as we used on the smacks for cleaning fish.
I nodded, and we went on to the market-place and joined the throng of men, a vast number of them, who were gathered there to defend Hastings and their homes. Nor were we too soon, for the French ships were already beaching within a few yards of the shore or on it, their draught being but small, while the sailors and men-at-arms were pushing off in small boats or wading to the strand.
There was great confusion in the market-place, for as is common in England, no preparation had been made against attack though such was always to be feared.
The bailiff ran about shouting orders, as did others, but proper officers were lacking, so that in the end men acted as the fancy took them. Some went down towards the beach and shot with arrows at the Frenchmen. Others took refuge in houses, others stood irresolute, waiting, knowing not which way to turn. I and my two men were with those who went on to the beach where I loosed some arrows from my big black bow, and saw a man fall before one of them.
But we could do little or nothing, for these Frenchmen were trained soldiers under proper command. They formed themselves into companies and advanced, and we were driven back. I stopped as long as I dared, and drawing the sword, Wave-Flame, fought with a Frenchman who was in advance of the others. What is more, making a great blow at his head which I missed, I struck him on the arm and cut it off, for I saw it fall to the ground. Then others rushed up at me and I fled to save my life.
Somehow I found myself being pressed up the steep Castle Hill with a number of Hastings folk, followed by the French. We reached the Castle and got into it, but the old portcullis would not close, and in sundry places the walls were broken down. Here we found a number of women who had climbed for refuge, thinking that the place would be safe. Among these was a beautiful and high-born maiden whom I knew by sight. Her father was Sir Robert Aleys who, I believe, was then the Warden of the Castle of Pevensey, and she was named the lady Blanche. Once, indeed, I had spoken with her on an occasion too long to tell. Then her large blue eyes, which she knew well how to use, had left me with a swimming head, for she was very fair and very sweet and gracious, with a most soft voice, and quite unlike any other woman I had ever seen, nor did she seem at all proud. Soon her father, an old knight, who had no name for gentleness in the countryside, but was said to be a great lover of gold, had come up and swept her away, asking her what she did, talking with a common fishing churl. This had happened some months before.
Well, there I found her in the Castle, alone it seemed, and knowing me again, which I thought strange, she ran to me, praying me to protect her. More, she began to tell me some long tale, to which I had not time to listen, of how she had come to Hastings with her father, Sir Robert, and a young lord named Deleroy, who, I understood, was some kinsman of hers, and slept there. How, too, she had been separated from them in the throng when they were attempting to return to Pevensey which her father must go to guard, because her horse was frightened and ran away, and of how finally men took her by the arm and brought her to this castle, saying that it was the safest place.
"Then here you must bide, Lady Blanche," I answered, cutting her short. "Cling to me and I will save you if I can, even if it costs me my life."
Certainly she did cling to me for all the rest of that terrible day, as will be seen.
From this height we saw Hastings beginning to burn, for the Frenchmen had fired the town in sundry places, and being built of wood, it burnt furiously. Also we saw and heard horrible scenes and sounds of rapine, such as chance in this Christian world of ours where a savage foe finds peaceful folk of another race at his mercy. In the houses people were burnt; in the streets they were being murdered, or worse. Yes, even children were murdered, for afterwards I saw the bodies of some of them.
Awhile later through the wreaths of smoke we perceived companies of the French advancing to attack the Castle. There may have been three hundred of them in all, and we did not count more than fifty men, some of us ill-armed, together with a mob of aged people and many women and children. What had become of the other men I do not know, but orders had been shouted from all quarters, and some had gone this way and some that. Some, too, I think, had fled, lacking leaders.
The French having climbed the hill, began to attack our ill-fenced gateways, bringing up beams of timber to force them in. Those of us who had bows shot some of them, though, their armour being good, for the most part the arrows glanced. But few had bows. Moreover, whenever we showed ourselves they poured such a rain of quarrels and other shafts upon us that we could not face it, lacking mail as we did, and a number of us were killed or wounded. At last they forced the easternmost gate which was the weakest, and got in there and over a place in the wall were it was broken. We fought them as well as we could; myself I cut down two with the sword, Wave-Flame, hewing right through the helm of one, for the steel of that sword was good. Here, too, Jack Grieves was killed by my side by a pike thrust, and died calling to me to fight on for old England and Hastings town; after which he said something about beer and breathed his last.
The end of it was that those who were left were driven out of the Castle together with the women and children, the murdering French killing every man who fell wounded where he lay, and trying to make prisoner any women they thought young and fair enough. Especially did they seek to capture the lady Blanche because they saw that she was beautiful and of high station. But by good fortune more than aught else, I saved her from this fate.
As it chanced we were among the last to leave the Castle, whence, to tell the truth, I was loath to go, for by now my blood was up, and with a few others fought till I was driven out. I prayed the lady Blanche to run forward with the other women. But she would not, answering that she trusted no one else, but would stay to die with me, as though that would help either of us.
Thus it came about that a tall French knight who had set his eyes on her, outclimbed his fellows upon the slope of the hill, for they were weary and gathering to re-form, and catching her round the middle, strove to drag her away. I fell on him and we fought. He had fine armour and a shield while I had none, but I held the long sword while he only wielded a battle-axe. I knew that if he could get in a blow with that battle-axe, I was sped, since the bull's hide of my jerkin would never stand against it. Therefore it was my business to keep out of his reach. This, being young and active, for the most part I made shift to do, especially as he could not move very quickly in his mail. The end of it was that I cut him on the arm through a joint in his harness, whereon he rushed at me, swearing French oaths.
I leapt on one side and as he passed, smote with all my strength. The blow fell between neck and shoulder, from behind as it were, and such was the temper of that sword named Wave-Flame that it shore through his mail deep into the flesh beneath, to the backbone as I believe. At least he went down in a heap—I remember the rattle of his armour as he fell, and there lay still. Then we fled on down the steep path, I holding the bloody sword with one hand and Lady Blanche with the other, while she thanked me with her eyes.
At length we were in the town again, running up my own street. On either side of us the houses burned, and behind us came another body of the French. The reek got into our eyes and we stumbled over dead or fainting people.
Looking to the left I caught sight of the elm tree of which I have spoken, that grew in front of our door, and saw that the house behind it was burning. Yes, and I saw more, for at the attic window, which was open, the flames making an arch round her, sat my mother. Moreover, she was singing for I heard her voice and the wild words she sang, though this was a strange thing for a woman to do in the hour of such a death. Further, she saw and knew me, for she waved her hands to me, then pointed towards the sea, why, I did not guess at the time. I stopped, purposing to try to rescue her though the front of the house was flaming, and the attempt must have ended in my death. But at that moment the roof fell in, causing the fire to spout upwards and outwards. This was the last that I saw of my mother, though afterwards we found her body and gave it burial with those of many other victims.
There was no time to stay, for the conquering French were pouring up the street behind us, shooting as they came and murdering any laggards whom they could catch. On we went up the steep slope of the Minnes Rock. I would have fled on into the open country, but the lady Blanche had no strength left. Twice she sank to the ground, stricken with terror and weariness, and each time prayed me not to leave her; nor indeed did I wish to do so. The end of it was that William Bull and I between us half carried her with much toil to the cave of which I had spoken to my mother. The task was heavy and slow, since always we must scramble over sheer ground. What is more, a party of the French, seeing our plight, followed us. Perhaps some of them guessed who the lady was, for there were many spies in Hastings who might have told them, and desired to capture and hold her to ransom.
At the least they came on after us and a few others, women all of them, who had joined our company, being unable to travel further, or trusting to William Bull and myself to protect them.
We reached the cave, and thrusting the women along it, William and I stood in the mouth and waited. He had no bow and all my arrows were gone save three, but of these I, who was noted for my archery, determined to make the best use I could. So I drew them out, and having strung the bow, sat down to get my breath. On came the French, shouting and jabbering at us to the effect that they would cut our throats and carry off la belle dame to be their sport.
"She shall be mine!" yelled a big fellow with a flattened nose and a wide mouth who was ahead of the others, and not more than fifty yards away.
I rose, and praying my patron, good St. Hubert after whom I was named because I first saw light upon his day, the 23rd of November, to give me skill, I drew the great bow to my ear, aimed, and loosed. Nor did St. Hubert, a lover of fine shooting, fail me in my need, for that arrow rushed out and found its home in the big mouth of the Frenchman, through which it passed, pinning his foul tongue to his neck bone.
Down he went, and cheered by the sight I refitted and loosed at the next. Him, too, the arrow caught, so that he fell almost on the other.
I set the third and last arrow on the string and waited a space. Behind these two was a squat, broad man, a knight I suppose, for he wore armour, and had a shield with a cock painted on it. This man, frightened by the fate of his companions, yet not minded to give up the venture for those in rear of him urged him on, bent himself almost double, and holding the shield over his helm which was closed, so as to protect his head and body, came on at a good pace.
I waited till he was within five-and-twenty yards or so, hoping that the roughness of the ground would cause him to stumble and the shield to shift so that I could get a chance at him behind it. But I did not, so at last, again praying to St. Hubert, I drew the big bow till the string touched my ear, and let drive. The shaft, pointed with tempered steel, struck the shield full in the centre, and by Heaven, pierced it, aye, and the mail behind, aye, and the flesh it covered, so that he, too, got his death.
"A great shot, Master," said William, "that no other bow in Hastings could have sped."
"Not so ill," I answered, "but it is my last. Now we must fight as we can with sword and axe until we be sped."
William nodded, and the women in the cave began to wail while I unstrung my bow and set it in its case, from habit I think, seeing that I never hoped to look upon it again.
Just then from the French ships in the harbour there came a great blaring of trumpets giving some alarm, and the Frenchmen of a sudden, ceasing from their attack, turned and ran towards the shore. I stepped out of the cave with William and looked. There on the sea, drawing near from the east before a good wind, I saw ships, and saw, too, that from their masts flew the pennons of England, for the golden leopards gleamed in the sun.
"It is our fleet, William," I said, "come to talk with these French."
"Then I would that it had come sooner," answered William. "Still, better now than not at all."
Thus were we saved, through Hamo de Offyngton, the Abbot of Battle Abbey, or so I was told afterwards, who collected a force by land and sea and drove off the French after they had ravaged the Isle of Wight, attacked Winchelsea, and burned the greater part of Hastings. So it came about that in the end these pirates took little benefit by their wickedness, since they lost sundry ships with all on board, and others left in such haste that their people remained on shore where they were slain by the mob that gathered as soon as it was seen that they were deserted, helped by a company of the Abbot's men who had marched from Battle. But with all this I had nothing to do who now that the fight was over, felt weak as a child and could think of little save that I had seen my mother burning.
Presently, however, that happened which woke me from my grief and caused my blood which had grown sluggish to run again. For when she knew that she was safe the lady Blanche came out of the cave and addressed me as I stood there leaning against the rock with the red sword Wave-Flame in my hand, as I had drawn it to make ready for the last fight to the death. All sorts of sweet names she called me—a hero, her deliverer, and I know not what besides.
In the end, as I made no answer, being dazed, also hurt by an axe blow on the breast which I had not felt before, dealt by that Frenchman whom I slew near the Castle, she did more. Throwing her arms about me she kissed me thrice, on either cheek and on the lips, doubtless because she was overwrought, and in her thankfulness forgot her maidenly reserve, though as William Bull said afterwards, this forgetfulness did not cause her to kiss him who had also helped her up the hill.
Those kisses were like wine to me, for it is strange how, if we love her, by the decree of Nature the touch of a beautiful woman's lips, felt for the first time, affects us in our youth. Whatever else we forget, that we always remember, however false those lips afterwards be proved. For then the wax is soft and the die sinks deep, so deep that no after-heats can melt its stamp and no fretting wear it out while we live beneath the sun.
Now my young blood being awakened, I was minded to return those kisses, and began to do so with a Jew's interest, when I heard a rough voice swearing many strange oaths, and heard also the other women who had sheltered with us in the cave begin to titter, for the moment forgetting all their private woes, as those of their sex will do when there is kissing in the wind.
"God's blood!" said the rough voice, "who is this that handles my daughter as though they had been but an hour wed? Take those lips of yours from her, fellow, or I'll cut them from your chops."
I looked round astonished, to see Sir Robert Aleys mounted on a grey horse, and followed by a company of men-at-arms who appeared to be under the command of a well-favoured, dark-eyed young captain with long hair, and dressed more wondrously than any man I had ever seen before. Had he put on Joseph's coat over his mail, he could not have worn more colours, and I noted that the toes of his shoes curled up so high that I wondered however he worked them through his stirrups, and what would happen to him if by chance he were unhorsed.
Being taken aback I made no answer, but William Bull, who, if a rough fellow, had a tongue in his head and a ready wit, spoke up for me.
"If you want to know," he said in his Sussex drawl, "I'll tell you who he is, Sir Robert Aleys. He is my worshipful master, Hubert of Hastings, ship-owner, householder, and trader of this town. Or at least he was these things, but now it seems that his ships and house are burnt and his mother with them; also that there will be no trade in Hastings for many a day."
"Mayhap," answered Sir Robert, adding other oaths, "but why does he buss my daughter?"
"Perchance because he must give as good as he got, which is a law among honest merchants, noble Sir Robert. Or perchance because he has a better right to buss her than any man alive, seeing that but for him, by now she would be but stinking clay, or a Frenchman's leman."
Here the fine young captain cut in, saying,
"Whatever else this worshipful trader may need, he does not lack a trumpeter."
"That is so, my Lord Deleroy," replied William, unmoved, "for when I find a good song I like to sing it. Go now and look at those three men who lie yonder on the slope, and see whether the arrows in them bear my master's mark. Go also and look upon the Castle hill and find a knight with his head well-nigh hewn from his shoulders, and see whether yonder sword fits into the cut. Aye, and at others that I could tell you of, slain, every one of them, to save this fair lady. Aye, go you whose garments are so fine and unstained, and then come back and talk of trumpeters."
"Pish!" said my Lord Deleroy with a shrug of his shoulders, "a lady who is over-wrought and hangs to some common fellow, like one who kisses the feet of a wooden saint that she thinks has saved her from calamity!"
At these words I, who had been listening like a man in a dream, awoke, as it were, for they stung me. Moreover, I had heard that this fine Deleroy was one of those who owed his place and rank to the King's favour, as he did his high name, being, it was reported, by birth but a prince's bastard sprung from some relative of Sir Robert whom therefore he called cousin.
"Sir," I said, "you know best whether I am more common than you are. Let that be. At least I hold in my hand the sword of one who begat my forefather hundreds of years ago, a certain Thorgrimmer who was great in his time. Now I have had my fill of fighting to-day, and you, doubtless through no fault of your own, have had none; you also are clad in mail and I, a common fellow, have none. Deign then to descend from that horse and take a turn with me though I be tired, and thus prove my commonness upon my body. Of your nobility do this, seeing that after all we are of one flesh."
Now, stung in his turn, he made as though he would do what I prayed, when for the first time, after glancing at her father who sat still—puzzled, it would seem—the lady Blanche spoke.
"Be not mad, Cousin," she said. "I tell you that this gentleman has saved my life and honour, twice at least to-day. Is it wonderful, then, if I thanked him in the best fashion that a woman can, and thus brought your insults on him?"
He hesitated, though one of his curled-up shoes was out of the stirrup, when suddenly Sir Robert broke in in his big voice, saying:
"God's truth, Cousin, I think that you will do well to leave this young cock alone, since I like not the look of that red spur of his," and he glanced at the sword Wave-Flame. "Though he be weary, he may have a kick or two in him yet."
Then he turned to me and added:
"Sir, you have fought well; many a man has earned knighthood for less, and if a fair maid thanked you in her own fashion, you are not to blame. I, her father, also thank you and wish you all good fortune till we meet again. Farewell. Daughter, make shift to share this horse with me, and let us away out of this stricken town to Pevensey, where perchance it will please those French to call to-morrow."
A minute later they were gone, and I noted with a pang that as they went the lady Blanche, having waved her good-bye to me, talked fast to her cousin Deleroy and that he held her hand to steady her upon her father's horse.
HUBERT COMES TO LONDON
When the lady Blanche was out of sight, followed by the women who had sheltered with us in the cave, William and I went to a stream we knew of not far away and drank our fill. Then we walked to the three whom I had shot with my big bow, hoping to regain the arrows, for I had none left. This, however, could not be done though all the men were dead, for one of the shafts, the last, was broken, and the other two were so fixed in flesh and bone that only a surgeon's saw would loose them.
So we left them where they were, and before the men were buried many came to marvel at the sight, thinking it a wonderful thing that I should have killed these three with three arrows, and that any bow which arm might bend could have driven the last of them through an iron shield and a breastplate behind it.
This armour, I should tell, William took for himself, since it was of his size. Also on the morrow, returning to the Castle Hill, I stripped the knight whom I had slain with the sword, Wave-Flame, of his splendid Milan mail, whereof the plastron, or breast-plate, was inlaid with gold, having over it a camail of chain to cover the joints, through which my good sword had shorn into his neck. The cognizance on his shield strangely enough was three barbed arrows, but what was the name of the knight who bore it I never learned. This mail, which must have cost a great sum, the Bailiff of Hastings granted me to keep, since I had slain its wearer and borne myself well in the fight. Moreover, I took the three arrows for my own cognizance, though in truth I had no right to any, being in those days but a trader. (Little did I know then how well this mail was to serve me in the after years.)
By now night was coming on, and as we could see from the cave mouth that the part of Hastings which lies towards the village of St. Leonards seemed to have escaped the fire, thitherward we went by the beach to avoid the heat and falling timbers in the burning town. On our way we met others and from them heard all that had befallen. It would seem that the French loss in life was heavier than our own, since many of them were cut off when they tried to fly to their ships, and some of these could not be floated from the beach or were rammed and sunk with all aboard by the English vessels. But the damage done to Hastings was as much as could scarcely be made good in a generation, for the most of it was burnt or burning. Also many, like my own mother, had perished in the fire, being sick or aged or in childbed, or for this reason and that forgotten and unable to move. Indeed on the beach were hundreds of folk in despair, nor was it only the women and children who wept that evening.
For my part, with William I went beyond the burning to the house of a certain old priest who was my confessor, and the friend of my father before me, and there we found food and slept, he returning thanks to God for my escape and offering me consolation for the loss of my mother and goods.
I rested but ill that night, as those do who are over-weary. Moreover, this had been my first taste of battle, and again and again I saw those men falling before my sword and arrows. Very proud was I to have slain them, wicked ravishers as they were, and very glad that from my boyhood I had practised myself with sword and bow till I could fence with any, and was perhaps the most skilled marksman in Hastings, having won the silver arrow at the butts at the last meeting, and from archers of all ages. Yet the sight of their deaths haunted me who remembered how well their fate might have been my own, had they got in the first shot or blow.
Where had they gone to, I wondered? To the priest's Heaven or Hell? Were they now telling their sins to some hard-faced angel while he checked the count from his book, reminding them of many that they had forgotten? Or were they fast asleep for ever and ever as a shrewd thinker whom I knew had told me secretly he was sure would be the fate of all of us, whatever the priests might teach and believe. And where was my mother whom I had loved and who loved me well, although outwardly she was so stern a woman, my mother whom I had seen burned alive, singing as she burned? Oh! it was a vile world, and it seemed strange that God should cause men and women to be born that they might come to such cruel ends. Yet who were we to question His decrees of which we knew neither the beginning nor the finish?
Anyway, I was glad I was not dead, for now that all was over I trembled and felt afraid, which I had never done during the fighting, even when my hour seemed very near.
Lastly there was this high-born lady, Blanche Aleys, with whom fortune had thrown me so strangely that day. Those blue eyes of hers had pierced my heart like darts, and do what I would I might not rid my mind of the thought of her, or my ears of the sound of her soft voice, while her kisses seemed still to burn upon my lips. It wrung me to think that perhaps I should never see her again, or that if I did I might not speak with her, being so far beneath her in condition, and having already earned the wrath of her father, and, as I guessed, the jealousy of that scented cousin of hers whom they said the King loved like a brother.
What had my mother told me? To leave this place and go to London, there to find my uncle, John Grimmer, goldsmith and merchant, who was my godfather, and to ask him to take me into his business. I remembered this uncle of mine, for some seven or eight years before, when I was a growing lad, because there was a plague in London he had come down to Hastings to visit us. He only stayed a week, however, because he said that the sea air tied up his stomach and that he would rather risk the plague with a good stomach than leave it behind him with a bad one—though I think it was his business he thought of, not his stomach.
He was a strange old man, not unlike my mother, but with a nose more hooked, small dark eyes, and a bald head on which he set a cap of velvet. Even in the heat of summer he was always cold and wore a frayed fur robe, complaining much if he came into a draught of air. Indeed he looked like a Jew, though a good Christian enough, and laughed about it, because he said that this appearance of his served him well in his trade, since Jews were always feared, and it was held to be impossible to overreach them.
For the rest I only recalled that he examined me as to my book learning which did not satisfy him, and went about valuing all our goods and fishing-boats, showing my mother how we were being cheated and might earn more than we did. When he departed he gave me a gold piece and said that Life was nothing but vanity, and that I must pray for his soul when he was dead as he was sure it would need such help, also that I ought to put the gold piece out to interest. This I did by buying with it a certain fierce mastiff dog I coveted that had been brought on a ship from Norway, which dog bit some great man in our town, who hauled my mother before the bailiff about it and caused the poor beast to be killed, to my great wrath.
Now that I came to think of it, I had liked my Uncle John well enough although he was so different from others. Why should I not go to him? Because I did not wish to sit in a shop in London, I who loved the sea and the open air; also because I feared he might ask me what I had done with that gold piece and make a mock of me about the dog. Yet my mother had bidden me go, and it was her last command to me, her dying words which it would be unlucky to disobey. Moreover, our boats and house were burnt and I must work hard and long before these could be replaced. Lastly, in London I should see no more of the lady Blanche Aleys, and there could learn to forget the lights in her blue eyes. So I determined that I would go, and at last fell asleep.
Next morning I made my confession to the old priest that, amongst other matters, he might shrive me of the blood which I had shed, though this he said needed no forgiveness from God or man, being, as I think, a stout Englishman at heart. Also I took counsel with him as to what I should do, and he told me it was my duty to obey my mother's wishes, since such last words were often inspired from on high and declared the will of Heaven. Further he pointed out that I should do well to avoid the lady Blanche Aleys who was one far above me in degree, the following of whom might bring me to trouble, or even to death; moreover, that I might mend my broken fortunes through the help of my uncle, a very rich man as he had heard, to whom he would write a letter about me.
Thus this matter was settled.
Still some days went by before I left Hastings, since first I must wait until the ashes of our house were cool enough to search in them for my mother's body. Those who found her at length said that she was not so much burned as might have been expected, but as to this I am uncertain, since I could not bring myself to look upon her who desired to remember her as she had been in life. She was buried by the side of my father, who was drowned, in the churchyard of St. Clement's, and when all had gone away I wept a little on her grave.
The rest of that day I spent making ready for my journey. As it chanced when the house was burnt the outbuildings which lay on the farther side of the yard behind escaped the fire, and in the stable were two good horses, one a grey riding-gelding and the other a mare that used to drag the nets to the quay and bring back the fish, which horses, although frightened and alarmed, were unharmed. Also there was a quantity of stores, nets, salt, dried fish in barrels, and I know not what besides. The horses I kept, but all the rest of the gear, together with the premises, the ground on which the house had stood, and the other property I made over to William, my man, who promised me to pay me their value when he could earn it in better times.
Next morning I rode away for London upon the grey horse, loading the armour of the knight I had killed and such other possessions as remained to me upon the mare which I led with a rope. Save William there was none to say me good-bye, for the misery in Hastings was so great that all were concerned with their own affairs or in mourning their dead. I was not sorry that it fell out thus, since I was so full of sadness at leaving the place where I was born and had lived all my life, that I think I should have shed tears if any who had been my friends had spoken kind words to me, which would have been unmanly. Never had I felt so lonely as when from the high ground I gazed back to the ruins of Hastings over which still hung a thin pall of smoke. My courage seemed to fail me altogether; I looked forward to the future with fear, believing that I had been born unlucky, that it held no good for me who probably should end my days as a common soldier or a fisherman, or mayhap in prison or on the gallows. From childhood I had suffered these fits of gloom, but as yet this was the blackest of them that I had known.
At length, the sun that had been hidden shone out and with its coming my temper changed. I remembered that I who might so easily have been dead, was sound, young, and healthy, that I had sword, bow, and armour of the best, also twenty or more of gold pieces, for I had not counted them, in the bag which my mother gave me with Wave-Flame. Further, I hoped that my uncle would befriend me, and if he did not, there were plenty of captains engaged in the wars who might be glad of a squire, one who could shoot against any man and handle a sword as well as most.
So putting up a prayer to St. Hubert after my simple fashion, I pushed on blithely to the crest of a long rise and there came face to face with a gay company who, hawk on wrist and hound at heel, were, I guessed, on their way to hunt in the Pevensey marshes. While they were still a little way off I knew these to be no other than Sir Robert Aleys, his daughter Blanche, and the King's favourite, young Lord Deleroy, with their servants, and was minded to turn aside to avoid them. Then I remembered that I had as much right to the King's Highway as they, and my pride aiding me, determined to ride on taking no note of them, unless first they took note of me. Also they knew me, for my ears being very sharp, I heard Sir Robert say in his big voice:
"Here comes that young fisherman again. Pass him in silence, Daughter"; heard, too, Lord Deleroy drawl it, "It seems that he has been gathering gear from the slain, and like a good chapman bears it away for secret sale."
Only the lady Blanche answered neither the one nor the other, but rode forward with her eyes fixed before her, pretending to talk to the hawk upon her wrist, and now that she was rested and at ease, looking even more beautiful than she had done on the day of the burning.
So we met and passed, I glancing at them idly and guiding my horses to the side of the road. When there were perhaps ten yards between us I heard Lady Blanche cry:
"Oh, my hawk!" I looked round to see that the falcon on her wrist had in some way loosed itself, or been loosed, and being hooded, had fallen to the ground where one of the dogs was trying to catch and kill it. Now there was great confusion, the eyes of all being fixed upon the hawk and the dog, in the midst of which the lady Blanche very quietly turned her head, and lifting her hand as though to see how the hawk had fallen from it, with a swift movement laid her fingers against her lips and threw a kiss to me.
As swiftly I bowed back and went on my way with a beating heart. For a few moments I was filled with joy, since I could not mistake the meaning of this signalled kiss. Then came sorrow like an April cloud, since my wound which was in the way of healing was all re-opened. I had begun to forget the lady Blanche, or rather by an effort of the will, to thrust her from my thought, as my confessor had bidden me. But now on the wings of that blown kiss thither she had flown back again, not to be frighted out for many a day.
That night I slept at an inn at Tonbridge, a comfortable place where the host stared at the gold piece from the bag which I tendered in payment, and at first would not take what was due to him out of it, because it bore the head of some ancient king. However, in the end a merchant of Tonbridge who came in for his morning ale showed him that it was good, so that trouble passed.
About two in the afternoon I came to Southwark, a town that to me seemed as big as Hastings before it was burned, where was a fine inn called the Tabard at which I stopped to bait my horses and to take a bite and drink of ale. Then I rode on over the great Thames where floated a multitude of ships and boats, crossing it by London Bridge, a work so wonderful that I marvelled that it could be made by the hand of man, and so broad that it had shops on either side of the roadway, in which were sold all sorts of merchandise. Thence I inquired my way to Cheapside, and came there at last thrusting a path through a roaring multitude of people, or so it seemed to me who never before had seen so many men and women gathered together, all going on their way and, it would appear, ignorant of each other.
Here I found a long and crowded thoroughfare with gabled houses on either side in which all kinds of trades were carried on. Down this I wandered, being cursed at more than once because my pack mare, growing frightened, dragged away from me and crossed the path of carts which had to stop till I could pull her free. After the third of these tangles I halted by the side of the footway behind a wain with barrels on it, and looked about me bewildered.
To my left was a house somewhat set back from the general line that had a little patch of garden ground in front of it in which grew some untended and thriftless-looking shrubs. This house seemed to be a place of business because from an iron fastened to the front of it hung a board on which was painted an open boat, high at the prow and stern, with a tall beak fashioned to the likeness of a dragon's head and round shields all down the rail.
While I was staring at this sign and wondering emptily what kind of a boat it was and of what nation were the folk who had sailed in her, a man came down the garden path and leaned upon the gate, staring in turn at me. He was old and strange-looking, being clad in a rusty gown with a hood to it that was pulled over his head, so that I could only see a white, peaked beard and a pair of brilliant black eyes which seemed to pierce me as a shoemaker's awl pierces leather.