The White Company, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


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Title: The White Company

Author: Arthur Conan Doyle

Release Date: May, 1997 [EBook #903]
Last Updated: March 6, 2018

Language: English

Character set encoding: UTF-8

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Produced by Charles Keller, Carlo Traverso, Tonya Allen, Samuel S. Johnson,
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THE WHITE COMPANY

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

CHAPTER I. HOW THE BLACK SHEEP CAME FORTH FROM THE FOLD.

The great bell of Beaulieu was ringing. Far away through the forest might
be heard its musical clangor and swell. Peat-cutters on Blackdown and
fishers upon the Exe heard the distant throbbing rising and falling upon
the sultry summer air. It was a common sound in those parts—as
common as the chatter of the jays and the booming of the bittern. Yet the
fishers and the peasants raised their heads and looked questions at each
other, for the angelus had already gone and vespers was still far off. Why
should the great bell of Beaulieu toll when the shadows were neither short
nor long?

All round the Abbey the monks were trooping in. Under the long green-paved
avenues of gnarled oaks and of lichened beeches the white-robed brothers
gathered to the sound. From the vine-yard and the vine-press, from the
bouvary or ox-farm, from the marl-pits and salterns, even from the distant
iron-works of Sowley and the outlying grange of St. Leonard's, they had
all turned their steps homewards. It had been no sudden call. A swift
messenger had the night before sped round to the outlying dependencies of
the Abbey, and had left the summons for every monk to be back in the
cloisters by the third hour after noontide. So urgent a message had not
been issued within the memory of old lay-brother Athanasius, who had
cleaned the Abbey knocker since the year after the Battle of Bannockburn.

A stranger who knew nothing either of the Abbey or of its immense
resources might have gathered from the appearance of the brothers some
conception of the varied duties which they were called upon to perform,
and of the busy, wide-spread life which centred in the old monastery. As
they swept gravely in by twos and by threes, with bended heads and
muttering lips there were few who did not bear upon them some signs of
their daily toil. Here were two with wrists and sleeves all spotted with
the ruddy grape juice. There again was a bearded brother with a
broad-headed axe and a bundle of faggots upon his shoulders, while beside
him walked another with the shears under his arm and the white wool still
clinging to his whiter gown. A long, straggling troop bore spades and
mattocks while the two rearmost of all staggered along under a huge basket
o' fresh-caught carp, for the morrow was Friday, and there were fifty
platters to be filled and as many sturdy trenchermen behind them. Of all
the throng there was scarce one who was not labor-stained and weary, for
Abbot Berghersh was a hard man to himself and to others.

Meanwhile, in the broad and lofty chamber set apart for occasions of
import, the Abbot himself was pacing impatiently backwards and forwards,
with his long white nervous hands clasped in front of him. His thin,
thought-worn features and sunken, haggard cheeks bespoke one who had
indeed beaten down that inner foe whom every man must face, but had none
the less suffered sorely in the contest. In crushing his passions he had
well-nigh crushed himself. Yet, frail as was his person there gleamed out
ever and anon from under his drooping brows a flash of fierce energy,
which recalled to men's minds that he came of a fighting stock, and that
even now his twin-brother, Sir Bartholomew Berghersh, was one of the most
famous of those stern warriors who had planted the Cross of St. George
before the gates of Paris. With lips compressed and clouded brow, he
strode up and down the oaken floor, the very genius and impersonation of
asceticism, while the great bell still thundered and clanged above his
head. At last the uproar died away in three last, measured throbs, and ere
their echo had ceased the Abbot struck a small gong which summoned a
lay-brother to his presence.

“Have the brethren come?” he asked, in the Anglo-French dialect used in
religious houses.

“They are here,” the other answered, with his eyes cast down and his hands
crossed upon his chest.

“All?”

“Two and thirty of the seniors and fifteen of the novices, most holy
father. Brother Mark of the Spicarium is sore smitten with a fever and
could not come. He said that—”

“It boots not what he said. Fever or no, he should have come at my call.
His spirit must be chastened, as must that of many more in this Abbey. You
yourself, brother Francis, have twice raised your voice, so it hath come
to my ears, when the reader in the refectory hath been dealing with the
lives of God's most blessed saints. What hast thou to say?”

The lay-brother stood meek and silent, with his arms still crossed in
front of him.

“One thousand Aves and as many Credos, said standing with arms
outstretched before the shrine of the Virgin, may help thee to remember
that the Creator hath given us two ears and but one mouth, as a token that
there is twice the work for the one as for the other. Where is the master
of the novices?”

“He is without, most holy father.”

“Send him hither.”

The sandalled feet clattered over the wooden floor, and the iron-bound
door creaked upon its hinges. In a few moments it opened again to admit a
short square monk with a heavy, composed face and an authoritative manner.

“You have sent for me, holy father?”

“Yes, brother Jerome, I wish that this matter be disposed of with as
little scandal as may be, and yet it is needful that the example should be
a public one.” The Abbot spoke in Latin now, as a language which was more
fitted by its age and solemnity to convey the thoughts of two high
dignitaries of the order.

“It would, perchance, be best that the novices be not admitted,” suggested
the master. “This mention of a woman may turn their minds from their pious
meditations to worldly and evil thoughts.”

“Woman! woman!” groaned the Abbot. “Well has the holy Chrysostom termed
them radix malorum. From Eve downwards, what good hath come from
any of them? Who brings the plaint?”

“It is brother Ambrose.”

“A holy and devout young man.”

“A light and a pattern to every novice.”

“Let the matter be brought to an issue then according to our old-time
monastic habit. Bid the chancellor and the sub-chancellor lead in the
brothers according to age, together with brother John, the accused, and
brother Ambrose, the accuser.”

“And the novices?”

“Let them bide in the north alley of the cloisters. Stay! Bid the
sub-chancellor send out to them Thomas the lector to read unto them from
the 'Gesta beati Benedicti.' It may save them from foolish and pernicious
babbling.”

The Abbot was left to himself once more, and bent his thin gray face over
his illuminated breviary. So he remained while the senior monks filed
slowly and sedately into the chamber seating themselves upon the long
oaken benches which lined the wall on either side. At the further end, in
two high chairs as large as that of the Abbot, though hardly as
elaborately carved, sat the master of the novices and the chancellor, the
latter a broad and portly priest, with dark mirthful eyes and a thick
outgrowth of crisp black hair all round his tonsured head. Between them
stood a lean, white-faced brother who appeared to be ill at ease, shifting
his feet from side to side and tapping his chin nervously with the long
parchment roll which he held in his hand. The Abbot, from his point of
vantage, looked down on the two long lines of faces, placid and
sun-browned for the most part, with the large bovine eyes and unlined
features which told of their easy, unchanging existence. Then he turned
his eager fiery gaze upon the pale-faced monk who faced him.

“This plaint is thine, as I learn, brother Ambrose,” said he. “May the
holy Benedict, patron of our house, be present this day and aid us in our
findings! How many counts are there?”

“Three, most holy father,” the brother answered in a low and quavering
voice.

“Have you set them forth according to rule?”

“They are here set down, most holy father, upon a cantle of sheep-skin.”

“Let the sheep-skin be handed to the chancellor. Bring in brother John,
and let him hear the plaints which have been urged against him.”

At this order a lay-brother swung open the door, and two other
lay-brothers entered leading between them a young novice of the order. He
was a man of huge stature, dark-eyed and red-headed, with a peculiar
half-humorous, half-defiant expression upon his bold, well-marked
features. His cowl was thrown back upon his shoulders, and his gown,
unfastened at the top, disclosed a round, sinewy neck, ruddy and corded
like the bark of the fir. Thick, muscular arms, covered with a reddish
down, protruded from the wide sleeves of his habit, while his white shirt,
looped up upon one side, gave a glimpse of a huge knotty leg, scarred and
torn with the scratches of brambles. With a bow to the Abbot, which had in
it perhaps more pleasantry than reverence, the novice strode across to the
carved prie-dieu which had been set apart for him, and stood silent and
erect with his hand upon the gold bell which was used in the private
orisons of the Abbot's own household. His dark eyes glanced rapidly over
the assembly, and finally settled with a grim and menacing twinkle upon
the face of his accuser.

The chancellor rose, and having slowly unrolled the parchment-scroll,
proceeded to read it out in a thick and pompous voice, while a subdued
rustle and movement among the brothers bespoke the interest with which
they followed the proceedings.

“Charges brought upon the second Thursday after the Feast of the
Assumption, in the year of our Lord thirteen hundred and sixty-six,
against brother John, formerly known as Hordle John, or John of Hordle,
but now a novice in the holy monastic order of the Cistercians. Read upon
the same day at the Abbey of Beaulieu in the presence of the most reverend
Abbot Berghersh and of the assembled order.

“The charges against the said brother John are the following, namely, to
wit:

“First, that on the above-mentioned Feast of the Assumption, small beer
having been served to the novices in the proportion of one quart to each
four, the said brother John did drain the pot at one draught to the
detriment of brother Paul, brother Porphyry and brother Ambrose, who could
scarce eat their none-meat of salted stock-fish on account of their
exceeding dryness.”

At this solemn indictment the novice raised his hand and twitched his lip,
while even the placid senior brothers glanced across at each other and
coughed to cover their amusement. The Abbot alone sat gray and immutable,
with a drawn face and a brooding eye.

“Item, that having been told by the master of the novices that he should
restrict his food for two days to a single three-pound loaf of bran and
beans, for the greater honoring and glorifying of St. Monica, mother of
the holy Augustine, he was heard by brother Ambrose and others to say that
he wished twenty thousand devils would fly away with the said Monica,
mother of the holy Augustine, or any other saint who came between a man
and his meat. Item, that upon brother Ambrose reproving him for this
blasphemous wish, he did hold the said brother face downwards over the
piscatorium or fish-pond for a space during which the said brother was
able to repeat a pater and four aves for the better fortifying of his soul
against impending death.”

There was a buzz and murmur among the white-frocked brethren at this grave
charge; but the Abbot held up his long quivering hand. “What then?” said
he.

“Item, that between nones and vespers on the feast of James the Less the
said brother John was observed upon the Brockenhurst road, near the spot
which is known as Hatchett's Pond in converse with a person of the other
sex, being a maiden of the name of Mary Sowley, the daughter of the King's
verderer. Item, that after sundry japes and jokes the said brother John
did lift up the said Mary Sowley and did take, carry, and convey her
across a stream, to the infinite relish of the devil and the exceeding
detriment of his own soul, which scandalous and wilful falling away was
witnessed by three members of our order.”

A dead silence throughout the room, with a rolling of heads and upturning
of eyes, bespoke the pious horror of the community.

The Abbot drew his gray brows low over his fiercely questioning eyes.

“Who can vouch for this thing?” he asked.

“That can I,” answered the accuser. “So too can brother Porphyry, who was
with me, and brother Mark of the Spicarium, who hath been so much stirred
and inwardly troubled by the sight that he now lies in a fever through
it.”

“And the woman?” asked the Abbot. “Did she not break into lamentation and
woe that a brother should so demean himself?”

“Nay, she smiled sweetly upon him and thanked him. I can vouch it and so
can brother Porphyry.”

“Canst thou?” cried the Abbot, in a high, tempestuous tone. “Canst thou
so? Hast forgotten that the five-and-thirtieth rule of the order is that
in the presence of a woman the face should be ever averted and the eyes
cast down? Hast forgot it, I say? If your eyes were upon your sandals, how
came ye to see this smile of which ye prate? A week in your cells, false
brethren, a week of rye-bread and lentils, with double lauds and double
matins, may help ye to remembrance of the laws under which ye live.”

At this sudden outflame of wrath the two witnesses sank their faces on to
their chests, and sat as men crushed. The Abbot turned his angry eyes away
from them and bent them upon the accused, who met his searching gaze with
a firm and composed face.

“What hast thou to say, brother John, upon these weighty things which are
urged against you?”

“Little enough, good father, little enough,” said the novice, speaking
English with a broad West Saxon drawl. The brothers, who were English to a
man, pricked up their ears at the sound of the homely and yet unfamiliar
speech; but the Abbot flushed red with anger, and struck his hand upon the
oaken arm of his chair.

“What talk is this?” he cried. “Is this a tongue to be used within the
walls of an old and well-famed monastery? But grace and learning have ever
gone hand in hand, and when one is lost it is needless to look for the
other.”

“I know not about that,” said brother John. “I know only that the words
come kindly to my mouth, for it was the speech of my fathers before me.
Under your favor, I shall either use it now or hold my peace.”

The Abbot patted his foot and nodded his head, as one who passes a point
but does not forget it.

“For the matter of the ale,” continued brother John, “I had come in hot
from the fields and had scarce got the taste of the thing before mine eye
lit upon the bottom of the pot. It may be, too, that I spoke somewhat
shortly concerning the bran and the beans, the same being poor provender
and unfitted for a man of my inches. It is true also that I did lay my
hands upon this jack-fool of a brother Ambrose, though, as you can see, I
did him little scathe. As regards the maid, too, it is true that I did
heft her over the stream, she having on her hosen and shoon, whilst I had
but my wooden sandals, which could take no hurt from the water. I should
have thought shame upon my manhood, as well as my monkhood, if I had held
back my hand from her.” He glanced around as he spoke with the half-amused
look which he had worn during the whole proceedings.

“There is no need to go further,” said the Abbot. “He has confessed to
all. It only remains for me to portion out the punishment which is due to
his evil conduct.”

He rose, and the two long lines of brothers followed his example, looking
sideways with scared faces at the angry prelate.

“John of Hordle,” he thundered, “you have shown yourself during the two
months of your novitiate to be a recreant monk, and one who is unworthy to
wear the white garb which is the outer symbol of the spotless spirit. That
dress shall therefore be stripped from thee, and thou shalt be cast into
the outer world without benefit of clerkship, and without lot or part in
the graces and blessings of those who dwell under the care of the Blessed
Benedict. Thou shalt come back neither to Beaulieu nor to any of the
granges of Beaulieu, and thy name shall be struck off the scrolls of the
order.”

The sentence appeared a terrible one to the older monks, who had become so
used to the safe and regular life of the Abbey that they would have been
as helpless as children in the outer world. From their pious oasis they
looked dreamily out at the desert of life, a place full of stormings and
strivings—comfortless, restless, and overshadowed by evil. The young
novice, however, appeared to have other thoughts, for his eyes sparkled
and his smile broadened. It needed but that to add fresh fuel to the fiery
mood of the prelate.

“So much for thy spiritual punishment,” he cried. “But it is to thy
grosser feelings that we must turn in such natures as thine, and as thou
art no longer under the shield of holy church there is the less
difficulty. Ho there! lay-brothers—Francis, Naomi, Joseph—seize
him and bind his arms! Drag him forth, and let the foresters and the
porters scourge him from the precincts!”

As these three brothers advanced towards him to carry out the Abbot's
direction, the smile faded from the novice's face, and he glanced right
and left with his fierce brown eyes, like a bull at a baiting. Then, with
a sudden deep-chested shout, he tore up the heavy oaken prie-dieu and
poised it to strike, taking two steps backward the while, that none might
take him at a vantage.

“By the black rood of Waltham!” he roared, “if any knave among you lays a
finger-end upon the edge of my gown, I will crush his skull like a
filbert!” With his thick knotted arms, his thundering voice, and his
bristle of red hair, there was something so repellent in the man that the
three brothers flew back at the very glare of him; and the two rows of
white monks strained away from him like poplars in a tempest. The Abbot
only sprang forward with shining eyes; but the chancellor and the master
hung upon either arm and wrested him back out of danger's way.

“He is possessed of a devil!” they shouted. “Run, brother Ambrose, brother
Joachim! Call Hugh of the Mill, and Woodman Wat, and Raoul with his
arbalest and bolts. Tell them that we are in fear of our lives! Run, run!
for the love of the Virgin!”

But the novice was a strategist as well as a man of action. Springing
forward, he hurled his unwieldy weapon at brother Ambrose, and, as desk
and monk clattered on to the floor together, he sprang through the open
door and down the winding stair. Sleepy old brother Athanasius, at the
porter's cell, had a fleeting vision of twinkling feet and flying skirts;
but before he had time to rub his eyes the recreant had passed the lodge,
and was speeding as fast as his sandals could patter along the Lyndhurst
Road.

CHAPTER II. HOW ALLEYNE EDRICSON CAME OUT INTO THE WORLD.

Never had the peaceful atmosphere of the old Cistercian house been so
rudely ruffled. Never had there been insurrection so sudden, so short, and
so successful. Yet the Abbot Berghersh was a man of too firm a grain to
allow one bold outbreak to imperil the settled order of his great
household. In a few hot and bitter words, he compared their false
brother's exit to the expulsion of our first parents from the garden, and
more than hinted that unless a reformation occurred some others of the
community might find themselves in the same evil and perilous case. Having
thus pointed the moral and reduced his flock to a fitting state of
docility, he dismissed them once more to their labors and withdrew himself
to his own private chamber, there to seek spiritual aid in the discharge
of the duties of his high office.

The Abbot was still on his knees, when a gentle tapping at the door of his
cell broke in upon his orisons.

Rising in no very good humor at the interruption, he gave the word to
enter; but his look of impatience softened down into a pleasant and
paternal smile as his eyes fell upon his visitor.

He was a thin-faced, yellow-haired youth, rather above the middle size,
comely and well shapen, with straight, lithe figure and eager, boyish
features. His clear, pensive gray eyes, and quick, delicate expression,
spoke of a nature which had unfolded far from the boisterous joys and
sorrows of the world. Yet there was a set of the mouth and a prominence of
the chin which relieved him of any trace of effeminacy. Impulsive he might
be, enthusiastic, sensitive, with something sympathetic and adaptive in
his disposition; but an observer of nature's tokens would have confidently
pledged himself that there was native firmness and strength underlying his
gentle, monk-bred ways.

The youth was not clad in monastic garb, but in lay attire, though his
jerkin, cloak and hose were all of a sombre hue, as befitted one who dwelt
in sacred precincts. A broad leather strap hanging from his shoulder
supported a scrip or satchel such as travellers were wont to carry. In one
hand he grasped a thick staff pointed and shod with metal, while in the
other he held his coif or bonnet, which bore in its front a broad pewter
medal stamped with the image of Our Lady of Rocamadour.

“Art ready, then, fair son?” said the Abbot. “This is indeed a day of
comings and of goings. It is strange that in one twelve hours the Abbey
should have cast off its foulest weed and should now lose what we are fain
to look upon as our choicest blossom.”

“You speak too kindly, father,” the youth answered. “If I had my will I
should never go forth, but should end my days here in Beaulieu. It hath
been my home as far back as my mind can carry me, and it is a sore thing
for me to have to leave it.”

“Life brings many a cross,” said the Abbot gently. “Who is without them?
Your going forth is a grief to us as well as to yourself. But there is no
help. I had given my foreword and sacred promise to your father, Edric the
Franklin, that at the age of twenty you should be sent out into the world
to see for yourself how you liked the savor of it. Seat thee upon the
settle, Alleyne, for you may need rest ere long.”

The youth sat down as directed, but reluctantly and with diffidence. The
Abbot stood by the narrow window, and his long black shadow fell slantwise
across the rush-strewn floor.

“Twenty years ago,” he said, “your father, the Franklin of Minstead, died,
leaving to the Abbey three hides of rich land in the hundred of Malwood,
and leaving to us also his infant son on condition that we should rear him
until he came to man's estate. This he did partly because your mother was
dead, and partly because your elder brother, now Socman of Minstead, had
already given sign of that fierce and rude nature which would make him no
fit companion for you. It was his desire and request, however, that you
should not remain in the cloisters, but should at a ripe age return into
the world.”

“But, father,” interrupted the young man, “it is surely true that I am
already advanced several degrees in clerkship?”

“Yes, fair son, but not so far as to bar you from the garb you now wear or
the life which you must now lead. You have been porter?”

“Yes, father.”

“Exorcist?”

“Yes, father.”

“Reader?”

“Yes, father.”

“Acolyte?”

“Yes, father.”

“But have sworn no vow of constancy or chastity?”

“No, father.”

“Then you are free to follow a worldly life. But let me hear, ere you
start, what gifts you take away with you from Beaulieu? Some I already
know. There is the playing of the citole and the rebeck. Our choir will be
dumb without you. You carve too?”

The youth's pale face flushed with the pride of the skilled workman. “Yes,
holy father,” he answered. “Thanks to good brother Bartholomew, I carve in
wood and in ivory, and can do something also in silver and in bronze. From
brother Francis I have learned to paint on vellum, on glass, and on metal,
with a knowledge of those pigments and essences which can preserve the
color against damp or a biting air. Brother Luke hath given me some skill
in damask work, and in the enamelling of shrines, tabernacles, diptychs
and triptychs. For the rest, I know a little of the making of covers, the
cutting of precious stones, and the fashioning of instruments.”

“A goodly list, truly,” cried the superior with a smile. “What clerk of
Cambrig or of Oxenford could say as much? But of thy reading—hast
not so much to show there, I fear?”

“No, father, it hath been slight enough. Yet, thanks to our good
chancellor, I am not wholly unlettered. I have read Ockham, Bradwardine,
and other of the schoolmen, together with the learned Duns Scotus and the
book of the holy Aquinas.”

“But of the things of this world, what have you gathered from your
reading? From this high window you may catch a glimpse over the wooden
point and the smoke of Bucklershard of the mouth of the Exe, and the
shining sea. Now, I pray you, Alleyne, if a man were to take a ship and
spread sail across yonder waters, where might he hope to arrive?”

The youth pondered, and drew a plan amongst the rushes with the point of
his staff. “Holy father,” said he, “he would come upon those parts of
France which are held by the King's Majesty. But if he trended to the
south he might reach Spain and the Barbary States. To his north would be
Flanders and the country of the Eastlanders and of the Muscovites.”

“True. And how if, after reaching the King's possessions, he still
journeyed on to the eastward?”

“He would then come upon that part of France which is still in dispute,
and he might hope to reach the famous city of Avignon, where dwells our
blessed father, the prop of Christendom.”

“And then?”

“Then he would pass through the land of the Almains and the great Roman
Empire, and so to the country of the Huns and of the Lithuanian pagans,
beyond which lies the great city of Constantine and the kingdom of the
unclean followers of Mahmoud.”

“And beyond that, fair son?”

“Beyond that is Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and the great river which
hath its source in the Garden of Eden.”

“And then?”

“Nay, good father, I cannot tell. Methinks the end of the world is not far
from there.”

“Then we can still find something to teach thee, Alleyne,” said the Abbot
complaisantly. “Know that many strange nations lie betwixt there and the
end of the world. There is the country of the Amazons, and the country of
the dwarfs, and the country of the fair but evil women who slay with
beholding, like the basilisk. Beyond that again is the kingdom of Prester
John and of the great Cham. These things I know for very sooth, for I had
them from that pious Christian and valiant knight, Sir John de Mandeville,
who stopped twice at Beaulieu on his way to and from Southampton, and
discoursed to us concerning what he had seen from the reader's desk in the
refectory, until there was many a good brother who got neither bit nor
sup, so stricken were they by his strange tales.”

“I would fain know, father,” asked the young man, “what there may be at
the end of the world?”

“There are some things,” replied the Abbot gravely, “into which it was
never intended that we should inquire. But you have a long road before
you. Whither will you first turn?”

“To my brother's at Minstead. If he be indeed an ungodly and violent man,
there is the more need that I should seek him out and see whether I cannot
turn him to better ways.”

The Abbot shook his head. “The Socman of Minstead hath earned an evil name
over the country side,” he said. “If you must go to him, see at least that
he doth not turn you from the narrow path upon which you have learned to
tread. But you are in God's keeping, and Godward should you ever look in
danger and in trouble. Above all, shun the snares of women, for they are
ever set for the foolish feet of the young. Kneel down, my child, and take
an old man's blessing.”

Alleyne Edricson bent his head while the Abbot poured out his heartfelt
supplication that Heaven would watch over this young soul, now going forth
into the darkness and danger of the world. It was no mere form for either
of them. To them the outside life of mankind did indeed seem to be one of
violence and of sin, beset with physical and still more with spiritual
danger. Heaven, too, was very near to them in those days. God's direct
agency was to be seen in the thunder and the rainbow, the whirlwind and
the lightning. To the believer, clouds of angels and confessors, and
martyrs, armies of the sainted and the saved, were ever stooping over
their struggling brethren upon earth, raising, encouraging, and supporting
them. It was then with a lighter heart and a stouter courage that the
young man turned from the Abbot's room, while the latter, following him to
the stair-head, finally commended him to the protection of the holy
Julian, patron of travellers.

Underneath, in the porch of the Abbey, the monks had gathered to give him
a last God-speed. Many had brought some parting token by which he should
remember them. There was brother Bartholomew with a crucifix of rare
carved ivory, and brother Luke with a white-backed psalter adorned with
golden bees, and brother Francis with the “Slaying of the Innocents” most
daintily set forth upon vellum. All these were duly packed away deep in
the traveller's scrip, and above them old pippin-faced brother Athanasius
had placed a parcel of simnel bread and rammel cheese, with a small flask
of the famous blue-sealed Abbey wine. So, amid hand-shakings and laughings
and blessings, Alleyne Edricson turned his back upon Beaulieu.

At the turn of the road he stopped and gazed back. There was the
wide-spread building which he knew so well, the Abbot's house, the long
church, the cloisters with their line of arches, all bathed and mellowed
in the evening sun. There too was the broad sweep of the river Exe, the
old stone well, the canopied niche of the Virgin, and in the centre of all
the cluster of white-robed figures who waved their hands to him. A sudden
mist swam up before the young man's eyes, and he turned away upon his
journey with a heavy heart and a choking throat.

CHAPTER III. HOW HORDLE JOHN COZENED THE FULLER OF LYMINGTON.

It is not, however, in the nature of things that a lad of twenty, with
young life glowing in his veins and all the wide world before him, should
spend his first hours of freedom in mourning for what he had left. Long
ere Alleyne was out of sound of the Beaulieu bells he was striding
sturdily along, swinging his staff and whistling as merrily as the birds
in the thicket. It was an evening to raise a man's heart. The sun shining
slantwise through the trees threw delicate traceries across the road, with
bars of golden light between. Away in the distance before and behind, the
green boughs, now turning in places to a coppery redness, shot their broad
arches across the track. The still summer air was heavy with the resinous
smell of the great forest. Here and there a tawny brook prattled out from
among the underwood and lost itself again in the ferns and brambles upon
the further side. Save the dull piping of insects and the sough of the
leaves, there was silence everywhere—the sweet restful silence of
nature.

And yet there was no want of life—the whole wide wood was full of
it. Now it was a lithe, furtive stoat which shot across the path upon some
fell errand of its own; then it was a wild cat which squatted upon the
outlying branch of an oak and peeped at the traveller with a yellow and
dubious eye. Once it was a wild sow which scuttled out of the bracken,
with two young sounders at her heels, and once a lordly red staggard
walked daintily out from among the tree trunks, and looked around him with
the fearless gaze of one who lived under the King's own high protection.
Alleyne gave his staff a merry flourish, however, and the red deer
bethought him that the King was far off, so streaked away from whence he
came.

The youth had now journeyed considerably beyond the furthest domains of
the Abbey. He was the more surprised therefore when, on coming round a
turn in the path, he perceived a man clad in the familiar garb of the
order, and seated in a clump of heather by the roadside. Alleyne had known
every brother well, but this was a face which was new to him—a face
which was very red and puffed, working this way and that, as though the
man were sore perplexed in his mind. Once he shook both hands furiously in
the air, and twice he sprang from his seat and hurried down the road. When
he rose, however, Alleyne observed that his robe was much too long and
loose for him in every direction, trailing upon the ground and bagging
about his ankles, so that even with trussed-up skirts he could make little
progress. He ran once, but the long gown clogged him so that he slowed
down into a shambling walk, and finally plumped into the heather once
more.

“Young friend,” said he, when Alleyne was abreast of him, “I fear from thy
garb that thou canst know little of the Abbey of Beaulieu.”

“Then you are in error, friend,” the clerk answered, “for I have spent all
my days within its walls.”

“Hast so indeed?” cried he. “Then perhaps canst tell me the name of a
great loathly lump of a brother wi' freckled face an' a hand like a spade.
His eyes were black an' his hair was red an' his voice like the parish
bull. I trow that there cannot be two alike in the same cloisters.”

“That surely can be no other than brother John,” said Alleyne. “I trust he
has done you no wrong, that you should be so hot against him.”

“Wrong, quotha?” cried the other, jumping out of the heather. “Wrong! why
he hath stolen every plack of clothing off my back, if that be a wrong,
and hath left me here in this sorry frock of white falding, so that I have
shame to go back to my wife, lest she think that I have donned her old
kirtle. Harrow and alas that ever I should have met him!”

“But how came this?” asked the young clerk, who could scarce keep from
laughter at the sight of the hot little man so swathed in the great white
cloak.

“It came in this way,” he said, sitting down once more: “I was passing
this way, hoping to reach Lymington ere nightfall when I came on this
red-headed knave seated even where we are sitting now. I uncovered and
louted as I passed thinking that he might be a holy man at his orisons,
but he called to me and asked me if I had heard speak of the new
indulgence in favor of the Cistercians. 'Not I,' I answered. 'Then the
worse for thy soul!' said he; and with that he broke into a long tale how
that on account of the virtues of the Abbot Berghersh it had been decreed
by the Pope that whoever should wear the habit of a monk of Beaulieu for
as long as he might say the seven psalms of David should be assured of the
kingdom of Heaven. When I heard this I prayed him on my knees that he
would give me the use of his gown, which after many contentions he at last
agreed to do, on my paying him three marks towards the regilding of the
image of Laurence the martyr. Having stripped his robe, I had no choice
but to let him have the wearing of my good leathern jerkin and hose, for,
as he said, it was chilling to the blood and unseemly to the eye to stand
frockless whilst I made my orisons. He had scarce got them on, and it was
a sore labor, seeing that my inches will scarce match my girth—he
had scarce got them on, I say, and I not yet at the end of the second
psalm, when he bade me do honor to my new dress, and with that set off
down the road as fast as feet would carry him. For myself, I could no more
run than if I had been sown in a sack; so here I sit, and here I am like
to sit, before I set eyes upon my clothes again.”

“Nay, friend, take it not so sadly,” said Alleyne, clapping the
disconsolate one upon the shoulder. “Canst change thy robe for a jerkin
once more at the Abbey, unless perchance you have a friend near at hand.”

“That have I,” he answered, “and close; but I care not to go nigh him in
this plight, for his wife hath a gibing tongue, and will spread the tale
until I could not show my face in any market from Fordingbridge to
Southampton. But if you, fair sir, out of your kind charity would be
pleased to go a matter of two bow-shots out of your way, you would do me
such a service as I could scarce repay.”

“With all my heart,” said Alleyne readily.

“Then take this pathway on the left, I pray thee, and then the deer-track
which passes on the right. You will then see under a great beech-tree the
hut of a charcoal-burner. Give him my name, good sir, the name of Peter
the fuller, of Lymington, and ask him for a change of raiment, that I may
pursue my journey without delay. There are reasons why he would be loth to
refuse me.”

Alleyne started off along the path indicated, and soon found the log-hut
where the burner dwelt. He was away faggot-cutting in the forest, but his
wife, a ruddy bustling dame, found the needful garments and tied them into
a bundle. While she busied herself in finding and folding them, Alleyne
Edricson stood by the open door looking in at her with much interest and
some distrust, for he had never been so nigh to a woman before. She had
round red arms, a dress of some sober woollen stuff, and a brass brooch
the size of a cheese-cake stuck in the front of it.

“Peter the fuller!” she kept repeating. “Marry come up! if I were Peter
the fuller's wife I would teach him better than to give his clothes to the
first knave who asks for them. But he was always a poor, fond, silly
creature, was Peter, though we are beholden to him for helping to bury our
second son Wat, who was a 'prentice to him at Lymington in the year of the
Black Death. But who are you, young sir?”

“I am a clerk on my road from Beaulieu to Minstead.”

“Aye, indeed! Hast been brought up at the Abbey then. I could read it from
thy reddened cheek and downcast eye. Hast learned from the monks, I trow,
to fear a woman as thou wouldst a lazar-house. Out upon them! that they
should dishonor their own mothers by such teaching. A pretty world it
would be with all the women out of it.”

“Heaven forfend that such a thing should come to pass!” said Alleyne.

“Amen and amen! But thou art a pretty lad, and the prettier for thy modest
ways. It is easy to see from thy cheek that thou hast not spent thy days
in the rain and the heat and the wind, as my poor Wat hath been forced to
do.”

“I have indeed seen little of life, good dame.”

“Wilt find nothing in it to pay for the loss of thy own freshness. Here
are the clothes, and Peter can leave them when next he comes this way.
Holy Virgin! see the dust upon thy doublet! It were easy to see that there
is no woman to tend to thee. So!—that is better. Now buss me, boy.”

Alleyne stooped and kissed her, for the kiss was the common salutation of
the age, and, as Erasmus long afterwards remarked, more used in England
than in any other country. Yet it sent the blood to his temples again, and
he wondered, as he turned away, what the Abbot Berghersh would have
answered to so frank an invitation. He was still tingling from this new
experience when he came out upon the high-road and saw a sight which drove
all other thoughts from his mind.

Some way down from where he had left him the unfortunate Peter was
stamping and raving tenfold worse than before. Now, however, instead of
the great white cloak, he had no clothes on at all, save a short woollen
shirt and a pair of leather shoes. Far down the road a long-legged figure
was running, with a bundle under one arm and the other hand to his side,
like a man who laughs until he is sore.

“See him!” yelled Peter. “Look to him! You shall be my witness. He shall
see Winchester jail for this. See where he goes with my cloak under his
arm!”

“Who then?” cried Alleyne.

“Who but that cursed brother John. He hath not left me clothes enough to
make a gallybagger. The double thief hath cozened me out of my gown.”

“Stay though, my friend, it was his gown,” objected Alleyne.

“It boots not. He hath them all—gown, jerkin, hosen and all.
Gramercy to him that he left me the shirt and the shoon. I doubt not that
he will be back for them anon.”

“But how came this?” asked Alleyne, open-eyed with astonishment.

“Are those the clothes? For dear charity's sake give them to me. Not the
Pope himself shall have these from me, though he sent the whole college of
cardinals to ask it. How came it? Why, you had scarce gone ere this
loathly John came running back again, and, when I oped mouth to reproach
him, he asked me whether it was indeed likely that a man of prayer would
leave his own godly raiment in order to take a layman's jerkin. He had, he
said, but gone for a while that I might be the freer for my devotions. On
this I plucked off the gown, and he with much show of haste did begin to
undo his points; but when I threw his frock down he clipped it up and ran
off all untrussed, leaving me in this sorry plight. He laughed so the
while, like a great croaking frog, that I might have caught him had my
breath not been as short as his legs were long.”

The young man listened to this tale of wrong with all the seriousness that
he could maintain; but at the sight of the pursy red-faced man and the
dignity with which he bore him, the laughter came so thick upon him that
he had to lean up against a tree-trunk. The fuller looked sadly and
gravely at him; but finding that he still laughed, he bowed with much mock
politeness and stalked onwards in his borrowed clothes. Alleyne watched
him until he was small in the distance, and then, wiping the tears from
his eyes, he set off briskly once more upon his journey.

CHAPTER IV. HOW THE BAILIFF OF SOUTHAMPTON SLEW THE TWO MASTERLESS MEN.

The road along which he travelled was scarce as populous as most other
roads in the kingdom, and far less so than those which lie between the
larger towns. Yet from time to time Alleyne met other wayfarers, and more
than once was overtaken by strings of pack mules and horsemen journeying
in the same direction as himself. Once a begging friar came limping along
in a brown habit, imploring in a most dolorous voice to give him a single
groat to buy bread wherewith to save himself from impending death. Alleyne
passed him swiftly by, for he had learned from the monks to have no love
for the wandering friars, and, besides, there was a great half-gnawed
mutton bone sticking out of his pouch to prove him a liar. Swiftly as he
went, however, he could not escape the curse of the four blessed
evangelists which the mendicant howled behind him. So dreadful are his
execrations that the frightened lad thrust his fingers into his ear-holes,
and ran until the fellow was but a brown smirch upon the yellow road.

Further on, at the edge of the woodland, he came upon a chapman and his
wife, who sat upon a fallen tree. He had put his pack down as a table, and
the two of them were devouring a great pasty, and washing it down with
some drink from a stone jar. The chapman broke a rough jest as he passed,
and the woman called shrilly to Alleyne to come and join them, on which
the man, turning suddenly from mirth to wrath, began to belabor her with
his cudgel. Alleyne hastened on, lest he make more mischief, and his heart
was heavy as lead within him. Look where he would, he seemed to see
nothing but injustice and violence and the hardness of man to man.

But even as he brooded sadly over it and pined for the sweet peace of the
Abbey, he came on an open space dotted with holly bushes, where was the
strangest sight that he had yet chanced upon. Near to the pathway lay a
long clump of greenery, and from behind this there stuck straight up into
the air four human legs clad in parti-colored hosen, yellow and black.
Strangest of all was when a brisk tune struck suddenly up and the four
legs began to kick and twitter in time to the music. Walking on tiptoe
round the bushes, he stood in amazement to see two men bounding about on
their heads, while they played, the one a viol and the other a pipe, as
merrily and as truly as though they were seated in a choir. Alleyne
crossed himself as he gazed at this unnatural sight, and could scarce hold
his ground with a steady face, when the two dancers, catching sight of
him, came bouncing in his direction. A spear's length from him, they each
threw a somersault into the air, and came down upon their feet with
smirking faces and their hands over their hearts.

“A guerdon—a guerdon, my knight of the staring eyes!” cried one.

“A gift, my prince!” shouted the other. “Any trifle will serve—a
purse of gold, or even a jewelled goblet.”

Alleyne thought of what he had read of demoniac possession—the
jumpings, the twitchings, the wild talk. It was in his mind to repeat over
the exorcism proper to such attacks; but the two burst out a-laughing at
his scared face, and turning on to their heads once more, clapped their
heels in derision.

“Hast never seen tumblers before?” asked the elder, a black-browed,
swarthy man, as brown and supple as a hazel twig. “Why shrink from us,
then, as though we were the spawn of the Evil One?”

“Why shrink, my honey-bird? Why so afeard, my sweet cinnamon?” exclaimed
the other, a loose-jointed lanky youth with a dancing, roguish eye.

“Truly, sirs, it is a new sight to me,” the clerk answered. “When I saw
your four legs above the bush I could scarce credit my own eyes. Why is it
that you do this thing?”

“A dry question to answer,” cried the younger, coming back on to his feet.
“A most husky question, my fair bird! But how? A flask, a flask!—by
all that is wonderful!” He shot out his hand as he spoke, and plucking
Alleyne's bottle out of his scrip, he deftly knocked the neck off, and
poured the half of it down his throat. The rest he handed to his comrade,
who drank the wine, and then, to the clerk's increasing amazement, made a
show of swallowing the bottle, with such skill that Alleyne seemed to see
it vanish down his throat. A moment later, however, he flung it over his
head, and caught it bottom downwards upon the calf of his left leg.

“We thank you for the wine, kind sir,” said he, “and for the ready
courtesy wherewith you offered it. Touching your question, we may tell you
that we are strollers and jugglers, who, having performed with much
applause at Winchester fair, are now on our way to the great Michaelmas
market at Ringwood. As our art is a very fine and delicate one, however,
we cannot let a day go by without exercising ourselves in it, to which end
we choose some quiet and sheltered spot where we may break our journey.
Here you find us; and we cannot wonder that you, who are new to tumbling,
should be astounded, since many great barons, earls, marshals and knights,
who have wandered as far as the Holy Land, are of one mind in saying that
they have never seen a more noble or gracious performance. If you will be
pleased to sit upon that stump, we will now continue our exercise.”

Alleyne sat down willingly as directed with two great bundles on either
side of him which contained the strollers' dresses—doublets of
flame-colored silk and girdles of leather, spangled with brass and tin.
The jugglers were on their heads once more, bounding about with rigid
necks, playing the while in perfect time and tune. It chanced that out of
one of the bundles there stuck the end of what the clerk saw to be a
cittern, so drawing it forth, he tuned it up and twanged a harmony to the
merry lilt which the dancers played. On that they dropped their own
instruments, and putting their hands to the ground they hopped about
faster and faster, ever shouting to him to play more briskly, until at
last for very weariness all three had to stop.

“Well played, sweet poppet!” cried the younger. “Hast a rare touch on the
strings.”

“How knew you the tune?” asked the other.

“I knew it not. I did but follow the notes I heard.”

Both opened their eyes at this, and stared at Alleyne with as much
amazement as he had shown at them.

“You have a fine trick of ear then,” said one. “We have long wished to
meet such a man. Wilt join us and jog on to Ringwood? Thy duties shall be
light, and thou shalt have two-pence a day and meat for supper every
night.”

“With as much beer as you can put away,” said the other, “and a flask of
Gascon wine on Sabbaths.”

“Nay, it may not be. I have other work to do. I have tarried with you over
long,” quoth Alleyne, and resolutely set forth upon his journey once more.
They ran behind him some little way, offering him first fourpence and then
sixpence a day, but he only smiled and shook his head, until at last they
fell away from him. Looking back, he saw that the smaller had mounted on
the younger's shoulders, and that they stood so, some ten feet high,
waving their adieus to him. He waved back to them, and then hastened on,
the lighter of heart for having fallen in with these strange men of
pleasure.

Alleyne had gone no great distance for all the many small passages that
had befallen him. Yet to him, used as he was to a life of such quiet that
the failure of a brewing or the altering of an anthem had seemed to be of
the deepest import, the quick changing play of the lights and shadows of
life was strangely startling and interesting. A gulf seemed to divide this
brisk uncertain existence from the old steady round of work and of prayer
which he had left behind him. The few hours that had passed since he saw
the Abbey tower stretched out in his memory until they outgrew whole
months of the stagnant life of the cloister. As he walked and munched the
soft bread from his scrip, it seemed strange to him to feel that it was
still warm from the ovens of Beaulieu.

When he passed Penerley, where were three cottages and a barn, he reached
the edge of the tree country, and found the great barren heath of
Blackdown stretching in front of him, all pink with heather and bronzed
with the fading ferns. On the left the woods were still thick, but the
road edged away from them and wound over the open. The sun lay low in the
west upon a purple cloud, whence it threw a mild, chastening light over
the wild moorland and glittered on the fringe of forest turning the
withered leaves into flakes of dead gold, the brighter for the black
depths behind them. To the seeing eye decay is as fair as growth, and
death as life. The thought stole into Alleyne's heart as he looked upon
the autumnal country side and marvelled at its beauty. He had little time
to dwell upon it however, for there were still six good miles between him
and the nearest inn. He sat down by the roadside to partake of his bread
and cheese, and then with a lighter scrip he hastened upon his way.

There appeared to be more wayfarers on the down than in the forest. First
he passed two Dominicans in their long black dresses, who swept by him
with downcast looks and pattering lips, without so much as a glance at
him. Then there came a gray friar, or minorite, with a good paunch upon
him, walking slowly and looking about him with the air of a man who was at
peace with himself and with all men. He stopped Alleyne to ask him whether
it was not true that there was a hostel somewhere in those parts which was
especially famous for the stewing of eels. The clerk having made answer
that he had heard the eels of Sowley well spoken of, the friar sucked in
his lips and hurried forward. Close at his heels came three laborers
walking abreast, with spade and mattock over their shoulders. They sang
some rude chorus right tunefully as they walked, but their English was so
coarse and rough that to the ears of a cloister-bred man it sounded like a
foreign and barbarous tongue. One of them carried a young bittern which
they had caught upon the moor, and they offered it to Alleyne for a silver
groat. Very glad he was to get safely past them, for, with their bristling
red beards and their fierce blue eyes, they were uneasy men to bargain
with upon a lonely moor.

Yet it is not always the burliest and the wildest who are the most to be
dreaded. The workers looked hungrily at him, and then jogged onwards upon
their way in slow, lumbering Saxon style. A worse man to deal with was a
wooden-legged cripple who came hobbling down the path, so weak and so old
to all appearance that a child need not stand in fear of him. Yet when
Alleyne had passed him, of a sudden, out of pure devilment, he screamed
out a curse at him, and sent a jagged flint stone hurtling past his ear.
So horrid was the causeless rage of the crooked creature, that the clerk
came over a cold thrill, and took to his heels until he was out of shot
from stone or word. It seemed to him that in this country of England there
was no protection for a man save that which lay in the strength of his own
arm and the speed of his own foot. In the cloisters he had heard vague
talk of the law—the mighty law which was higher than prelate or
baron, yet no sign could he see of it. What was the benefit of a law
written fair upon parchment, he wondered, if there were no officers to
enforce it. As it fell out, however, he had that very evening, ere the sun
had set, a chance of seeing how stern was the grip of the English law when
it did happen to seize the offender.

A mile or so out upon the moor the road takes a very sudden dip into a
hollow, with a peat-colored stream running swiftly down the centre of it.
To the right of this stood, and stands to this day, an ancient barrow, or
burying mound, covered deeply in a bristle of heather and bracken. Alleyne
was plodding down the slope upon one side, when he saw an old dame coming
towards him upon the other, limping with weariness and leaning heavily
upon a stick. When she reached the edge of the stream she stood helpless,
looking to right and to left for some ford. Where the path ran down a
great stone had been fixed in the centre of the brook, but it was too far
from the bank for her aged and uncertain feet. Twice she thrust forward at
it, and twice she drew back, until at last, giving up in despair, she sat
herself down by the brink and wrung her hands wearily. There she still sat
when Alleyne reached the crossing.

“Come, mother,” quoth he, “it is not so very perilous a passage.”

“Alas! good youth,” she answered, “I have a humor in the eyes, and though
I can see that there is a stone there I can by no means be sure as to
where it lies.”

“That is easily amended,” said he cheerily, and picking her lightly up,
for she was much worn with time, he passed across with her. He could not
but observe, however, that as he placed her down her knees seemed to fail
her, and she could scarcely prop herself up with her staff.

“You are weak, mother,” said he. “Hast journeyed far, I wot.”

“From Wiltshire, friend,” said she, in a quavering voice; “three days have
I been on the road. I go to my son, who is one of the King's regarders at
Brockenhurst. He has ever said that he would care for me in mine old age.”

“And rightly too, mother, since you cared for him in his youth. But when
have you broken fast?”

“At Lyndenhurst; but alas! my money is at an end, and I could but get a
dish of bran-porridge from the nunnery. Yet I trust that I may be able to
reach Brockenhurst to-night, where I may have all that heart can desire;
for oh! sir, but my son is a fine man, with a kindly heart of his own, and
it is as good as food to me to think that he should have a doublet of
Lincoln green to his back and be the King's own paid man.”

“It is a long road yet to Brockenhurst,” said Alleyne; “but here is such
bread and cheese as I have left, and here, too, is a penny which may help
you to supper. May God be with you!”

“May God be with you, young man!” she cried. “May He make your heart as
glad as you have made mine!” She turned away, still mumbling blessings,
and Alleyne saw her short figure and her long shadow stumbling slowly up
the slope.

He was moving away himself, when his eyes lit upon a strange sight, and
one which sent a tingling through his skin. Out of the tangled scrub on
the old overgrown barrow two human faces were looking out at him; the
sinking sun glimmered full upon them, showing up every line and feature.
The one was an oldish man with a thin beard, a crooked nose, and a broad
red smudge from a birth-mark over his temple; the other was a negro, a
thing rarely met in England at that day, and rarer still in the quiet
southland parts. Alleyne had read of such folk, but had never seen one
before, and could scarce take his eyes from the fellow's broad pouting lip
and shining teeth. Even as he gazed, however, the two came writhing out
from among the heather, and came down towards him with such a guilty,
slinking carriage, that the clerk felt that there was no good in them, and
hastened onwards upon his way.

He had not gained the crown of the slope, when he heard a sudden scuffle
behind him and a feeble voice bleating for help. Looking round, there was
the old dame down upon the roadway, with her red whimple flying on the
breeze, while the two rogues, black and white, stooped over her, wresting
away from her the penny and such other poor trifles as were worth the
taking. At the sight of her thin limbs struggling in weak resistance, such
a glow of fierce anger passed over Alleyne as set his head in a whirl.
Dropping his scrip, he bounded over the stream once more, and made for the
two villains, with his staff whirled over his shoulder and his gray eyes
blazing with fury.

The robbers, however, were not disposed to leave their victim until they
had worked their wicked will upon her. The black man, with the woman's
crimson scarf tied round his swarthy head, stood forward in the centre of
the path, with a long dull-colored knife in his hand, while the other,
waving a ragged cudgel, cursed at Alleyne and dared him to come on. His
blood was fairly aflame, however, and he needed no such challenge. Dashing
at the black man, he smote at him with such good will that the other let
his knife tinkle into the roadway, and hopped howling to a safer distance.
The second rogue, however, made of sterner stuff, rushed in upon the
clerk, and clipped him round the waist with a grip like a bear, shouting
the while to his comrade to come round and stab him in the back. At this
the negro took heart of grace, and picking up his dagger again he came
stealing with prowling step and murderous eye, while the two swayed
backwards and forwards, staggering this way and that. In the very midst of
the scuffle, however, whilst Alleyne braced himself to feel the cold blade
between his shoulders, there came a sudden scurry of hoofs, and the black
man yelled with terror and ran for his life through the heather. The man
with the birth-mark, too, struggled to break away, and Alleyne heard his
teeth chatter and felt his limbs grow limp to his hand. At this sign of
coming aid the clerk held on the tighter, and at last was able to pin his
man down and glanced behind him to see where all the noise was coming
from.

Down the slanting road there was riding a big, burly man, clad in a tunic
of purple velvet and driving a great black horse as hard as it could
gallop. He leaned well over its neck as he rode, and made a heaving with
his shoulders at every bound as though he were lifting the steed instead
of it carrying him. In the rapid glance Alleyne saw that he had white
doeskin gloves, a curling white feather in his flat velvet cap, and a
broad gold, embroidered baldric across his bosom. Behind him rode six
others, two and two, clad in sober brown jerkins, with the long yellow
staves of their bows thrusting out from behind their right shoulders. Down
the hill they thundered, over the brook and up to the scene of the
contest.

“Here is one!” said the leader, springing down from his reeking horse, and
seizing the white rogue by the edge of his jerkin. “This is one of them. I
know him by that devil's touch upon his brow. Where are your cords,
Peterkin? So! Bind him hand and foot. His last hour has come. And you,
young man, who may you be?”

“I am a clerk, sir, travelling from Beaulieu.”

“A clerk!” cried the other. “Art from Oxenford or from Cambridge? Hast
thou a letter from the chancellor of thy college giving thee a permit to
beg? Let me see thy letter.” He had a stern, square face, with bushy side
whiskers and a very questioning eye.

“I am from Beaulieu Abbey, and I have no need to beg,” said Alleyne, who
was all of a tremble now that the ruffle was over.

“The better for thee,” the other answered. “Dost know who I am?”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“I am the law!”—nodding his head solemnly. “I am the law of England
and the mouthpiece of his most gracious and royal majesty, Edward the
Third.”

Alleyne louted low to the King's representative. “Truly you came in good
time, honored sir,” said he. “A moment later and they would have slain
me.”

“But there should be another one,” cried the man in the purple coat.
“There should be a black man. A shipman with St. Anthony's fire, and a
black man who had served him as cook—those are the pair that we are
in chase of.”

“The black man fled over to that side,” said Alleyne, pointing towards the
barrow.

“He could not have gone far, sir bailiff,” cried one of the archers,
unslinging his bow. “He is in hiding somewhere, for he knew well, black
paynim as he is, that our horses' four legs could outstrip his two.”

“Then we shall have him,” said the other. “It shall never be said, whilst
I am bailiff of Southampton, that any waster, riever, draw-latch or
murtherer came scathless away from me and my posse. Leave that rogue
lying. Now stretch out in line, my merry ones, with arrow on string, and I
shall show you such sport as only the King can give. You on the left,
Howett, and Thomas of Redbridge upon the right. So! Beat high and low
among the heather, and a pot of wine to the lucky marksman.”

As it chanced, however, the searchers had not far to seek. The negro had
burrowed down into his hiding-place upon the barrow, where he might have
lain snug enough, had it not been for the red gear upon his head. As he
raised himself to look over the bracken at his enemies, the staring color
caught the eye of the bailiff, who broke into a long screeching whoop and
spurred forward sword in hand. Seeing himself discovered, the man rushed
out from his hiding-place, and bounded at the top of his speed down the
line of archers, keeping a good hundred paces to the front of them. The
two who were on either side of Alleyne bent their bows as calmly as though
they were shooting at the popinjay at the village fair.

“Seven yards windage, Hal,” said one, whose hair was streaked with gray.

“Five,” replied the other, letting loose his string. Alleyne gave a gulp
in his throat, for the yellow streak seemed to pass through the man; but
he still ran forward.

“Seven, you jack-fool,” growled the first speaker, and his bow twanged
like a harp-string. The black man sprang high up into the air, and shot
out both his arms and his legs, coming down all a-sprawl among the
heather. “Right under the blade bone!” quoth the archer, sauntering
forward for his arrow.

“The old hound is the best when all is said,” quoth the bailiff of
Southampton, as they made back for the roadway. “That means a quart of the
best malmsey in Southampton this very night, Matthew Atwood. Art sure that
he is dead?”

“Dead as Pontius Pilate, worshipful sir.”

“It is well. Now, as to the other knave. There are trees and to spare over
yonder, but we have scarce leisure to make for them. Draw thy sword,
Thomas of Redbridge, and hew me his head from his shoulders.”

“A boon, gracious sir, a boon!” cried the condemned man.

“What then?” asked the bailiff.

“I will confess to my crime. It was indeed I and the black cook, both from
the ship 'La Rose de Gloire,' of Southampton, who did set upon the
Flanders merchant and rob him of his spicery and his mercery, for which,
as we well know, you hold a warrant against us.”

“There is little merit in this confession,” quoth the bailiff sternly.
“Thou hast done evil within my bailiwick, and must die.”

“But, sir,” urged Alleyne, who was white to the lips at these bloody
doings, “he hath not yet come to trial.”

“Young clerk,” said the bailiff, “you speak of that of which you know
nothing. It is true that he hath not come to trial, but the trial hath
come to him. He hath fled the law and is beyond its pale. Touch not that
which is no concern of thine. But what is this boon, rogue, which you
would crave?”

“I have in my shoe, most worshipful sir, a strip of wood which belonged
once to the bark wherein the blessed Paul was dashed up against the island
of Melita. I bought it for two rose nobles from a shipman who came from
the Levant. The boon I crave is that you will place it in my hands and let
me die still grasping it. In this manner, not only shall my own eternal
salvation be secured, but thine also, for I shall never cease to intercede
for thee.”

At the command of the bailiff they plucked off the fellow's shoe, and
there sure enough at the side of the instep, wrapped in a piece of fine
sendall, lay a long, dark splinter of wood. The archers doffed caps at the
sight of it, and the bailiff crossed himself devoutly as he handed it to
the robber.

“If it should chance,” he said, “that through the surpassing merits of the
blessed Paul your sin-stained soul should gain a way into paradise, I
trust that you will not forget that intercession which you have promised.
Bear in mind too, that it is Herward the bailiff for whom you pray, and
not Herward the sheriff, who is my uncle's son. Now, Thomas, I pray you
dispatch, for we have a long ride before us and sun has already set.”

Alleyne gazed upon the scene—the portly velvet-clad official, the
knot of hard-faced archers with their hands to the bridles of their
horses, the thief with his arms trussed back and his doublet turned down
upon his shoulders. By the side of the track the old dame was standing,
fastening her red whimple once more round her head. Even as he looked one
of the archers drew his sword with a sharp whirr of steel and stept up to
the lost man. The clerk hurried away in horror; but, ere he had gone many
paces, he heard a sudden, sullen thump, with a choking, whistling sound at
the end of it. A minute later the bailiff and four of his men rode past
him on their journey back to Southampton, the other two having been chosen
as grave-diggers. As they passed Alleyne saw that one of the men was
wiping his sword-blade upon the mane of his horse. A deadly sickness came
over him at the sight, and sitting down by the wayside he burst out
weeping, with his nerves all in a jangle. It was a terrible world thought
he, and it was hard to know which were the most to be dreaded, the knaves
or the men of the law.

CHAPTER V. HOW A STRANGE COMPANY GATHERED AT THE “PIED MERLIN.”

The night had already fallen, and the moon was shining between the rifts
of ragged, drifting clouds, before Alleyne Edricson, footsore and weary
from the unwonted exercise, found himself in front of the forest inn which
stood upon the outskirts of Lyndhurst. The building was long and low,
standing back a little from the road, with two flambeaux blazing on either
side of the door as a welcome to the traveller. From one window there
thrust forth a long pole with a bunch of greenery tied to the end of it—a
sign that liquor was to be sold within. As Alleyne walked up to it he
perceived that it was rudely fashioned out of beams of wood, with
twinkling lights all over where the glow from within shone through the
chinks. The roof was poor and thatched; but in strange contrast to it
there ran all along under the eaves a line of wooden shields, most
gorgeously painted with chevron, bend, and saltire, and every heraldic
device. By the door a horse stood tethered, the ruddy glow beating
strongly upon his brown head and patient eyes, while his body stood back
in the shadow.

Alleyne stood still in the roadway for a few minutes reflecting upon what
he should do. It was, he knew, only a few miles further to Minstead, where
his brother dwelt. On the other hand, he had never seen this brother since
childhood, and the reports which had come to his ears concerning him were
seldom to his advantage. By all accounts he was a hard and a bitter man.

It might be an evil start to come to his door so late and claim the
shelter of his roof. Better to sleep here at this inn, and then travel on
to Minstead in the morning. If his brother would take him in, well and
good.

He would bide with him for a time and do what he might to serve him. If,
on the other hand, he should have hardened his heart against him, he could
only go on his way and do the best he might by his skill as a craftsman
and a scrivener. At the end of a year he would be free to return to the
cloisters, for such had been his father's bequest. A monkish upbringing,
one year in the world after the age of twenty, and then a free selection
one way or the other—it was a strange course which had been marked
out for him. Such as it was, however, he had no choice but to follow it,
and if he were to begin by making a friend of his brother he had best wait
until morning before he knocked at his dwelling.

The rude plank door was ajar, but as Alleyne approached it there came from
within such a gust of rough laughter and clatter of tongues that he stood
irresolute upon the threshold. Summoning courage, however, and reflecting
that it was a public dwelling, in which he had as much right as any other
man, he pushed it open and stepped into the common room.

Though it was an autumn evening and somewhat warm, a huge fire of heaped
billets of wood crackled and sparkled in a broad, open grate, some of the
smoke escaping up a rude chimney, but the greater part rolling out into
the room, so that the air was thick with it, and a man coming from without
could scarce catch his breath. On this fire a great cauldron bubbled and
simmered, giving forth a rich and promising smell. Seated round it were a
dozen or so folk, of all ages and conditions, who set up such a shout as
Alleyne entered that he stood peering at them through the smoke, uncertain
what this riotous greeting might portend.

“A rouse! A rouse!” cried one rough looking fellow in a tattered jerkin.
“One more round of mead or ale and the score to the last comer.”

“'Tis the law of the 'Pied Merlin,'” shouted another. “Ho there, Dame
Eliza! Here is fresh custom come to the house, and not a drain for the
company.”

“I will take your orders, gentles; I will assuredly take your orders,” the
landlady answered, bustling in with her hands full of leathern
drinking-cups. “What is it that you drink, then? Beer for the lads of the
forest, mead for the gleeman, strong waters for the tinker, and wine for
the rest. It is an old custom of the house, young sir. It has been the use
at the 'Pied Merlin' this many a year back that the company should drink
to the health of the last comer. Is it your pleasure to humor it?”

“Why, good dame,” said Alleyne, “I would not offend the customs of your
house, but it is only sooth when I say that my purse is a thin one. As far
as two pence will go, however, I shall be right glad to do my part.”

“Plainly said and bravely spoken, my suckling friar,” roared a deep voice,
and a heavy hand fell upon Alleyne's shoulder. Looking up, he saw beside
him his former cloister companion the renegade monk, Hordle John.

“By the thorn of Glastonbury! ill days are coming upon Beaulieu,” said he.
“Here they have got rid in one day of the only two men within their walls—for
I have had mine eyes upon thee, youngster, and I know that for all thy
baby-face there is the making of a man in thee. Then there is the Abbot,
too. I am no friend of his, nor he of mine; but he has warm blood in his
veins. He is the only man left among them. The others, what are they?”

“They are holy men,” Alleyne answered gravely.

“Holy men? Holy cabbages! Holy bean-pods! What do they do but live and
suck in sustenance and grow fat? If that be holiness, I could show you
hogs in this forest who are fit to head the calendar. Think you it was for
such a life that this good arm was fixed upon my shoulder, or that head
placed upon your neck? There is work in the world, man, and it is not by
hiding behind stone walls that we shall do it.”

“Why, then, did you join the brothers?” asked Alleyne.

“A fair enough question; but it is as fairly answered. I joined them
because Margery Alspaye, of Bolder, married Crooked Thomas of Ringwood,
and left a certain John of Hordle in the cold, for that he was a ranting,
roving blade who was not to be trusted in wedlock. That was why, being
fond and hot-headed, I left the world; and that is why, having had time to
take thought, I am right glad to find myself back in it once more. Ill
betide the day that ever I took off my yeoman's jerkin to put on the white
gown!”

Whilst he was speaking the landlady came in again, bearing a broad
platter, upon which stood all the beakers and flagons charged to the brim
with the brown ale or the ruby wine. Behind her came a maid with a high
pile of wooden plates, and a great sheaf of spoons, one of which she
handed round to each of the travellers. Two of the company, who were
dressed in the weather-stained green doublet of foresters, lifted the big
pot off the fire, and a third, with a huge pewter ladle, served out a
portion of steaming collops to each guest. Alleyne bore his share and his
ale-mug away with him to a retired trestle in the corner, where he could
sup in peace and watch the strange scene, which was so different to those
silent and well-ordered meals to which he was accustomed.

The room was not unlike a stable. The low ceiling, smoke-blackened and
dingy, was pierced by several square trap-doors with rough-hewn ladders
leading up to them. The walls of bare unpainted planks were studded here
and there with great wooden pins, placed at irregular intervals and
heights, from which hung over-tunics, wallets, whips, bridles, and
saddles. Over the fireplace were suspended six or seven shields of wood,
with coats-of-arms rudely daubed upon them, which showed by their varying
degrees of smokiness and dirt that they had been placed there at different
periods. There was no furniture, save a single long dresser covered with
coarse crockery, and a number of wooden benches and trestles, the legs of
which sank deeply into the soft clay floor, while the only light, save
that of the fire, was furnished by three torches stuck in sockets on the
wall, which flickered and crackled, giving forth a strong resinous odor.
All this was novel and strange to the cloister-bred youth; but most
interesting of all was the motley circle of guests who sat eating their
collops round the blaze. They were a humble group of wayfarers, such as
might have been found that night in any inn through the length and breadth
of England; but to him they represented that vague world against which he
had been so frequently and so earnestly warned. It did not seem to him
from what he could see of it to be such a very wicked place after all.

Three or four of the men round the fire were evidently underkeepers and
verderers from the forest, sunburned and bearded, with the quick restless
eye and lithe movements of the deer among which they lived. Close to the
corner of the chimney sat a middle-aged gleeman, clad in a faded garb of
Norwich cloth, the tunic of which was so outgrown that it did not fasten
at the neck and at the waist. His face was swollen and coarse, and his
watery protruding eyes spoke of a life which never wandered very far from
the wine-pot. A gilt harp, blotched with many stains and with two of its
strings missing, was tucked under one of his arms, while with the other he
scooped greedily at his platter. Next to him sat two other men of about
the same age, one with a trimming of fur to his coat, which gave him a
dignity which was evidently dearer to him than his comfort, for he still
drew it round him in spite of the hot glare of the faggots. The other,
clad in a dirty russet suit with a long sweeping doublet, had a cunning,
foxy face with keen, twinkling eyes and a peaky beard. Next to him sat
Hordle John, and beside him three other rough unkempt fellows with tangled
beards and matted hair—free laborers from the adjoining farms, where
small patches of freehold property had been suffered to remain scattered
about in the heart of the royal demesne. The company was completed by a
peasant in a rude dress of undyed sheepskin, with the old-fashioned
galligaskins about his legs, and a gayly dressed young man with striped
cloak jagged at the edges and parti-colored hosen, who looked about him
with high disdain upon his face, and held a blue smelling-flask to his
nose with one hand, while he brandished a busy spoon with the other. In
the corner a very fat man was lying all a-sprawl upon a truss, snoring
stertorously, and evidently in the last stage of drunkenness.

“That is Wat the limner,” quoth the landlady, sitting down beside Alleyne,
and pointing with the ladle to the sleeping man. “That is he who paints
the signs and the tokens. Alack and alas that ever I should have been fool
enough to trust him! Now, young man, what manner of a bird would you
suppose a pied merlin to be—that being the proper sign of my
hostel?”

“Why,” said Alleyne, “a merlin is a bird of the same form as an eagle or a
falcon. I can well remember that learned brother Bartholomew, who is deep
in all the secrets of nature, pointed one out to me as we walked together
near Vinney Ridge.”

“A falcon or an eagle, quotha? And pied, that is of two several colors. So
any man would say except this barrel of lies. He came to me, look you,
saying that if I would furnish him with a gallon of ale, wherewith to
strengthen himself as he worked, and also the pigments and a board, he
would paint for me a noble pied merlin which I might hang along with the
blazonry over my door. I, poor simple fool, gave him the ale and all that
he craved, leaving him alone too, because he said that a man's mind must
be left untroubled when he had great work to do. When I came back the
gallon jar was empty, and he lay as you see him, with the board in front
of him with this sorry device.” She raised up a panel which was leaning
against the wall, and showed a rude painting of a scraggy and angular
fowl, with very long legs and a spotted body.

“Was that,” she asked, “like the bird which thou hast seen?”

Alleyne shook his head, smiling.

“No, nor any other bird that ever wagged a feather. It is most like a
plucked pullet which has died of the spotted fever. And scarlet too! What
would the gentles Sir Nicholas Boarhunte, or Sir Bernard Brocas, of Roche
Court, say if they saw such a thing—or, perhaps, even the King's own
Majesty himself, who often has ridden past this way, and who loves his
falcons as he loves his sons? It would be the downfall of my house.”

“The matter is not past mending,” said Alleyne. “I pray you, good dame, to
give me those three pigment-pots and the brush, and I shall try whether I
cannot better this painting.”

Dame Eliza looked doubtfully at him, as though fearing some other
stratagem, but, as he made no demand for ale, she finally brought the
paints, and watched him as he smeared on his background, talking the while
about the folk round the fire.

“The four forest lads must be jogging soon,” she said. “They bide at Emery
Down, a mile or more from here. Yeomen prickers they are, who tend to the
King's hunt. The gleeman is called Floyting Will. He comes from the north
country, but for many years he hath gone the round of the forest from
Southampton to Christchurch. He drinks much and pays little but it would
make your ribs crackle to hear him sing the 'Jest of Hendy Tobias.' Mayhap
he will sing it when the ale has warmed him.”

“Who are those next to him?” asked Alleyne, much interested. “He of the
fur mantle has a wise and reverent face.”

“He is a seller of pills and salves, very learned in humors, and rheums,
and fluxes, and all manner of ailments. He wears, as you perceive, the
vernicle of Sainted Luke, the first physician, upon his sleeve. May good
St. Thomas of Kent grant that it may be long before either I or mine need
his help! He is here to-night for herbergage, as are the others except the
foresters. His neighbor is a tooth-drawer. That bag at his girdle is full
of the teeth that he drew at Winchester fair. I warrant that there are
more sound ones than sorry, for he is quick at his work and a trifle dim
in the eye. The lusty man next him with the red head I have not seen
before. The four on this side are all workers, three of them in the
service of the bailiff of Sir Baldwin Redvers, and the other, he with the
sheepskin, is, as I hear, a villein from the midlands who hath run from
his master. His year and day are well-nigh up, when he will be a free
man.”

“And the other?” asked Alleyne in a whisper. “He is surely some very great
man, for he looks as though he scorned those who were about him.”

The landlady looked at him in a motherly way and shook her head. “You have
had no great truck with the world,” she said, “or you would have learned
that it is the small men and not the great who hold their noses in the
air. Look at those shields upon my wall and under my eaves. Each of them
is the device of some noble lord or gallant knight who hath slept under my
roof at one time or another. Yet milder men or easier to please I have
never seen: eating my bacon and drinking my wine with a merry face, and
paying my score with some courteous word or jest which was dearer to me
than my profit. Those are the true gentles. But your chapman or your
bearward will swear that there is a lime in the wine, and water in the
ale, and fling off at the last with a curse instead of a blessing. This
youth is a scholar from Cambrig, where men are wont to be blown out by a
little knowledge, and lose the use of their hands in learning the laws of
the Romans. But I must away to lay down the beds. So may the saints keep
you and prosper you in your undertaking!”

Thus left to himself, Alleyne drew his panel of wood where the light of
one of the torches would strike full upon it, and worked away with all the
pleasure of the trained craftsman, listening the while to the talk which
went on round the fire. The peasant in the sheepskins, who had sat glum
and silent all evening, had been so heated by his flagon of ale that he
was talking loudly and angrily with clenched hands and flashing eyes.

“Sir Humphrey Tennant of Ashby may till his own fields for me,” he cried.
“The castle has thrown its shadow upon the cottage over long. For three
hundred years my folk have swinked and sweated, day in and day out, to
keep the wine on the lord's table and the harness on the lord's back. Let
him take off his plates and delve himself, if delving must be done.”

“A proper spirit, my fair son!” said one of the free laborers. “I would
that all men were of thy way of thinking.”

“He would have sold me with his acres,” the other cried, in a voice which
was hoarse with passion. “'The man, the woman and their litter'—so
ran the words of the dotard bailiff. Never a bullock on the farm was sold
more lightly. Ha! he may wake some black night to find the flames licking
about his ears—for fire is a good friend to the poor man, and I have
seen a smoking heap of ashes where over night there stood just such
another castlewick as Ashby.”

“This is a lad of mettle!” shouted another of the laborers. “He dares to
give tongue to what all men think. Are we not all from Adam's loins, all
with flesh and blood, and with the same mouth that must needs have food
and drink? Where all this difference then between the ermine cloak and the
leathern tunic, if what they cover is the same?”

“Aye, Jenkin,” said another, “our foeman is under the stole and the
vestment as much as under the helmet and plate of proof. We have as much
to fear from the tonsure as from the hauberk. Strike at the noble and the
priest shrieks, strike at priest and the noble lays his hand upon glaive.
They are twin thieves who live upon our labor.”

“It would take a clever man to live upon thy labor, Hugh,” remarked one of
the foresters, “seeing that the half of thy time is spent in swilling mead
at the 'Pied Merlin.'”

“Better that than stealing the deer that thou art placed to guard, like
some folk I know.”

“If you dare open that swine's mouth against me,” shouted the woodman,
“I'll crop your ears for you before the hangman has the doing of it, thou
long-jawed lackbrain.”

“Nay, gentles, gentles!” cried Dame Eliza, in a singsong heedless voice,
which showed that such bickerings were nightly things among her guests.
“No brawling or brabbling, gentles! Take heed to the good name of the
house.”

“Besides, if it comes to the cropping of ears, there are other folk who
may say their say,” quoth the third laborer. “We are all freemen, and I
trow that a yeoman's cudgel is as good as a forester's knife. By St.
Anselm! it would be an evil day if we had to bend to our master's servants
as well as to our masters.”

“No man is my master save the King,” the woodman answered. “Who is there,
save a false traitor, who would refuse to serve the English king?”

“I know not about the English king,” said the man Jenkin. “What sort of
English king is it who cannot lay his tongue to a word of English? You
mind last year when he came down to Malwood, with his inner marshal and
his outer marshal, his justiciar, his seneschal, and his four and twenty
guardsmen. One noontide I was by Franklin Swinton's gate, when up he rides
with a yeoman pricker at his heels. 'Ouvre,' he cried, 'ouvre,' or some
such word, making signs for me to open the gate; and then 'Merci,' as
though he were adrad of me. And you talk of an English king?”

“I do not marvel at it,” cried the Cambrig scholar, speaking in the high
drawling voice which was common among his class. “It is not a tongue for
men of sweet birth and delicate upbringing. It is a foul, snorting,
snarling manner of speech. For myself, I swear by the learned Polycarp
that I have most ease with Hebrew, and after that perchance with Arabian.”

“I will not hear a word said against old King Ned,” cried Hordle John in a
voice like a bull. “What if he is fond of a bright eye and a saucy face. I
know one of his subjects who could match him at that. If he cannot speak
like an Englishman I trow that he can fight like an Englishman, and he was
hammering at the gates of Paris while ale-house topers were grutching and
grumbling at home.”

This loud speech, coming from a man of so formidable an appearance,
somewhat daunted the disloyal party, and they fell into a sullen silence,
which enabled Alleyne to hear something of the talk which was going on in
the further corner between the physician, the tooth-drawer and the
gleeman.

“A raw rat,” the man of drugs was saying, “that is what it is ever my use
to order for the plague—a raw rat with its paunch cut open.”

“Might it not be broiled, most learned sir?” asked the tooth-drawer. “A
raw rat sounds a most sorry and cheerless dish.”

“Not to be eaten,” cried the physician, in high disdain. “Why should any
man eat such a thing?”

“Why indeed?” asked the gleeman, taking a long drain at his tankard.

“It is to be placed on the sore or swelling. For the rat, mark you, being
a foul-living creature, hath a natural drawing or affinity for all foul
things, so that the noxious humors pass from the man into the unclean
beast.”

“Would that cure the black death, master?” asked Jenkin.

“Aye, truly would it, my fair son.”

“Then I am right glad that there were none who knew of it. The black death
is the best friend that ever the common folk had in England.”

“How that then?” asked Hordle John.

“Why, friend, it is easy to see that you have not worked with your hands
or you would not need to ask. When half the folk in the country were dead
it was then that the other half could pick and choose who they would work
for, and for what wage. That is why I say that the murrain was the best
friend that the borel folk ever had.”

“True, Jenkin,” said another workman; “but it is not all good that is
brought by it either. We well know that through it corn-land has been
turned into pasture, so that flocks of sheep with perchance a single
shepherd wander now where once a hundred men had work and wage.”

“There is no great harm in that,” remarked the tooth-drawer, “for the
sheep give many folk their living. There is not only the herd, but the
shearer and brander, and then the dresser, the curer, the dyer, the
fuller, the webster, the merchant, and a score of others.”

“If it come to that,” said one of the foresters, “the tough meat of them
will wear folks teeth out, and there is a trade for the man who can draw
them.”

A general laugh followed this sally at the dentist's expense, in the midst
of which the gleeman placed his battered harp upon his knee, and began to
pick out a melody upon the frayed strings.

“Elbow room for Floyting Will!” cried the woodmen. “Twang us a merry
lilt.”

“Aye, aye, the 'Lasses of Lancaster,'” one suggested.

“Or 'St. Simeon and the Devil.'”

“Or the 'Jest of Hendy Tobias.'”

To all these suggestions the jongleur made no response, but sat with his
eye fixed abstractedly upon the ceiling, as one who calls words to his
mind. Then, with a sudden sweep across the strings, he broke out into a
song so gross and so foul that ere he had finished a verse the pure-minded
lad sprang to his feet with the blood tingling in his face.

“How can you sing such things?” he cried. “You, too, an old man who should
be an example to others.”

The wayfarers all gazed in the utmost astonishment at the interruption.

“By the holy Dicon of Hampole! our silent clerk has found his tongue,”
said one of the woodmen. “What is amiss with the song then? How has it
offended your babyship?”

“A milder and better mannered song hath never been heard within these
walls,” cried another. “What sort of talk is this for a public inn?”

“Shall it be a litany, my good clerk?” shouted a third; “or would a hymn
be good enough to serve?”

The jongleur had put down his harp in high dudgeon. “Am I to be preached
to by a child?” he cried, staring across at Alleyne with an inflamed and
angry countenance. “Is a hairless infant to raise his tongue against me,
when I have sung in every fair from Tweed to Trent, and have twice been
named aloud by the High Court of the Minstrels at Beverley? I shall sing
no more to-night.”

“Nay, but you will so,” said one of the laborers. “Hi, Dame Eliza, bring a
stoup of your best to Will to clear his throat. Go forward with thy song,
and if our girl-faced clerk does not love it he can take to the road and
go whence he came.”

“Nay, but not too fast,” broke in Hordle John. “There are two words in
this matter. It may be that my little comrade has been over quick in
reproof, he having gone early into the cloisters and seen little of the
rough ways and words of the world. Yet there is truth in what he says,
for, as you know well, the song was not of the cleanest. I shall stand by
him, therefore, and he shall neither be put out on the road, nor shall his
ears be offended indoors.”

“Indeed, your high and mighty grace,” sneered one of the yeomen, “have you
in sooth so ordained?”

“By the Virgin!” said a second, “I think that you may both chance to find
yourselves upon the road before long.”

“And so belabored as to be scarce able to crawl along it,” cried a third.

“Nay, I shall go! I shall go!” said Alleyne hurriedly, as Hordle John
began to slowly roll up his sleeve, and bare an arm like a leg of mutton.
“I would not have you brawl about me.”

“Hush! lad,” he whispered, “I count them not a fly. They may find they
have more tow on their distaff than they know how to spin. Stand thou
clear and give me space.”

Both the foresters and the laborers had risen from their bench, and Dame
Eliza and the travelling doctor had flung themselves between the two
parties with soft words and soothing gestures, when the door of the “Pied
Merlin” was flung violently open, and the attention of the company was
drawn from their own quarrel to the new-comer who had burst so
unceremoniously upon them.

CHAPTER VI. HOW SAMKIN AYLWARD WAGERED HIS FEATHER-BED.

He was a middle-sized man, of most massive and robust build, with an
arching chest and extraordinary breadth of shoulder. His shaven face was
as brown as a hazel-nut, tanned and dried by the weather, with harsh,
well-marked features, which were not improved by a long white scar which
stretched from the corner of his left nostril to the angle of the jaw. His
eyes were bright and searching, with something of menace and of authority
in their quick glitter, and his mouth was firm-set and hard, as befitted
one who was wont to set his face against danger. A straight sword by his
side and a painted long-bow jutting over his shoulder proclaimed his
profession, while his scarred brigandine of chain-mail and his dinted
steel cap showed that he was no holiday soldier, but one who was even now
fresh from the wars. A white surcoat with the lion of St. George in red
upon the centre covered his broad breast, while a sprig of new-plucked
broom at the side of his head-gear gave a touch of gayety and grace to his
grim, war-worn equipment.

“Ha!” he cried, blinking like an owl in the sudden glare. “Good even to
you, comrades! Hola! a woman, by my soul!” and in an instant he had
clipped Dame Eliza round the waist and was kissing her violently. His eye
happening to wander upon the maid, however, he instantly abandoned the
mistress and danced off after the other, who scurried in confusion up one
of the ladders, and dropped the heavy trap-door upon her pursuer. He then
turned back and saluted the landlady once more with the utmost relish and
satisfaction.

“La petite is frightened,” said he. “Ah, c'est l'amour, l'amour! Curse
this trick of French, which will stick to my throat. I must wash it out
with some good English ale. By my hilt! camarades, there is no drop of
French blood in my body, and I am a true English bowman, Samkin Aylward by
name; and I tell you, mes amis, that it warms my very heart-roots to set
my feet on the dear old land once more. When I came off the galley at
Hythe, this very day, I down on my bones, and I kissed the good brown
earth, as I kiss thee now, ma belle, for it was eight long years since I
had seen it. The very smell of it seemed life to me. But where are my six
rascals? Hola, there! En avant!”

At the order, six men, dressed as common drudges, marched solemnly into
the room, each bearing a huge bundle upon his head. They formed in
military line, while the soldier stood in front of them with stern eyes,
checking off their several packages.

“Number one—a French feather-bed with the two counter-panes of white
sendall,” said he.

“Here, worthy sir,” answered the first of the bearers, laying a great
package down in the corner.

“Number two—seven ells of red Turkey cloth and nine ells of cloth of
gold. Put it down by the other. Good dame, I prythee give each of these
men a bottrine of wine or a jack of ale. Three—a full piece of white
Genoan velvet with twelve ells of purple silk. Thou rascal, there is dirt
on the hem! Thou hast brushed it against some wall, coquin!”

“Not I, most worthy sir,” cried the carrier, shrinking away from the
fierce eyes of the bowman.

“I say yes, dog! By the three kings! I have seen a man gasp out his last
breath for less. Had you gone through the pain and unease that I have done
to earn these things you would be at more care. I swear by my ten
finger-bones that there is not one of them that hath not cost its weight
in French blood! Four—an incense-boat, a ewer of silver, a gold
buckle and a cope worked in pearls. I found them, camarades, at the Church
of St. Denis in the harrying of Narbonne, and I took them away with me
lest they fall into the hands of the wicked. Five—a cloak of fur
turned up with minever, a gold goblet with stand and cover, and a box of
rose-colored sugar. See that you lay them together. Six—a box of
monies, three pounds of Limousine gold-work, a pair of boots, silver
tagged, and, lastly, a store of naping linen. So, the tally is complete!
Here is a groat apiece, and you may go.”

“Go whither, worthy sir?” asked one of the carriers.

“Whither? To the devil if ye will. What is it to me? Now, ma belle, to
supper. A pair of cold capons, a mortress of brawn, or what you will, with
a flask or two of the right Gascony. I have crowns in my pouch, my sweet,
and I mean to spend them. Bring in wine while the food is dressing. Buvons
my brave lads; you shall each empty a stoup with me.”

Here was an offer which the company in an English inn at that or any other
date are slow to refuse. The flagons were re-gathered and came back with
the white foam dripping over their edges. Two of the woodmen and three of
the laborers drank their portions off hurriedly and trooped off together,
for their homes were distant and the hour late. The others, however, drew
closer, leaving the place of honor to the right of the gleeman to the
free-handed new-comer. He had thrown off his steel cap and his brigandine,
and had placed them with his sword, his quiver and his painted long-bow,
on the top of his varied heap of plunder in the corner. Now, with his
thick and somewhat bowed legs stretched in front of the blaze, his green
jerkin thrown open, and a great quart pot held in his corded fist, he
looked the picture of comfort and of good-fellowship. His hard-set face
had softened, and the thick crop of crisp brown curls which had been
hidden by his helmet grew low upon his massive neck. He might have been
forty years of age, though hard toil and harder pleasure had left their
grim marks upon his features. Alleyne had ceased painting his pied merlin,
and sat, brush in hand, staring with open eyes at a type of man so strange
and so unlike any whom he had met. Men had been good or had been bad in
his catalogue, but here was a man who was fierce one instant and gentle
the next, with a curse on his lips and a smile in his eye. What was to be
made of such a man as that?

It chanced that the soldier looked up and saw the questioning glance which
the young clerk threw upon him. He raised his flagon and drank to him,
with a merry flash of his white teeth.

“A toi, mon garcon,” he cried. “Hast surely never seen a man-at-arms, that
thou shouldst stare so?”

“I never have,” said Alleyne frankly, “though I have oft heard talk of
their deeds.”

“By my hilt!” cried the other, “if you were to cross the narrow sea you
would find them as thick as bees at a tee-hole. Couldst not shoot a bolt
down any street of Bordeaux, I warrant, but you would pink archer, squire,
or knight. There are more breastplates than gaberdines to be seen, I
promise you.”

“And where got you all these pretty things?” asked Hordle John, pointing
at the heap in the corner.

“Where there is as much more waiting for any brave lad to pick it up.
Where a good man can always earn a good wage, and where he need look upon
no man as his paymaster, but just reach his hand out and help himself.
Aye, it is a goodly and a proper life. And here I drink to mine old
comrades, and the saints be with them! Arouse all together, mes enfants,
under pain of my displeasure. To Sir Claude Latour and the White Company!”

“Sir Claude Latour and the White Company!” shouted the travellers,
draining off their goblets.

“Well quaffed, mes braves! It is for me to fill your cups again, since you
have drained them to my dear lads of the white jerkin. Hola! mon ange,
bring wine and ale. How runs the old stave?—

        We'll drink all together
        To the gray goose feather
        And the land where the gray goose flew.”
 

He roared out the catch in a harsh, unmusical voice, and ended with a
shout of laughter. “I trust that I am a better bowman than a minstrel,”
said he.

“Methinks I have some remembrance of the lilt,” remarked the gleeman,
running his fingers over the strings. “Hoping that it will give thee no
offence, most holy sir”—with a vicious snap at Alleyne—“and
with the kind permit of the company, I will even venture upon it.”

Many a time in the after days Alleyne Edricson seemed to see that scene,
for all that so many which were stranger and more stirring were soon to
crowd upon him. The fat, red-faced gleeman, the listening group, the
archer with upraised finger beating in time to the music, and the huge
sprawling figure of Hordle John, all thrown into red light and black
shadow by the flickering fire in the centre—memory was to come often
lovingly back to it. At the time he was lost in admiration at the deft way
in which the jongleur disguised the loss of his two missing strings, and
the lusty, hearty fashion in which he trolled out his little ballad of the
outland bowmen, which ran in some such fashion as this:

          What of the bow?
            The bow was made in England:
        Of true wood, of yew wood,
          The wood of English bows;
            So men who are free
            Love the old yew tree
        And the land where the yew tree grows.

          What of the cord?
            The cord was made in England:
        A rough cord, a tough cord,
          A cord that bowmen love;
            So we'll drain our jacks
            To the English flax
        And the land where the hemp was wove.

          What of the shaft?
            The shaft was cut in England:
        A long shaft, a strong shaft,
          Barbed and trim and true;
            So we'll drink all together
            To the gray goose feather
        And the land where the gray goose flew.

          What of the men?
            The men were bred in England:
        The bowman—the yeoman—
          The lads of dale and fell
            Here's to you—and to you;
            To the hearts that are true
        And the land where the true hearts dwell.

“Well sung, by my hilt!” shouted the archer in high delight. “Many a night
have I heard that song, both in the old war-time and after in the days of
the White Company, when Black Simon of Norwich would lead the stave, and
four hundred of the best bowmen that ever drew string would come roaring
in upon the chorus. I have seen old John Hawkwood, the same who has led
half the Company into Italy, stand laughing in his beard as he heard it,
until his plates rattled again. But to get the full smack of it ye must
yourselves be English bowmen, and be far off upon an outland soil.”

Whilst the song had been singing Dame Eliza and the maid had placed a
board across two trestles, and had laid upon it the knife, the spoon, the
salt, the tranchoir of bread, and finally the smoking dish which held the
savory supper. The archer settled himself to it like one who had known
what it was to find good food scarce; but his tongue still went as merrily
as his teeth.

“It passes me,” he cried, “how all you lusty fellows can bide scratching
your backs at home when there are such doings over the seas. Look at me—what
have I to do? It is but the eye to the cord, the cord to the shaft, and
the shaft to the mark. There is the whole song of it. It is but what you
do yourselves for pleasure upon a Sunday evening at the parish village
butts.”