Part 1 out of 5
This Etext prepared by Mary Starr
[Her notes on spelling, etc., are appended following the text]
THE PATH OF THE KING
by John Buchan
I DEDICATE THESE CHAPTERS
FIRST READ BY A COTSWOLD FIRE
1. HIGHTOWN UNDER SUNFELL
2. THE ENGLISHMAN
3. THE WIFE OF FLANDERS
4. EYES OF YOUTH
5. THE MAID
6. THE WOOD OF LIFE
7. EAUCOURT BY THE WATERS
8. THE HIDDEN CITY
9. THE REGICIDE
10. THE MARPLOT
11. THE LIT CHAMBER
12. IN THE DARK LAND
13. THE LAST STAGE
14. THE END OF THE ROAD
Linum fumigans non exstinguet; in veritate educet judicium. ISA. XLII.3.
THE PATH OF THE KING
by John Buchan
The three of us in that winter camp in the Selkirks were talking the slow
aimless talk of wearied men.
The Soldier, who had seen many campaigns, was riding his hobby of the Civil
War and descanting on Lee's tactics in the last Wilderness struggle. I said
something about the stark romance of it--of Jeb Stuart flitting like a
wraith through the forests; of Sheridan's attack at Chattanooga, when the
charging troops on the ridge were silhouetted against a harvest moon; of
Leonidas Polk, last of the warrior Bishops, baptizing his fellow generals
by the light of a mess candle. "Romance," I said, "attended the sombre grey
and blue levies as faithfully as she ever rode with knight-errant or
The Scholar, who was cutting a raw-hide thong, raised his wise eyes.
"Does it never occur to you fellows that we are all pretty mixed in our
notions? We look for romance in the well-cultivated garden-plots, and when
it springs out of virgin soil we are surprised, though any fool might know
it was the natural place for it."
He picked up a burning stick to relight his pipe.
"The things we call aristocracies and reigning houses are the last places
to look for masterful men. They began strongly, but they have been too long
in possession. They have been cosseted and comforted and the devil has gone
out of their blood. Don't imagine that I undervalue descent. It is not for
nothing that a great man leaves posterity. But who is more likely to
inherit the fire--the elder son with his flesh-pots or the younger son with
his fortune to find? Just think of it! All the younger sons of younger sons
back through the generations! We none of us know our ancestors beyond a
little way. We all of us may have kings' blood in our veins. The dago who
blacked my boots at Vancouver may be descended by curious byways from
"Think of it!" he cried. "The spark once transmitted may smoulder for
generations under ashes, but the appointed time will come, and it will
flare up to warm the world. God never allows waste. And we fools rub our
eyes and wonder, when we see genius come out of the gutter. It didn't begin
there. We tell ourselves that Shakespeare was the son of a woolpedlar, and
Napoleon of a farmer, and Luther of a peasant, and we hold up our hands at
the marvel. But who knows what kings and prophets they had in their
After that we turned in, and as I lay looking at the frosty stars a fancy
wove itself in my brain. I saw the younger sons carry the royal blood far
down among the people, down even into the kennels of the outcast.
Generations follow, oblivious of the high beginnings, but there is that in
the stock which is fated to endure. The sons and daughters blunder and sin
and perish, but the race goes on, for there is a fierce stuff of life in
it. It sinks and rises again and blossoms at haphazard into virtue or vice,
since the ordinary moral laws do not concern its mission. Some rags of
greatness always cling to it, the dumb faith that sometime and somehow that
blood drawn from kings it never knew will be royal again. Though nature is
wasteful of material things, there is no waste of spirit And then after
long years there comes, unheralded and unlooked-for, the day of the
This is the story which grew out of that talk by the winter fire.
CHAPTER I. HIGHTOWN UNDER SUNFELL
When Biorn was a very little boy in his father's stead at Hightown he had a
play of his own making for the long winter nights. At the back end of the
hall, where the men sat at ale, was a chamber which the thralls used of a
morning--a place which smelt of hams and meal and good provender. There a
bed had been made for him when he forsook his cot in the women's quarters.
When the door was shut it was black dark, save for a thin crack of light
from the wood fire and torches of the hall. The crack made on the earthen
floor a line like a golden river. Biorn, cuddled up on a bench in his
little bear-skin, was drawn like a moth to that stream of light. With his
heart beating fast he would creep to it and stand for a moment with his
small body bathed in the radiance. The game was not to come back at once,
but to foray into the farther darkness before returning to the sanctuary of
bed. That took all the fortitude in Biorn's heart, and not till the thing
was dared and done could he go happily to sleep.
One night Leif the Outborn watched him at his game. Sometimes the man was
permitted to sleep there when he had been making sport for the housecarles.
"Behold an image of life!" he had said in his queer outland speech. "We
pass from darkness to darkness with but an instant of light between. You
are born for high deeds, princeling. Many would venture from the dark to
the light, but it takes a stout breast to voyage into the farther dark."
And Biorn's small heart swelled, for he detected praise, though he did not
know what Leif meant.
In the long winter the sun never topped Sunfell, and when the gales blew
and the snow drifted there were lights in the hall the day long. In Biorn's
first recollection the winters were spent by his mother's side, while she
and her maids spun the wool of the last clipping. She was a fair woman out
of the Western Isles, all brown and golden as it seemed to him, and her
voice was softer than the hard ringing speech of the Wick folk. She told
him island stories about gentle fairies and good-humoured elves who lived
in a green windy country by summer seas, and her air would be wistful as if
she thought of her lost home. And she sang him to sleep with crooning songs
which had the sweetness of the west wind in them. But her maids were a
rougher stock, and they stuck to the Wicking lullaby which ran something
Hush thee, my bold one, a boat will I buy thee,
A boat and stout oars and a bright sword beside,
A helm of red gold and a thrall to be nigh thee,
When fair blows the wind at the next wicking-tide.
There was a second verse, but it was rude stuff, and the Queen had
forbidden the maids to sing it.
As he grew older he was allowed to sit with the men in the hall, when bows
were being stretched and bowstrings knotted and spear-hafts fitted. He
would sit mum in a corner, listening with both ears to the talk of the old
franklins, with their endless grumbles about lost cattle and ill
neighbours. Better he liked the bragging of the young warriors, the
Bearsarks, who were the spear-head in all the forays. At the great feasts
of Yule-tide he was soon sent packing, for there were wild scenes when the
ale flowed freely, though his father, King Ironbeard, ruled his hall with a
strong hand. From the speech of his elders Biorn made his picture of the
world beyond the firths. It was a world of gloom and terror, yet shot with
a strange brightness. The High Gods might be met with in beggar's guise at
any ferry, jovial fellows and good friends to brave men, for they
themselves had to fight for their lives, and the End of All Things hung
over them like a cloud. Yet till the day of Ragnarok there would be
feasting and fine fighting and goodly fellowship, and a stout heart must
live for the hour.
Leif the Outborn was his chief friend. The man was no warrior, being lame
of a leg and lean and sharp as a heron. No one knew his begetting, for he
had been found as a child on the high fells. Some said he was come of the
Finns, and his ill-wishers would have it that his birthplace had been
behind a foss, and that he had the blood of dwarves in him. Yet though he
made sport for the company, he had respect from them, for he was wise in
many things, a skilled leech, a maker of runes, and a crafty builder of
ships. He was a master hand at riddles, and for hours the housecarles would
puzzle their wits over his efforts. This was the manner of them. "Who,"
Leif would ask, "are the merry maids that glide above the land to the joy
of their father; in winter they bear a white shield, but black in summer?"
The answer was "Snowflakes and rain." Or "I saw a corpse sitting on a
corpse, a blind one riding on a lifeless steed?" to which the reply was "A
dead horse on an ice-floe." Biorn never guessed any of the riddles, but the
cleverness of them he thought miraculous, and the others roared with glee
at their own obtuseness.
But Leif had different moods, for sometimes he would tell tales, and all
were hushed in a pleasant awe. The fire on the hearth was suffered to die
down, and men drew closer to each other, as Leif told of the tragic love of
Helgi and Sigrun, or how Weyland outwitted King Nidad, or how Thor went as
bride to Thrym in Giantland, and the old sad tale of how Sigurd
Fafnirsbane, noblest of men, went down to death for the love of a queen not
less noble. Leif told them well, so that his hearers were held fast with
the spell of wonder and then spurred to memories of their own. Tongues
would be loosened, and there would be wild recollections of battles among
the skerries of the west, of huntings in the hills where strange sights
greeted the benighted huntsman, and of voyaging far south into the lands of
the sun where the poorest thrall wore linen and the cities were all gold
and jewels. Biorn's head would be in such a whirl after a night of
story-telling that he could get no sleep for picturing his own deeds when
he was man enough to bear a sword and launch his ship. And sometimes in his
excitement he would slip outside into the darkness, and hear far up in the
frosty sky the whistle of the swans as they flew southward, and fancy them
the shield-maids of Odin on their way to some lost battle.
His father, Thorwald Thorwaldson, was king over all the firths and wicks
between Coldness in the south and Flatness and the mountain Rauma in the
north, and inland over the Uplanders as far as the highest springs of the
rivers. He was king by more than blood, for he was the tallest and
strongest man in all the land, and the cunningest in battle. He was for
ordinary somewhat grave and silent, a dark man with hair and beard the
colour of molten iron, whence came his by-name. Yet in a fight no Bearsark
could vie with him for fury, and his sword Tyrfing was famed in a thousand
songs. On high days the tale of his descent would be sung in the hall--not
by Leif, who was low-born and of no account, but by one or other of the
chiefs of the Shield-ring. Biorn was happy on such occasions, for he
himself came into the songs, since it was right to honour the gentle lady,
the Queen. He heard how on the distaff side he was sprung from proud
western earls, Thorwolf the Black, and Halfdan and Hallward Skullsplitter.
But on the spear side he was of still loftier kin, for Odin was first in
his pedigree, and after him the Volsung chiefs, and Gothfred the Proud,
and--that no magnificence might be wanting--one Karlamagnus, whom Biorn had
never heard of before, but who seemed from his doings to have been a
On such occasions there would follow a braggingmatch among the warriors,
for a recital of the past was meant as an augury for the future. The time
was towards the close of the Wicking-tide, and the world was becoming hard
for simple folk. There were endless bickerings with the Tronds in the north
and the men of More in the south, and a certain Shockhead, an upsetting
king in Norland, was making trouble with his neighbours. Likewise there was
one Kristni, a king of the Romans, who sought to dispute with Odin himself.
This Kristni was a magic-worker, who clad his followers in white linen
instead of byrnies, and gave them runes in place of swords, and sprinkled
them with witch water. Biorn did not like what he heard of the warlock, and
longed for the day when his father Ironbeard would make an end of him.
Each year before the coming of spring there was a lean season in Hightown.
Fish were scarce in the ice-holes, the stock of meal in the meal-ark grew
low, and the deep snow made poor hunting in wood or on fell-side. Belts
were tightened, and there were hollow cheeks among the thralls. And then
one morning the wind would blow from the south, and a strange smell come
into the air. The dogs left their lair by the fire and, led by the Garm the
old blind patriarch, made a tour of inspection among the outhouses to the
edge of the birch woods. Presently would come a rending of the ice on the
firth, and patches of inky water would show between the floes. The snow
would slip from the fell-side, and leave dripping rock and clammy bent, and
the river would break its frosty silence and pour a mighty grey-green flood
to the sea. The swans and geese began to fly northward, and the pipits woke
among the birches. And at last one day the world put on a new dress, all
steel-blue and misty green, and a thousand voices woke of flashing streams
and nesting birds and tossing pines, and the dwellers in Hightown knew that
spring had fairly come.
Then was Biorn the happy child. All through the long day, and through much
of that twilight which is the darkness of a Norland summer, he was abroad
on his own errands. With Grim the Hunter he adventured far up on the fells
and ate cheese and bannocks in the tents of the wandering Skridfinns, or
stalked the cailzie-cock with his arrows in the great pine forest, which in
his own mind he called Mirkwood and feared exceedingly. Or he would go
fishing with Egil the Fisherman, spearing salmon in the tails of the river
pools. But best he loved to go up the firth in the boat which Leif had made
him--a finished, clinker-built little model of a war galley, christened the
Joy-maker--and catch the big sea fish. Monsters he caught sometimes in the
deep water under the cliffs, till he thought he was destined to repeat the
exploit of Thor when he went fishing with the giant Hymi, and hooked
the Midgard Serpent, the brother of Fenris-wolf, whose coils encircle the
Nor was his education neglected. Arnwulf the Bearsark taught him axe-play
and sword-play, and he had a small buckler of his own, not of linden-wood
like those of the Wick folk, but of wickerwork after the fashion of his
mother's people. He learned to wrestle toughly with the lads of his own
age, and to throw a light spear truly at a mark. He was fleet of foot and
scoured the fells like a goat, and he could breast the tide in the pool of
the great foss up to the very edge of the white water where the trolls
There was a wise woman dwelt on the bay of Sigg. Katla was her name, a
woman still black-browed though she was very old, and clever at mending
hunters' scars. To her house Biorn went with Leif; and when they had made a
meal of her barley-cakes and sour milk, and passed the news of the coast,
Leif would fall to probing her craft and get but surly answers. To the
boy's question she was kinder. "Let the dead things be, prince," she said.
"There's small profit from foreknowledge. Better to take fates as they come
sudden round a turn of the road than be watching them with an anxious heart
all the way down the hill. The time will come soon enough when you must
stand by the Howe of the Dead and call on the ghost-folk."
But Leif coaxed and Biorn harped on the thing, as boys do, and one night
about the midsummer time her hour came upon Katla and she spoke without
their seeking. There in the dim hut with the apple-green twilight dimming
the fells Biorn stood trembling on the brink of the half-world, the woman
huddled on the floor, her hand shading her eyes as if she were looking to a
far horizon. Her body shook with gusts of passion, and the voice that came
from her was not her own. Never so long as he lived did Biorn forget the
terrible hour when that voice from beyond the world spoke things he could
not understand. "I have been snowed on with snow," it said, "I have been
beaten with the rain, I have been drenched with the dew, long have I been
dead." It spoke of kings whose names he had never heard, and of the
darkness gathering about the Norland, and famine and awe stalking upon the
Then came a whisper from Leif asking the fortune of the young prince of
"Death," said the weird-wife, "death--but not yet. The shears of the Norns
are still blunt for him, and Skuld has him in keeping."
There was silence for a space, for the fit was passing from Katla. But the
voice came again in broken syllables. "His thread runs westward--beyond the
Far Isles . . . not he but the seed of his loins shall win great kingdoms
... beyond the sea-walls.... The All-Father dreams.... Nay, he wakes ... he
wakes . . ."
There was a horrible choking sound, and the next Biorn knew was that Leif
had fetched water and was dashing it on Katla's face.
It was nearly a week before Biorn recovered his spirits after this
adventure, and it was noticeable that neither Leif nor he spoke a word to
each other on the matter. But the boy thought much, and from that night he
had a new purpose. It seemed that he was fated to travel far, and his fancy
forsook the homely life of his own wicks and fells and reached to that
outworld of which he had heard in the winter's talk by the hall fire.
There were plenty of folk in Hightown to satisfy his curiosity. There were
the Bearsarks, who would spin tales of the rich Frankish lands and the
green isles of the Gael. From the Skridfinns he heard of the bitter country
in the north where the Jotuns dwelt, and the sun was not and the frost
split the rocks to dust, while far underground before great fires the
dwarves were hammering gold. But these were only old wives' tales, and he
liked better the talk of the sea-going franklins, who would sail in the
summer time on trading ventures and pushed farther than any galleys of war.
The old sailor, Othere Cranesfoot, was but now back from a voyage which had
taken him to Snowland, or, as we say, Iceland. He could tell of the Curdled
Sea, like milk set apart for cheese-making, which flowed as fast as a
river, and brought down ghoulish beasts and great dragons in its tide. He
told, too, of the Sea-walls which were the end of the world, waves higher
than any mountain, which ringed the whole ocean. He had seen them, blue and
terrible one dawn, before he had swung his helm round and fled southwards.
And in Snowland and the ports of the Isles this Othere had heard talk from
others of a fine land beyond the sunset, where corn grew unsown like grass,
and the capes looked like crusted cow-pats they were so thick with deer,
and the dew of the night was honey-dew, so that of a morning a man might
breakfast delicately off the face of the meadows.
Full of such marvels, Biorn sought Leif and poured out his heart to him.
For the first time he spoke of the weird-wife's spaeing. If his fortune lay
in the west, there was the goal to seek. He would find the happy country
and reign over it. But Leif shook his head, for he had heard the story
before. "To get there you will have to ride over Bilrost, the Rainbow
Bridge, like the Gods. I know of the place. It is called Gundbiorn's Reef
and it is beyond the world."
All this befell in Biorn's eleventh summer. The winter which followed
brought ill luck to Hightown and notably to Ironbeard the King. For in the
autumn the Queen, that gentle lady, fell sick, and, though leeches were
sought for far and near, and spells and runes were prepared by all who had
skill of them, her life ebbed fast and ere Yule she was laid in the Howe of
the Dead. The loss of her made Thorwald grimmer and more silent than
before, and there was no feasting at the Yule high-tide and but little at
the spring merry-making. As for Biorn he sorrowed bitterly for a week, and
then, boylike, forgot his grief in the wonder of living.
But that winter brought death in another form. Storms never ceased, and in
the New Year the land lay in the stricture of a black frost which froze the
beasts in the byres and made Biorn shiver all the night through, though in
ordinary winter weather he was hardy enough to dive in the ice-holes. The
stock of meal fell low, and when spring tarried famine drew very near. Such
a spring no man living remembered. The snow lay deep on the shore till far
into May. And when the winds broke they were cold sunless gales which
nipped the young life in the earth. The ploughing was backward, and the
seed-time was a month too late. The new-born lambs died on the fells and
there fell a wasting sickness among the cattle. Few salmon ran up the
streams, and the sea-fish seemed to have gone on a journey. Even in summer,
the pleasant time, food was scarce, for the grass in the pastures was poor
and the cows gave little milk, and the children died. It foreboded a black
harvest-time and a blacker winter.
With these misfortunes a fever rose in the blood of the men of Hightown.
Such things had happened before for the Norland was never more than one
stage distant from famine; and in the old days there had been but a single
remedy. Food and wealth must be won from a foray overseas. It was years
since Ironbeard had ridden Egir's road to the rich lowlands, and the
Bearsarks were growing soft from idleness. Ironbeard himself was willing,
for his hall was hateful to him since the Queen's death. Moreover, there
was no other way. Food must be found for the winter or the folk would
So a hosting was decreed at harvest-tide, for few men would be needed to
win the blasted crops; and there began a jointing of shields and a
burnishing of weapons, and the getting ready of the big ships. Also there
was a great sortilege-making. Whither to steer, that was the question.
There were the rich coasts of England, but they were well guarded, and many
of the Norland race were along the wardens. The isles of the Gael were in
like case, and, though they were the easier prey, there was less to be had
from them. There were soon two parties in the hall, one urging Ironbeard to
follow the old track of his kin westward, another looking south to the
Frankish shore. The King himself, after the sacrifice of a black heifer,
cast the sacred twigs, and they seemed to point to Frankland. Old Arnwulf
was deputed on a certain day to hallow three ravens and take their
guidance, but, though he said three times the Ravens' spell, he got no
clear counsel from the wise birds. Last of all, the weird-wife Katla came
from Sigg, and for the space of three days sat in the hall with her head
shrouded, taking no meat or drink. When at last she spoke she prophesied
ill. She saw a red cloud and it descended on the heads of the warriors, yea
of the King himself. As for Hightown she saw it frozen deep in snow like
Jotunheim, and rime lay on it like a place long dead. But she bade
Ironbeard go to Frankland, for it was so written. "A great kingdom waits,"
she said--"not for you, but for the seed of your loins." And Biorn
shuddered, for they were the words spoken in her hut on that unforgotten
The boy was in an agony lest he should be left behind. But his father
decreed that he should go. "These are times when manhood must come fast,"
he said. "He can bide within the Shield-ring when blows are going. He will
be safe enough if it holds. If it breaks, he will sup like the rest of us
Then came days of bustle and preparation. Biorn was agog with excitement
and yet solemnised, for there was strange work afoot in Hightown. The King
made a great festival in the Gods' House, the dark hall near the Howe of
the Dead, where no one ventured except in high noon. Cattle were slain in
honour of Thor, the God who watched over forays, and likewise a great boar
for Frey. The blood was caught up in the sacred bowls, from which the
people were sprinkled, and smeared on the altar of blackened fir. Then came
the oath-taking, when Ironbeard and his Bearsarks swore brotherhood in
battle upon the ship's bulwarks, and the shield's rim, and the horse's
shoulder, and the brand's edge. There followed the mixing of blood in the
same footprint, a rite to which Biorn was admitted, and a lesser oath for
all the people on the great gold ring which lay on the altar. But most
solemn of all was the vow the King made to his folk, warriors and franklins
alike, when he swore by the dew, the eagle's path, and the valour of Thor.
Then it was Biorn's turn. He was presented to the High Gods as the prince
Old Arnwulf hammered on his left arm a torque of rough gold, which he must
wear always, in life and in death.
"I bring ye the boy, Biorn Thorwaldson When the Gods call for Thorwald it
will be his part to lead the launchings and the seafarings and be first
when blows are going. Do ye accept him, people of Hightown?"
There was a swelling cry of assent and a beating of hafts on shields.
Biorn's heart was lifted with pride, but out of a corner of his eye he saw
his father's face. It was very grave, and his gaze was on vacancy.
Though it was a time of bustle, there was no joy in it, as there had been
at other hostings. The folk were too hungry, the need was too desperate,
and there was something else, a shadow of fate, which lay over Hightown. In
the dark of night men had seen the bale-fires burning on the Howe of the
Dead. A grey seal had been heard speaking with tongues off Siggness, and
speaking ill words, said the fishermen who saw the beast. A white reindeer
had appeared on Sunfell, and the hunter who followed it had not been seen
again. By day, too, there was a brooding of hawks on the tide's edge, which
was strange at that season. Worst portent of all, the floods of August were
followed by high north-east winds that swept the clouds before them, so
that all day the sky was a scurrying sea of vapour, and at night the moon
showed wild grey shapes moving ever to the west. The dullest could not
mistake their meaning; these were the dark horses, and their riders, the
Helmed Maidens, mustering for the battle to which Hightown was faring.
As Biorn stared one night at the thronged heavens, he found Leif by his
elbow. In front of the dark company of the sky a white cloud was scudding,
tinged with the pale moon. Leif quoted from the speech of the Giant-wife
Rimegerd to Helgi in the song:
"Three nines of maiden, ride,
But one rides before them,
A white maid helmed:
>From their manes the steeds shake
Dew into the deep dales,
Hail upon the high woods."
"It bodes well," said Biorn. "They ride to choose those whom we slay. There
will be high doings ere Yule."
"Not so well," said Leif. "They come from the Norland, and it is our folk
they go to choose. I fear me Hightown will soon be full of widow women."
At last came the day of sailing. The six galleys of war were brought down
from their sheds, and on the rollers for the launching he-goats were bound
so that the keels slid blood-stained into the sea. This was the
'roller-reddening,' a custom bequeathed from their forefathers, though the
old men of the place muttered darkly that the ritual had been departed
from, and that in the great days it was the blood not of goats, but of
captive foemen that had reddened the galleys and the tide.
The thralls sat at the thwarts, for there was no breeze that day in the
narrow firth. Then came the chief warriors in short fur jackets, splendid
in glittering helms and byrnies, and each with his thrall bearing his
battle-axe. Followed the fighting commonalty with axe and spear. Last came
Ironbeard, stern as ever, and Biorn with his heart torn between eagerness
and regret. Only the children, the women, and the old men were left in
Hightown, and they stood on the shingle watching till the last galley had
passed out of sight beyond Siggness, and was swallowed up in the brume that
cloaked the west. There were no tears in that grim leave-taking. Hightown
had faced the like before with a heavy heart, but with dry eyes and a proud
head. Leif, though a cripple, went with the Wickings, for he had great
skill of the sea.
There was not a breath of wind for three days and three nights, as they
coasted southward, with the peaks of the Norland on their port, and to
starboard the skerries that kept guard on the firths. Through the haze they
could now and then see to landward trees and cliffs, but never a human
face. Once there was an alarm of another fleet, and the shields were slung
outboard, but it proved to be only a wedding-party passing from wick to
wick, and they gave it greeting and sailed on. These were eerie cheerless
days. The thralls sweated in shifts at the oars, and the betterborn talked
low among themselves, as if the air were full of ears. "Ran is heating her
ovens," said Leif, as he watched the warm fog mingle with the oarthresh.
On the fourth morning there came a break in the clouds, and the sight of a
high hill gave Leif the clue for his reckoning. The prows swung seaward,
and the galleys steered for the broad ocean. That afternoon there sprang up
the north-east wind for which they had been waiting. Sails were hoisted on
the short masts, oars were shipped and lashed under the bulwarks, and the
thralls clustered in the prows to rest their weary limbs and dice with
knucklebones. The spirits of all lightened, and there was loud talk in the
sterns among the Bearsarks. In the night the wind freshened, and the long
shallow boats rolled filthily so that the teeth shook in a man's head, and
over the swish of the waves and the creaking of the sheets there was a
perpetual din of arms clashing. Biorn was miserably ill for some hours, and
made sport for the seasoned voyagers.
"It will not hold," Leif prophesied. "I smell rime ahead and quiet seas."
He had spoken truly, for the sixth day the wind fell and they moved once
more over still, misty waters. The thralls returned to their oars and the
voices of the well-born fell low again These were ghoulish days for Biorn,
who had been accustomed to the clear lights and the clear darkness of his
own land. Only once in four days they saw the sun, and then it was as red
as blood, so that his heart trembled.
On the eleventh day Ironbeard summoned Leif and asked his skill of the
voyage. "I know not," was the answer. "I cannot steer a course except under
clean skies. We ran well with the wind aback, but now I am blind and the
Gods are pilots. Some day soon we must make landfall, but I know not
whether on English or Frankish shores."
After that Leif would sit in long spells of brooding, for he had a sense in
him of direction to which he sought to give free play--a sense built up
from old voyages over these very seas. The result of his meditations was
that he swung more to the south, and events proved him wise. For on the
fifteenth day came a lift in the fog and with it the noise of tides washing
near at hand on a rough coast. Suddenly almost overhead they were aware of
a great white headland, on the summit of which the sun shone on grass.
Leif gave a shout. "My skill has riot failed me," he cried. "We enter the
Frankish firth. See, there is the butt of England!"
After that the helms were swung round, and a course laid south by west. And
then the mist came again, but this time it was less of a shroud, for birds
hovered about their wake, so that they were always conscious of land.
Because of the strength of the tides the rowers made slow progress, and it
was not till the late afternoon of the seventeenth day that Leif approached
Ironbeard with a proud head and spoke a word. The King nodded, and Leif
took his stand in the prow with the lead in his hand. The sea mirroring the
mist was leaden dull, but the old pilot smelt shoal water.
Warily he sounded, till suddenly out of the gloom a spit of land rose on
the port, and it was clear that they were entering the mouth of a river.
The six galleys jolted across the sandbar, Leif in the foremost peering
ahead and shouting every now and then an order. It was fine weather for a
surprise landing. Biorn saw only low sand-dunes green with coarse grasses
and, somewhere behind, the darkness of a forest. But he could not tear his
eyes from it, for it was the long-dreamed-of Roman land.
Then a strange thing befell. A madness seemed to come on Leif. He left his
pilot's stand and rushed to the stern where the King stood. Flinging
himself on his knees, he clasped Ironbeard's legs and poured out
"Return!" he cried. "While there is yet time, return. Seek England,
Gael-land, anywhere, but not this place. I see blood in the stream and
blood on the strand. Our blood, your blood, my King! There is doom for the
folk of Thorwald by this river!"
The King's face did not change. "What will be, will be," he said gravely.
"We abide by our purpose and will take what Thor sends with a stout heart.
How say you, my brave ones?"
And all shouted to go forward, for the sight of a new country had fired
their blood. Leif sat huddled by the bulwarks, with a white face and a gasp
in his throat, like one coming out of a swoon.
They went ashore at a bend of the stream where was a sandy cape, beached
the galleys, felled trees from the neighbouring forest and built them a
stockade. The dying sun flushed water and wood with angry crimson, and
Biorn observed that the men wrought as it were in a world of blood. "That
is the meaning of Leif's whimsies," he thought, and so comforted himself.
That night the Northmen slept in peace, but the scouts brought back word of
a desert country, no men or cattle, and ashes where once had been
"Our kinsfolk have been here before us," said King Ironbeard grimly. He did
not love the Danes, though he had fought by their side.
Half the force was left as a guard by the ships, and next day the rest went
forward up the valley at a slant from the river's course. For that way, ran
the tale, lay a great Roman house, a palace of King Kristni, where much
gold was to be had for the lifting. By midday they were among pleasant
meadows, but the raiders had been there, for the houses were fired and the
orchards hacked down. Then came a shout and, turning back, they saw a flame
spring to the pale autumn skies. "The ships!" rose the cry, and the
lightest of foot were sent back for news.
They returned with a sorry tale. Of the ships and the stockade nothing
remained but hot cinders. Half the guard were dead, and old Arnwulf, the
captain, lay blood-eagled on the edge of the tide. The others had gone they
knew not where, but doubtless into the forests.
"Our kinsfolks' handiwork," said Ironbeard. "We are indeed forestalled, my
A council was held and it was resolved to make a camp by the stream and
defend it against all comers, till such time as under Leif's guidance new
ships could be built.
"Axes will never ring on them," said Leif under his breath. He walked now
like a man who was fey and his face was that of another world.
He spoke truth, for as they moved towards the riverbank, just before the
darkening, in a glade between two forests Fate met them. There was barely
time to form the Shield-ring ere their enemies were upon them--a mass of
wild men in wolves' skins and at their head mounted warriors in byrnies,
with long swords that flashed and fell.
Biorn saw little of the battle, wedged in the heart of the Shield-ring. He
heard the shouts of the enemy, and the clangour of blows, and the sharp
intake of breath, but chiefly he heard the beating of his own heart. The
ring swayed and moved as it gave before the onset or pressed to an attack
of its own, and Biorn found himself stumbling over the dead. "I am Biorn,
and my father is King," he repeated to himself, the spell he had so often
used when on the fells or the firths he had met fear.
Night came and a young moon, and still the fight continued. But the
Shield-ring was growing ragged, for the men of Hightown were fighting one
to eight, and these are odds that cannot last. Sometimes it would waver,
and an enemy would slip inside, and before he sank dead would have sorely
wounded one of Ironbeard's company.
And now Biorn could see his father, larger than human, it seemed, in the
dim light, swinging his sword Tyrfing, and crooning to himself as he laid
low his antagonists. At the sight a madness rose in the boy's heart. Behind
in the sky clouds were banking, dark clouds like horses, with one ahead
white and moontipped, the very riders he had watched with Leif from the
firth shore. The Walkyries were come for the chosen, and he would fain be
one of them. All fear had gone from him. His passion was to be by his
father's side and strike his small blow, beside those mighty ones which
Thor could not have bettered.
But even as he was thus uplifted the end came. Thorwald Thorwaldson
tottered and went down, for a hurled axe had cleft him between helm and
byrnie. With him fell the last hope of Hightown and the famished clan under
Sunfell. The Shield-ring was no more. Biorn found himself swept back as the
press of numbers overbore the little knot of sorely wounded men. Someone
caught him by the arm and snatched him from the mellay into the cover of a
thicket. He saw dimly that it was Leif.
He was giddy and retching from weariness, and something inside him was cold
as ice, though his head burned. It was not rage or grief, but awe, for his
father had fallen and the end of the world had come. The noise of the
battle died, as the two pushed through the undergrowth and came into the
open spaces of the wood. It was growing very dark, but still Leif dragged
him onwards. Then suddenly he fell forward on his face, and Biorn, as he
stumbled over him. found his hands wet with blood.
"I am for death," Leif whispered. "Put your ear close, prince. I am Leif
the Outborn and I know the hidden things.... You are the heir of Thorwald
Thorwaldson and you will not die.... I see a long road, but at the end a
great kingdom. Farewell, little Biorn. We have been good comrades, you and
I. Katla from Sigg spoke the true word. . . "
And when Biorn fetched water in his horn from a woodland pool he found Leif
with a cold brow.
Blind with sorrow and fatigue, the boy stumbled on, without purpose. He was
lonely in the wide world, many miles from his home, and all his kin were
slain. Rain blew from the south-west and beat in his face, the brambles
tore his legs, but he was dead to all things. Would that the Shield Maids
had chosen him to go with that brave company to the bright hall of Odin!
But he was only a boy and they did not choose striplings.
Suddenly in a clearing a pin-point of light pricked the darkness.
The desire for human companionship came over him, even though it were that
of enemy or outcast. He staggered to the door and beat on it feebly. A
voice spoke from within, but he did not hear what it said.
Again he beat and again the voice came. And now his knocking grew feebler,
for he was at the end of his strength.
Then the bar was suddenly withdrawn and he was looking inside a poor hut,
smoky from the wood-fire in the midst of it. An old woman sat by it with a
bowl in her hand, and an oldish man with a cudgel stood before him. He did
not understand their speech, but he gathered he was being asked his errand.
"I am Biorn," he said, "and my father was Ironbeard, the King."
They shook their heads, but since they saw only a weary, tattered boy they
lost their fears. They invited him indoors, and their voices were kindly.
Nodding with exhaustion, he was given a stool to sit on and a bowl of
coarse porridge was put into his hands. They plied him with questions, but
he could make nothing of their tongue.
Then the thrall rose, yawned, and dropped the bar over the door. The sound
was to the boy like the clanging of iron gates on his old happy world. For
a moment he was on the brink of tears. But he set his teeth and stiffened
his drooping neck.
"I am Biorn," he said aloud, "and my father was a king."
They nodded to each other and smiled. They though his words were a grace
CHAPTER 2. THE ENGLISHMAN
The little hut among the oak trees was dim in the October twilight on the
evening of St. Callixtus' Day. It had been used by swineherds, for the
earthen floor was puddled by the feet of generations of hogs, and in the
corner lay piles of rotting acorns. Outside the mist had filled the forest,
and the ways were muffled with fallen leaves, so that the four men who
approached the place came as stealthily as shades.
They reconnoitred a moment at the entrance, for it was a country of war.
"Quarters for the night," said one, and put his shoulder to the door of
oak-toppings hinged on strips of cowhide.
But he had not taken a step inside before he hastily withdrew.
"There is something there," he cried--"something that breathes. A light, Gil."
One of the four lit a lantern from his flint and poked it within. It
revealed the foul floor and the rotting acorns, and in the far corner, on a
bed of withered boughs, something dark which might be a man. They stood
still and listened. There was the sound of painful breathing, and then the
gasp with which a sick man wakens. A figure disengaged itself from the
shadows. Seeing it was but one man, the four pushed inside, and the last
pulled the door to behind him.
"What have we here?" the leader cried. A man had dragged himself to his
feet, a short, square fellow who held himself erect with a grip on a
side-post. His eyes were vacant, dazzled by the light and also by pain. He
seemed to have had hard usage that day, for his shaggy locks were matted
with blood from a sword-cut above his forehead, one arm hung limp, and his
tunic was torn and gashed. He had no weapons but a knife which he held
blade upwards in the hollow of his big hand.
The four who confronted him were as ill-looking a quartet as Duke William's
motley host could show. One, the leader, was an unfrocked priest of Rouen;
one was a hedge-robber from the western marches who had followed Alan of
Brittany; a third had the olive cheeks and the long nose of the south; and
the fourth was a heavy German from beyond the Rhine. They were the kites
that batten on the offal of war, and the great battle on the seashore
having been won by better men, were creeping into the conquered land for
the firstfruits of its plunder.
An English porker," cried the leader. "We will have the tusks off him."
Indeed, in the wild light the wounded man, with his flat face and forked
beard, had the look of a boar cornered by hounds.
"'Ware his teeth," said the one they called Gil. "He has a knife in his
The evil faces of the four were growing merry. They were worthless
soldiers, but adepts in murder. Loot was their first thought, but after
that furtive slaying. There seemed nothing to rob here, but there was weak
flesh to make sport of.
Gil warily crept on one side, where he held his spear ready. The ex-priest,
who had picked up somewhere a round English buckler, gave the orders. "I
will run in on him, and take his stroke, so you be ready to close. There is
nothing to be feared from the swine. See, he is blooded and faints."
The lantern had been set on the ground by the door and revealed only the
lower limbs of the four. Their heads were murky in shadow. Their speech was
foreign to the wounded man, but he saw their purpose. He was clearly
foredone with pain, but his vacant eyes kindled to slow anger, and he shook
back his hair so that the bleeding broke out again on his forehead. He was
as silent as an old tusker at bay.
The ex-priest gave the word and the four closed in on him. He defeated
their plan by hurling himself on the leader's shield, so that his weight
bore him backwards and he could not use his weapon. The spears on the
flanks failed for the same reason, and the two men posted there had
well-nigh been the death of each other. The fourth, the one from the south,
whose business it had been to support the priest, tripped and fell
sprawling beside the lantern.
The Englishman had one arm round the priest's neck and was squeezing the
breath out of him. But the blood of the four was kindling, and they had
vengeance instead of sport to seek. Mouthing curses, the three of them went
to the rescue of the leader, and a weaponless and sore-wounded man cannot
strive with such odds. They overpowered him, bending his arms viciously
back and kicking his broken head. Their oaths filled the hut with an ugly
clamour, but no sound came from their victim.
Suddenly a gust of air set the lantern flickering, and a new-comer stood in
the doorway. He picked up the light and looked down on the struggle. He was
a tall, very lean man, smooth faced, and black haired, helmetless and
shieldless, but wearing the plated hauberk of the soldier. There was no
scabbard on his left side, but his right hand held a long bright sword.
For a second he lifted the light high, while he took in the scene. His eyes
were dark and dancing, like the ripples on a peat stream. "So-ho!" he said
softly. "Murder! And by our own vermin!"
He appeared to brood for a second, and then he acted. For he set the light
very carefully in the crook of a joist so that it illumined the whole hut.
Then he reached out a hand, plucked the ex-priest from his quarry, and,
swinging him in both arms, tossed him through the door into the darkness.
It would seem that he fell hard, for there was a groan and then silence.
"One less," he said softly.
The three had turned to face him, warned by Gil's exclamation, and found
themselves looking at the ominous bar of light which was his sword.
Cornered like rats, they took small comfort from the odds. They were ready
to surrender, still readier to run, and they stood on their defence with no
fight in their faces, whining in their several patois. All but the man from
the south. He was creeping round in the darkness by the walls, and had in
his hands a knife. No mailed hauberk protected the interloper's back and
there was a space there for steel to quiver between his shoulder blades.
The newcomer did not see, but the eyes of the wounded man seemed to have
been cleared by the scuffle. He was now free, and from the floor he
snatched the round shield which the ex-priest had carried, and hurled it
straight at the creeping miscreant. It was a heavy oaken thing with rim and
boss of iron, and it caught him fairly above the ear, so that he dropped
like a poled ox. The stranger turned his head to see what was happening. "A
lucky shot, friend," he cried. "I thank you." And he addressed himself to
the two pitiful bandits who remained.
But their eyes were looking beyond him to the door, and their jaws had
dropped in terror. For from outside came the sound of horses' hooves and
bridles, and two riders had dismounted and were peering into the hut. The
first was a very mountain of a man, whose conical helmet surmounted a vast
pale face, on which blond moustaches hung like the teeth of a walrus. The
said helmet was grievously battered, and the nose-piece was awry as if from
some fierce blow, but there was no scar on the skin. His long hauberk was
wrought in scales of steel and silver, and the fillets which bound his
great legs were of fine red leather. Behind him came a grizzled squire,
bearing a kite-shaped shield painted with the cognisance of a dove.
"What have we here?" said the knight in a reedy voice like a boy's. His
pale eyes contemplated the figures--the wounded man, now faint again with
pain and half-fallen on the litter of branches; his deliverer, tall and
grim, but with laughing face; the two murderers cringing in their fear; in
a corner the huddled body of the man from the south half hidden by the
shield. "Speak, fellow," and he addressed the soldier. "What work has been
toward? Have you not had your bellyfull of battles that you must scrabble
like rats in this hovel? What are you called, and whence come you?"
The soldier lifted his brow, looked his questioner full in the face, and,
as if liking what he found there, bowed his head in respect. The huge man
had the air of one to be obeyed.
"I am of the Duke's army," he said, "and was sent on to reconnoitre the
forest roads I stumbled on this hut and found four men about to slay a
wounded English. One lies outside where I flung him, another is there with
a cracked skull, and you have before you the remnant."
The knight seemed to consider. "And why should a soldier of the Duke's be
so careful of English lives?" he asked.
"I would help my lord Duke to conquer this land," was the answer. "We have
broken their army and the way is straight before us. We shall have to fight
other armies, but we cannot be fighting all our days, and we do not conquer
England till England accepts us. I have heard enough of that stubborn
people to know that the way to win them is not by murder. At fair fight,
and then honest dealing and mercy, say I."
The knight laughed. "A Solomon in judgment," he cried. "But who are you
that bear a sword and wear gold on your finger?"
The old squire broke in. "My lord Count, I know the man. He is a hunter of
the Lord Odo's, and has a name for valour. He wrought mightily this morning
on the hill. They call him Jehan the Hunter, and sometimes Jehan the
Outborn, for no man knows his comings. There is a rumour that he is of high
blood, and truly in battle he bears himself like a prince. The monks loved
him not, but the Lord Odo favoured him."
The knight looked steadily for the space of a moment at the tall soldier,
and his light eyes seemed to read deep. "Are you that man," he asked at
last, and got the reply: "I am Jehan the Hunter."
"Bid my fellows attend to yon scum," he told his squire. "The camp marshal
will have fruit for his gallows. The sweepings of all Europe have drifted
with us to England, and it is our business to make bonfire of them before
they breed a plague.... See to the wounded man, likewise. He may be one of
the stout house-carles who fought with Harold at Stamford, and to meet us
raced like a gale through the length of England. By the Mount of the
Archangel, I would fain win such mettle to our cause."
Presently the hut was empty save for the two soldiers, who faced each other
while the lantern flickered to its end on the rafters.
"The good Odo is dead," said the knight. "An arrow in the left eye has
bereft our Duke of a noble ally and increased the blessedness of the City
of Paradise. You are masterless now. Will you ride with me on my service,
you Jehan the Hunter? It would appear that we are alike in our ways of
thinking. They call me the Dove from the shield I bear, and a dove I seek
to be in the winning of England. The hawk's task is over when the battle is
won, and he who has but the sword for weapon is no hawk, but carrion-crow.
We have to set our Duke on the throne, but that is but the first step.
There are more battles before us, and when they are ended begins the slow
task of the conquest of English hearts. How say you, Jehan? Will you ride
north with me on this errand, and out of the lands which are granted me to
govern have a corner on which to practise your creed?"
So it befell that Jehan the Hunter, sometimes called Jehan the Outborn,
joined the company of Ivo of Dives, and followed him when Duke William
swept northward laughing his gross jolly laughter and swearing terribly by
the splendour of God.
Two years later in the same month of the year Jehan rode east out of Ivo's
new castle of Belvoir to visit the manor of which, by the grace of God and
the King and the favour of the Count of Dives, he was now the lord. By the
Dove's side he had been north to Durham and west to the Welsh marches,
rather on falcon's than on dove's errands, for Ivo held that the crooning
of peace notes came best after hard blows. But at his worst he was hawk and
not crow, and malice did not follow his steps. The men he beat had a rude
respect for one who was just and patient in victory, and whose laughter did
not spare himself. Like master like man; and Jehan was presently so sealed
of Ivo's brotherhood that in the tales of the time the two names were
rarely separate. The jealous, swift to deprecate good fortune, spared the
Outborn, for it was observed that he stood aside while others scrambled for
gain. Also, though no man knew his birth, he bore himself with the pride of
When Ivo's raw stone towers faded in the blue distance, the road led from
shaggy uplands into a forested plain, with knolls at intervals which gave
the traveller a prospect of sullen levels up to the fringe of the fens and
the line of the sea. Six men-at-arms jolted at his back on little
country-red horses, for Jehan did his tasks with few helpers; and they rode
well in the rear, for he loved to be alone. The weather was all October
gleams and glooms, now the sunshine of April, now the purple depths of a
thunderstorm. There was no rain in the air, but an infinity of mist, which
moved in fantastic shapes, rolling close about the cavalcade, so that the
very road edge was obscured, now dissolving into clear light, now opening
up corridors at the end of which some landmark appeared at an immeasurable
distance. In that fantastic afternoon the solid earth seemed to be
dissolving, and Jehan's thoughts as he journeyed ranged like the mists.
He told himself that he had discovered his country. He, the Outborn, had
come home; the landless had found his settlement. He loved every acre of
this strange England--its changing skies, the soft pastures in the valleys,
the copses that clung like moss to the hills, the wide moorland that lay
quiet as a grave from mountain to mountain. But this day something new had
been joined to his affection. The air that met him from the east had that
in it which stirred some antique memory. There was brine in it from the
unruly eastern sea, and the sourness of marsh water, and the sweetness of
marsh herbage. As the forest thinned into scrub again it came stronger and
fresher, and he found himself sniffing it like a hungry man at the approach
of food. "If my manor of Highstead is like this," he told himself, "I think
I will lay my bones there."
At a turn of the road where two grassy tracks forked, he passed a graven
stone now chipped and moss-grown, set on noble eminence among reddening
thorns. It was an altar to the old gods of the land, there had been another
such in the forest of his childhood. The priest had told him it was the
shrine of the Lord Apollo and forbade him on the pain of a mighty cursing
to do reverence to it. Nevertheless he had been wont to doff his cap when
he passed it, for he respected a god that lived in the woods instead of a
clammy church. Now the sight of the ancient thing seemed an omen. It linked
up the past and the present. He waved a greeting to it. "Hail, old friend,"
he said. "Bid your master be with me, whoever he be, for I go to find a
One of his fellows rode up to his side. "We are within a mile of
Highstead," he told him. "Better go warily, for the King's law runs
limpingly in the fanlands. I counsel that a picket be sent forward to
report if the way be clear. Every churl that we passed on the road will
have sent news of our coming."
"So much the better," said Jehan. "Man, I come not as a thief in the night.
This is a daylight business. If I am to live my days here I must make a
The man fell back sullenly, and there were anxious faces in the retinue
jogging twenty yards behind. But no care sat on Jehan's brow. He plucked
sprays of autumn berries and tossed and caught them, he sang gently to
himself and spoke his thoughts to his horse. Harm could not come to him
when air and scene woke in his heart such strange familiarity.
A last turn of the road showed Highstead before him, two furlongs distant.
The thatched roof of the hall rose out of a cluster of shingled huts on a
mound defended by moat and palisade. No smoke came from the dwelling, and
no man was visible, but not for nothing was Jehan named the Hunter. He was
aware that every tuft of reed and scrog of wood concealed a spear or a
bowman. So he set his head stiff and laughed, and hummed a bar of a song
which the ferry-men used to sing on Seine side. "A man does not fight to
win his home," he told his horse, "but only to defend it when he has won
it. If God so wills I shall be welcomed with open gates: otherwise there
will be burying ere nightfall."
In this fashion he rode steadfastly toward the silent burg. Now he was
within a stone's throw of it, and no spear had been launched; now he was
before the massive oaken gate. Suddenly it swung open and a man came out.
He was a short, square fellow who limped, and, half hidden by his long
hair, a great scar showed white on his forehead.
"In whose name?" he asked in the English tongue.
"In the name of our lord the King and the Earl Ivo."
"That is no passport," said the man.
"In my own name, then,--in the name of Jehan the Hunter."
The man took two steps forward and laid a hand on the off stirrup. Jehan
leaped to the ground and kissed him on both cheeks.
"We have met before, friend," he said, and he took between his palms the
joined hands of his new liege.
"Two years back on the night of Hastings," said the man. "But for that
meeting, my lord, you had tasted twenty arrows betwixt Highstead and the
"I go to visit my neighbours," said Jehan next morning.
Arn the Steward stared at his master with a puzzled face. "You will get a
dusty welcome," he said. "There is but the Lady Hilda at Galland, and her
brother Aelward is still at odds with your Duke."
Nevertheless Jehan rode out in a clear dawn of St. Luke's summer, leaving a
wondering man behind him, and he rode alone, having sent back his
men-at-arms to Ivo. "He has the bold heart," said Arn to himself. "If there
be many French like him there will assuredly be a new England."
At Galland, which is low down in the fen country, he found a sullen girl.
She met him at the bridge of the Galland fen and her grey eyes flashed
fire. She was a tall maid, very fair to look upon, and the blue tunic which
she wore over her russet gown was cunningly embroidered. Embroidered too
with gold was the hood which confined her plaited yellow hair.
"You find a defenceless house and a woman to conquer," she railed.
"Long may it need no other warder," said Jehan, dismounting and looking at
her across the water.
"The fortune of war has given me a home, mistress. I would dwell in amity
with my neighbours."
"Amity!" she cried in scorn. "You will get none from me. My brother Aelward
will do the parleying."
"So be it," he said. "Be assured I will never cross this water into Galland
till you bid me."
He turned and rode home, and for a month was busied with the work of his
farms. When he came again it was on a dark day in November, and every
runnel of the fens was swollen. He got the same answer from the girl, and
with it a warning "Aelward and his men wait for you in the oakshaw," she
told him. "I sent word to them when the thralls brought news of you." And
her pretty face was hard and angry.
Jehan laughed. "Now, by your leave, mistress, I will wait here the hour or
two till nightfall. I am Englishman enough to know that your folk do not
strike in the dark."
He returned to Highstead unscathed, and a week later came a message from
Aelward. "Meet me," it ran, "to-morrow by the Danes' barrow at noon, and we
will know whether Englishman or Frenchman is to bear rule in this land."
Jehan donned his hauberk and girt himself with his long sword. "There will
be hot work to-day in that forest," he told Arn, who was busied with the
trussing of his mail.
"God prosper you, master," said the steward. "Frenchman or no, you are such
a man as I love. Beware of Aelward and his downward stroke, for he has the
strength of ten."
At noon by the Danes' barrow Jehan met a young tow-headed giant, who spoke
with the back of his throat and made surly-response to the other's
greeting. It was a blue winter's day, with rime still white on the grass,
and the forest was very still. The Saxon had the shorter sword and a round
buckler; Jehan fought only with his blade.
At the first bout they strove with steel, and were ill-matched at that, for
the heavy strength of the fenman was futile against the lithe speed of the
hunter. Jehan ringed him in circles of light, and the famous downward
stroke was expended on vacant air. He played with him till he breathed
heavily like a cow, and then by a sleight of hand sent his sword spinning
among the oak mast. The young giant stood sulkily before him, unarmed,
deeply shamed, waiting on his death, but with no fear in his eyes.
Jehan tossed his own blade to the ground, and stripped off his hauberk. "We
have fought with weapons," he said, "now we will fight in the ancient way."
There followed a very different contest. Aelward lost his shamefastness and
his slow blood fired as flesh met flesh and sinew strained against sinew.
His great arms crushed the Frenchman till the ribs cracked, but always the
other slipped through and evaded the fatal hug. And as the struggle
continued Aelward's heart warmed to his enemy. When their swords crossed he
had hated him like death; now he seemed to be striving with a kinsman.
Suddenly, when victory looked very near, he found the earth moving from
beneath him, and a mountain descended on his skull. When he blinked himself
into consciousness again, Jehan was laving his head from a pool in an
"I will teach you that throw some -day, friend," he was saying. "Had I not
known the trick of it, you had mauled me sadly. I had liefer grapple with a
Aelward moistened his lips. "You have beat me fairly, armed and
weaponless," he said, and his voice had no anger in it.
"Talk not of beating between neighbours," was the answer. "We have played
together and I have had the luck of it. It will be your turn to break my
"Head matters little," grumbled Aelward. "Mine has stood harder dints. But
you have broken my leg, and that means a month of housekeeping."
Jehan made splints of ash for the leg, and set him upon his horse, and in
this wise they came to the bridge of Galland fen. On the far side of the
water stood the Lady Hilda. He halted and waited on her bidding. She gazed
speechless at the horse whereon sat her brother with a clouted scalp.
"What ails you, Frenchman?" said Aelward. "It is but a half-grown girl of
my father's begetting."
"I have vowed not to pass that bridge till yonder lady bids me."
"Then for the pity of Christ bid him, sister. He and I are warm with play
and yearn for a flagon."
In this manner did Jehan first enter the house of Galland, whence in the
next cowslip-time he carried a bride to Highstead.
The months passed smoothly in the house on the knoll above the fat fen
pastures. Jehan forsook his woodcraft for the work of byre and furrow and
sheepfold, and the yield of his lands grew under his wardenship. He brought
heavy French cattle to improve the little native breed, and made a garden
of fruit trees where once had been only bent and sedge. The thralls wrought
cheerfully for him, for he was a kindly master, and the freemen of the
manor had no complaint against one who did impartial justice and respected
their slow and ancient ways. As for skill in hunting, there was no fellow
to the lord of Highstead between Trent and Thames.
Inside the homestead the Lady Hilda moved happily, a wife smiling and well
content. She had won more than a husband; it seemed she had made a convert;
for daily Jehan grew into the country-side as if he had been born in it.
Something in the soft woodland air and the sharper tang of the fens and the
sea awoke response from his innermost soul. An aching affection was born in
him for every acre of his little heritage. His son, dark like his father,
who made his first diffident pilgrimages in the sunny close where the
pigeons cooed, was not more thirled to English soil.
They were quiet years in that remote place, for Aelward over at Galland had
made his peace with the King. But when the little Jehan was four years old
the tides of war lapped again to the forest edges. One Hugo of Auchy, who
had had a usurer to his father and had risen in an iron age by a merciless
greed, came a-foraying from the north to see how he might add to his
fortunes. Men called him the Crane, for he was tall and lean and
parchment-skinned, and to his banner resorted all malcontents and broken
men. He sought to conduct a second Conquest, making war on the English who
still held their lands, but sparing the French manors. The King's justice
was slow-footed, and the King was far away, so the threatened men, banded
together to hold their own by their own might.
Aelward brought the news from Galland that the Crane had entered their
borders. The good Ivo was overseas, busy on the Brittany marches, and there
was no ruler in Fenland.
"You he will spare," Aelward told his sister's husband. "He does not war
with you new-comers. But us of the old stock he claims as his prey. How say
you, Frenchman? Will you reason with him? Hereaways we are peaceful folk,
and would fain get on with our harvest."
"I will reason with him," said Jehan, "and by the only logic that such
carrion understands. I am by your side, brother. There is but the one cause
for all us countrymen."
But that afternoon as he walked abroad in his cornlands he saw a portent. A
heron rose out of the shallows, and a harrier-hawk swooped to the pounce,
but the long bird flopped securely into the western sky, and the hawk
dropped at his feet, dead but with no mark of a wound.
"Here be marvels," said Jehan, and with that there came on him the
foreknowledge of fate, which in the brave heart wakes awe, but no fear. He
stood silent for a time and gazed over his homelands. The bere was shaking
white and gold in the light evening wind; in the new orchard he had planted
the apples were reddening; from the edge of the forest land rose wreaths of
smoke where the thralls were busy with wood-clearing. There was little
sound in the air, but from the steading came the happy laughter of a child.
Jehan stood very still, and his wistful eyes drank the peace of it.
"Non nobis, Domine," he said, for a priest had once had the training of
him. "But I leave that which shall not die."
He summoned his wife and told her of the coming of the Crane. From a finger
of his left hand he took the thick ring of gold which Ivo had marked years
before in the Wealden hut.
"I have a notion that I am going a long journey," he told her. "If I do not
return, the Lord Ivo will confirm the little lad in these lands of ours.
But to you and for his sake I make my own bequest. Wear this ring for him
till he is a man, and then bid him wear it as his father's guerdon. I had
it from my father, who had it from his, and my grandfather told me the tale
of it. In his grandsire's day it was a mighty armlet, but in the famine
years it was melted and part sold, and only this remains. Some one of us
far back was a king, and this is the badge of a king's house. There comes a
day, little one, when the fruit of our bodies shall possess a throne. See
that the lad be royal in thought and deed, as he is royal in blood."
Next morning he kissed his wife and fondled his little son, and with his
men rode northward, his eyes wistful but his mouth smiling.
What followed was for generations a tale among humble folk in England, who
knew nothing of the deeds of the King's armies. By cottage fires they wove
stories about it and made simple songs, the echo of which may still be
traced by curious scholars. There is something of it in the great saga of
Robin Hood, and long after the fens were drained women hushed their babies
with snatches about the Crane and the Falcon, and fairy tales of a certain
John of the Shaws, who became one with Jack the Giant-killer and all the
Jehan and his band met Aelward at the appointed rendezvous, and soon were
joined by a dozen knots of lusty yeomen, who fought not only for themselves
but for the law of England and the peace of the new king. Of the little
force Jehan was appointed leader, and once again became the Hunter,
stalking a baser quarry than wolf or boar. For the Crane and his rabble,
flushed with easy conquest, kept ill watch, and the tongues of forest
running down to the fenland made a good hunting ground for a wary forester.
Jehan's pickets found Hugo of Auchy by the Sheen brook and brought back
tidings. Thereupon a subtle plan was made. By day and night the invaders'
camp was kept uneasy; there would be sudden attacks, which died down after
a few blows; stragglers disappeared, scouts never returned; and when a
peasant was brought in and forced to speak, he told with scared face a tale
of the great mustering of desperate men in this or that quarter. The Crane
was a hardy fighter, but the mystery baffled him, and he became cautious,
and--after the fashion of his kind credulous. Bit by bit Jehan shepherded
him into the trap he had prepared. He had but one man to the enemy's six,
and must drain that enemy's strength before he struck. Meantime the little
steadings went up in flames, but with every blaze seen in the autumn dusk
the English temper grew more stubborn. They waited confidently on the
It came on a bleak morning when the east wind blew rain and fog from the
sea. The Crane was in a spit of open woodland, with before him and on
either side deep fenland with paths known only to its dwellers. Then Jehan
struck. He drove his enemy to the point of the dry ground, and thrust him
into the marshes. Not since the time of the Danes had the land known such a
slaying. The refuse of France and the traitor English who had joined them
went down like sheep before wolves. When the Lord Ivo arrived in the late
afternoon, having ridden hot-speed from the south coast when he got the
tidings, he found little left of the marauders save the dead on the land
and the scum of red on the fen pools.
Jehan lay by a clump of hazels, the blood welling from an axe-wound in the
neck. His face was ashen with the oncoming of death, but he smiled as he
looked up at his lord.
"The Crane pecked me," he said. "He had a stout bill, if a black heart."
Ivo wept aloud, being pitiful as he was brave. He would have scoured the
country for a priest.
"Farewell, old comrade," he sobbed. "Give greeting to Odo in Paradise, and
keep a place for me by your side. I will nourish your son, as if he had
been that one of my own whom Heaven has denied me. Tarry a little, dear
heart, and the Priest of Glede will be here to shrive you."
Through the thicket there crawled a mighty figure, his yellow hair dabbled
in blood, and his breath labouring like wind in a threshing-floor. He lay
down by Jehan's side, and with a last effort kissed him on the lips.
"Priest!" cried the dying Aelward. "What need is there of priest to help us
two English on our way to God?"
CHAPTER 3. THE WIFE OF FLANDERS
From the bed set high on a dais came eerie spasms of laughter, a harsh
cackle like fowls at feeding time.
"Is that the last of them, Anton?" said a voice.
A little serving-man with an apple-hued face bowed in reply. He bowed with
difficulty, for in his arms he held a huge grey cat, which still mewed with
the excitement of the chase. Rats had been turned loose on the floor, and
it had accounted for them to the accompaniment of a shrill urging from the
bed. Now the sport was over, and the domestics who had crowded round the
door to see it had slipped away, leaving only Anton and the cat.
"Give Tib a full meal of offal," came the order, "and away with yourself.
Your rats are a weak breed. Get me the stout grey monsters like Tuesday
The room was empty now save for two figures both wearing the habit of the
religious. Near the bed sat a man in the full black robe and hood of the
monks of Cluny. He warmed plump hands at the brazier and seemed at ease and
at home. By the door stood a different figure in the shabby clothes of a
parish priest, a curate from the kirk of St. Martin's who had been a
scandalised spectator of the rat hunt. He shuffled his feet as if uncertain
of his next step--a thin, pale man with a pinched mouth and timid earnest
The glance from the bed fell on him "What will the fellow be at?" said the
voice testily. "He stands there like a sow about to litter, and stares and
grunts. Good e'en to you, friend. When you are wanted you will be sent for
Jesu's name, what have I done to have that howlet glowering at me?"
The priest at the words crossed himself and turned to go, with a tinge of
red in his sallow cheeks. He was faithful to his duties and had come to
console a death bed, though he was well aware that his consolations would
As he left there came again the eerie laughter from the bed. "Ugh, I am
weary of that incomparable holiness. He hovers about to give me the St.
John's Cup, and would fain speed my passing. But I do not die yet, good
father. There's life still in the old wolf."
The monk in a bland voice spoke some Latin to the effect that mortal times
and seasons were ordained of God. The other stretched out a skinny hand
from the fur coverings and rang a silver bell. When Anton appeared she gave
the order "Bring supper for the reverend father," at which the Cluniac's
face mellowed into complacence.
It was a Friday evening in a hard February. Out-of-doors the snow lay deep
in the streets of Bruges, and every canal was frozen solid so that carts
rumbled along them as on a street. A wind had risen which drifted the
powdery snow and blew icy draughts through every chink. The small-paned
windows of the great upper-room were filled with oiled vellum, but they did
not keep out the weather, and currents of cold air passed through them to
the doorway, making the smoke of the four charcoal braziers eddy and swirl.
The place was warm, yet shot with bitter gusts, and the smell of burning
herbs gave it the heaviness of a chapel at high mass. Hanging silver lamps,
which blazed blue and smoky, lit it in patches, sufficient to show the
cleanness of the rush-strewn floor, the glory of the hangings of
cloth-of-gold and damask, and the burnished sheen of the metal-work. There
was no costlier chamber in that rich city.
It was a strange staging for death, for the woman on the high bed was
dying. Slowly, fighting every inch of the way with a grim tenacity, but
indubitably dying. Her vital ardour had sunk below the mark from which it
could rise again, and was now ebbing as water runs from a little crack in a
pitcher. The best leeches in all Flanders and Artois had come to doctor
her. They had prescribed the horrid potions of the age: tinctures of
earth-worms; confections of spiders and wood-lice and viper's flesh; broth
of human skulls, oil, wine, ants' eggs, and crabs' claws; the bufo
preparatus, which was a live toad roasted in a pot and ground to a powder;
and innumerable plaisters and electuaries. She had begun by submitting
meekly, for she longed to live, and had ended, for she was a shrewd woman,
by throwing the stuff at the apothecaries' heads. Now she ordained her own
diet, which was of lamb's flesh lightly boiled, and woman's milk, got from
a wench in the purlieus of St. Sauveur. The one medicine which she retained
was powdered elk's horn, which had been taken from the beast between two
festivals of the Virgin. This she had from the foresters in the Houthulst
woods, and swallowed it in white wine an hour after every dawn.
The bed was a noble thing of ebony, brought by the Rhine road from Venice,
and carved with fantastic hunting scenes by Hainault craftsmen. Its
hangings were stiff brocaded silver, and above the pillows a great
unicorn's horn, to protect against poisoning, stood out like the beak of a
ship. The horn cast an odd shadow athwart the bed, so that a big claw
seemed to lie on the coverlet curving towards the throat of her who lay
there. The parish priest had noticed this at his first coming that evening,
and had muttered fearful prayers.
The face on the pillows was hard to discern in the gloom, but when Anton
laid the table for the Cluniac's meal and set a lamp on it, he lit up the
cavernous interior of the bed, so that it became the main thing in the
chamber. It was the face of a woman who still retained the lines and the
colouring of youth. The voice had harshened with age, and the hair was
white as wool, but the cheeks were still rosy and the grey eyes still had
fire. Notable beauty had once been there. The finely arched brows, the oval
of the face which the years had scarcely sharpened, the proud, delicate
nose, all spoke of it. It was as if their possessor recognised those things
and would not part with them, for her attire had none of the dishevelment
of a sickroom. Her coif of fine silk was neatly adjusted, and the great
robe of marten's fur which cloaked her shoulders was fastened with a jewel
of rubies which glowed in the lamplight like a star.
Something chattered beside her. It was a little brown monkey which had made
a nest in the warm bedclothes.
She watched with sharp eyes the setting of the table. It was a Friday's
meal and the guest was a monk, so it followed a fashion, but in that house
of wealth, which had links with the ends of the earth, the monotony was
cunningly varied. There were oysters from the Boulogne coast, and lampreys
from the Loire, and pickled salmon from England. There was a dish of liver
dressed with rice and herbs in the manner of the Turk, for liver, though
contained in flesh, was not reckoned as flesh by liberal churchmen. There
was a roast goose from the shore marshes, that barnacle bird which pious
epicures classed as shell-fish and thought fit for fast days. A silver
basket held a store of thin toasted rye-cakes, and by the monk's hand stood
a flagon of that drink most dear to holy palates, the rich syrupy
The woman looked on the table with approval, for her house had always
prided itself upon its good fare. The Cluniac's urbane composure was
stirred to enthusiasm. He said a Confiteor tibi Domine, rolling the words
on his tongue as if in anticipation of the solider mouthfuls awaiting him.
The keen weather had whetted his appetite and he thanked God that his
northern peregrinations had brought him to a house where the Church was
thus honoured. He had liked the cavalier treatment of the lean parish
priest, a sour dog who brought his calling into disfavour with the rich and
godly. He tucked back his sleeves, adjusted the linen napkin comfortably
about his neck, and fell to with a will. He raised his first glass of
hippocras and gave thanks to his hostess. A true mother in Israel!
She was looking at him with favour. He was the breed of monk that she
liked, suave, well-mannered, observant of men and cities. Already he had
told her entertaining matter about the French King's court, and the new
Burgrave of Ghent, and the escapades of Count Baldwin. He had lived much
among gentlefolk and kept his ears open.... She felt stronger and
cheerfuller than she had been for days. That rat-hunt had warmed her blood.
She was a long way from death in spite of the cackle of idiot chirurgeons,
and there was much savour still in the world. There was her son, too, the
young Philip.... Her eye saw clearer, and she noted the sombre magnificence
of the great room, the glory of the brocade, the gleam of silver. Was she
not the richest woman in all Bruges, aye, and in all Hainault and
Guelderland? And the credit was her own. After the fashion of age in such
moods her mind flew backward, and she saw very plain a narrow street in a
wind-swept town looking out on a bleak sea. She had been cold, then, and
hungry, and deathly poor. Well, she had travelled some way from that hovel.
She watched the thick carved stems of the candlesticks and felt a spacious
ease and power.
The Cluniac was speaking. He had supped so well that he was in love with
"Your house and board, my lady, are queen-like. I have seen worse in palaces."
Her laugh was only half pleased. "Too fine, you would add, for a burgher
wife. Maybe, but rank is but as man makes it. The Kings of England are
sprung of a tanner. Hark you, father! I made a vow to God when I was a
maid, and I have fulfilled my side of the bargain. I am come of a nobler
race than any Markgrave, aye, than the Emperor himself, and I swore to set
the seed of my body, which the Lord might grant me, again among the great
ones. Have I not done it? Is not Philip, my son, affianced to that pale
girl of Avesnes, and with more acres of pleasant land to his name than any
knightlet in Artois?"
The Cluniac bowed a courtly head. "It is a great alliance--but not above
the dignity of your house."
"House you call it, and I have had the making of it. What was Willebald but
a plain merchant-man, one of many scores at the Friday Market? Willebald
was clay that I moulded and gilded till God put him to bed under a noble
lid in the New Kirk. A worthy man, but loutish and slow like one of his own
hookers. Yet when I saw him on the plainstones by the English harbour I
knew that he was a weapon made for my hand."
Her voice had become even and gentle as of one who remembers far-away
things. The Cluniac, having dipped his hands in a silver basin, was drying
them in the brazier's heat. Presently he set to picking his teeth daintily
with a quill, and fell into the listener's pose. From long experience he
knew the atmosphere which heralds confidences, and was willing to humour
the provider of such royal fare.
"You have never journeyed to King's Lynn?" said the voice from the bed.
"There is little to see there but mudbars and fens and a noisy sea. There I
dwelt when I was fifteen years of age, a maid hungry in soul and body. I
knew I was of the seed of Forester John and through him the child of a
motley of ancient kings, but war and famine had stripped our house to the
bone. And now I, the last of the stock, dwelt with a miserly mother's uncle
who did shipwright's work for the foreign captains. The mirror told me that
I was fair to look on, though ill-nourished, and my soul assured me that I
had no fear. Therefore I had hope, but I ate my heart out waiting on
She was looking at the monk with unseeing eyes, her head half turned
"Then came Willebald one March morning. I saw him walk up the jetty in a
new red cloak, a personable man with a broad beard and a jolly laugh. I
knew him by repute as the luckiest of the Flemish venturers. In him I saw
my fortune. That night he supped at my uncle's house and a week later he
sought me in marriage. My uncle would have bargained, but I had
become a grown woman and silenced him. With Willebald I did not chaffer,
for I read his heart and knew that in a little he would be wax to me. So we
were wed, and I took to him no dowry but a ring which came to me from my
forebears, and a brain that gold does not buy."
The monkey by her side broke into a chattering.
"Peace, Peterkin," she said. "You mind me of the babbling of the
merchant-folk, when I spurred Willebald into new roads. He had done as his
father before him, and bought wool and salted fish from the English, paying
with the stuffs of our Flemish looms. A good trade of small and sure
profits, but I sought bigger quarries. For, mark you, there was much in
England that had a value in this country of ours which no Englishman
"Of what nature?" the monk asked with curiosity in his voice.
"Roman things. Once in that land of bogs and forests there were bustling
Roman towns and rich Roman houses, which disappeared as every tide brought
in new robbers from the sea. Yes, but not all. Much of the preciousness was
hidden and the place of its hiding forgotten. Bit by bit the churls found
the treasure-trove, but they did not tell their lords. They melted down
jewels and sold them piecemeal to Jews for Jews' prices, and what they did
not recognise as precious they wantonly destroyed. I have seen the marble
heads of heathen gods broken with the hammer to make mortar of, and great
cups of onyx and alabaster used as water troughs for a thrall's mongrels. .
. . Knowing the land, I sent pedlars north and west to collect such stuff,
and what I bought for pence I sold for much gold in the Germanies and
throughout the French cities. Thus Willebald amassed wealth, till it was no
longer worth his while to travel the seas. We lived snug in Flanders, and
our servants throughout the broad earth were busy getting us gear."
The Cluniac was all interest. The making of money lay very near the heart
of his Order. "I have heard wondrous tales of your enterprise," he told
her. "I would fain know the truth."
"Packman's tricks," she laughed. "Nevertheless it is a good story. For I
turned my eyes to the East, whence come those things that make the pride of
life. The merchants of Venice were princes, and it was in my head to make
those of Bruges no worse. What did it profit that the wind turned daily the
sails of our three hundred mills if we limited ourselves to common burgher
wares and the narrow northern markets? We sent emissaries up the Rhine and
beyond the Alps to the Venice princes, and brought hither the spices and
confections of Egypt and the fruits and wines of Greece, and the woven
stuffs of Asia till the marts of Flanders had the savour of Araby.
Presently in our booths could be seen silks of Italy, and choice metals
from Innsbruck, and furs from Muscovy, and strange birds and beasts from
Prester John's country, and at our fairs such a concourse of outlandish
traders as put Venice to shame. 'Twas a long fight and a bitter for
Willebald and me, since, mark you, we had to make a new road over icy
mountains, with a horde of freebooters hanging on the skirts of our
merchant trains and every little burg on the way jealous to hamper us. Yet
if the heart be resolute, barriers will fall. Many times we were on the
edge of beggary, and grievous were our losses, but in the end we triumphed.
There came a day when we had so many bands of the Free Companions in our
pay that the progress of our merchandise was like that of a great army, and
from rivals we made the roadside burgs our allies, sharing modestly in our
ventures. Also there were other ways. A pilgrim travels unsuspect, for who
dare rob a holy man? and he is free from burgal dues; but if the goods be
small and very precious, pilgrims may carry them."
The monk, as in duty bound, shook a disapproving head.
"Sin, doubtless," said the woman, "but I have made ample atonement. Did I
not buy with a bushel of gold a leg of the blessed St. George for the New
Kirk, and give to St. Martin's a diamond as big as a thumb nail and so
bright that on a dark day it is a candle to the shrine? Did not I give to
our Lady at Aix a crown of ostrich feathers the marrow of which is not in
"A mother in Israel, in truth," murmured the cleric.
"Yea, in Israel," said the old wife with a chuckle. "Israel was the kernel
of our perplexities. The good Flemings saw no farther than their noses, and
laughed at Willebald when he began his ventures. When success came, it was
easy to win them over, and by admitting them to a share in our profits get
them to fling their caps in the air and huzza for their benefactors. But
the Jews were a tougher stock. Mark you, father, when God blinded their
eyes to the coming of the Lord Christ, He opened them very wide to all
lower matters. Their imagination is quick to kindle, and they are as bold
in merchantcraft as Charlemagne in war. They saw what I was after before I
had been a month at it, and were quick to profit by my foresight. There are
but two ways to deal with Israelites--root them from the face of the earth
or make them partners with you. Willebald would have fought them; I, more
wise, bought them at a price. For two score years they have wrought
faithfully for me. You say well, a mother in Israel!"
"I could wish that a Christian lady had no dealings with the accursed
race," said the Cluniac.
"You could wish folly," was the tart answer. "I am not as your burgher
folk, and on my own affairs I take no man's guiding, be he monk or
merchant. Willebald is long dead; may he sleep in peace, He was no mate for
me, but for what he gave me I repaid him in the coin he loved best. He was
a proud man when he walked through the Friday Market with every cap doffed.
He was ever the burgher, like the child I bore him."
"I had thought the marriage more fruitful. They spoke of two children, a
daughter and a son."
The woman turned round in her bed so that she faced him. The monkey
whimpered and she cuffed its ears. Her face was sharp and exultant, and for
a sick person her eyes were oddly bright.
"The girl was Willebald's. A poor slip of vulgar stock with the spirit of a
house cat. I would have married her well, for she was handsome after a
fashion, but she thwarted me and chose to wed a lout of a huckster in the
Bredestreet. She shall have her portion from Willebald's gold, but none
from me. But Philip is true child of mine, and sprung on both sides of high
race. Nay, I name no names, and before men he is of my husband's getting.
But to you at the end of my days I speak the truth. That son of wrath has
rare blood in him. Philip . . ."
The old face had grown kind. She was looking through the monk to some happy
country of vision. Her thoughts were retracing the roads of time, and after
the way of age she spoke them aloud. imperiously she had forgotten her
"So long ago," came the tender voice. "It is years since they told me he
was dead among the heathen, fighting by the Lord Baldwin's side. But I can
see him as if it were yesterday, when he rode into these streets in spring
with April blooms at his saddle-bow. They called him Phadbus in jest, for
his face was like the sun.... Willebald, good dull man, was never jealous,
and was glad that his wife should be seen in brave company. Ah, the
afternoons at the baths when we sported like sea-nymphs and sang merry
ballads! And the proud days of Carnival where men and women consorted
freely and without guile like the blessed in Paradise! Such a tide for
lovers! . . . Did I not lead the dance with him at the Burgrave's festival,
the twain of us braver than morning? Sat I not with him in the garden of
St. Vaast, his head in my lap, while he sang me virelays of the south? What
was Willebald to me or his lean grey wife to him? He made me his queen, me
the burgher wife, at the jousting at Courtrai, when the horses squealed
like pigs in the mellay and I wept in fear for him. Ah, the lost sweet
days! Philip, my darling, you make a brave gentleman, but you will not
equal him who loved your mother."
The Cluniac was a man of the world whom no confidences could scandalise.
But he had business of his own to speak of that night, and he thought it
wise to break into this mood of reminiscence.
"The young lord, Philip, your son, madam? You have great plans for him?
What does he at the moment?"
The softness went out of the voice and the woman's gaze came back to the
chamber. "That I know not. Travelling the ways of the world and plucking
roadside fruits, for he is no home-bred and womanish stripling. Wearing his
lusty youth on the maids, I fear. Nay, I forget. He is about to wed the
girl of Avesnes and is already choosing his bridal train. It seems he loves
her. He writes me she has a skin of snow and eyes of vair. I have not seen
her. A green girl, doubtless with a white face and cat's eyes. But she is
of Avesnes, and that blood comes pure from Clovis, and there is none
prouder in Hainault. He will husband her well, but she will be a clever
woman if she tethers to her side a man of my bearing. He will be for the
high road and the battle-front."
"A puissant and peaceable knight, I have heard tell," said the Cluniac.
"Puissant beyond doubt, and peaceable when his will is served. He will play
boldly for great things and will win them. Ah, monk! What knows a childless
religious of a mother's certainty? 'Twas not for nothing that I found
Willebald and changed the cobbles of King's Lynn for this fat country. It
is gold that brings power, and the stiffest royal neck must bend to him who
has the deep coffers. It is gold and his high hand that will set my Philip
by the side of kings. Lord Jesus, what a fortune I have made for him! There
is coined money at the goldsmiths' and in my cellars, and the ships at the
ports, and a hundred busy looms, and lands in Hainault and Artois, and fair
houses in Bruges and Ghent. Boats on the Rhine and many pack trains between
Antwerp and Venice are his, and a wealth of preciousness lies in his name
with the Italian merchants. Likewise there is this dwelling of mine, with
plenishing which few kings could buy. My sands sink in the glass, but as I
lie a-bed I hear the bustle of wains and horses in the streets, and the
talk of shipfolk, and the clatter of my serving men beneath, and I know
that daily, hourly, more riches flow hither to furnish my son's kingdom."
The monk's eyes sparkled at this vision of wealth, and he remembered his
"A most noble heritage. But if the Sire God in His inscrutable providence
should call your son to His holy side, what provision have you made for so
mighty a fortune? Does your daughter then share?"
The face on the pillows became suddenly wicked and very old. The eyes were
lit with hate.
"Not a bezant of which I have the bequeathing. She has something from
Willebald, and her dull husband makes a livelihood. 'Twill suffice for the
female brats, of whom she has brought three into the world to cumber it....
By the Gospels, she will lie on the bed she has made. I did not scheme and
toil to make gold for such leaden souls."
"But if your most worthy son should die ere he has begot children, have you
made no disposition?" The monk's voice was pointed with anxiety, for was
not certainty on this point the object of his journey? The woman perceived
it and laughed maliciously.
"I have made dispositions. Such a chapel will be builded in the New Kirk as
Rome cannot equal. Likewise there will be benefactions for the poor and a
great endowment for the monks at St. Sauveur. If my seed is not to continue
on earth I will make favour in Paradise."
"And we of Cluny, madam?" The voice trembled in spite of its training.
"Nay I have not forgotten Cluny. Its Abbot shall have the gold flagons from
Jerusalem and some wherewithal in money. But what is this talk? Philip will
not die, and like his mother he loves Holy Church and will befriend her in
all her works.... Listen, father, it is long past the hour when men cease
from labour, and yet my provident folk are busy. Hark to the bustle below.
That will be the convoy from the Vermandois. Jesu, what a night!"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Flurries of snow beat on windows, and draughts stirred the hot ashes in the
braziers and sent the smoke from them in odd spirals about the chamber. It
had become perishing cold, and the monkey among the bedclothes whimpered
and snuggled closer into his nest. There seemed to be a great stir about
the house-door. Loud voices were heard in gusts, and a sound like a woman's
cry. The head on the pillow was raised to listen.
"A murrain on those folk. There has been bungling among the pack-riders.
That new man Derek is an oaf of oafs."
She rang her silver bell sharply and waited on the ready footsteps. But
none came. There was silence now below, an ominous silence.
"God's curse upon this household," the woman cried. The monkey whimpered
again, and she took it by the scruff and tossed it to the floor. "Peace,
ape, or I will have you strangled. Bestir yourself, father, and call Anton.
There is a blight of deafness in this place."
The room had suddenly lost its comfort and become cold and desolate. The
lamps were burning low and the coloured hangings were in deep shadow. The
storm was knocking fiercely at the lattice.
The monk rose with a shiver to do her bidding, but he was forestalled.
Steps sounded on the stairs and the steward entered. The woman in the bed
had opened her mouth to upbraid, when something in his dim figure struck
The old man stumbled forward and fell on his knees beside her.
"Madam, dear madam," he stammered, "ill news has come to this house....
There is a post in from Avesnes.... The young master ... "
"Philip," and the woman's voice rose to a scream. "What of my son?"
"The lord has taken away what He gave. He is dead, slain in a scuffle with
highway robbers.... Oh, the noble young lord! The fair young knight! Woe
upon this stricken house!"
The woman lay very still, white the old man on his knees drifted into
broken prayers. Then he observed her silence, scrambled to his feet in a
panic, and lit two candles from the nearest brazier. She lay back on the
pillows in a deathly faintness, her face drained of blood. Only her
tortured eyes showed that life was still in her.
Her voice came at last, no louder than a whisper. It was soft now, but more
terrible than the old harshness.
"I follow Philip," it said. "Sic transit gloria.... Call me Arnulf the
goldsmith and Robert the scrivener. . . . Quick, man, quick. I have much to
do ere I die."
As the steward hurried out, the Cluniac, remembering his office, sought to
offer comfort, but in his bland worldling's voice the consolations sounded
hollow. She lay motionless, while he quoted the Scriptures. Encouraged by
her docility, he spoke of the certain reward promised by Heaven to the rich
who remembered the Church at their death. He touched upon the high duties
of his Order and the handicap of its poverty. He bade her remember her debt
to the Abbot of Cluny.
She seemed about to speak and he bent eagerly to catch her words.
"Peace, you babbler," she said. "I am done with your God. When I meet Him I
will outface Him. He has broken His compact and betrayed me. My riches go
to the Burgrave for the comfort of this city where they were won. Let your
broken rush of a Church wither and rot!"
Scared out of all composure by this blasphemy, the Cluniac fell to crossing
himself and mumbling invocations. The diplomat had vanished and only the
frightened monk remained. He would fain have left the room had he dared,
but the spell of her masterful spirit held him. After that she spoke
nothing. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Again there was a noise on the stairs and she moved a little, as if
mustering her failing strength for the ultimate business. But it was not
Arnulf the gold smith. It was Anton, and he shook like a man on his way to
"Madam, dear madam," he stammered, again on his knees. "There is another
message. One has come from the Bredestreet with word of your lady daughter.
An hour ago she has borne a child. . .A lusty son, madam."
The reply from the bed was laughter.
It began low and hoarse like a fit of coughing, and rose to the high
cackling mirth of extreme age. At the sound both Anton and the monk took to
praying. Presently it stopped, and her voice came full and strong as it had
been of old.
"Mea culpa," it said, "mea maxima culpa. I judged the Sire God over
hastily. He is merry and has wrought a jest on me. He has kept His
celestial promise in His own fashion. He takes my brave Philip and gives me
instead a suckling.... So be it. The infant has my blood, and the race of
Forester John will not die. Arnulf will have an easy task.
He need but set the name of this new-born in Philip's place. What manner of
child is he, Anton? Lusty, you say, and well-formed? I would my arms could
have held him.... But I must be about my business of dying. I will take the
news to Philip."
Hope had risen again in the Cluniac's breast. It seemed that here was a
penitent. He approached the bed with a raised crucifix, and stumbled over
the whimpering monkey. The woman's eyes saw him and a last flicker woke in
"Begone, man," she cried. "I have done with the world. Anton, rid me of
both these apes. And fetch the priest of St. Martin's, for I would confess
and be shriven. Yon curate is no doubt a fool, but he serves my jesting
CHAPTER 4. EYES OF YOUTH
On the morning of Shrove Tuesday, in the year of our Lord 1249, Sir Aimery
of Beaumanoir, the envoy of the most Christian king, Louis of France,
arrived in the port of Acre, having made the voyage from Cyprus with a
fair wind in a day and a night in a ship of Genoa flying the red and gold
banner of the Temple. Weary of the palms and sun-baked streets of Limasol
and the eternal wrangling of the Crusading hosts, he looked with favour at
the noble Palestine harbour, and the gilt steeples and carven houses of
the fair city. From the quay he rode to the palace of the Templars and was
admitted straightway to an audience with the Grand Master. For he had come
in a business of some moment.
The taste of Cyprus was still in his mouth; the sweet sticky air of the
coastlands; the smell of endless camps of packed humanity, set among
mountains of barrels and malodorous sprouting forage-stuffs; the narrow
streets lit at night by flares of tarry staves; and over all that rotting
yet acrid flavour which is the token of the East. The young damoiseau of
Beaumanoir had grown very sick of it all since the royal dromonds first
swung into Limasol Bay. He had seen his friends die like flies of strange
maladies, while the host waited on Hugh of Burgundy. Egypt was but four
days off across the waters, and on its sands Louis had ordained that the
War of the Cross should begin.
. . . But the King seemed strangely supine. Each day the enemy was the
better forewarned, and each day the quarrels of Templar and Hospitaller
grew more envenomed, and yet he sat patiently twiddling his thumbs, as if
all time lay before him and not a man's brief life. And now when at long
last the laggards of Burgundy and the Morea were reported on their way,
Sir Aimery had to turn his thoughts from the honest field of war. Not for
him to cry Montjole St. Denis by the Nile. For behold he was now
speeding on a crazy errand to the ends of the earth.
There had been strange councils in the bare little chamber of the Most
Christian King. Those locusts of the dawn whom men called Tartars, the
evil seed of the Three Kings who had once travelled to Bethlehem, had, it
seemed, been vouchsafed a glimpse of grace. True, they had plundered and
eaten the faithful and shed innocent blood in oceans, but they hated the
children of Mahound worse than the children of Christ. On the eve of
Christmas-tide four envoys had come from their Khakan, monstrous men with
big heads that sprang straight from the shoulder, and arms that hung below
the knee, and short thin legs like gnomes. For forty weeks they had been
on the road, and they brought gifts such as no eye had seen before--silks
like gossamer woven with wild alphabets, sheeny jars of jade, and pearls
like moons. Their Khakan, they said, had espoused the grandchild of
Prester John, and had been baptized into the Faith. He marched against
Bagdad, and had sworn to root the heresy of Mahound from the earth. Let
the King of France make a league with him, and between them, pressing from
east and west, they would accomplish the holy task. Let him send teachers
to expound the mysteries of Cod, and let him send knights who would treat
on mundane things. The letter, written in halting Latin and sealed with a
device like a spider's web, urged instant warfare with Egypt. "For the
present we dwell far apart," wrote the Khakan; "therefore let us both get
to business. "
So Aimery had been summoned to the King's chamber, where he found his good
master, the Count of St. Pol, in attendance with others. After prayer,
Louis opened to them his mind. Pale from much fasting and nightly
communing with God, his face was lit again with that light which had shone
in it when on the Friday after Pentecost the year before he had received
at St. Denis the pilgrim's scarf and the oriflamme of France.
"God's hand is in this, my masters," he said. "Is it not written that many
shall come from the east and from the west to sit down with Abraham in his
kingdom? I have a duty towards those poor folk, and I dare not fail."
There was no man present bold enough to argue with the white fire in the
King's eyes. One alone cavilled. He was a Scot, Sir Patrick, the Count of
Dunbar, who already shook with the fever which was to be his death.
"This Khakan is far away, sire," he said. "If it took his envoys forty
weeks to reach us, it will be a good year before his armies are on the
skirts of Egypt. As well make alliance with a star."
But Louis was in missionary mood. "God's ways are not as our ways. To Him
a thousand years are a day, and He can make the weakest confound a
multitude. This far-away King asks for instruction, and I will send him
holy men to fortify his young faith. And this knight, of whom you, my lord
of St. Pol, speak well, shall bear the greetings of a soldier."
Louis' face, which for usual was grave like a wise child's, broke into a
smile which melted Aimery's heart. He scarcely heard the Count of St. Pol
as that stout friend enlarged on his merits. "The knight of Beaumanoir,"
so ran the testimony, "has more learning than any clerk. In Spain he
learned the tongues of the heathen, and in Paris he read deep in their
philosophy. Withal he is a devout son of Holy Chutch."
The boy blushed at the praise and the King's kindly regard. But St. Pol
spoke truth, for Aimery, young as he was, had travelled far both on the
material globe and in the kingdom of the spirit. As a stripling he had
made one of the Picardy Nation in the schools of Paris. He had studied the
metaphysics of Aristotle under Aquinas, and voyaged strange seas of
thought piloted by Roger, the white-bearded Englishman. Thence, by the
favour of the Queen-mother, he had gone as squire to Alphonso's court of
Castile, where the Spanish doctors had opened windows for him into the
clear dry wisdom of the Saracens. He had travelled with an embassy to the
Emperor, and in Sicily had talked with the learned Arabs who clustered
around the fantastic Frederick. In Italy he had met adventurers of Genoa
and Venice who had shown him charts of unknown oceans and maps of Prester
John's country and the desert roads that led to Cambaluc, that city
farther than the moon, and told him tales of awful and delectable things
hidden beyond the dawn. He had returned to his tower by the springs of
Canche, a young man with a name for uncanny knowledge, a searcher after
concealed matters, negligent of religion and ill at ease in his world.
Then Louis cast his spell over him. He saw the King first at a great
hunting in Avesnes and worshipped from afar the slight body, royal in
every line of it, and the blue eyes which charmed and compelled, for he
divined there a spirit which had the secret of both earth and heaven.
While still under the glamour he was given knighthood at the royal hands,
and presently was weaned from unwholesome fancies by falling in love. The
girl, Alix of Valery, was slim like a poplar and her eyes were grey and
deep as her northern waters. She had been a maid of Blanche the Queen, and
had a nun's devoutness joined to a merry soul. Under her guiding Aimery
made his peace with the Church, and became notable for his gifts to God,
for he derived great wealth from his Flemish forbears. Yet the yeast of
youth still wrought in him, and by Alix's side at night he dreamed of
other lands than his grey-green Picardy. So, when the King took the croix
d'outre mer and summoned his knights to the freeing of Jerusalem, Sir
Aimery of Beaumanoir was the first to follow. For to him, as to others
like him, the goal was no perishable city made by mortal hands, but that
beata urbs without foundations which youth builds of its dreams.
He heard mass by the King's side and, trembling with pride, kissed the
royal hands and set out on his journey. His last memory of Louis was of a
boyish figure in a surcoat of blue samite, gazing tenderly on him as of
bidding farewell to a brother.
The Grand Master of the Templars, sitting in a furred robe in a warm upper
chamber, for he had an ague on him, spoke gloomily of the mission. He
would have preferred to make alliance with the Soldan of Egypt, and by his
aid recover the Holy Cities. "What Khakan is this?" he cried, "to whom it
is a journey of a lifetime to come nigh? What kind of Christian will you
make of men that have blood for drink and the flesh of babes for food, and
blow hither and thither on horses like sandstorms? Yours is a mad venture,
young sir, and I see no good that can come of it." Nevertheless he wrote
letters of commendation to the Prince of Antioch and the Constable of
Armenia; and he brought together all those about the place who had
travelled far inland to make a chart of the journey.
Aimery heeded little the Templar's forebodings, for his heart had grown
high again and romance was kindling his fancy. There was a knuckle of
caution in him, for he had the blood of Flemish traders in his veins,
though enriched by many nobler streams. "The profit is certain," a cynic
had whispered to him ere they left Aigues Mortes. "Should we conquer we
shall grow rich, and if we fail we shall go to heaven." The phrase had
fitted some of his moods, notably the black ones at Limasol, but now he
was all aflame with the quixotry of the Crusader. He neither needed nor
sought wealth, nor was he concerned about death. His feet trod the sacred
soil of his faith, and up in the hills which rimmed the seaward plain lay
all the holiness of Galilee and Nazareth, the three tabernacles built by
St. Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, the stone whence Christ
ascended into heaven, the hut at Bethlehem which had been the Most High's
cradle, the sanctuary of Jerusalem whose every stone was precious.
Presently his King would win it all back for God. But for him was the
sterner task--no clean blows in the mellay among brethren, but a lone
pilgrimage beyond the east wind to the cradle of all marvels. The King had
told him that he carried the hopes of Christendom in his wallet; he knew
that he bore within himself the delirious expectation of a boy. Youth
swelled his breast and steeled his sinews and made a golden mist for his
eyes. The new, the outlandish, the undreamed-of!--Surely no one of the
Seven Champions had had such fortune! Scribes long after would write of
the deeds of Aimery of Beaumanoir, and minstrels would sing of him as they
sang of Roland and Tristan.
The Count of Jaffa, whose tower stood on the borders and who was therefore