Chapter 7 HOW THE THREE COMRADES JOURNEYED THROUGH THE WOODLANDS.
At early dawn the country inn was all alive, for it was rare indeed that a_our of daylight would be wasted at a time when lighting was so scarce an_ear. Indeed, early as it was when Dame Eliza began to stir, it seemed tha_thers could be earlier still, for the door was ajar, and the learned studen_f Cambridge had taken himself off, with a mind which was too intent upon th_igh things of antiquity to stoop to consider the four-pence which he owed fo_ed and board. It was the shrill out-cry of the landlady when she found he_oss, and the clucking of the hens, which had streamed in through the ope_oor, that first broke in upon the slumbers of the tired wayfarers.
Once afoot, it was not long before the company began to disperse. A sleek mul_ith red trappings was brought round from some neighboring shed for th_hysician, and he ambled away with much dignity upon his road to Southampton.
The tooth-drawer and the gleeman called for a cup of small ale apiece, an_tarted off together for Ringwood fair, the old jongleur looking very yello_n the eye and swollen in the face after his overnight potations. The archer, however, who had drunk more than any man in the room, was as merry as a grig, and having kissed the matron and chased the maid up the ladder once more, h_ent out to the brook, and came back with the water dripping from his face an_air.
"Hola! my man of peace," he cried to Alleyne, "whither are you bent thi_orning?"
"To Minstead," quoth he. "My brother Simon Edricson is socman there, and I g_o bide with him for a while. I prythee, let me have my score, good dame."
"Score, indeed!" cried she, standing with upraised hands in front of the pane_n which Alleyne had worked the night before. "Say, rather what it is that _we to thee, good youth. Aye, this is indeed a pied merlin, and with a levere_nder its claws, as I am a living woman. By the rood of Waltham! but thy touc_s deft and dainty."
"And see the red eye of it!" cried the maid.
"Aye, and the open beak."
"And the ruffled wing," added Hordle John.
"By my hilt!" cried the archer, "it is the very bird itself."
The young clerk flushed with pleasure at this chorus of praise, rude an_ndiscriminate indeed, and yet so much heartier and less grudging than an_hich he had ever heard from the critical brother Jerome, or the short-spoke_bbot. There was, it would seem, great kindness as well as great wickedness i_his world, of which he had heard so little that was good. His hostess woul_ear nothing of his paying either for bed or for board, while the archer an_ordle John placed a hand upon either shoulder and led him off to the board, where some smoking fish, a dish of spinach, and a jug of milk were laid ou_or their breakfast.
"I should not be surprised to learn, mon camarade," said the soldier, as h_eaped a slice of fish upon Alleyne's tranchoir of bread, "that you could rea_ritten things, since you are so ready with your brushes and pigments."
"It would be shame to the good brothers of Beaulieu if I could not," h_nswered, "seeing that I have been their clerk this ten years back."
The bowman looked at him with great respect. "Think of that!" said he. "An_ou with not a hair to your face, and a skin like a girl. I can shoot thre_undred and fifty paces with my little popper there, and four hundred an_wenty with the great war-bow; yet I can make nothing of this, nor read my ow_ame if you were to set 'Sam Aylward' up against me. In the whole Compan_here was only one man who could read, and he fell down a well at the takin_f Ventadour, which proves what the thing is not suited to a soldier, thoug_ost needful to a clerk."
"I can make some show at it," said big John; "though I was scarce long enoug_mong the monks to catch the whole trick of it.
"Here, then, is something to try upon," quoth the archer, pulling a square o_archment from the inside of his tunic. It was tied securely with a broad ban_f purple silk, and firmly sealed at either end with a large red seal. Joh_ored long and earnestly over the inscription upon the back, with his brow_ent as one who bears up against great mental strain.
"Not having read much of late," he said, "I am loth to say too much about wha_his may be. Some might say one thing and some another, just as one bowma_oves the yew, and a second will not shoot save with the ash. To me, by th_ength and the look of it, I should judge this to be a verse from one of th_salms."
The bowman shook his head. "It is scarce likely," he said, "that Sir Claud_atour should send me all the way across seas with nought more weighty than _salm-verse. You have clean overshot the butts this time, mon camarade. Giv_t to the little one. I will wager my feather-bed that he makes more sense o_t."
"Why, it is written in the French tongue," said Alleyne, "and in a righ_lerkly hand. This is how it runs: 'A le moult puissant et moult honorabl_hevalier, Sir Nigel Loring de Christchurch, de son tres fidele ami Sir Claud_atour, capitaine de la Compagnie blanche, chatelain de Biscar, grand seigneu_e Montchateau, vavaseur de le renomme Gaston, Comte de Foix, tenant le_roits de la haute justice, de la milieu, et de la basse.' Which signifies i_ur speech: 'To the very powerful and very honorable knight, Sir Nigel Lorin_f Christchurch, from his very faithful friend Sir Claude Latour, captain o_he White Company, chatelain of Biscar, grand lord of Montchateau and vassa_o the renowned Gaston, Count of Foix, who holds the rights of the hig_ustice, the middle and the low.'"
"Look at that now!" cried the bowman in triumph. "That is just what he woul_ave said."
"I can see now that it is even so," said John, examining the parchment again.
"Though I scarce understand this high, middle and low."
"By my hilt! you would understand it if you were Jacques Bonhomme. The lo_ustice means that you may fleece him, and the middle that you may tortur_im, and the high that you may slay him. That is about the truth of it. Bu_his is the letter which I am to take; and since the platter is clean it i_ime that we trussed up and were afoot. You come with me, mon gros Jean; an_s to you, little one, where did you say that you journeyed?"
"Ah, yes. I know this forest country well, though I was born myself in th_undred of Easebourne, in the Rape of Chichester, hard by the village o_idhurst. Yet I have not a word to say against the Hampton men, for there ar_o better comrades or truer archers in the whole Company than some who learne_o loose the string in these very parts. We shall travel round with you t_instead lad, seeing that it is little out of our way."
"I am ready," said Alleyne, right pleased at the thought of such company upo_he road.
"So am not I. I must store my plunder at this inn, since the hostess is a_onest woman. Hola! ma cherie, I wish to leave with you my gold-work, m_elvet, my silk, my feather bed, my incense-boat, my ewer, my naping linen, and all the rest of it. I take only the money in a linen bag, and the box o_ose colored sugar which is a gift from my captain to the Lady Loring. Wil_uard my treasure for me?"
"It shall be put in the safest loft, good archer. Come when you may, you shal_ind it ready for you."
"Now, there is a true friend!" cried the bowman, taking her hand. "There is _onne amie! English land and English women, say I, and French wine and Frenc_lunder. I shall be back anon, mon ange. I am a lonely man, my sweeting, and _ust settle some day when the wars are over and done. Mayhap you and I——Ah, mechante, mechante! There is la petite peeping from behind the door. Now, John, the sun is over the trees; you must be brisker than this when th_ugleman blows 'Bows and Bills.'"
"I have been waiting this time back," said Hordle John gruffly.
"Then we must be off. Adieu, ma vie! The two livres shall settle the score an_uy some ribbons against the next kermesse. Do not forget Sam Aylward, for hi_eart shall ever be thine alone—and thine, ma petite! So, marchons, and ma_t. Julian grant us as good quarters elsewhere!"
The sun had risen over Ashurst and Denny woods, and was shining brightly, though the eastern wind had a sharp flavor to it, and the leaves wer_lickering thickly from the trees. In the High Street of Lyndhurst th_ayfarers had to pick their way, for the little town was crowded with th_uardsmen, grooms, and yeomen prickers who were attached to the King's hunt.
The King himself was staying at Castle Malwood, but several of his suite ha_een compelled to seek such quarters as they might find in the wooden o_attle-and-daub cottages of the village. Here and there a small escutcheon, peeping from a glassless window, marked the night's lodging of knight o_aron. These coats-of-arms could be read, where a scroll would be meaningless, and the bowman, like most men of his age, was well versed in the commo_ymbols of heraldry.
"There is the Saracen's head of Sir Bernard Brocas," quoth he. "I saw him las_t the ruffle at Poictiers some ten years back, when he bore himself like _an. He is the master of the King's horse, and can sing a right jovial stave, though in that he cannot come nigh to Sir John Chandos, who is first at th_oard or in the saddle. Three martlets on a field azure, that must be one o_he Luttrells. By the crescent upon it, it should be the second son of old Si_ugh, who had a bolt through his ankle at the intaking of Romorantin, h_aving rushed into the fray ere his squire had time to clasp his solleret t_is greave. There too is the hackle which is the old device of the De Brays. _ave served under Sir Thomas de Bray, who was as jolly as a pie, and a lust_wordsman until he got too fat for his harness."
So the archer gossiped as the three wayfarers threaded their way among th_tamping horses, the busy grooms, and the knots of pages and squires wh_isputed over the merits of their masters' horses and deer-hounds. As the_assed the old church, which stood upon a mound at the left-hand side of th_illage street the door was flung open, and a stream of worshippers wound dow_he sloping path, coming from the morning mass, all chattering like a cloud o_ays. Alleyne bent knee and doffed hat at the sight of the open door; but er_e had finished an ave his comrades were out of sight round the curve of th_ath, and he had to run to overtake them.
"What!" he said, "not one word of prayer before God's own open house? How ca_e hope for His blessing upon the day?"
"My friend," said Hordle John, "I have prayed so much during the last tw_onths, not only during the day, but at matins, lauds, and the like, when _ould scarce keep my head upon my shoulders for nodding, that I feel that _ave somewhat over-prayed myself."
"How can a man have too much religion?" cried Alleyne earnestly. "It is th_ne thing that availeth. A man is but a beast as he lives from day to day, eating and drinking, breathing and sleeping. It is only when he raise_imself, and concerns himself with the immortal spirit within him, that h_ecomes in very truth a man. Bethink ye how sad a thing it would be that th_lood of the Redeemer should be spilled to no purpose."
"Bless the lad, if he doth not blush like any girl, and yet preach like th_hole College of Cardinals," cried the archer.
"In truth I blush that any one so weak and so unworthy as I should try t_each another that which he finds it so passing hard to follow himself."
"Prettily said, mon garcon. Touching that same slaying of the Redeemer, it wa_ bad business. A good padre in France read to us from a scroll the whol_ruth of the matter. The soldiers came upon him in the garden. In truth, thes_postles of His may have been holy men, but they were of no great account a_en-at-arms. There was one, indeed, Sir Peter, who smote out like a true man; but, unless he is belied, he did but clip a varlet's ear, which was no ver_nightly deed. By these ten finger-bones! had I been there with Black Simon o_orwich, and but one score picked men of the Company, we had held them i_lay. Could we do no more, we had at least filled the false knight, Sir Judas, so full of English arrows that he would curse the day that ever he came o_uch an errand."
The young clerk smiled at his companion's earnestness. "Had He wished help,"
he said, "He could have summoned legions of archangels from heaven, so wha_eed had He of your poor bow and arrow? Besides, bethink you of His ow_ords—that those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword."
"And how could man die better?" asked the archer. "If I had my wish, it woul_e to fall so—not, mark you, in any mere skirmish of the Company, but in _tricken field, with the great lion banner waving over us and the re_riflamme in front, amid the shouting of my fellows and the twanging of th_trings. But let it be sword, lance, or bolt that strikes me down: for _hould think it shame to die from an iron ball from the fire-crake or bombar_r any such unsoldierly weapon, which is only fitted to scare babes with it_oolish noise and smoke."
"I have heard much even in the quiet cloisters of these new and dreadfu_ngines," quoth Alleyne. "It is said, though I can scarce bring myself t_elieve it, that they will send a ball twice as far as a bowman can shoot hi_haft, and with such force as to break through armor of proof."
"True enough, my lad. But while the armorer is thrusting in his devil's-dust, and dropping his ball, and lighting his flambeau, I can very easily loose si_hafts, or eight maybe, so he hath no great vantage after all. Yet I will no_eny that at the intaking of a town it is well to have good store of bombards.
I am told that at Calais they made dints in the wall that a man might put hi_ead into. But surely, comrades, some one who is grievously hurt hath passe_long this road before us."
All along the woodland track there did indeed run a scattered straggling trai_f blood-marks, sometimes in single drops, and in other places in broad, rudd_outs, smudged over the dead leaves or crimsoning the white flint stones.
"It must be a stricken deer," said John.
"Nay, I am woodman enough to see that no deer hath passed this way thi_orning; and yet the blood is fresh. But hark to the sound!"
They stood listening all three with sidelong heads. Through the silence of th_reat forest there came a swishing, whistling sound, mingled with the mos_olorous groans, and the voice of a man raised in a high quavering kind o_ong. The comrades hurried onwards eagerly, and topping the brow of a smal_ising they saw upon the other side the source from which these strange noise_rose.
A tall man, much stooped in the shoulders, was walking slowly with bended hea_nd clasped hands in the centre of the path. He was dressed from head to foo_n a long white linen cloth, and a high white cap with a red cross printe_pon it. His gown was turned back from his shoulders, and the flesh there wa_ sight to make a man wince, for it was all beaten to a pulp, and the bloo_as soaking into his gown and trickling down upon the ground. Behind hi_alked a smaller man with his hair touched with gray, who was clad in the sam_hite garb. He intoned a long whining rhyme in the French tongue, and at th_nd of every line he raised a thick cord, all jagged with pellets of lead, an_mote his companion across the shoulders until the blood spurted again. Eve_s the three wayfarers stared, however, there was a sudden change, for th_maller man, having finished his song, loosened his own gown and handed th_courge to the other, who took up the stave once more and lashed his companio_ith all the strength of his bare and sinewy arm. So, alternately beating an_eaten, they made their dolorous way through the beautiful woods and under th_mber arches of the fading beech-trees, where the calm strength and majesty o_ature might serve to rebuke the foolish energies and misspent strivings o_ankind.
Such a spectacle was new to Hordle John or to Alleyne Edricson; but the arche_reated it lightly, as a common matter enough.
"These are the Beating Friars, otherwise called the Flagellants," quoth he. "_arvel that ye should have come upon none of them before, for across the wate_hey are as common as gallybaggers. I have heard that there are no Englis_mong them, but that they are from France, Italy and Bohemia. En avant, camarades! that we may have speech with them."
As they came up to them, Alleyne could hear the doleful dirge which the beate_as chanting, bringing down his heavy whip at the end of each line, while th_roans of the sufferer formed a sort of dismal chorus. It was in old French, and ran somewhat in this way:
> Or avant, entre nous tous freres > Battons nos charognes bien fort > En remembrant la grant misere > De Dieu et sa piteuse mort > Qui fut pris en la gent amere > Et vendus et trais a tort > Et bastu sa chair, vierge et dere > Au nom de ce battons plus fort.
Then at the end of the verse the scourge changed hands and the chanting bega_new.
"Truly, holy fathers," said the archer in French as they came abreast of them,
"you have beaten enough for to-day. The road is all spotted like a shambles a_artinmas. Why should ye mishandle yourselves thus?"
"C'est pour vos peches—pour vos peches," they droned, looking at th_ravellers with sad lack-lustre eyes, and then bent to their bloody work onc_ore without heed to the prayers and persuasions which were addressed to them.
Finding all remonstrance useless, the three comrades hastened on their way, leaving these strange travellers to their dreary task.
"Mort Dieu!" cried the bowman, "there is a bucketful or more of my blood ove_n France, but it was all spilled in hot fight, and I should think twic_efore I drew it drop by drop as these friars are doing. By my hilt! our youn_ne here is as white as a Picardy cheese. What is amiss then, mon cher?"
"It is nothing," Alleyne answered. "My life has been too quiet, I am not use_o such sights."
"Ma foi!" the other cried, "I have never yet seen a man who was so stout o_peech and yet so weak of heart."
"Not so, friend," quoth big John; "it is not weakness of heart for I know th_ad well. His heart is as good as thine or mine but he hath more in his pat_han ever you will carry under that tin pot of thine, and as a consequence h_an see farther into things, so that they weigh upon him more."
"Surely to any man it is a sad sight," said Alleyne, "to see these holy men, who have done no sin themselves, suffering so for the sins of others. Saint_re they, if in this age any may merit so high a name."
"I count them not a fly," cried Hordle John; "for who is the better for al_heir whipping and yowling? They are like other friars, I trow, when all i_one. Let them leave their backs alone, and beat the pride out of thei_earts."
"By the three kings! there is sooth in what you say," remarked the archer.
"Besides, methinks if I were le bon Dieu, it would bring me little joy to se_ poor devil cutting the flesh off his bones; and I should think that he ha_ut a small opinion of me, that he should hope to please me by such provost- marshal work. No, by my hilt! I should look with a more loving eye upon _olly archer who never harmed a fallen foe and never feared a hale one."
"Doubtless you mean no sin," said Alleyne. "If your words are wild, it is no_or me to judge them. Can you not see that there are other foes in this worl_esides Frenchmen, and as much glory to be gained in conquering them? Would i_ot be a proud day for knight or squire if he could overthrow seve_dversaries in the lists? Yet here are we in the lists of life, and there com_he seven black champions against us Sir Pride, Sir Covetousness, Sir Lust, Sir Anger, Sir Gluttony, Sir Envy, and Sir Sloth. Let a man lay those seve_ow, and he shall have the prize of the day, from the hands of the faires_ueen of beauty, even from the Virgin-Mother herself. It is for this tha_hese men mortify their flesh, and to set us an example, who would pampe_urselves overmuch. I say again that they are God's own saints, and I bow m_ead to them."
"And so you shall, mon petit," replied the archer. "I have not heard a ma_peak better since old Dom Bertrand died, who was at one time chaplain to th_hite Company. He was a very valiant man, but at the battle of Brignais he wa_pitted through the body by a Hainault man-at-arms. For this we had a_xcommunication read against the man, when next we saw our holy father a_vignon; but as we had not his name, and knew nothing of him, save that h_ode a dapple-gray roussin, I have feared sometimes that the blight may hav_ettled upon the wrong man."
"Your Company has been, then, to bow knee before our holy father, the Pop_rban, the prop and centre of Christendom?" asked Alleyne, much interested.
"Perchance you have yourself set eyes upon his august face?"
"Twice I saw him," said the archer. "He was a lean little rat of a man, with _cab on his chin. The first time we had five thousand crowns out of him, though he made much ado about it. The second time we asked ten thousand, bu_t was three days before we could come to terms, and I am of opinion mysel_hat we might have done better by plundering the palace. His chamberlain an_ardinals came forth, as I remember, to ask whether we would take seve_housand crowns with his blessing and a plenary absolution, or the te_housand with his solemn ban by bell, book and candle. We were all of one min_hat it was best to have the ten thousand with the curse; but in some way the_revailed upon Sir John, so that we were blest and shriven against our will.
Perchance it is as well, for the Company were in need of it about that time."
The pious Alleyne was deeply shocked by this reminiscence. Involuntarily h_lanced up and around to see if there were any trace of those opportune levin- flashes and thunderbolts which, in the "Acta Sanctorum," were wont so often t_ut short the loose talk of the scoffer. The autumn sun streamed down a_rightly as ever, and the peaceful red path still wound in front of the_hrough the rustling, yellow-tinted forest, Nature seemed to be too busy wit_er own concerns to heed the dignity of an outraged pontiff. Yet he felt _ense of weight and reproach within his breast, as though he had sinne_imself in giving ear to such words. The teachings of twenty years cried ou_gainst such license. It was not until he had thrown himself down before on_f the many wayside crosses, and had prayed from his heart both for the arche_nd for himself, that the dark cloud rolled back again from his spirit.