Raymond's eyes suddenly glowed. Something of the underlying poetry of the thought struck an answering chord in his heart, though the words themselves had been plain and bald enough.
"I will perform that task for thee, good John," he said. "I well remember the place, ay, and the old man and his sorrowful mien. I will thither tomorrow, and will bring thee word again. If he may be helped by any act of mine, be assured that act shall not be lacking."
John pressed his comrade's hand and thanked him; but Raymond little knew to what this quest, of apparently so little moment, was to lead, nor what a link it was to form with the story of the lost inheritance of Basildene.
CHAPTER VIII. THE VISIT TO THE WOODMAN.
"Raymond, I am glad of this chance to speak alone together, for since thou hast turned into a man of books and letters I have scarce seen thee. I am glad of this errand into these dark woods. It seems like times of old come back again — and yet not that either. I would not return to those days of slothful idleness, not for all the gold of the King's treasury. But I have wanted words with thee alone, Brother. Knowest thou that we are scarce ten miles (as they measure distance here in England) from Basildene?"
Raymond turned an eager face upon his brother.
"Hast seen it, Gaston?"
"Nay. It has not been my hap to go that way; but I have heard enough and to spare about it. I fear me that our inheritance is but a sorry one, Raymond, and that it will be scarce worth the coil that would be set afoot were we to try to make good our claim."
"Tell me, what hast thou heard?" asked Raymond eagerly.
"Why, that it is but an ancient Manor, of no great value or extent, and that the old man who dwells there with his son is little different from a sorcerer, whom it is not safe to approach — at least not with intent to meddle. Men say that he is in league with the devil, and that he has sold his soul for the philosopher's stone, that changes all it touches to gold. They say, too, that those who offend him speedily sicken of some fell disease that no medicine can cure. Though he must have wondrous wealth, he has let his house fall into gloomy decay. No man approaches it to visit him, and he goes nowhither himself. His son, Peter, who seems as little beloved as his father, goes hither and thither as he will. But it is whispered that he shares in his father's dealings with the Evil One, and that he will reap the benefit of the golden treasure which has been secured to them. However that may be, all men agree that the Sanghursts of Basildene are not to be meddled with with impunity."
Raymond's face was very thoughtful. Such a warning as this, lightly as it would be regarded in the present century, meant something serious then; and Raymond instinctively crossed himself as he heard Gaston's words. But after a moment's pause of thoughtful silence he said gravely:
"Yet perhaps on this very account ought we the rather to strive to win our inheritance out of such polluted hands. Have we not others to think of in this thing? Are there not those living beneath the shelter of Basildene who must be suffering under the curse that wicked man is like to bring upon it? For their sakes, Gaston, ought we not to do all in our power to make good our rights? Are they to be left to the mercy of one whose soul is sold to Satan?"
Gaston looked quickly into his brother's flushed face, and wondered at the sudden enthusiasm beaming out of his eyes. But he had already recognized that a change was passing over Raymond, even as a change of a different kind was coming upon himself. He did not entirely understand it, neither did he resent it; and now he threw his arm across his brother's shoulder in the old caressing fashion of their boyhood.
"Nay, I know not how that may be. There may be found those who dare to war against the powers of darkness, and with the help of the holy and blessed saints they may prevail. But that is not the strife after which my heart longs. Raymond, I fear me I love not Basildene, I love not the thought of making it our own. It is for the glory of the battlefield and the pomp and strife of true warfare that I long. There are fairer lands to be won by force of arms than ever Basildene will prove, if all men speak sooth. Who and what are we, to try our fortunes and tempt destruction by drawing upon ourselves the hatred of this wicked old man, who may do us to death in some fearful fashion, when else we might be winning fame and glory upon the plains of France? Let us leave Basildene alone, Brother; let us follow the fortunes of the great King, and trust to his noble generosity for the reward of valour."
Raymond made no immediate reply, though he pressed his brother's hand and looked lovingly into his face. Truth to tell, his affections were winding themselves round his mother's country and inheritance, just as Gaston's were turning rather to his father's land, and the thought of the rewards to be won there. Then, within Raymond's heart were growing up those new thoughts and aspirations engendered by long talks with John; and it seemed to him that possibly the very quest of which he was in search might be found in freeing Basildene of a heavy curse. Ardent, sensitive, full of vivid imagination — as the sons of the forest mostly are — Raymond felt that there was more in the truest and deepest chivalry than the mere feats of arms and acts of dauntless daring that so often went by that name. Hazy and indistinct as his ideas were, tinged with much of the mysticism, much of the superstition of the age, they were beginning to assume definite proportions, and to threaten to colour the whole future course of his life; and beneath all the dimness and confusion one settled, leading idea was slowly unfolding itself, and forming a foundation for the superstructure that was to follow — the idea that in self-denial, self-sacrifice, the subservience of selfish ambition to the service of the oppressed and needy, chivalry in its highest form was to be found.
But in his brother's silence Gaston thought he read disappointment, and with another affectionate gesture he hastened to add:
"But if thy heart goes out to our mother's home, we will yet win it back, when time has changed us from striplings to tried warriors. See, Brother, I will tell thee what we will do. Men say that it can scarce be a year from now ere the war breaks out anew betwixt France and England, and then will come our opportunity. We will follow the fortunes of the King. We will win our spurs fighting at the side of the Prince. We will do as our kindred have done before us, and make ourselves honoured and respected of all men. It may be that we shall then be lords of Saut once more. But be that as it may, we shall be strong, rich, powerful — as our uncles are now. Then, if thou wilt so have it, we will think again of Basildene; and if we win it back, it shall be thine, and thine alone. Fight thou by my side whilst we are yet too young to bring to good any private matter of our own. Then will I, together with thee, think again of our boyhood's dream; and it may be that we shall yet live to be called the Twin Brothers of Basildene!"
Raymond smiled at the sound of that name, as he had smiled at Gaston's eager words before. Full of ardent longings and unbounded enthusiasm, as were most well-born youths in those adventurous days, he was just a little less confident than Gaston of the brilliant success that was to attend upon their feats of arms. Still there was much of the fighting instinct in the boy, and there was certainly no hope of regaining Basildene in the present. So that he agreed willingly to his brother's proposition, although he resolved before he left these parts to look once with his own eyes upon the home that had sheltered his mother's childhood and youth.
And then they plunged into the thickest of the forest, and could talk no more till they had reached the little clearing that lay around the woodman's hut. The old man was not far away, as they heard by the sound of a falling axe a little to the right of them. Following this sound, they quickly came upon the object of their search — the grizzled old man, with the same look of unutterable woe stamped upon his face.
Gaston, who knew only one-half of the errand upon which they had come, produced the pieces of silver that the Rector and John had sent, with a message of thanks to the old woodman for his help in directing the Prince and his company to the robbers' cave at such a favourable moment. The old man appeared bewildered at first by the sight of the money and the words of thanks; but recollection came back by degrees, though he seemed as one who in constant brooding upon a single theme has come to lose all sense of other things, and scarce to observe the flight of time, or to know one day from another.
This strange, wild melancholy, which had struck John at once, now aroused in Raymond a sense of sympathetic interest. He had come to try to seek the cause of the old man's sorrow, and he did not mean to leave with his task unfulfilled.
Perhaps John could have found no fitter emissary than this Gascon lad, with his simple forest training, his quick sympathy and keen intelligence, and his thorough knowledge of the details of peasant life, which in all countries possess many features in common.
It was hard at first to get the old man to care to understand what was said, or to take the trouble to reply. The habit of silence is one of the most difficult to break; but patience and perseverance generally win the day: and when it dawned upon this strange old man that it was of himself and his own loss and grief that these youths had come to speak, a new look crossed his weatherbeaten face, and a strange gleam of mingled fury and despair shone in the depths of his hollow eyes.
"My sorrow!" he exclaimed, in a voice from which the dreary cadence had now given place to a clearer, firmer ring: "is it of that you ask, young sirs? Has it been told to you the cruel wrong that I have suffered?"
Then suddenly clinching his right hand and shaking it wildly above his head, he broke into vehement and almost unintelligible invective, railing with frenzied bitterness against some foe, speaking so rapidly, and with such strange inflections of voice, that it was but a few words that the brothers could distinguish out of the whole of the impassioned speech. One of those words was "my son — my boy," followed by the names of Sanghurst and Basildene.
It was these names that arrested the attention of the brothers, causing them to start and exchange quick glances. Raymond waited till the old man had finished his railing, and then he asked gently:
"Had you then a son? Where is he now?"
"A son! ay, that had I — the light and brightness of my life!" cried the old man, with a sudden burst of rude eloquence that showed him to have been at some former time something better than his present circumstances seemed to indicate. "Young sirs, I know not who you are; I know not why you ask me of my boy. But your faces are kind, and perchance there may be help in the world, though I have found it not. I know not how time has fled since that terrible sorrow fell upon me. Perchance not many years by the calendar, but in misery and suffering a lifetime. Listen, and I will tell you all. I was not ever as you see me now. I was no lonely woodman buried in the heart of the forest. I was second huntsman to Sir Hugh Vavasour of Woodcrych, in favour with my master and well contented with my lot. I had a wife whom I loved, and she had born me a lovely boy, who was the very light of my eyes and the joy of my heart. I should weary you did I tell you of all his bold pranks and merry ways. He was, I verily believe, the loveliest child that God's sun has ever looked down upon. When it pleased Him to take my wife away from me after seven happy years, I strove not to murmur; for I had still the child, and every day that passed made him more winsome, more loving, more mettlesome and bold. Even the master would draw rein as he passed my door to have a word with the boy; and little Mistress Joan gave me many a silver groat to buy him a fairing with, and keep him always dressed in the smartest little suit of forester's green. The priest noticed him too, and would have him to his house to teach him many things, and told me he would live to carve out a fortune for himself. I thought naught too good for him. I would have wondered little if even the King had sent for him to make of him a companion for his son.
"Perchance I was foolish in the boastings I made. But the beauty and the wisdom of the boy struck all alike — and thence came his destruction."
"His destruction?" echoed both brothers in a breath. "What! is he then dead?"
"He is worse than dead," answered the father, in a hollow, despairing voice; "he has been bewitched — undone by foul sorcery, bound over hand and foot, and given to the keeping of Satan. Even the priest can do nothing for us. He is lost, body and soul, for ever."
The brothers exchanged wondering glances as they made the sign of the cross, the old man watching the gesture with a bitter smile in his eye. Then Raymond spoke again:
"But what was it that happened? we do not yet understand."
"I will tell you all. If you know this part of the world, young sirs, you have doubtless heard of the old Manor of Basildene, where dwells one, Peter Sanghurst by name, who is nothing more nor less than a wizard, who should be hunted to death without pity. Men have told me (I know not with what truth) that these wizards, who give themselves over to the devil, are required by their master from time to time to furnish him with new victims, and these victims are generally children — fair and promising children, who can first be trained in the black arts of their earthly master, and are then handed over, body and soul, to the devil, to be his slaves and his victims for ever."
The old man was speaking slowly now, with a steady yet despairing ferocity that was terrible to hear. His sunken eyes gleamed in their sockets, and his hands, that were tightly clinched over the handle of his axe, trembled with the emotion that had him in its clutches.
"I was sent upon a mission by my master. I was absent from my home some seven days. When I came back my boy was gone. I had left him in the care of the keeper of the hounds. He was an honest man, and told me all the tale. Perchance you know that Sir Hugh Vavasour is what men call a spendthrift. His estates will not supply him with the money he needs. He is always in debt, he is always in difficulties. From that it comes that he cares little what manner of men are his comrades or friends, provided only that they can supply his needs when his own means fail. This is why, when all men else hate and loathe the very name of Sanghurst, he calls himself their friend. He knows that the old man has the secret by which all things may be turned into gold, and therefore he welcomes his son to Woodcrych. And men say that Mistress Joan is to be given in marriage to his son one day, because he will take her without dowry; for she is the fairest creature in the world, and he has vowed that she shall wed him and none else."
The brothers were intensely interested by this tale, but were growing a little confused by all the names introduced, and they wanted the story of the woodman's son complete.
"Then was it the old man who took your boy, or was it his son? Are they not both called Peter?"
"Ay, they have both the same name — the same name and the same nature: evil, cruel, remorseless. I know not how nor where the old man first set eyes upon my boy; but he must have seen him, and have coveted possession of him for his devilish practices; for upon the week that I was absent from home, he left the solitude of his house, and came with the master himself to the house where the boy was. And then Sir Hugh explained to honest Stephen, who had charge of him, that Master Peter Sanghurst had offered the lad a place in his service, where he would learn many things that would stand him in good stead all the days of his life. It sounded fair in all faith. But Stephen stoutly refused to let the boy go till I returned; whereupon Sir Hugh struck him a blow across the face with his heavy whip, and young Peter Sanghurst, leaping to the ground, seized the child and placed him in front of him upon the horse, and the three galloped off laughing aloud, whilst the boy in vain implored to be set down to run home. When I came back he had gone, and all men said that the old man had thus stolen him to satisfy the greed for souls of his master the devil."
"And hast thou not seen him since?" asked the boys breathlessly. "What didst thou do when thou camest back?"
For a moment it seemed as though the old man would break out again into those wild imprecations of frenzied anger which the brothers had heard him utter before; but by a violent effort he checked the vehement flow of words that rose to his lips, and replied with a calmness far more really impressive:
"I did all that a poor helpless man might do when his feudal lord was on the side of the enemy, and met every prayer and supplication either with mockery or blows. I soon saw it all too well. Sir Hugh was under the spell of the wicked old man. What was my boy's soul to him? what my agony? Nothing — nothing. The wizard had coveted the beautiful boy. He had doubtless made it worth my master's while to sell him to him; and what could I do? I tried everything I knew; but who would listen to me? Master Bernard de Brocas of Guildford, whom I met upon the road and begged to listen to my tale, promised he would see if something might not be done. I waited and waited in anguish, and hope, and despair, and there came a day when his palfrey stopped at my door, and he came forward himself to speak with me. He told me he had spoken to the Master of Basildene, and that he had promised to restore me my son if I was resolved to have him back; but he had told the good priest that he knew the boy would never be content to stay in a woodland cottage with an unlettered father, when he had learned what life elsewhere was like. But I laughed this warning to scorn, and demanded my boy back."
"And did he come?"
A strange look swept over the old man's face. His hands were tightly clinched. His voice was very low, and full of suppressed awe and fury.
"Ay, he came back — he came back that same night — but so changed in those few months that I scarce knew him. And ah, how he clung to me when he was set down at my door! How he sobbed on my breast, entreating me to hold him fast — to save him — to protect him! What fearful tales of unhallowed sights and sounds did his white lips pour into my ears! How my own blood curdled at the tale, and how I vowed that never, never, never would I let him go from out my arms again! I held him fast. I took him within doors. I fastened the door safely. I fed him, comforted him, and laid him in mine own bed, lying wakeful beside him for fear even then that he should be taken from me; and thus the hours sped by. But the rest — ah, how can I tell it? It wrings my very heart. O my child, my son — my own heart's joy!"
The old man threw up his arms with a wild gesture of despair, and there was something in his face so terrible that the twins dared ask him no question; but after that one cry and gesture, the stony look returned upon his face, and he went on of his own accord.
"Midnight had come. I knew it by the position of the moon in the heavens. My boy had been sleeping like one dead beside me, never moving or stirring, scarce breathing; and I had at last grown soothed and drowsy likewise. I had just fallen into a light sleep, when I was aroused by feeling Roger stir beside me, and hastily sit up in the bed. His eyes were wide open, and in the moonlight they seemed to shine with unnatural brilliance. It was as if he were listening — listening with every fibre of his being, listening to a voice which he could hear and I could not; for he made quick answers. 'I hear, Sire,' he said, in a strange, muffled voice. And he rose suddenly to his feet and cried, 'I come, Master, I come.' Then a great rage and fear possessed me, for I knew that my boy was being called by some foul spirit, and that he was bewitched. I sprang up and seized him in my arms. 'Thou shalt not go!' I cried aloud. 'He has given thee back to me. I am thy father. Thy place is here. I will not let thee go!' But I might have been speaking to a dead corpse for all the understanding I received. My boy's eyes were opened, but he saw me not. His ears, that heard other voices, were deaf to mine. He struggled fiercely against my fatherly embrace; and when I felt the strength that had come into that frame, so worn and feeble but a few short hours ago, then I knew that it was the devil himself who had entered into my child, and that it was his voice that was luring him back to his destruction. O my God! May I never have to live again through the agony of that hour in which I fought with the devil for my child, and fought in vain. Like one possessed (as indeed he was) did he wrestle with me, crying out wildly all the while that he was coming — that he would quickly come; hearing nothing that I could hear, seeing nothing that I could see, and all the time struggling with me with a strength that I knew must at last prevail, albeit he was but a tender child and I a man in the prime of manhood's strength. But the devil was in him that night. It was not my boy's own hand that struck the blow which forced me to leave my hold, and sent me staggering back against the wall. No, it was but the evil spirit within him; and even as I released him from my embrace, he glided to the door, undid the fastenings, and still calling out that he was coming, that he would be there anon, he slipped out into the still forest, and vanished amongst the trees."
"Did he return to Basildene?"
"Ay, like a bird to its nest, a dog to its master's home. Spent and breathless, despairing as I was, I yet gathered my strength and followed my boy — weeping and calling upon his name, though I knew he heard me not. Scarce could I keep the gliding figure in sight; yet I could not choose but follow, lest some mischance should befall the child by the way. But he moved onwards as if he trod on air, neither stumbling nor falling, nor turning to the right hand or to the left. I watched him to the end of the avenue of trees that leads to Basildene. As he reached it a dark figure stepped forth, and the child sank to the ground as if exhausted. There was the sound of laughter — fiends' laughter, if ever devils do laugh. It chilled the very blood in my veins, and I stood rooted to the spot, whilst the hair of my head stood erect. The dark form bent over the boy and seemed to raise it.
"'You shall suffer for this,' I heard a cruel voice say in a hissing whisper; 'you will not ask to leave again!' and at those evil words a cry of anguish — a human cry — broke from my boy's lips, and with a yell of fury I sprang forward to save him or to die with him. But what happened then I know not. Whether a human hand or a fiend's struck me down I shall never now know. I remember a blow — the sense that hell's mouth was opening to receive me; that the mocking laughter of devils was in my ears. Then I knew no more till (they tell me it was many weeks later) I awoke from a long strange sleep in yon cabin where I live. An old woodman had found me, and had carried me there. Sir Hugh had given him a few silver pieces to take care of me. He had filled my place, and my old home was occupied by another; but had it not been so, no power on earth would have taken me back there. I had grown old in one night. I had lost my strength, my cunning, my heart. I stayed on with the old man awhile, and as he fell sick and died when the next snow fell upon the ground, Master Bernard de Brocas appointed me as woodman in his stead, and here I have remained ever since. I know not how the time has sped. I have no heart or hope in life. My child is gone — possessed by fiends who have him in their clutches, so that I may never win him back to me. I hate my life, yet fear to die; for then I might see him the sport of devils, and be, as before, powerless to succour him. I have long ceased to be shriven for my sins. What good to me is forgiveness, if my child will be doomed to hellfire for evermore? No hope in this world, no hope after death. Woe is me that ever I was born! Woe is me! woe is me!"
The energy which had supported the old man as he told his tale now appeared suddenly to desert him. With a low moan he sank upon the ground and buried his face in his hands, whilst the boys stood and gazed at him, and then at one another, their faces full of interest and sympathy, their hearts burning with indignation against the wicked foe of their own race, who seemed to bring misery and wrong wherever he moved.
"And thou hast never seen thy son again?" asked Raymond softly. "Is he yet alive, knowest thou?"
"I have never seen him again: they say that he still lives. But what is life to one who is sold and bound over, body and soul, to the powers of darkness?"
Then the old man buried his face once more in his hands, and seemed to forget even the presence of the boys; and Gaston and Raymond stole silently away, with many backward glances at the bowed and stricken figure, unable to find any words either to help or comfort him.
CHAPTER IX. JOAN VAVASOUR.
It was with the greatest interest that John de Brocas listened to the story brought home by the twin brothers after their visit to the woodman's hut. Such a story of oppression, cruelty, and wrong truly stirred him to the very soul; and moreover, as the brothers spoke of Basildene, they told him also (under the promise of secrecy) of their own connection with that place, of their kinship with himself, and of the wrongs they had suffered at the hand of the Sanghursts, father and son; and all this aroused in the mind of John an intense desire to see wrong made right, and retribution brought upon the heads of those who seemed to become a curse wherever they went.
"And so ye twain are my cousins?" he said, looking from one face to the other with penetrating gaze. "I knew from the very first that ye were no common youths; and it was a stronger tie than that of Gascon blood that knit us one to the other. But I will keep your secret. Perchance ye are wise in wishing it kept. There be something too many hangers-on of our house already, and albeit I know not all the cause of the estrangement, I know well that your father was coldly regarded for many years, and it may be that his sons would receive but sorry welcome if they came as humble suppliants for place. The unsuccessful members of a house are scarce ever welcomed, and the claim to Basildene might be but a hindrance in your path. Sir Hugh Vavasour is high in favour at Court. He is a warm friend of my father and my uncle; and he and the Sanghursts are bound together by some close tie, the nature of which I scarce know. Any claim on Basildene would be fiercely resented by the father and son who have seized it, and their quarrel would be taken up by others of more power. Gaston is right in his belief that you must first win credit and renown beneath the King's banners. As unknown striplings you have no chance against yon crafty fox of Basildene. Were he but to know who and what you were, I know not that your very lives would be safe from his malice."
The twins exchanged glances. It seemed as though they were threatened on every hand by the malice of those who had usurped their rights and their lands; yet they felt no fear, rather a secret exultation at the thought of what lay before them. But their curiosity was strongly stirred about the strange old man at Basildene, and they eagerly asked John of the truth of those reports which spoke of him as being a tool and slave of the devil.
A grave light came into John's eyes as he replied:
"Methinks that every man is the tool of Satan who willingly commits sin with his eyes open, and will not be restrained. I cannot doubt that old Peter Sanghurst has done this again and again. He is an evil man and a wicked one. But whether or no he has visible dealings with the spirits of darkness, I know not. Men can sin deeply and darkly and yet win no power beyond that vouchsafed to others."
"But the woodman's son," said Raymond, in awestruck tones, "him he most certainly bewitched. How else could he have so possessed him that even his own father could not restrain him from going back to the dread slavery once again?"
A thoughtful look was on John's face. He was lying on his couch in the large room where his learned uncle stored all his precious books and parchments, safely locked away in carved presses; and rising slowly to his feet — for he was still feeble and languid in his movements — he unlocked one of these, and took from it a large volume in some dead language, and laid it upon the table before him.
"I know not whether or no I am right, but I have heard before of a strange power that some men may possess over the minds and wills of others — a power so great that they become their helpless tools, and can be made to act, to see, to feel just as they are bidden, and are as helpless to resist that power as the snared bird to avoid the outstretched hand of the fowler. That this power is a power of evil, and comes from the devil himself, I may not disbelieve; for it has never been God's way of dealing with men to bind captive their wills and make them blind and helpless agents of the will of others. Could you read the words of this book, you would find many things therein as strange as any you have heard today. For myself, I have little doubt that old Peter Sanghurst, who has spent years of his life amongst the heathen Moors, and is, as all men avow, steeped to the lips in their strange and unchristian lore, has himself the art of thus gaining the mastery over the minds and wills of others, and that it was no demoniacal possession, but just the wicked will of the old man exercised upon that of his helpless victim, which drew the boy back to him when his father had him safe at home (as he thought) once more. In this book it is written that young boys, especially if they be beautiful of form and receptive of mind, make the best tools for this black art. They can be thrown into strange trances, in which many things are revealed to them. They can be sent in the spirit to places they have never seen, and can be made to describe what is passing thousands of miles away. I cannot tell how these things may be, unless indeed it is the devil working in them; yet here it is written down as if it were some art which certain men with certain gifts may acquire, as they may acquire other knowledge and learning. In truth, I think such things smack of the Evil One himself; yet I doubt if there be that visible bond with Satan that is commonly reported amongst the unlettered and ignorant. It is a cruel and a wicked art without doubt, and it says here that the children who are caught and subjected to these trances and laid under this spiritual bondage seldom live long; and that but for this, there seems no end to the wonders that might be performed. But the strain upon their spirits almost always results in madness or death, and thus the art never makes the strides that those who practise it long to see."
John was turning the leaves of the book as he spoke, reading a word here and there as if to refresh his memory. The Gascon brothers listened with breathless interest, and suddenly Raymond started to his feet, saying:
"John, thou hast spoken of a knightly quest that would win no praise from man, but yet be such as a true knight would fain undertake. Would not the rescue of yon wretched boy from the evil thraldom of that wicked sorcerer be such a task as that? Is not Basildene ours? Is it not for us to free it from the curse of such pollution? Is not that child one of the oppressed and wronged that it is the duty of a true servant of the old chivalry to rescue at all costs?
"Gaston, wilt thou go with me? Shall we snatch from the clutches of this devilish old man the boy whose story we have heard today? Methinks I can never rest happy till the thing is done. Will not a curse light upon the very house itself if these dark deeds go on within its walls? Who can have a better right to avert such curse than we — its rightful lords?"
Gaston sprang to his feet, and threw back his head with a proud and defiant gesture.
"Verily I will go with thee, Brother. I would gladly strike a blow for the freedom of the boy and against the despoiler of our mother's house. I would fain go this very day."
Both brothers looked to John, as if asking his sanction for the act. He closed his book, and raised his eyes with a smile; but he advocated prudence, and patience too.
"In truth, methinks it would be a deed of charity and true chivalry, yet one by no means without its peril and its risk. Old Sanghurst is a wily and a cruel foe, and failure would but mean more tyranny and suffering for the miserable victim he holds in his relentless hands. It might lead also to some mysterious vengeance upon you yourselves. There are ugly whispers breathed abroad about the old man and his evil practices. Travellers through these forest tracks, richly laden, have been known to disappear, and no man has heard of them more. It is rumoured that they have been seized and done to death by the rapacious owners of Basildene, and that the father and son are growing wealthy beyond what any man knows by the plunder they thus obtain."
"But if they hold the secret of the philosopher's stone, sure they would not need to fall upon travellers by the way!"
John slowly shook his head, a thoughtful smile upon his face.
"For mine own part," he said quietly, "I have no belief in that stone, or in that power of alchemy after which men since the beginning of time have been vainly striving. They may seek and seek, but I trow they will never find it; and I verily believe if found it would but prove a worthless boon. For in the hands of a rapacious master, so quickly would gold be poured upon the world that soon its value would be lost, and it would be no more prized than the base metals we make our horseshoes of. It is not the beauty of gold that makes men covet it. It is because it is rare that it is precious. If this philosopher's stone were to be found, that rareness would speedily disappear, and men would cease to prize a thing that could be made more easily than corn may be grown."
The brothers could scarce grasp the full meaning of these words; but it was not of the philosopher's stone that their minds were full, and John's next words interested them more.
"No: I believe that the wealth which is being accumulated at Basildene is won in far different fashion, and that this miserable boy, who is the helpless slave and tool of his master's illicit art, is an unwilling agent in showing the so-called magician the whereabouts of hapless travellers, and in luring them on to their destruction. But that the old man is wealthy above all those about him may not now be doubted; and it is this growing wealth, gotten no man knows how, that makes men believe in his possession of the magic stone."
"And if we rescue the boy, some part of his power will be gone, and he will lose a tool that he will not easily replace," cried Gaston, with eager animation. "Brother, let us not delay. We have long desired to look upon Basildene; let us sally forth this very day."
But John laid a detaining hand upon his arm.
"Nay now, why this haste? Thou art a bold lad, Gaston, but something more than boldness is needed when thou hast such a subtle foe to deal with. Then there is another thing to think of. What will it avail to rescue the boy, if his master holds his spirit so in thrall that he can by no means be restrained from rising in the dead of night to return to him again? There be many things to think of ere we can act. And we must take counsel of one who knows Basildene, as we do not. I have never seen the house, and know nothing of its ways. Till these things were recalled to my memory these last days, I had scarce remembered that such a place existed."
"Of whom then shall we take counsel?" asked Gaston, with a touch of impatience, for to him action and not counsel was the mainspring of life. "Of thine uncle, who thou sayest is a friend of this unholy man?"
"Scarce a friend," answered John, "albeit he has no quarrel with Master Sanghurst; and if thou knewest more of the temper of the times, thou wouldst know that the King's servants must have a care how they in any wise stir up strife amongst those who dwell in the realm. We have enemies and to spare abroad — in Scotland, in Flanders, in France. At home we must all strive to keep the peace. It behoves not one holding office under the crown to embroil himself in private quarrels, or stir up any manner of strife. This is why I counsel you to make no claim on Basildene for the nonce, and why my uncle could give no help in the matter of this boy, kindly as his heart is disposed towards the poor and oppressed. He moved once in the matter, with the result that you know. It could scarce be expected of him to do more."
"Who then will help or counsel us?"
"I can think of but one, and that is but a slim maiden, whom ye bold lads might despise. I mean Mistress Joan Vavasour herself."
"What!" cried Gaston in amaze — "the maiden whom Peter Sanghurst is to wed? Sure that were a strange counsellor to choose! Good John, thou must be dreaming."
"Nay, I am no dreamer," was the smiling answer; and a slight access of colour came slowly into John's face. "I have not seen fair Mistress Joan of late; yet unless I be greatly mistaken in her, I am very sure that by no deed of her own will she ever mate with one of the Sanghurst brood. I have known her from childhood. Once it was my dream that I might wed her myself; but such thoughts have long ago passed from my mind never to enter it again. Yet I know her and I love her well, and to me she has spoken words which tell me that she will never be a passive tool in the hands of her haughty parents. She has the spirit of her sire within her, and I trow he will find it no easy task to bend the will even of a child of his own, when she is made after the fashion of Mistress Joan. If Peter Sanghurst has gone a-wooing there, I verily believe that the lady will by this time have had more than enough of his attentions. It may be that she would be able to give us good counsel; at least I would very gladly ask it at her hands."
"How can we see her?" asked the brothers quickly.
"So soon as I can make shift to ride once more we will to horse and away to Woodcrych. It is time I paid my respects to fair Mistress Joan, for I have not seen her for long. I would that you twain could see her. She is as fair as a lily, yet with all the spirit of her bold sire, as fearless in the saddle as her brother, as upright as a dart, beautiful exceedingly, with her crown of hair the colour of a ripe chestnut. Ah! if she were but taken to the King's Court, she would be its fairest ornament. But her sire has never the money to spend upon her adornment; and moreover if she appeared there, she would have suitors and to spare within a month, and he would be called upon to furnish forth a rich dower — for all men hold him to be a wealthy man, seeing the broad lands he holds in fief. Wherefore I take it he thinks it safer to betroth her to this scion of the Sanghurst brood, who will be heir to all his father's ill-gotten wealth. But if I know Mistress Joan, as I think I do, she will scarce permit herself to be given over like a chattel, though she may have a sore fight to make for her liberty."
Raymond's eyes brightened and his hands closely clinched themselves. Surely this quest after Basildene was bringing strange things to light. Here was a miserable child to be rescued from bondage that was worse than death; and a maiden, lovely and brave of spirit, to be saved from the clutches of this same Sanghurst faction. What a strange combination of circumstances seemed woven around the lost inheritance! Might it not be the very life's work he had longed after, to fulfil his mother's dying behest and make himself master of Basildene again?
That night his dreams were a strange medley of wizards, beauteous maidens, and ruinous halls, through which he wandered in search of the victim whose shrill cries he kept hearing. He rose with the first of the tardy light, to find that Gaston was already off and away upon some hunting expedition planned overnight. Raymond had not felt disposed to join it; the attraction of John's society had more charm for him.
The uncle was absent from home on the King's business. The two cousins had the house to themselves. They had established themselves beside the glowing hearth within their favourite room containing all the books, when the horn at the gate announced the arrival of some guest, and a message was brought to John saying that Mistress Joan Vavasour was even then dismounting from her palfrey, and was about to pay him a visit.
"Nay now, but this is a lucky hap!" cried John, as he went forward to be ready to meet his guest.
The next moment the light footfall along the polished boards of the anteroom announced the coming of the lady, and Raymond's eager eyes were fixed upon a face so fair that he gazed and gazed and could not turn his eyes away.
Mistress Joan was just his own age — not yet seventeen — yet she had something of the grace and dignity of womanhood mingling with the fresh sweet frankness of the childhood that had scarcely passed. Her eyes were large and dark, flashing, and kindling with every passing gust of feeling; her delicate lips, arched like a Cupid's bow, were capable of expressing a vast amount of resolution, though now relaxed into a merry smile of greeting. She was rather tall and at present very slight, though the outlines of her figure were softly rounded, and strength as well as grace was betrayed in every swift eager motion. She held John's hands and asked eagerly after his well-being.
"It was but two days ago I heard that you lay sick at Guildford, and I have been longing ever since for tidings. Today my father had business in the town, and I humbly sued him to let me ride with him, and rest, whilst he went his own way, in the hospitable house of your good uncle. This is how I come to be here today. And now tell me of thyself these many months, for I hear no news at Woodcrych. And who is this fair youth with thee? Methinks his face is strange to me, though he bears a look of the De Brocas, too."
A quick flush mounted in Raymond's cheek; but John only called him by the name by which he was known to the world, and Mistress Joan spoke no more of the fancied likeness. She and John, who were plainly well acquainted, plunged at once into eager talk; and it was not long before the question of Joan's own marriage was brought up, and he plainly asked her if the news was true which gave her in wedlock to Peter Sanghurst.
A change came over Joan's face at those words. A quick gleam shot out of her dark eyes. She set her teeth, and her face suddenly hardened as if carved in flint. Her voice, which had been full of rippling laughter before, now fell to a lower pitch, and she spoke with strange force and gravity.
"John, whatever thou hearest on that score, believe it not. I will die sooner than be wedded to that man. I hate him. I fear him — yes, I do fear him, I will not deny it — I fear him for his wickedness, his evil practices, his diabolic cruelty, of which I hear fearful whispers from time to time. He may be rich beyond all that men credit. I doubt not he has many a dark and hideous method of wringing gold from his wretched victims. Basildene holds terrible secrets; and never will I enter that house by my own free will. Never will I wed that man, not if I have to plunge this dagger into mine own heart to save myself from him. I know what is purposed. I know that he and his father have some strange power over my sire and my brother, and that they will do all they can to bend my will to theirs. But I have two hopes yet before me. One is appeal to the King, through his gentle and gracious Queen; another is the Convent — for sooner would I take the veil (little as the life of the recluse charms me) than sell myself to utter misery as the wife of that man. Death shall call me its bride before that day shall come. Yet I would not willingly take my life, and go forth unassoiled and unshriven. No; I will try all else first. And in thee, good John, I know I shall find a trusty and a stalwart friend and champion."
"Trusty in all truth, fair lady, but stalwart I fear John de Brocas will never be. Rather enlist in thy service yon gallant youth, who has already distinguished himself in helping to save the Prince in the moment of peril. I trow he would be glad enough to be thy champion in days to come. He has, moreover, a score of his own to settle one day with the present Master of Basildene."
Joan's bright eyes turned quickly upon Raymond, who had flushed with boyish pride and pleasure and shame at hearing himself thus praised. He eagerly protested that he was from that time forward Mistress Joan's loyal servant to command; and at the prompting of John, he revealed to her the fact of his own claim on Basildene (without naming his kinship with the house of De Brocas), and gave an animated account of the recent visit to the woodman's hut, and told the story of his cruel wrongs.
Joan listened with flashing eyes and ever-varying colour. At the close of the tale she spoke.
"I have heard of that wretched boy — the tool and sport of the old man's evil arts, the victim of the son's diabolic cruelty when he has no other victim to torment. They keep him for days without food at times, because they say that he responds better to their fiendish practices when the body is well-nigh reduced to a shadow. Oh, I hear them talk! My father is a dabbler in mystic arts. They are luring him on to think he will one day learn the secret of the transmutation of metals, whilst I know they do but seek to make of him a tool, to subdue his will, and to do with him what they will. They will strive to practise next on me — they have tried it already; but I resist them, and they are powerless, though they hate me tenfold more for it, and I know that they are reckoning on their revenge when I shall be a helpless victim in their power. Art thou about to try to rescue the boy? That were, in truth, a deed worth doing, though the world will never praise it; though it might laugh to scorn a peril encountered for one so humble as a woodman's son. But it would be a soul snatched from the peril of everlasting death, and a body saved from the torments of a living hell!"
And then John spoke of the thoughts which had of late possessed them both of that chivalry that was not like to win glory or renown, that would not gain the praise of men, but would strive to do in the world a work of love for the oppressed, the helpless, the lowly. And Joan's eyes shone with the light of a great sympathy, as she turned her bright gaze from one face to the other, till Raymond felt himself falling beneath a spell the like of which he had never known before, and which suddenly gave a new impulse to all his vague yearnings and imaginings, and a zest to this adventure which was greater than any that had gone before.
Joan's ready woman's wit was soon at work planning and devising how the deed might best be done.
"I can do this much to aid," she said. "A day will come ere long when the two Sanghursts will come at nightfall to Woodcrych, to try, as they have done before, some strange experiments in the laboratory my father has had made for himself. We always know the day that this visit is to be made, and I can make shift to let you know. They stay far into the night, and only return to Basildene as the dawn breaks. That would be the night to strive to find and rescue the boy. He will be almost alone in yon big house, bound hand and foot, I doubt not, or thrown into some strange trance that shall keep him as fast a prisoner. There be but few servants that can be found to live there. Mostly they flee away in affright ere they have passed a week beneath that roof. Those that stay are bound rather by fear than aught beside; and scarce a human being will approach that house, even in broadest daylight. There are many doors and windows, and the walls in places are mouldering away, and would give easy foothold to the climber. It is beneath the west wing, hard by the great fish ponds, that the rooms lie which are ever closed from light of day, and in which the evil men practise their foul arts. I have heard of a secret way from the level of the water into the cellars or dungeons of the house; but whether this be true I do not rightly know. Yet methinks you could surely find entrance within the house, for so great is the terror in which Basildene is held that Master Sanghurst freely boasts that he needs neither bolt nor bar. He professes to have drawn around the house a line which no human foot may cross. He knows well that no man wishes to try."
Raymond shivered slightly, but he was not daunted, Yet there was still the question to be faced, what should be done with the boy when rescued to hold him back from the magician's unholy spell. But Joan had an answer ready for this objection. Her hands folded themselves lightly together, her dark eyes shone with the earnestness of her devotion.
"That will I soon tell to you. The spell cast upon the boy is one of evil, and therefore it comes in some sort from the devil, even though, as John says, men may have no visible dealings with him. Yet, as all sin is of the Evil One, and as the good God and His Holy Saints are stronger than the devil and his angels, it is His help we must invoke when the powers of darkness strive to work in him again. And we must ask in this the help of some holy man of God, one who has fasted and prayed and learned to discern betwixt good and evil, has fought with the devil and has overcome. I know one such holy man. He lives far away from here. It is a small community between Guildford and Salisbury — I suppose it lies some thirty miles from hence. I could find out something more, perchance, in time to acquaint you farther with the road. If you once gain possession of the boy, mount without loss of time, and draw not rein till you reach that secluded spot. Ask to be taken in in the name of charity, and when the doors have opened to you, ask for Father Paul. Give him the boy. Tell him all the tale, and trust him into his holy hands without fear. He will take him; he will cast out the evil spirit. I misdoubt me if the devil himself will have power over him whilst he is within those hallowed walls. At least if he can find entrance there, he will not be able to prevail; and when the foul spirit is cast out and vanquished, you can summon his father to him and give him back his son — as the son of the father in Scripture was restored to him again when the devil had been cast out by the voice of the Blessed Jesus."
"I truly think that thou art right," said John. "The powers of evil are very strong, too strong to be combated by us unaided by the prayers and the efforts of holy men.
"Raymond, it shall be my work to provide for this journey. My uncle will be long absent. In his absence I may do what I will and go where I will. I would myself pay a pilgrimage to the house where this holy man resides, and make at the shrine of the chapel there my offering of thanksgiving for my recovery from this hurt. We will go together. We will take the boy with us; and the boy's father shall be one of our party. He shall see that the powers of evil can be vanquished. He shall see for himself the restoration of his child."
CHAPTER X. BASILDENE.
It was in the bright moonlight of a clear March evening that the twin brothers of Gascony stood hand in hand, gazing for the first time in their lives upon their lost inheritance of Basildene. It was not yet wholly dark, for a saffron glow in the sky behind still showed where the sun had lately sunk, whilst the moon was shining with frosty brightness overhead. Dark as the surrounding woods had been, it was light enough here in the clearing around the house. Behind the crumbling red walls the forest grew dark and close, but in the front the larger trees had been cleared away, and the long low house, with its heavy timbers and many gables, stood clearly revealed before the eager eyes of the boys, who stopped short to gaze without speaking a single word to one another.
Once, doubtless, it had been a beautiful house, more highly decorated than was usual at the period. The heavy beams, dark with age, let into the brickwork were many of them richly carved, and the twisted chimneys and quaint windows showed traces of considerable ingenuity in the builder's art. Plainly, too, there had been a time when the ground around the house had been cared for and kept trim and garden-like.
Now it was but a waste and wilderness, everything growing wild and tangled around it; whilst the very edifice itself seemed crumbling to decay, and wore the grim look of a place of evil repute. It was hard to believe that any person lived within those walls. It was scarce possible to approach within the precincts of that lonely house without a shudder of chill horror.
Gaston crossed himself as he stood looking on the house, which, by what men said, was polluted by many foul deeds, and tenanted by evil spirits to boot; but upon Raymond's face was a different look. His heart went suddenly out to the lonely old house. He felt that he could love it well if it were ever given to him to win it back. As he stood there in the moonlight gazing and gazing, he registered anew in his heart the vow that the day should come when he would fulfil his mother's dying behest, and stand within those halls as the recognized lord of Basildene.
But the present moment was one for action, not for vague dreamings. The brothers had come with a definite purpose, and they did not intend to quit the spot until that purpose was accomplished. The Sanghursts — father and son — were far away. The gloomy house — unless guarded by malevolent spirits, which did not appear unlikely — was almost tenantless. Within its walls was the miserable victim of cruel tyranny whom they had come to release. The boys, who had both confessed and received the Blessed Sacrament from the hands of the priest who had interested himself before in the woodman's son, felt strong in the righteousness of their cause. If they experienced some fear, as was not unlikely, they would not own it even to themselves. Gaston was filled with the soldier spirit of the day, that scorned to turn back upon danger however great. Raymond was supported by a deep underlying sense of the sacredness of the cause in which he was embarked. It was not alone that he was going to deal a blow at the foes of his house; it was much more to him than that. Vengeance might play a part in the crusade, but to him it was a secondary idea. What he thought of was the higher chivalry of which he and John had spoken so much together — the rescue of a soul from the clutches of spiritual tyranny; a blow struck in the defence of one helpless and oppressed; risk run for the sake of those who would never be able to repay; the deed done for its own sake, not in the hope of any praise or reward. Surely this thing might be the first step in a career of true knightliness, albeit such humble deeds might never win the golden spurs of which men thought so much.
Gaston's eyes had been scanning the whole place with hawk-like gaze. Now he turned to his brother and spoke in rapid whispers.
"Entrance will be none too easy here. The narrow windows, with their stone mullions, will scarce admit the passage of a human body, and I can see that iron bars protect many of them still farther. The doors are doubtless strong, and heavily bolted. The old sorcerer has no wish to be interrupted in his nefarious occupations, nor does he trust alone to ghostly terrors to protect his house. Methinks we had better skirt round the house, and seek that other entrance of which we have heard. Raymond, did not our mother tell us oft a story of a revolving stone door to an underground passage, and the trick by which it might be opened from within and without? I remember well that it was by a secret spring cleverly hidden — seven from above, three from below, those were the numbers. Can it be that it was of Basildene she was thinking all that time? It seems not unlikely. Seven from the top, three from the bottom — those were certainly the numbers, though I cannot recollect to what they referred. Canst thou remember the story, Raymond? Dost thou think it was of Basildene she spoke?"
"Ay, verily I do!" cried the other quickly, a light coming into his face. "Why had I not thought of it before? I remember well she spoke of dark water which lay upon the outside of the house hard by the entrance to the underground way. Rememberest thou not the boat moored in the lake to carry the fugitive across to the other side, and the oars so muffled that none might hear? And did not Mistress Joan say that the secret way into Basildene was hard by the fish ponds on the west side of the house? It can be nothing else but this. Let us go seek them at once. Methinks we have in our hands the clue by which we may obtain entrance into Basildene."
Cautiously, as though their foes were at hand, the brothers slipped round the crumbling walls of the house, marking well as they did so that despite the half-ruinous aspect of much of the building, there was no ready or easy method of access. Every gap in the masonry was carefully filled up, every window that was wide enough to admit the passage of a human form was guarded by iron bars, and the doors were solid enough to defy for a long time the assault of battering rams.
"It is not in ghostly terrors he mainly trusts to guard his house," whispered Raymond, as they skirted round into the dim darkness of the dense woodland that lay behind the house. "Methinks if he had in very truth a guard of evil spirits, he would not be so careful of his bolts and bars."
Gaston was willing enough to believe this; for though he feared no human foe, he was by no means free from the superstitious terrors of the age, and it needed all his coolness of head, as well as all his confidence in the righteousness of his cause, to keep his heart from fluttering with fear as they stepped along beneath the gloom of the trees, which even when not in leaf cast dense shadows around them. It was in truth a weird spot: owls hooted dismally about them, bats flitted here and there in their erratic flight, and sometimes almost brushed the faces of the boys with their clammy wings. The strange noises always to be heard in a wood at night assailed their ears, and mingled with the quick beating of their own hearts; whilst from time to time a long unearthly wail, which seemed to proceed from the interior of the house itself, filled them with an unreasoning sense of terror that they would not confess even to themselves.
"It is like the wail of a lost spirit," whispered Raymond at the third repetition of the cry. "Brother, let us say a prayer, and go forward in the power of the Blessed Virgin and her Holy Son."
For a moment the brothers knelt in prayer, as the priest had bidden them if heart or spirit quailed.
Then rising, strengthened and supported, they looked carefully about them, and Gaston, grasping his brother by the arm, pointed through the trees and said:
"The water, the water! sure I see a gleam of moonlight upon it! We have reached the fish ponds, I verily believe! Now for the secret way to the house!"
It was true enough. A few steps brought them to the margin of a large piece of water, which was something between a lake and a series of fish ponds, such as are so often seen by old houses. Once the lake had plainly been larger, but had partially drained away, and was now confined to various levels by means of a rude dam and a sort of gate like that of a modern lock. Still the boys could trace a likeness to the lake of their mother's oft-told tale, and by instinct they both turned to the right as they reached the margin of the water, and threaded their way through the coarse and tangled sedges, decaying in the winter's cold, till they reached a spot where brushwood grew down to the very edge of the water, and the bank rose steep and high above their heads.
Gaston was a step in advance, Raymond following at his heels, both keenly eager over the quest. An exclamation from the leader soon showed that something had been discovered, and the next minute he had drawn aside the sweeping branches of a great willow, and revealed a dark opening in the bank, around which the giant roots seemed to form a protecting arch.
"This is the place," he said, in a muffled whisper. "Raymond, hast thou the wherewithal to kindle the torch?"
The boys had not come unprovided with such things as were likely to prove needful for their search, and though it was a matter of some time to obtain a light, they were skilful and well used to the process, and soon their torch was kindled and they were treading with cautious steps the intricacies of the long and tortuous passage which plainly led straight to the house.
"We never should have found it but for our mother's story," said Gaston, with exultation in his voice. "Raymond, methinks that this is the first step in our career of vengeance. We have the key to Basildene in our hands. It may be that upon another occasion we may use it with a different purpose."
It seemed to the brothers that they had walked a great distance, when their steps were arrested by what appeared in the first instance to be a solid wall of stone. Had they not had some sort of clue in their heads, they would certainly have believed that this natural tunnel ended here, and that further progress was impossible. But as it was, they were firmly convinced that this was but the door of masonry of which their mother had told them in years gone by. Neither could recollect the story save in fragments; but the numbers had clung to Gaston's tenacious memory, and now he stood before the door saying again and again — "Seven from the top, three from the bottom" — scanning the wall in front of him with the keenest glances all the while.
"Ha!" he exclaimed at length; "bring the torch nearer, Raymond. See here. This is not one block of stone, as seems at first, but a mass of masonry so cunningly joined together as to look like one solid piece. See, here are the joints; I can feel them with my fingernail, though I can scarce see them with my eyes. Let us count the number of the stones used. Yes; there are nine in all from top to bottom, each of the same width. Therefore the seventh from the top is the third counting from the bottom. This is the stone which is the key."
So saying, Gaston set his knee against it and pressed with all his might. Almost to his own surprise he felt it give as he did so, and Raymond uttered a short cry of astonishment: for the whole of what had looked like a solid wall revolved slowly inwards, revealing a continuation of the passage which they had been traversing so long, only that now the passage was plainly one in the interior of the house; for the walls were of masonry, and the dimensions were far more regular.
"This is the secret door," said Gaston exultingly. "It is in truth a cunning contrivance. Let me have the light here a moment, Brother. I will see what the trick of the door upon this side is."
This point was quickly settled by an inspection of the ingenious contrivance, which was one purely of balance, and not dependent either upon springs or bolts. Probably it dated back from days when these latter things were hardly known, and was so satisfactory in the working that it had never been improved upon.
"The way to Basildene is always open to us," murmured Raymond, with a quick thrill of exultation, as the brothers passed through the doorway and let it close behind them; and then they forgot all else in the excitement of the search after the woodman's miserable son.
What strange places they came upon in this underground region below the ill-famed house! Plainly these cells had been built once for prisoners; for there were fragments of rusty chains still fastened to the stone floors, and in one spot a grinning skull lying broken in a corner sent thrills of horror through the brothers' hearts. From time to time the sound of that unearthly wailing reached their ears, though it was almost impossible to divine from what direction it proceeded; and it had a far less human sound now that the boys were within the precincts of the house than had been the case when they were still outside.
Whether this was more alarming or less they hardly knew. Everything was so strange and dreamlike that they could not tell whether or not all were real. They pressed on eager to accomplish the object of their search, resolved to do that at all cost, and anxious to keep themselves from thinking or feeling too much until that object should be accomplished.
They had mounted some stairs, and had reached a different level from the underground passages, when they found their further progress barred by a strong door. This door was bolted, but from the outside, and they had no difficulty in withdrawing the heavy bolts from their sockets. When this had been done the door opened of itself, and they found themselves in a large vaulted room utterly unlike any place they had ever seen before. They grasped each other by the hand and gazed about in wonder.
"It is the magician's laboratory!" whispered Raymond, whose recent readings with John had taught him many things.
He recognized the many crucibles and the strange implements lying on the table as the things employed by dabblers in magic lore, whilst the great sullen wood and charcoal fire, which illumined the place with a dull red glow, was all in keeping with the nature of the occupations carried on there, as was the strange pungent smell that filled the air.
Rows of jars and bottles upon shelves, strange-looking mirrors and crystals, some fixed and some lying upon the tables, books and parchments full of cabalistic signs propped open beside the crucibles or hung against the wall, all gave evidence of the nature of the pursuits carried on in that unhallowed spot. The brothers, burning with curiosity as well as filled with awe, approached the tables and looked into the many vessels lying upon them, shuddering as the crimson contents made them think of blood.
Gaston put forth his hand cautiously and touched an ebony rod tipped with crystal that lay beside the largest crucible. As he did so a heavy groan seemed to arise from the very ground at his feet, and he dropped the implement with a smothered exclamation of terror. Raymond at the same moment looking hastily round the dim place, grasped his brother's arm, and pointed to a dark corner not many paces from them.
"Brother, see there! see there!" he whispered. "Sure there is the boy we have come to save!"
Gaston looked and made a quick step forward. Sure enough, there upon the floor, bound hand and foot with leather thongs that had been pulled cruelly tight, lay the emaciated figure of what had once been a handsome and healthy boy, but was now little more than a living skeleton. His face still retained its beauty of outline, though these outlines were terribly pinched and sharpened, but the expression of abject terror in the great blue eyes was pitiful to behold, and as Gaston and Raymond bent over the boy, a shrill cry, as of agony or terror, broke from his pale lips.
"Who are you?" he gasped. "How have you come? Oh, do not touch me — do not hurt me! Go — go quickly from this evil place, or perchance those devils will return and capture you as they have captured me, that they may torture you to death as they are torturing me. Oh, how did you come? I know the doors are locked and bolted. Are you devils in human guise, or hapless prisoners like myself? Oh, if you are still free, go — go ere they can return! They know that they cannot keep me much longer; they are thirsting for another victim. Let them not return to find you here; and plunge your own dagger into your heart sooner than be made a slave as I have been!"
These words were not all spoken at once, but were gasped out bit by bit whilst the twin brothers, with wrath and fury in their hearts, cut the tough thongs that bound the wrists and ankles of the boy, and raised his head as they poured down his throat the strong cordial that had been given to them by John, and which was a marvellous restorer of exhausted nature.
They had food, too, in a wallet, and they made the boy eat before they told him aught of their mission; and after the first gasping words of warning and wonder, it seemed as though he obeyed their behests mechanically, most likely taking it all for part and parcel of some strange vision.
But as the sorely-needed nourishment and the powerful restorative did its work upon the boy, he began to understand that this was no vision, and that something utterly inexplicable had befallen him, whether for weal or woe his confused senses would not tell him. He heard as in a dream the hurried explanations of the boys, drawing his brows together in the effort to understand. But when they spoke of flight he shook his head, and pointed to the door leading into the house.
"No man may pass out of that," he said, in low despairing tones. "How you came in I cannot even guess. It is guarded by a fierce hound, who will tear in pieces any who approaches save his master. There is no way of escape for me. If you are blessed spirits from the world above, fly hence the way you came. For me, I must ever remain the slave of him who, if not the devil himself, is his sworn servant."
"We will go, and that quickly," answered Raymond; "but thou shalt go with us. We are no spirits, but let us be such to thee for the nonce. Fear nothing; only trust us and obey us. If thou wilt do both these things, thou shalt this very night escape for ever from the tyranny of him whom thou hast served so long in such cruel bondage."
The boy looked at the face bending over him, instinct with courage and a deep sympathy and brotherly love, and a strange calm and security seemed to fall upon him. He rose to his feet, though with some difficulty, and laid his hand in Raymond's.
"I will go with thee to the world's end. Be my master, and break the hated yoke of that monster of wickedness, and I will serve thee for ever. Thou art a ministering spirit sent from Heaven. I verily believe that thou canst free me from this slavery."
"Kneel then and lift thy heart in prayer to the Great God of Heaven and earth," answered Raymond, a strange sense of power and responsibility falling upon him at this moment, together with a clearer, purer perception of divine things than had ever been vouchsafed him before — "ay, here in this very place, polluted though it may be; for God's presence is everywhere, and it may be He will give thee, even in this fearful chamber of abominations, that release of soul which is the right of each of His human creatures. Kneel, and lift thy heart in prayer. I too will pray with thee and for thee. He will hear us, for He loves us. Be not afraid; pray with boldness, pray with love in thine heart. God alone can loose the bands of the thraldom which binds thee; and He wilt do it if thou canst trust in Him."
First making the sign of the cross over the kneeling boy, and then kneeling by his side, Raymond directed his crushed spirit to rise in an act of devotion and supplication; and the child, believing that most assuredly a divine messenger had come to deliver him from the hand of his persecutor, was able to utter his prayer in a spirit of trust and hope that brought its own immediate answer in a strange calm and confidence.
"Come," said Gaston cautiously; "we must not longer delay. We have a long night's ride before us, and John will be wondering what detains us this long while."
Together they supported the feeble steps of the boy, who was passive and quiet in their hands. He was scarce amazed by the opening of the mysterious inner door within a vaulted arch, through which he saw from time to time his captors disappear, but which was ever firmly bolted and barred upon the outer side. He did not even hang back through dread of what might befall him if he were again recalled, as on a former occasion, by the diabolic arts of his master. He was so firmly persuaded of the supernatural character of these visitors, that he had faith and strength to let them do with him what they would without comment, question, or remonstrance.
When they reached the outer air, after having successfully passed the secret door again, he gave one great gasp of surprise and reeled as if almost intoxicated by the sweet freshness of the spring night; but the strong arms of his protectors supported him, and hurrying along through the woodland tracks already traversed earlier in the evening, they quickly approached the appointed place just on the outskirts of the Basildene lands, where John, attended by three trusty serving men, together with the old woodman, were impatiently awaiting the return of the twins.
"We have him safe!" cried Gaston, as he bounded on a few paces in advance; and as the words were spoken there broke from the lips of the old woodman a strange inarticulate cry.
He sprang forward with a swiftness and agility that seemed impossible in one so bent and bowed, and the next minute he had clasped his son in his arms, and was weeping those terrible tears of manhood over the emaciated form clasped to his breast.
Leaving the father and son for a few moments together, the brothers in rapid words told their tale to John, who heard it with great satisfaction. But time was passing, and there was no longer any need for delay. The journey before them was somewhat rough and tedious, and all were anxious to put many miles of forest road between themselves and Basildene ere the dawn should break.
John did not greatly fear pursuit. He did not believe that the old man's occult powers would enable him to track the fugitive; but he was not certain of this, and the rest were all of opinion that he both could and would follow, and that remorselessly, the moment he discovered the loss of his captive.
Certainly it could do no harm to put all possible distance betwixt the boy and his master, and the party got to horse with the smallest possible delay. Once let the boy be placed within the precincts of the Sanctuary for which he was bound, in the keeping of the holy man of God whose power was known to be so great, and none feared for the result. But if the boy should be seized upon the road with one of his fits of frenzy, no one could tell what the result might be, and so there was no dissentient voice raised when a quick start and a rapid pace was suggested by Gaston.
The woodman took his boy in front of him upon the strong animal he bestrode. Roger was plainly unfit to sit a horse unsupported by a strong arm, and as they rode through the chill night air a dull lethargy seemed to fall upon him, and he slept in an uneasy, troubled fashion. Every moment his father feared to hear him answer an unheard call, feared to feel him struggle wildly in his encircling arm; but neither of these things happened. Mile after mile was traversed; the moonlight enabled the party to push rapidly onward. Mile after mile slipped away; and just as the first dim rays of dawn appeared in the eastern sky, John, who was himself by this time looking white and jaded, pointed eagerly towards a spire rising up against the saffron of the sky to the south.
"That is the spire of St. Michael's church," he cried. "The abode of the holy men of whom Father Paul is one is nigh at hand. Ride on, good Gaston, and bid the holy man come forth in the name of the love of the Blessed Saviour. If we may once put the child in his keeping, the powers of hell will not prevail to snatch him thence."
Gaston, who was the freshest of the little band, eagerly pressed onward with his message. His tired horse, seeing signs of habitation, pricked up his ears, and broke into an eager gallop. The youth quickly disappeared from the eyes of his companions along the road; but when they reached the monastery gate they saw that his errand had been accomplished. A tall monk, holding in his hand a crucifix, advanced to meet them, with a word of blessing which bared all heads; and advancing to the side of the woodman's horse, he took the apparently inanimate form of the boy in his arms, and looking into the wan face, said:
"Peace be with thee, my son. Into the care of Holy Church I receive thee. Let him who can prevail against the Church of God pluck thee from that keeping!"
CHAPTER XI. A QUIET RETREAT.
Little did Raymond de Brocas think, as he stepped across the threshold of that quiet monastic home, that the two next years of his own life were to be spent beneath that friendly and hospitable roof. And yet so it was, and to the training and teaching he received during his residence there he attributed much of the strength of mind and force of character that distinguished him in days to come.
The small community to which they had brought the persecuted victim of the sorcerer's evil practices belonged to the order of the Cistercians, who have been described as the Quakers of their day. At a time when many of the older orders of monks were falling from their first rigid simplicity — falling into those habits of extravagance which in days to come caused their fall and ultimate suppression — the Cistercians still held to their early regime of austere simplicity and plainness of life; and though no longer absolutely secluding themselves from the sight or sound of their fellow men, or living in complete solitude, they were still men of austere life and self-denying habits, and retained the reputation for sanctity of life that was being lost in other orders, though men had hardly begun to recognize this fact as yet.
From the first moment that Raymond's eyes fell upon the wonderful face of Father Paul, his heart was touched by one of those strange attractions for which it is difficult to account, yet which often form a turning point in the history of a human life. It was not the venerable appearance of the holy man alone; it was an indescribable something that defied analysis, yet drew out all that was best and highest in the spirit of the youth. But after the first glance at the monk, as he came forward and received the inanimate form of the woodman's son in his strong arms, Raymond's attention was differently occupied; for on looking round at his companions, he saw that John's face was as white as death, and that he swayed in his saddle as though he would fall.
It then occurred to the boy for the first time that this long and tiring night's ride was an undertaking for which John was little fit. He had but recently recovered from a bout of sickness that had left him weak and fit for little fatigue, and yet the whole night through he had been riding hard, and had only yielded to exhaustion when the object for which the journey had been taken had been accomplished.
The kindly monks came out and bore him into their house, and presently he and the woodman's son lay side by side in the room especially set apart for the sick, watched over by Father Paul, and assiduously tended by Raymond, to whom John was by this time greatly attached.
As for Gaston, after a rest extending over two nights and days, he was despatched to Windsor with the escort who had accompanied them on their ride hither, to tell John's father what had befallen the travellers, and how, John's wound having broken out afresh, he purposed to remain for some time the guest of the holy Fathers.
Thus, for the first time in their lives, were the brothers separated; for though Gaston had no thought but of speedy return when he set out on his journey, they saw him no more in that quiet cloistered home, and for two long years the brothers did not meet again. Truth to tell, the quiet of a religious retreat had no charm for Gaston, as it had for his brother, and the stirring doings in the great world held him altogether in thrall. The King of England was even then engaged in active preparations for the war with France that did not commence in real earnest till two years later. But all men believed that the invasion of the enemy's land was very near. Proclamations of the most warlike nature were being issued alike by King and Parliament. Edward was again putting forward his inconsistent and illogical claim to the crown of France. Men's hearts were aflame for the glory and the stress of war, and Gaston found himself drawn into the vortex, and could only send an urgent message to his brother, bidding him quickly come to him at Windsor. He had been taken amongst the number of the Prince's attendants. He longed for Raymond to come and share his good fortune.
But Raymond, when that message reached him, had other things to think of than the clash of arms and the struggle with a foreign foe; and he could only send back a message to his brother that for the time at least their paths in life must lie in different worlds. Doubtless the day would come when they should meet again; but for the present his own work lay here in this quiet place, and Gaston must win his spurs without his brother beside him. So Gaston threw himself into the new life with all the zest of his ardent nature, following sometimes the Prince and sometimes the King, according as it was demanded of him, making one of those who followed Edward into Flanders the following year, only to be thwarted of their object through the most unexpected tragedy of the murder of Van Artevelde.
Of wars, adventures, and battles we shall have enough in the pages to follow; so without farther concerning ourselves with the fortunes of Gaston through these two years of excitement and preparation, we will rather remain with Raymond, and describe in brief the events which followed upon his admission within the walls of the Cistercian monks' home.
Of those first weeks within its walls Raymond always retained a vivid remembrance, and they left upon him a mark that was never afterwards effaced. He became aware of a new power stirring within him which he had never hitherto dreamed of possessing.
As has before been said, Roger the woodman's son was carried into the bare but spotlessly clean room upon the upper floor of the building which was used for any of the sick of the community, and John was laid in another of the narrow pallet beds, of which there were four in that place. All this while Roger lay as if dead, in a trance that might be one simply of exhaustion, or might be that strange sleep into which the old sorcerer had for years been accustomed to throw him at will. Leaving him thus passive and apparently lifeless (save that the heart's action was distinctly perceptible), Father Paul busied himself over poor John, who was found to be in pitiable plight; for his wound had opened with the exertion of the long ride, and he had lost much blood before any one knew the state he was in. For some short time his case was somewhat critical, as the bleeding proved obstinate, and was checked with difficulty; and but for Father Paul's accurate knowledge of surgery (accurate for the times he lived in, at any rate), he would likely enough have bled to death even as he lay.
Then whilst the kindly monks were bending over him, and Father Paul's entire time and attention were given up to the case before him, so that he dared not leave John's bedside for an instant, Roger suddenly uttered a wild cry and sprang up in his bed, his lips parted, his eyes wide open and fixed in a dreadful stare.
"I come! I come!" he cried, in a strange, muffled voice; and with a rapidity and energy of which no one would have believed him capable who had seen him lifted from the horse an hour before, he rose and strove to push aside his father's detaining hand.
The old man uttered a bitter cry, and flung his arms about the boy.
"It has come! it has come! I knew it would. There is no hope, none! He is theirs, body and soul. He will go back to them, and they will —"
The words were drowned in a wild cry, as the boy struggled so fiercely that it was plain even the old man's frenzied strength would not suffice to detain him long. Father Paul and the monk who was assisting him with John could not move without allowing the bleeding to recommence. But Raymond was standing by disengaged, and the keen eyes of the Father fixed themselves upon his face. He had heard a brief sketch of the rescue of Roger as the boy had been undressed and laid in the bed, and now he said, in accents of quiet command,
"Take the crucifix that hangs at my girdle, and lay it upon his brow. Bid him lie down once again — adjure him in the name of the Holy Jesus. It is not earthly force that will prevail here. We may save him but by the Name that is above every name. Go!"
Again over Raymond's senses there stole that sense of mystic unreality, or to speak more truly, the sense of the reality of the unseen over the seen things about and around us that men call mysticism, but which may be something widely different; and with it came that quickening of the faculties that he had experienced before as he had knelt in the sorcerer's unhallowed hall, the same sense of fearlessness and power. He took the crucifix without a word, and went straight to the frenzied boy, struggling wildly against the detaining clasp of his father's arms.