"Ay, in fair fight with Philip's army would I gladly adventure my life again!" cried Raymond, with kindling eyes; "but there be fighting I have small relish for, my Gaston, and I have heard stories of this very siege which have wrung my heart to listen to. Was it true, brother, that hundreds of miserable creatures, more than half of them women and little children, were expelled from the city as 'useless mouths,' and left to starve to death between the city walls and the camp of the English, in which plenty has all the winter reigned? Could that be true of our gallant King and his brave English soldiers?"
A quick flush dyed Gaston's cheek, but he strove to laugh.
"Raymond, look not at me with eyes so full of reproach. War is a cruel game, and in some of its details I like it little better than thou. But what can we soldiers do? Nay, what can even the King do? Listen, and condemn him not too hastily. Long months ago, soon after thou hadst left us, the same thing was done. Seventeen hundred persons — men, women, and children — were turned out of the town, and the King heard of it and ordered some of them to be brought before him. In answer to his question they told him that they were driven from the city because they could not fight, and were only consuming the bread, of which there was none to spare for useless mouths. They had no place to go to, no food to eat, no hope for the future. Then what does our King do but give them leave to pass through his camp; and not only so, but he orders his soldiers to feed them well, and start them refreshed on their way; and before they went forth, to each of them was given, by the royal order, two sterlings of silver, so that they went forth joyously, blessing the liberality and kindness of the English and England's King. But thou must see he could not go on doing these kindly acts if men so took advantage of them. He is the soul of bravery and chivalry, but there must be reasonable limits to all such royal generosity."
Raymond could have found in his heart to wish that the limit had not been quite so quickly reached, and that the hapless women and children had not been left to perish miserably in the sight of the warmth and plenty of the English camp; but he would not say more to damp his brother's happiness in their reunion, nor in that almost greater joy with which Roger received him back.
"In faith," laughed Gaston, "I believe that some of the wizard's art cleaves yet to yon boy, for he has been restless and dreamy and unlike himself these many days; and when I have asked him what ailed him, his answer was ever the same, that he knew you were drawing nigh; and verily he has proved right, little as I believed him when he spoke of it."
Roger had so grown and improved that Raymond would scarce have recognized in him the pale shrinking boy they had borne out from the house of the sorcerer three years before. He had developed rapidly after the first year of his new life, when the shackles of his former captivity seemed finally broken; but this last year of regular soldier's employment had produced a more marked change in his outward man than those spent in the Brotherhood or at Raymond's side. His figure had widened. He carried himself well, and with an air of fearless alertness. He was well trained in martial exercises, and the hot suns of France had bronzed his cheeks, and given them a healthy glow of life and animation. He still retained much of his boyish beauty, but the dreaminess and far-away vacancy had almost entirely left his eyes. Now and again the old listening look would creep into them, and he would seem for a few moments to be lost to outward impressions; but if recalled at such moments from his brief lapse, and questioned as to what he was thinking, it always proved to be of Raymond, not of his old master.
Once or twice he had told Gaston that his brother was in peril — of what kind he knew not; and Gaston had wondered if indeed this had been so. One of these occasions had been just before Christmastide, and the date being thus fixed in his mind, he asked his brother if he had been at that time exposed to any peril. Raymond could remember nothing save the vindictive threat of Peter Sanghurst, and Gaston was scarce disposed to put much faith in words, either good or bad, uttered by such a man as that.
And now things began to press towards a climax in this memorable siege. The French King, awakened from his long and inexplicable lethargy by the entreaties of his starving subjects so bravely holding the town for a pusillanimous master, and stung by the taunts of the English King, had mustered an army, and was now marching to the relief of the town. It was upon the last day of July, when public excitement was running high, and all men were talking and thinking of an approaching battle, that word was brought into the camp, and eagerly passed from mouth to mouth, to the effect that the King of France had despatched certain messengers to hold parley with the royal Edward, and that they were even now being admitted to the camp by the bridge of Nieulay — the only approach to Calais through the marshes on the northeast, which had been closely guarded by the English throughout the siege.
"Hasten, Raymond, hasten!" cried Gaston, dashing into the small lodging he and his brother now shared together. "There be envoys come from the French King. The Prince will be with his father to hear their message, and if we but hasten to his side, we may be admitted amongst the number who may hear what is spoken on both sides."
Raymond lost no time in following his brother, both eager to hear and see all that went on; and they were fortunate enough to find places in the brilliant muster surrounding the King and his family, as these received with all courtesy the ambassador from the French monarch.
That messenger was none other than the celebrated Eustache de Ribeaumont, one of the flower of the French chivalry, to whom, on another occasion, Edward presented the celebrated chaplet of pearls, with one of the highest compliments that one brave man could give another. The boys, and indeed the whole circle of English nobility, looked with admiration at his stately form and handsome face, and though to our ears the message with which he came charged sounds infinitely strange, it raised no smile upon the faces of those who stood around the royal Edward.
"Sire," began the messenger, "our liege lord, the King of France, sends us before you, and would have you know that he is here, and is posted on the Sandgatte Hill to fight you; but intrenched as you are in this camp, he can see no way of getting at you, and therefore he sends us to you to say this. He has a great desire to raise the siege of Calais, and save his good city, but can see no way of doing so whilst you remain here. But if you would come forth from your intrenchments, and appoint some spot where he could meet you in open fight, he would rejoice to do it, and this is the thing we are charged to request of you."
A shout, led by the Prince of Wales, and taken up by all who stood by, was proof enough how acceptable such a notion was to the ardent spirits of the camp; for it was not a shout of derision, but one of eager assent. Indeed, for a moment it seemed as though the King of England were disposed to give a favourable reply to the messenger; but then he paused, and a different expression crossed his face. He sat looking thoughtfully upon the ground, whilst breathless silence reigned around him, and then he and the Queen spoke in low tones together for some few minutes.
When Edward looked up again his face had changed, and was stern and set in expression.
"Tell your lord," he said, speaking slowly and distinctly, "that had he wished thus to fight, he should have sent his challenge before. I have been near a twelvemonth encamped before this place, and my good people of England have been sore pressed to furnish me with munitions for the siege. The town is now on the point of falling into my hands, and then will my good subjects find plunder enough to recompense them for their labour and loss. Wherefore tell your lord that where I am there will I stay; and that if he wishes to fight he must attack me in my camp, for I assuredly have no intention of moving out from it."
A slight murmur of disappointment arose from the younger and more ardent members of the crowd; but the older men saw the force of the King's words, and knew that it would be madness to throw away all the hardly-earned advantages of those long months just for a piece of chivalrous bravado. So De Ribeaumont had to ride back to the French camp with Edward's answer; and ere two more days had passed, the astonishing news was brought to the English lines that Philip had abandoned his camp, which was now in flames, and was retreating with his whole army by the way he had come.
"Was ever such a craven coward!" cried the Prince, in indignant disappointment; for all within the English camp had been hoping for battle, and had been looking to their arms, glad of any incident to vary the long monotony of the siege. "Were I those gallant soldiers in yon fortress, I would serve no longer such a false, treacherous lord. Were my father but their king, he would not leave them in such dire strait, with an army at his back to fight for him, be the opposing force a hundredfold greater than it is!"
And indeed it seemed as though the brave but desperate garrison within those walls saw that it was hopeless to try to serve such a master. How bitter must their feelings have been when Philip turned and left them to their fate may well be imagined. Hopeless and helpless, there was nothing but surrender before them now; and to make the best terms possible was the only thing that remained for them. The day following Philip's dastardly desertion, the signal that the city was ready to treat was hung out, and brave Sir Walter Manny, whose own history and exploits during the campaigns in Brittany and Gascony would alone fill a volume either of history or romance, was sent to confer on this matter with the governor of the city, the gallant De Vienne, who had been grievously wounded during the long siege.
Raymond's sympathies had been deeply stirred by what he had heard and imagined of the sufferings of the citizens, and with the love of adventure and romance common to those days, he arrayed himself lightly in a dress that would not betray his nationality, and followed in the little train which went with Sir Walter. The conference took place without the walls, but near to one of the gates. Raymond did not press near to hear what was said, like the bulk of the men on both sides who accompanied the leaders, but he passed through the eager crowd and made for the gate itself, the wicket of which stood open; and so calm and assured was his air, and so deeply were the minds of the porters stirred by anxiety to know the fate of the town, that the youth passed in unheeded and unchallenged, and once within the ramparts he could go where he chose and see what he would.
But what a sight met his eyes! Out into the streets were flocking the inhabitants, all trembling with anxiety to hear their fate. Every turn brought him to fresh knots of famine-stricken wretches, who had almost lost the wish to live, or any interest in life, till just stirred to a faint and lingering hope by the news that the town was to be surrendered at last. Gaunt and hollow-eyed men, women little better than skeletons, and children scarce able to trail their feeble bodies along, were crowding out of the houses and towards the great marketplace, where the assembly to hear the conditions was likeliest to meet. The soldiers, who had been better cared for than the more useless townsfolk, were spectre-like in all conscience; but the starving children, and the desperate mothers who could only weep and wring their hands in answer to the piteous demand for bread, were the beings who most stirred Raymond's heart as he went his way amongst them.
Again that sense of horror and shrinking came upon him that he had experienced upon the field of Crecy amongst the dying and the dead. If war did indeed entail such ghastly horrors and frightful sufferings, could it be that glorious thing that all men loved to call it?
Curious glances began to be levelled at him as he passed through the streets, sometimes pausing to soothe a wailing child, sometimes lending a hand to assist a tottering woman's steps, and speaking to all in that gentle voice of his, which with its slightly unfamiliar accent smote strangely upon the ears of the people. He wore no helmet on his head, and his curly hair floated about his grave saint-like face, catching golden lights from the glory of the August sunshine.
"Is it one of the blessed saints?" asked a little child of his mother, as Raymond paused in passing by to lay a caressing hand upon his head, and speak a soft word of encouragement and hope to the weary mother.
And the innocent question was taken up and passed from mouth to mouth, till it began to be whispered about that one of the holy saints had appeared in their midst in the hour of the city's deadly peril. As Raymond passed on his way, many a knee was bent and many a pleading voice asked a blessing; whilst he, feeling still as one who moves in a dream, made the sign of the cross from time to time over some kneeling suppliant without understanding what was said of him or why all eyes were bent upon him.
But the great town bell was ringing now to summon the citizens to assemble themselves together to hear the final terms agreed upon for the capitulation of the city, and all else was forgotten in the overwhelming anxiety of that moment; for none could form a guess what terms would be granted to a town in such sore straits as was theirs. The English King could be generous and merciful, but he could also be stern and implacable; and the long resistance made by the town was like to have stirred his wrath, as well as the fact that the sea port of Calais had done more harm to his ships and committed more acts of piracy than any other port in France.
Raymond himself had great fears for the fate of the hapless town, and was as eager as any to hear what had been decreed.
"Sure if the King could see the famished gathering here his heart would relent," murmured the youth to himself, as he looked round at the sea of wan faces gathered in the open square.
But the grave and sorrowful expression upon the governor's face told that he had no very happy tidings to impart. He stood upon a flight of steps where all men could well behold him, and in the dead silence that fell upon the multitude every word spoken could be distinctly beard.
"My friends," he said, in grave, mournful accents, "I come to you with news of the only terms of capitulation that I have been able to win from England's King. I myself offered to capitulate if he would permit all within the walls to depart unharmed, whilst his demand was for unconditional surrender. The brave knight who came forth to confer with me went back more than once to strive to win for us better terms, and his intercession was thus far successful. The King will take the rest of the citizens to mercy if six of their chief burgesses be given up to his vengeance, and appear before him bareheaded and barefooted, with halters about their necks and the keys of the city in their hands. For such there will be no mercy. Brave Sir Walter Manny, who bore hack this message with so sorrowful a countenance, bid me not hope that the lives of these men would be spared. He said he saw the fierce sparkle in Edward's eyes as he added, grinding his teeth, 'On them will I do my will.' Wherefore, my good friends, we are this day in a great strait, and I would that I might myself give up my life to save the town; but the King's command is that it shall be six of the burgesses, and it is for you and them to say if these hard conditions shall be accepted."
The deepest silence had hitherto prevailed in that vast place, but now it was broken by the weeping and wailing of a great multitude. Raymond's throat swelled and his eyes glistened as he looked around upon that sea of starving faces, and tried to realize all that this message must mean to them. If his own life could have paid the ransom, he would have laid it down that moment for these miserable weeping beings; but he was helpless as the brave governor, and could only stand and see the end of the drama.
Slowly up the steps of the marketplace, where stood the governor of the city, advanced a fine-looking man in the prime of life, and a hushed murmur ran through the crowd, in which Raymond caught the name of Eustache de St. Pierre. This man held up his hand in token that he wished to speak, and immediately a deathlike silence fell again upon the crowd.
"My friends," spoke the clear deliberate voice, "it would be a great pity and mischief to let such a people as this assembled here die by famine or any other way, if a means can be found to save them; and it would be great alms and great grace in the sight of the Lord for any one who could save them from such harm. I have myself so great hope of finding grace and pardon in the sight of our Lord, if I die to save this people, that I will be the first, and will yield myself willingly, in nothing but my shirt, with my head bare and a halter round my neck, to the mercy of the King of England."
As these simple but truly heroic words were spoken a burst of weeping and blessing arose from the crowd, women pressed forward and fell at the feet of the worthy citizen, and Raymond said in his heart:
"Sure if the King of England could but see it, there is more chivalry in yon simple merchant than in half the knights who stand about his throne."
It is seldom that a noble example is thrown away upon men. Hardly had the burst of weeping died away before two more men, brothers, to judge by their likeness to each other, mounted the steps and stood beside St. Pierre. He held out his hand and greeted them by name.
"My good friends Jacques and Peter de Wisant, we go hand in hand to death, as we have gone hand in hand in other ventures of another kind. And hither to join us comes our good friend Jehan d'Aire. Truly if we march to death, we shall march in good company."
The full number was soon made up. Six of the wealthiest and best known of the citizens came forward and stood together to be disrobed and led before the King.
But Raymond could bear the sight no longer. With a bursting heart he hurried through the crowd, which made way wonderingly for him as he moved, and went straight towards the gate by which he had entered, none hindering his path.
"It is the blessed saint who came amongst us in our hour of need," said the women one to another, "and now perchance he goes to intercede with the mighty conqueror! See how his face is set towards the gate; see the light that shines in his eyes! Sure he can be no being of this earth, else how could he thus come and go in our beleaguered city!"
The guard at the gate looked with doubtful eyes at the stranger, and one man stood in his path as if to hinder him; but Raymond's eyes seemed to look through and beyond him, and in a clear, strange voice he said:
"In the name of the Blessed Son of God, I bid thee let me pass. I go upon an errand of mercy in that most Holy Name."
The man fell back, his comrades crossed themselves and bent the knee. Raymond passed out of the gate, scarce knowing how he had done so, and sped back to the English camp as if his feet had wings. With that same strangely rapt expression upon his face, he went straight to the lodging of the Prince of Wales, and entering without ceremony found not only the Prince there, but also his royal mother, the gracious Queen Philippa.
Bending his knee to that fair lady, but without one thought beyond the present urgent need of the moment, Raymond told all his tale in the ear of the Queen and the Prince. With that power of graphic description which was the gift of his vivid imagination and deep sense of sympathy with the needs of others, he brought the whole scene before the eyes of his listeners the crowded marketplace, the famine-stricken people in their extremity and despair, the calm heroism of the men who willingly offered their lives to save those of their townspeople, and the wailing multitude watching the start of the devoted six going forth to a shameful and ignominious death on their behalf.
And as Raymond spoke the Prince's cheek flushed, and the eyes of the beautiful Queen kindled and filled with sudden tears; and rising to her feet she held out her hand to Raymond and said:
"Good lad, I thank thee for thy tale, and the request thy lips have not spoken shall be granted. Those men shall not die! I, the Queen of England, will save them. I pledge thee here my royal word. I will to my noble husband and win their pardon myself."
Raymond sank upon his knee and kissed the fair hand extended to him, and both he and the Prince hastened after the Queen, who hoped to find her royal husband alone and in a softened mood, as he was wont to be after the stress of the day was over.
But time had fled fast whilst Raymond had been telling his tale, and already notice had been brought to Edward of the approach of the six citizens, and he had gone forth into a pavilion erected for his convenience in an open part of the camp; and there he was seated with grim aspect and frowning brow as his Queen approached to speak with him.
"I will hear thee anon, good wife," he said, seeing that she craved his ear. "I have sterner work on hand today than the dallying of women. Stay or go as thou wilt, but speak not to me till this day's work is carried through."
Raymond's heart sank as he heard these words, and saw the relentless look upon the King's face. None realized better than he the cruel side to the boasted chivalry of the age; and these middle-aged burgesses, with no knightliness of dress or bearing, would little move the loftier side of the King's nature. There would be no glamour of romance surrounding them. He would think only of the thousands of pounds the resistance of the city had cost him, and he would order to a speedy death those whom he would regard as in part the cause of all this trouble and loss.
The Queen made no further effort to win his notice, but with graceful dignity placed herself beside him; whilst the Prince, quivering with suppressed excitement, stepped behind his father's chair. Raymond stood in the surrounding circle, and felt Gaston's arm slipped within his. But he had eyes only for the mournful procession approaching from the direction of the city, and every nerve was strained to catch the lightest tone of the Queen's voice if she should speak.
The governor of Calais, though disabled by wounds from walking, was pacing on horseback beside the devoted six thus giving themselves up to death; and as he told how they had come forward to save their fellow citizens from death, tears gathered in many eyes, and brave Sir Walter Manny, who had pleaded their cause before, again threw himself upon his knees before his sovereign, and besought his compassion for the brave burgesses.
But Edward would not listen — would not allow the better feelings within him to have play. With a few angry and scathing words, bidding his servants remember what Calais had cost them to take, and what the obstinacy of its citizens had made England pay, he relentlessly ordered the executioner to do his work, and that right quickly; and as that grim functionary slowly advanced to do the royal bidding, a shiver ran through the standing crowd, the devoted six alone holding themselves fearlessly erect.
But just at the moment when it seemed as if all hope of mercy was at an end, the gentle Queen arose and threw herself at her husband's feet, and her silvery voice rose clear above the faint murmur rising in the throng.
"Ah, gentle Sire, since I have crossed the sea with great peril, I have never asked you anything; now I humbly pray, for the sake of the Son of the Holy Mary and your love of me, that you will have mercy on these six brave men!"
Raymond's breath came so thick and fast as he waited for the answer, that he scarce heard it when it came, though the ringing cheer which broke from the lips of those who stood by told him well its purport.
The King's face, gloomy at first, softened as he gazed upon the graceful form of his wife, and with a smile he said at last:
"Dame, I wish you had been somewhere else this day; but I cannot refuse you. I put them into your keeping; do with them what you will."
Raymond felt himself summoned by a glance from the Prince. The Queen-mother had bidden him take the men, and feast them royally, and send them away with rich gifts.
As the youth who had done so much for them forced his way to the side of the Prince, his face full of a strange enthusiasm and depth of feeling, the citizens looked one upon another and whispered:
"Sure it was true what the women said to us. That was the youth with the face of painted saint that we saw within the walls of the city. Sure the Blessed Saints have been watching over us this day, and have sent an angel messenger down to deliver us in our hour of sorest need!"
CHAPTER XVI. IN THE OLD HOME.
The memorable siege of Calais at an end, Edward, his Queen and son and nobility generally, set sail for England, where many matters were requiring the presence of the sovereign after an absence so prolonged.
When the others of the Prince's comrades were thronging on hoard to accompany him homewards, Gaston and Raymond sought him to petition for leave to remain yet longer in France, that they might revisit the home of their youth and the kind-hearted people who had protected them during their helpless childhood.
Leave was promptly and willingly given, though the Prince was graciously pleased to express a hope that he should see his faithful comrades in England again ere long.
It had begun to be whispered abroad that these two lads with their knightly bearing, their refinement of aspect, and their fearlessness in the field, were no common youths sprung from some lowly stock. That there was some mystery surrounding their birth was now pretty well admitted, and this very mystery encircled them with something of a charm — a charm decidedly intensified by the aspect of Raymond, who never looked so much the creature of flesh and blood as did his brother and the other young warriors of Edward's camp. The fact, which was well known now, that he had walked unharmed and unchallenged through the streets of Calais upon the day of its capitulation, but before the terms had been agreed upon, was in itself, in the eyes of many, a proof of some strange power not of this world which encircled the youth. And indeed Gaston himself was secretly of the opinion that his brother was something of a saint or spirit, and regarded him with a reverential affection unusual between brothers of the same age.
Through the four years since he had left his childhood's home, Gaston had felt small wish to revisit it. The excitement and exaltation of the new life had been enough for him, and the calm quiet of the peaceful past had lost, its charm. Now, however, that the war was for the present over, and with it the daily round of adventure and change; now that he had gold in his purse, a fine charger to ride, and two or three stout men-at-arms in his train, a sudden wish to see again the familiar haunts of his childhood had come over him, and he had willingly agreed to Raymond's suggestion that they should go together to Sauveterre, to ask a blessing from Father Anselm, and tell him how they had fared since they had parted from him long ago. True, Raymond had seen him a year before, but he had not then been in battle; he had not had much to tell save of the cloister life he had been sharing; and of Gaston's fortunes he had himself known nothing.
Both brothers were for the present amply provided for. They had received rich rewards from the Prince after the Battle of Crecy, and the spoils of Calais had been very great. They could travel in ease through the sunny plains of France, sufficiently attended to be safe from molestation, even if the terror of the English arms were not protection enough for those who wore the badge of the great Edward. From Bordeaux they could find easy means of transport to England later; and nothing pleased them better than the thought of this long ride through the plains of France, on the way to the old home.
They did not hurry themselves on this pleasant journey, taken just as the trying heats of summer had passed, but before the winter's cold had made its first approach. The woods were scarce showing their first russet tints as the brothers found themselves in familiar country once again, and looked about them with eager glances of recognition as they traversed the once well-known tracks.
"Let us first to Father Anselm," said Raymond, as they neared the village where the good priest held his cure. "He will gladly have us pass a night beneath his roof ere we go onward to the mill; and our good fellows will find hospitable shelter with the village folks. They have been stanch and loyal in these parts to the cause of the Roy Outremer, and any soldier coming from his camp will be doubly welcome, as the bearer of news of good luck to the English arms. The coward King of France is little loved by the bold Gascons, save where a rebel lord thinks to forward his private ends by transferring his allegiance from England to France."
"To the good Father's, then, with all my heart," answered Gaston heartily; and the little troop moved onwards until, to the astonishment of the simple villagers clustered round the little church and their cure's house, the small but brilliant cavalcade of armed travellers drew up before that lowly door.
The Father was within, and, as the sound of trampling feet made itself heard, appeared at his door in some astonishment; but when the two youths sprang from their horses and bent the knee before him, begging his blessing, and he recognized in them the two boys who had filled so great a portion of his life not so many years ago, a mist came before his eyes, and his voice faltered as he gave the benediction, whilst raising them afterwards and tenderly embracing them, he led them within the well-known doorway, at the same time calling his servant and bidding him see to the lodging of the men without.
The low-ceiled parlour of the priest, with its scanty plenishing and rush-strewn floor, was well known to the boys; yet as Raymond stepped across the threshold he uttered a cry of surprise, not at any change in the aspect of the room itself, but at sight of a figure seated in a high-backed chair, with the full sunlight shining upon the calm, thin face. With an exclamation of joyful recognition the lad sped forward and threw himself upon his knees before the erect figure, with the name of Father Paul upon his lips.
The keen, austere face did not soften as Father Anselm's had done. The Cistercian monk, true to the severity of his order, permitted nothing of pleasure to appear in his face as he looked at the youth whose character he had done so much to form. He did not even raise his hand at once in the customary salutation or blessing, but fixed his eyes upon Raymond's face, now lifted to his in questioning surprise; and not until he had studied that face with great intentness for many long minutes did he lay his hand upon the lad's head and say, in a low, deep voice, "Peace be with thee, my son."
This second and most unexpected meeting was almost a greater pleasure to Raymond than the one with Father Anselm. Whilst Gaston engrossed his old friend's time and thought, sitting next him at the board, and pacing at his side afterwards in the little garden in which he loved to spend his leisure moments, Raymond remained seated at the feet of Father Paul, listening with breathless interest to his history of the voyage he had taken to the far East (as it then seemed), and to the strange and terrible sights he had witnessed in some of those far-off lands.
Raymond had vaguely heard before of the plague, but had regarded it as a scourge confined exclusively to the fervid heat of far-off countries — a thing that would never come to the more temperate latitudes of the north; but when he spoke these words to the monk, Father Paul shook his head, and a sudden sombre light leaped into his eyes.
"My son, the plague is the scourge of God. It is not confined to one land or another. It visits all alike, if it be God's will to send it in punishment for the many and grievous sins of its inhabitants. True, in the lands of the East, where the paynim holds his court, and everywhere is blasphemy and abomination, the scourge returns time after time, and never altogether ceases from amongst the blinded people. But of late it has spread farther and farther westward — nearer and nearer to our own shores. God is looking down upon the lands whose people call themselves after His name, and what does he see there but corruption in high places, greed, lust, the covetousness that is idolatry, the slothful ease that is the curse of the Church?"
The monk's eyes flashed beneath their heavily-fringed lids; the fire that glowed in them was of a strange and sombre kind. Raymond turned his pure young face, full of passionate admiration and reverence, towards the fine but terribly stern countenance of the ecclesiastic. A painter would have given much to have caught the expression upon those two faces at that moment. The group was a very striking one, outlined against the luminous saffron of the western sky behind.
"Father, tell me more!" pleaded Raymond. "I am so young, so ignorant; and many of the things the world praises and calls deeds of good turn my heart sick and my spirit faint within me. I would fain know how I may safely tread the difficult path of life. I would fain choose the good and leave the evil. But there be times when I know not how to act, when it seems as though naught in this world were wholly pure. Is it only those who yield themselves up to the life of the cloister who may choose aright and see with open eyes? Must I give up my sword and turn monk ere I may call myself a son of Heaven?"
The boy's eyes were full of an eager, questioning light. His hands were clasped together, and his face was turned full upon his companion. The Father's eyes rested on the pure, ethereal face with a softer look than they had worn before, and then a deep sadness came into them.
"My son," he answered, very gravely, "I am about to say a thing to thee which I would not say to many young and untried as thou art. There have been times in my life when I should have triumphed openly had men spoken to me the words that I shall speak to thee — times when I had gladly said that all which men call holiness was but a mask for corruption and deceit, and should have rejoiced that the very monks themselves were forced to own to their own wanton disregard of their vows. My son, I see the shrinking and astonishment in thine eyes; but yet I would for a moment that thou couldst see with mine. I spoke awhile ago of the judgment of an angry God. Wherefore, thinkest thou, is it that His anger is so hotly burning against those lands that call themselves by His name — that call day by day upon His name, and make their boast that they hold the faith whole and undefiled?"
Raymond shook his head. He had no words with which to answer. He was beginning slowly yet surely to feel his eyes opened to the evil of the world — even that world of piety and chivalry of which such bright dreams had been dreamed. His fair ideals were being gradually dashed and effaced. Something of sickness of heart had penetrated his being, and he had said in the unconscious fashion of pure-hearted youth, "Vanity of vanities! is all around but vanity?" and he had found no answer to his own pathetic question.
As an almost necessary consequence of all this had his thoughts turned towards the holy, dedicated life of the sons of the Church; and though it was with a strong sense of personal shrinking, with a sense that the sacrifice would be well-nigh bitterer than the bitterness of death, he had asked himself if it might not be that God had called him, and that if he would be faithful to the love he had ever professed to hold, he ought to rise up without farther delay and offer himself to the dedicated service of the Church.
And now Father Paul, who had always seemed to read the very secrets of his heart, appeared about to answer this unspoken question. Greatly had Raymond longed of late to speak with him again. Father Anselm was a good and a saintly man, but he knew nothing of the life of the world. To him the Church was the ark of refuge from all human ills, and gladly would he have welcomed within its fold any weary or world-worn soul. But with Father Paul it was different. He had lived in the world; he had sinned (if men spoke truth), and had suffered bitterly. One look in his face was enough to tell that; and having lived and sinned, repented and suffered, he was far more able to offer counsel to one tempted and sometimes suffering, though perhaps in a very different fashion.
The Father's eyes were bent upon the faint glow in the sky, seen through the open casement. His words were spoken quietly, yet with an earnestness that was almost terrible.
"My son," he said, "I have come back but recently from lands where it seems that holiness should abound — that righteousness should flow forth as from a perpetual fountain, where the Lord should be seen walking almost visibly in the midst of His people. And what have I seen instead? Luxury, corruption, unspeakable abominations — abominations such as I may not dare to speak in thy pure ears, such as I would not have believed had not mine own eyes seen, mine own ears heard. Where is the poverty, the lowliness, the meekness, the chastity of the sons of the Church? Ah, God in Heaven only knows; and let it be our solemn rejoicing that He does know where His own faithful children are to be found, for assuredly man would miserably fail if he were sent forth to find and to gather them. Leaving those lands which thou, my son, hast never seen, and coming hither to France and England, what do we find? Those who have vowed themselves to the service of the Church walking gaily in the dress of soldiers, engaged in carnal matters, letting their hair hang down their shoulders curled and powdered, and thinking scorn of the tonsure, which is the mark of the Kingdom of Heaven. And does not God see? Will He not recompense to His people their sins? Yea, verily He will; and in an hour when they little think it, the wrath of God shall fall upon them. It is even now upon its way. I have seen it; I have marked its progress. Ere another year has passed, if men repent not of their sins, it will be stalking amongst us. And thou, my son, when that day comes, fear not. Think not of the cloister; keep thy good sword at thy side, but keep it bright in the cause of right, of mercy, of truth, and keep thy shield stainless and unspotted. Then when the hour of judgment falls upon this land, and men in wild terror begin to call upon the God they have forgotten and abused, then go thou forth in the power of that purity of heart which He in His mercy has vouchsafed to thee. Fear not the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor the sickness that destroyeth at noonday. A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. With thine eyes shalt thou behold the destruction of thine enemies; but the angels of God shall encamp around thy path, and guard thee in all thy ways. Only be true, be fearless, be steadfast. Thou shalt be a knight of the Lord; thou shalt fight His battle; and from Him, and from no earthly sovereign, shalt thou reap thy reward at last!"
As the Father continued speaking, it seemed as if something of prophetic fire had lighted his eyes. Raymond held his breath in awe as he heard this strange warning, benediction, and promise. But not for a moment did he doubt that what the Father spoke would come to pass. He sank upon his knees, and his heart went up in prayer that when the hour of trial came he might be found faithful at his post; and at once and for ever was laid to rest that restless questioning as to the life of the Church. He knew from that moment forward that it was in the world and not out of it that his work for his Lord was to be done.
No more of a personal nature passed between him and Father Paul that night, and upon the morrow the brothers proceeded to the mill, and the Father upon his journey to England.
"We shall meet again ere long," was Father Paul's parting word to Raymond, and he knew that it would be so.
It was a pretty sight to witness the delighted pride with which honest Jean and Margot welcomed back their boys again after the long separation. Raymond hardly seemed a stranger after his visit of the previous year, but of Gaston they knew not how to make enough. His tall handsome figure and martial air struck them dumb with admiration. They never tired of listening to his tales of flood and field; and the adventures he had met with, though nothing very marvellous in themselves, seemed to the simple souls, who had lived so quiet a life, to raise him at once to the position of some wonderful and almost mythical being.
On their own side, they had a long story to tell of the disturbed state of the country, and the constant fighting which had taken place until the English King's victory at Crecy had caused Philip to disband his army, and had restored a certain amount of quiet to the country.
The quiet was by no means assured or very satisfactory. Though the army had been disbanded, there was a great deal of brigandage in the remoter districts. So near as the mill was to Sauveterre, it had escaped without molestation, and the people in the immediate vicinity had not suffered to any extent; but there was a restless and uneasy feeling pervading the country, and it had been a source of considerable disappointment to the well-disposed that the Roy Outremer had not paid a visit to Gascony in person, to restore a greater amount of order, before returning to his own kingdom.
The Sieur de Navailles had made himself more unpopular than ever by his adhesion to the French cause when all the world had believed that Philip, with his two huge armies, would sweep the English out of the country. Of late, in the light of recent events, he had tried to annul his disloyalty, and put another face upon his proceedings; but only his obscurity, and the remoteness of his possessions in the far south, would protect him from Edward's wrath when the affairs of the rebel Gascons came to be inquired into in detail.
Gaston listened eagerly, and treasured it all carefully up, feeling sure he could place his rival and the usurper of the De Brocas lands in a very unenviable position with the royal Edward at any time when he wished to make good his own claim.
The visit of the De Brocas brothers (as they were known in these parts) was not made by stealth. All the world might know it now for all they cared, protected as they were by their stout men-at-arms, and surrounded by the glamour of the English King's royal favour. Gaston and Raymond ranged the woods and visited their old haunts with the zest of youth and affectionate memories, and Gaston often hunted there alone whilst his brother paid a visit to Father Anselm, to read with him or talk of Father Paul.
It was after a day spent thus apart that Gaston came in looking as though some unwonted thing had befallen him, and when he and his brother were alone in their room together, he began to speak with eager rapidity.
"Raymond, methinks I have this day lost my heart to a woodland nymph or fairy. Such a strange encounter had I in the forest today! and with it a warning almost as strange as the being who offered it."
"A warning, Gaston? what sort of warning?"
"Why, against our old, old enemy the Navailles, who, it seems, knows of our visit here, and, if he dared, would gladly make an end of us both. So at least the fairy creature told me, imploring me, with sweetest solicitude, to be quickly gone, and to adventure myself in the woods alone no more. I told her that our visit was well-nigh at an end, and that we purposed to reach England ere the autumn gales blew shrill. At that she seemed mightily pleased, and yet she sighed when we said adieu. Raymond, she was the loveliest maiden my eyes have ever beheld: her hair like silk, and of the deepest golden hue; her eyes of the colour of violets nestling beneath brown winter leaves. Her voice was like the rippling of a summer's brook, and her form scarce of this earth, so light, so airy, so full of sylvan grace. She was like the angelic being of a dream. I have never seen a daughter of earth so fair. Tell me, thinkest thou it was some dream? Yet it is not my wont to slumber at my sport, and the little hand I held in mine throbbed with the warmth of life."
"Asked you not her name and station?"
"Yea verily, but she would tell me naught; only the soft colour crept into her cheeks, and she turned her eyes for a moment away. Raymond, I have heard men speak of love, but till that moment I knew not what they meant. Now methinks I have a better understanding, for if yon sweet maiden had looked long into my eyes, my very soul would sure have gone out to her, and I should have straightway forgot all else in the world but herself. Wherefore I wondered if she could be in truth a real and living being, or whether some woodland siren sent to lure man to death and destruction."
Raymond smiled at the gravity of Gaston's words. Mystic as he was in many matters, he had outgrown that belief in woodland nymphs and sirens which had woven itself into their life whilst the spell of the forests remained upon them in their boyhood. That evil and good spirits did hover about the path of humanity, Raymond sincerely believed; but he was equally certain that they took no tangible form, and that the vision Gaston had seen in the wood was no phantom form of spirit.
"Sure she came to try to warn and save," he answered; "that should be answer enough. Gaston, methinks we will take that warning. We are still but striplings and our men are few, though brave and true. The land is disturbed as in our memory it never was, and men are wild and lawless, none being strong enough to put down disorder. Wherefore we had best be gone. It is no true bravery to court danger, and our errand here is done. When the King comes, as one day he will, to punish rebels and reward faithful loyalty, then we will come with him, and thou shalt seek out thy woodland nymph once more, and thank her for her good counsel. Now wilt thou thank her best — seeing she came express to warn thee of coming peril — by taking her at her word. Honest Jean and Margot will not seek to stay us longer. They have a secret fear of the Sieur de Navailles. We will not tell them all, but we will tell them something, and that will be enough. Tomorrow will we take to horse again; and we will tell in the ears of the King how restless and oppressed by lawlessness and strife are his fair lands of Gascony."
Raymond's advice was followed. Gaston had had enough of quiet and repose, and only the desire to see again the face of the woodland sprite could have detained him. Not knowing where to seek her, he was willing enough to set his face for Bordeaux; and soon the brothers had landed once again upon the shores of England.
CHAPTER XVII. THE BLACK DEATH
The glorious termination of Edward's campaign, and the rich spoil brought home from the wars by the soldiers, had served to put the nation into a marvellous good temper. Their enthusiasm for their King amounted almost to adoration, and nothing was thought of but tourneys, jousts, and all sorts of feasting and revelry. Indeed, things came to such a pass that at last an order was given that tournaments might be held only at the royal pleasure, else the people were disposed to think of nothing else, and to neglect the ordinary avocations of life. As the King appointed nineteen in six months, to be held in various places throughout the kingdom, it cannot be said that he defrauded his subjects of their sports; and he himself set the example of the extravagant and fanciful dressing which called forth so much adverse criticism from the more sober minded, appearing at the jousts in all manner of wonderful apparel, one of his dresses being described as "a harness of white buckram inlaid with silver — namely, a tunic, and a shield with the motto:
'Hay, hay, the wythe swan! By Goddes soul I am thy man;'
whilst he gave away on that occasion five hoods of long white cloth worked with blue men dancing, and two white velvet harnesses worked with blue garters and diapered throughout with wild men."
Women disgraced themselves by going about in men's attire and behaving themselves in many unseemly fashions. The ecclesiastics, too, often fell into the prevailing vices of extravagance and pleasure seeking that at this juncture characterized the whole nation, and, as Father Paul had said to Raymond, disgraced their calling by so doing far more than others who had never professed a higher code. Amongst the graver and more austere men of the day heads were gravely shaken over the wild burst of enthusiasm and extravagance, and there were not wanting those who declared that the nation was calling down upon itself some terrible judgment of God — such a judgment as so often follows upon a season of unwonted and sudden prosperity.
As for the twin brothers, they spent these months in diverse fashion, each carrying out his own tastes and preferences. Gaston attached himself to Sir James Audley once again, and travelled with him into Scotland, where the knight frequently went upon the King's business. When in or about the Court, he threw himself into the jousting and sports with the greatest enthusiasm and delight, quickly excelling so well in each and every contest that he made a name and reputation for himself even amongst the chosen flower of the English nobility. Real fighting was, however, more to his taste than mock contests, and he was always glad to accompany his master upon his journeys, which were not unfrequently attended by considerable peril, as the unsettled state of the Border counties, and the fierce and sometimes treacherous nature of the inhabitants, made travelling there upon the King's business a matter of some difficulty and danger. There was no fear of Gaston's growing effeminate or turning into a mere pleasure hunter; and he soon made himself of great value to his master, not only by his undaunted bravery, but by his success in diplomatic negotiation — a success by no means expected by himself, and a surprise to all about him.
Perhaps the frank, free bearing of the youth, his perfect fearlessness, and his remarkably quick and keen intelligence, helped him when he had any delicate mission entrusted to him. Then, too, the hardy and independent nature of the Scots was not altogether unlike that of the free-born Gascon peasant of the Pyrenean portion of the south of France; so that he understood and sympathized with them better, perhaps, than an average Englishman could have done.
A useful life is always a happy one, and the successful exercise of talents of whose very existence we were unaware is in itself a source of great satisfaction. Gaston, as he grew in years, now began to develop in mind more rapidly than he had hitherto done, and though separated for the most part from his brother, was seldom many months without meeting him for at least a few days.
Raymond was spending the time with his old friend and comrade and cousin, John de Brocas. It had become evident to all who knew him that John was not long for this world. He might linger on still some few years, but the insidious disease we now call consumption had firm hold upon him, and he was plainly marked as one who would not live to make any name in the world. He showed no disposition to seclude himself from his kind by entering upon the monastic life, and his father had recently bestowed upon him a small property which he had purchased near Guildford, the air and dryness of which place had always been beneficial to him.
This modest but pleasant residence, with the revenues attached, kept John in ease and comfort. He had spent the greater part of his income the year previous in the purchase of books, and his uncle's library was always at his disposal. He had many friends in and about the place; and his life, though a little lonely, was a very happy one — just the life of quietness and study that he loved better than any other.
When his cousin Raymond came home from the wars without any very definite ideas as to his own immediate career in the future, it had occurred to John that if he could secure the companionship of this cousin for the coming winter it would be a great boon to himself; and the suggestion had been hailed with pleasure by the youth.
Raymond would gladly have remained with the King had there been any fighting in the cause of his country to be done; but the round of feasting and revelry which now appeared to be the order of the day had no charms for him. After breaking a lance or two at Windsor, and seeing what Court life was in times of triumphant peace, he wearied of the scene, and longed for a life of greater purpose. Hearing where his cousin John was located, he had quickly ridden across to pay him a visit; and that visit had lasted from the previous October till now, when the full beauty of a glorious English summer had clothed the world in green, and the green was just tarnishing slightly in the heat of a glaring August.
As Raymond had seen something of the fashion in which the world was wagging, his thoughts had ofttimes recurred to Father Paul and that solemn warning he had uttered. He had spoken of it to John, and both had mused upon it, wondering if indeed something of prophetic fire dwelt within that strong, spare frame — whether indeed, through his austerities and fasts, the monk had so reduced the body that the things of the spiritual world were revealed to him, and the future lay spread before his eyes.
At first both the cousins had thought week by week to hear some news of a terrible visitation; but day had followed day, and months had rolled by, and still the country was holding high revel without a thought or a fear for the future. So gradually the two studious youths had ceased to speak of the visitation they had once confidently looked for, and they gave themselves up with the zest of pure enjoyment to their studies and the pursuit of learning. Raymond's spiritual nature was deepened and strengthened by his perusal of such sacred and devotional lore as he could lay hands upon; and though the Scriptures, as they were presented to him, were not without many errors and imperfections and omissions, he yet obtained a clearer insight into many of the prophetical writings, and a fuller grasp of God's purposes towards man, than he had ever dreamed of before. So that though strongly tinged with the mysticism and even with the superstition of the times, his spiritual growth was great, and the youth felt within him a spring of power unknown before which was in itself a source of exaltation and power.
And there was another element of happiness in Raymond's life at this time which must not be omitted from mention. Seldom as he saw her — jealously as she was guarded by her father and brother, now returned from the war, and settled again at Woodcrych — he did nevertheless from time to time encounter Mistress Joan Vavasour, and each encounter was fraught with a new and increasing pleasure. He had never spoken a word of love to her; indeed he scarce yet knew that he had lost his heart in that fashion which so often leads to wedlock. He was only just beginning to realize that she was not many years older than himself — that she was not a star altogether beyond the firmament of his own sky. He had hitherto regarded her with one of those boyish adorations which are for the time being sufficient in themselves, and do not look ahead into the future; and then Raymond well knew that before he could for a moment dream of aspiring to the hand of the proud knight's daughter, he must himself have carved his way to moderate fortune and fame.
His dreams of late had concerned themselves little with his worldly estate, and therefore his deep reverential admiration for Joan had not developed into anything of a definite purpose. If he dreamed dreams of the future in which she bore a part, it was only of laying at her feet such laurels as he should win, without thinking of asking a reward at her hands, unless it was the reward of being her own true knight, and rescuing her from the power of the Sanghursts, father and son, who appeared to have regained their old ascendency over Sir Hugh and his son, and to be looking forward still to the alliance between the two families.
Joan was of more than marriageable age. It was thought strange by many that the match was not yet consummated. But the quietly determined resistance on the part of the girl herself was not without some effect; and although there were many rumours afloat as to the boundless wealth of the ill-famed father and son, it was not yet an affair of absolute certainty that they were in possession of the secret of the transmutation of metals. So the match still hung fire, and Raymond received many bewitching smiles from the lady on the rare occasions when they met; and he thought nothing of the threat of Peter Sanghurst, being endowed with that fearless courage which does not brood upon possible perils, but faces real ones with quiet resolution.
John was sitting over his books in the pleasant western window one evening at the close of a hot September day, when he heard a quick footstep crossing the anteroom, and Raymond came in with a strange look upon his face.
"John," he said, before his cousin could ask a single question, "it has come at last!"
"What has come?"
"The visitation — the sickness — the scourge of God. I knew that Father Paul was looking into the future when he pronounced the doom upon this land. It has come; it is amongst us now!"
"Not here — not in this very place! We must have heard something of it had it been so nigh."
"It has not yet reached this town," answered Raymond, the same strange light shining in his eyes that John had observed there from his entrance. "Listen, and I will tell thee all I myself know. Thou knowest that I have been to Windsor, to meet my brother who is there. Him I found well and happy, brave as ever, knowing naught of this curse and scourge. But even as we talked together, there came a messenger from London in hot haste to see thy father, good John. He had been straight despatched by the King with a message of dire warning. A terrible sickness, which already men are calling by the name of Black Death, has broken out in the south and west of the land, and seems creeping eastward with these hot west winds that steadily blow. It attacks not only men, but beasts and cattle — that is, it seems to be accompanied by a plague something similar in nature which attacks the beasts. Word has been passed on by the monks of what is happening far away, and already a great terror has seized upon many, and some are for flying the country, others for shutting themselves up in their houses and keeping great fires burning around them. The message to thy father was to have a care for the horses, and to buy no new ones that might by chance carry the seeds of the sickness within them. Men say that the people of London are very confident that they can keep the sickness away from entering their walls, by maintaining a careful guard upon the city gates. At Windsor, I left the town in a mighty fear, folks looking already askance at each other, as if afraid they were smitten with the deadly disease. The news of its appearance is passing from mouth to mouth faster than a horseman could spread the tidings. It had outridden me hither, and I thought perchance thou mightest have heard it ere I reached home."
"Nay, I have heard naught; but I would fain hear more now."
"I know little but what I have already told thee," answered Raymond. "Indeed, it is but little that there is to know at present. The disease seems to me somewhat to resemble that described by Lucretius as visiting Athens. Men sometimes suddenly fall down dead; or they are seized with violent shiverings, their hair bristling upon their heads. Sometimes it is like a consuming fire within, and they run raving mad to the nearest water, falling in perchance, and perishing by drowning, leaving their carcases to pollute the spring. But if it do not carry off the stricken person for some hours or days, black swellings are seen upon their bodies like huge black boils, and death follows rapidly, the victim often expiring in great agony. I have heard that the throat and lungs often become inflamed before the Black Death seizes its victim, and that in districts where the scourge has reached, any persons who appear to have about them even a common rheum are cast forth from their homes even by those nearest and dearest, for fear they are victims to the terrible scourge."
"Misfortune makes men cruel if it do not bind them closer together. Raymond, I see a purpose in thy face — a purpose of which I would know the meaning. That light in thine eyes is not for nothing. Tell me all that is in thine heart. Methinks I divine it somewhat already."
"Belike thou dost, good John," answered Raymond, speaking very calmly and steadily, "for thou knowest the charge laid upon me by my spiritual Father. 'Fear not, be not dismayed. A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.' Such was the burden of his charge; and shall I shrink or falter when the hour I have waited and watched for all these years has come like a thief in the night? Good John, thou wast the first to teach me that there was a truer, deeper chivalry than that of the tourney or the battlefield. Thou wast the first to understand, and to make me understand, that the highest chivalry was that of our Lord Himself, when He laid down His life for sinners, and prayed for His enemies who pierced and nailed Him to the Cross. His words are ever words of mercy. Were He here with us today upon earth, where should we find Him now? Surely where the peril was greatest, where the need sorest, where the darkness, the terror, the distress blackest. And where He would be, were He with us here, is the place where those who would follow Him most faithfully should be found. Not all perchance; there be claims of kindred, ties of love that no man may lightly disregard: But none such ties bind me. I have but my brother to love, and he is out in the world — he needs me not. I am free to go where the voice within calls me; and I go forth to-morrow."
"And whither goest thou?" asked John, in a low, awestruck tone.
"I go to Father Paul," answered Raymond, without hesitation, as one who has thought the matter well out beforehand. "Wherever the need is sorest, the peril greatest, there will Father Paul be found. And the Brotherhood stands in the heart of the smitten regions; wherefore at his very doors the sick will be lying, untended perchance and unassoiled, save in those places whither he can go. I fare forth at sunrising tomorrow, to seek and to find him. He will give me work, he will let me toil beside him; better than that I ask not."
John had risen from his seat. An answering light had sprung to his eyes as he had heard and watched Raymond. Now he laid his hand upon his cousin's arm, and said quietly:
"Go, then, in the name of the Lord; I too go with thee."
Raymond turned his head and looked full at his cousin, marking the thin, sunken lines of the face, the stooping pose of the shoulders, the hectic flush that came and went upon the hollow cheek; and seeing this and knowing what it betokened, he linked his arm within John's and commenced walking up and down the room with him, as though inaction were impossible at such a moment. And as he walked he talked.
"Good John," he said, "I would fain have thee with me; but I well know thou hast no strength for the task thou hast set thyself. Even the long day's ride would weary thy frame so sorely that thou wouldst fall an easy victim to the sickness ere thou hadst done aught to help another. Thou hast thy father, thy mother, and thy good uncle to think of. How sad would they be to hear whither thou hadst gone! And then, my cousin, it may well be that for thee there is other work, and work for which thou canst better prepare thyself here than in any other place. I have thought of thee as well as of myself as I have ridden homeward this day. Shall I tell thee what my thought — my dream of thee was like?"
"Ay, tell me; I would gladly hear."
"I saw in my spirit the advance of this terrible Black Death; I saw it come to this very place. Dead and dying, cast out of their homes by those who would neither bury the one nor tend the other, were left lying in the streets around, and a deadly fear was upon all the place. And then I saw a man step forth amongst these miserable wretches, and the man had thy face, dear cousin. And he came forward and said to those who were yet willing to touch the sick, 'Carry them into my house; I have a place made ready for them. Bring them to my house; there they will he tended and cared for.' And then I thought that I saw the bearers lift and carry the sick here to this house, and that there they were received by some devoted men and women who had not been driven away by the general terror, and there were clean and comfortable beds awaiting the sick, and great fires of aromatic herbs burning upon the hearths to keep away the fumes of the pestilence from the watchers. And as the wretched and stricken creatures found themselves in this fair haven, they blessed him who had had this care for them; and those who died, died in comfort, shriven and assoiled by holy priests, whilst some amongst the number were saved, and saved through the act of him who had found them this safe refuge."
Raymond ceased speaking, and looked out over the fair landscape commanded by the oriel window of the room in which they were standing; and John's pale face suddenly kindled and glowed. The same spirit of self-sacrifice animated them both; but the elder of the pair realized, when it was put before him, how little he was fit for the work which the younger had set himself to do, whilst he had the means as well as the disposition to perform an act of mercy which in the end might be a greater boon to many than any service he could offer now. And if he did this thing — if he turned his house into a house of mercy for the sick of the plague — he would then have his own opportunity to tend and care for the sufferers.
Only one thought for a moment hindered him from giving an answer. He looked at Raymond, and said:
"Thinkest thou that this sickness will surely come this way?"
"In very truth I believe that it will ravage the land from end to end. I know that Father Paul looked to see the whole country swept by the scourge of God. Fear not but that thy work will find thee here. Thou wilt not have to wait long, methinks. Thou wilt but have fair time to make ready all that thou wilt need — beds, medicaments, aromatic wood, and perfumes — and gather round thee a few faithful, trusty souls who will not fly at the approach of danger. It may be no easy task to find these, yet methinks they will be found here and there; for where God sends His scourges upon His earth, He raises up pious men and women too, to tend the sufferers and prove to the world that He has still amongst the gay and worldly His own children, His own followers, who will follow wherever He leads."
John's mind was quickly made up.
"I will remain behind and do this thing," he said. "Perchance thou and I will yet work together in this very place amongst the sick and dying."
"I well believe it," answered Raymond, with one of his far-away looks; and the cousins stood together looking out over the green world bathed in the light of sunset, wondering how and when they would meet again, but both strangely possessed with perfect confidence that they would so meet.
Then Raymond went to make his simple preparations for the morrow's ride. He had intended travelling quite alone, and chancing the perils of the road, which, however, in these times of peace and rejoicing, were not very great; for freebooters seldom disturbed travellers by day, save perhaps in very lonely forest roads. But when Roger, the woodman's son, heard whither his master's steps were bent, and upon what errand he was going, he fell at his feet in one of his wild passions of devotional excitement, and begged to be allowed to follow him even to the death.
"It may well be to the death, good Roger," answered Raymond gravely. "Men say that death is certain for those who take the breath of the smitten persons; and such as go amongst them go at the risk of their lives. I do not bid thee follow me — I well believe the peril is great; but if thou willest to do this thing, I dare not say thee nay, for methinks it is a work of God, and may well win His approval."
"I will go," answered Roger, without the slightest hesitation. "Do I not owe all — my body and soul alike — to you and Father Paul? Where you go, there will I go with you. What you fear not to face, I fear not either. For life or for death I am yours; and if the Holy Saints and the Blessed Virgin will but give me strength to fight and to conquer this fell foe, I trow they will do it because that thou art half a saint thyself, and they will know that I go to be with thee, to watch over thee, and perchance, by my service and my prayers, guard thee in some sort from ill."
Raymond smiled and held out his hand to his faithful servant. In times of common peril men's hearts are very closely knit together. The bond between the two youths seemed suddenly to take a new form; and when they rode forth at sunrise on the morrow, with John waving an adieu to them and watching their departure with a strange look of settled purpose on his face, it was no longer as master and servant that they rode, but as friends and comrades going forth to meet a deadly peril together.
It seemed strange, as they rode along in the bright freshness of a clear September morning, to realize that any scenes of horror and death could be enacting themselves upon this fair earth not very many miles away. Yet as they rode ever onwards and drew near to the infected districts, the sunshine became obscured by a thick haze, the fresh wind which had hitherto blown in their faces dropped, and the air was still with a deadly stillness new to both of them — a stillness which was oppressive and which weighed upon their spirits like lead. The first intimation they had of the pestilence itself was the sight of the carcasses of several beasts lying dead in their pasture, and, what was more terrible still, the body of a man lying beside them, as though he had dropped dead as he came to drive them into shelter.
Raymond looked at the little group with an involuntary shudder, and Roger crossed himself and muttered a prayer. But they did not turn out of their way; they were now nearing the gates of the Monastery, and it was of Father Paul that Raymond's thoughts were full. Plainly enough he was in the heart of the peril. How had it gone with him since the sickness had appeared here?
That question was answered the moment the travellers appeared within sight of the well-known walls. They saw a sight that lived in their memories for many a day to come.
Instead of the calm and solitude which generally reigned in this place, a great crowd was to be seen around the gate, but such a crowd as the youths had never dreamed of before. Wretched, plague-stricken people, turned from their own doors and abandoned by their kindred, had dragged themselves from all parts to the doors of the Monastery, in the hope that the pious Brothers would give them help and a corner to die in peace. And that they were not disappointed in this hope was well seen: for as Raymond and his companion appeared, they saw that one after another of these wretched beings was carried within the precincts of the Monastery by the Brothers; whilst amongst those who lay outside waiting their turn for admission, or too far gone to be moved again, a tall thin form moved fearlessly, bending over the dying sufferers and hearing their last confessions, giving priestly absolution, or soothing with strong and tender hands the last agonies of some stricken creature.
Raymond, with a strange, tense look upon his face, went straight to the Father where he stood amongst the dying and the dead, and just as he reached his side the Monk stood suddenly up and looked straight at him. His austere face did not relax, but in his eyes shone a light that looked like triumph.
"It is well, my son," he said. "I knew that thou wouldest be here anon. The soldier of the Cross is ever found at his post in such a time as this."
CHAPTER XVIII. WITH FATHER PAUL.
All that evening and far into the night Raymond worked with the Brothers under Father Paul, bringing in the sick, burying the dead, and tending all those for whom anything could be done to mitigate their sufferings, or bring peace either of body or mind.
By nightfall the ghastly assemblage about the Monastery doors had disappeared. The living were lying in rows in the narrow beds, or upon the straw pallets of the Brothers, filling dormitories and Refectory alike; the dead had been laid side by side in a deep trench which had been hastily dug by order of Father Paul; and after he had read over them the burial service, earth and lime had been heaped upon the bodies, and one end of the long trench filled in. Before morning there were a score more corpses to carry forth, and out of the thirty and odd stricken souls who lay within the walls, probably scarce ten would recover from the malady.
But no more of the sick appeared round and about the Monastery gates as they had been doing for the past three days; and when Raymond asked why this was so, Father Paul looked into his face with a keen, searching glance as he replied:
"Verily, my son, it is because there be no more to come — no more who have strength to drag themselves out hither. Tomorrow I go forth to visit the villages where the sick be dying like beasts in the shambles. I go to shrive and confess the sick, to administer the last rites to the dying, to read the prayers of the Church over those who are being carried to the great common grave. God alone knows whether even now the living may suffice to bury the dead. But where the need is sorest, there must His faithful servants be found."
Raymond looked back with a face full of resolute purpose.
"Father, take me with thee," he said.
Father Paul looked earnestly into that fair young face, that was growing so intensely spiritual in its expression, and asked one question.
"My son, and if it should be going to thy death?"
"I will go with thee, Father Paul, be it for life or for death."
"God bless and protect thee, my son!" said the Father. "I verily believe that thou art one over whom the Blessed Saints and the Holy Angels keep watch and ward, and that thou wilt pass unscathed even through this time of desolation and death."
Raymond had bent his knee to receive the Father's blessing, and when he rose he saw that Roger was close behind him, likewise kneeling; and reading the thought in his mind, he said to the Father:
"Wilt thou not give him thy blessing also? for I know that he too will go with us and face the peril, be it for life or death."
Father Paul laid his hand upon the head of the second lad.
"May God's blessing rest also upon thee, my son," he said. "In days past thou hast been used as an instrument of evil, and hast been forced to do the devil's own work. Now God, in His mercy, has given thee work to do for Him, whereby thou mayest in some sort make atonement for the past, and show by thy faith and piety that thou art no longer a bondservant unto sin."
Then turning to both the youths as they stood before him, the Father added, in a different and less solemn tone:
"And since your purpose is to go forth with me tomorrow, you must now take some of that rest without which youthful frames cannot long dispense. Since early dawn you have been travelling and working at tasks of a nature to which you are little used. Come with me, therefore, and pass the remaining hours of the night in sleep. I will arouse you for our office of early mass, and then we will forth together. Till then sleep fearlessly and well. Sleep will best fit you for what you will see and hear tomorrow."
So saying, the Father led them into a narrow cell where a couple of pallet beds had been placed, and where some slices of brown bread and a pitcher of spring water were likewise standing.
"Our fare is plain, but it is wholesome. Eat and drink, my sons, and sleep in peace. Wake not nor rise until I come to you again."
The lads were indeed tired enough, though they had scarcely known it in the strange excitement of the journey, and amid the terrible scenes of death and sickness which they had witnessed around and about the Monastery doors since their arrival there. Now, however, that they had received the command to rest and sleep (and to gainsay the Father's commands was a thing that would never have entered their minds), they were willing enough to obey, and had hardly laid themselves down before they fell into a deep slumber, from which neither awoke until the light of day had long been shining upon the world, and the Father stood beside them bidding them rise and follow him.
In a few minutes their simple toilet and ablutions had been performed, and they made their way along the familiar passage to the chapel, from whence a low sound of chanting began to arise. There were not many of the Brothers present at the early service, most of them being engaged in tending the plague-stricken guests beneath their roof. But the Father was performing the office of the mass, and when he had himself partaken of the Sacrament, he signed to the two boys, who were about to go forth with him into scenes of greater peril than any they had witnessed heretofore, to come and receive it likewise.
The service over, and some simple refreshment partaken of, the youths prepared for their day's toil, scarce knowing what they would be like to see, but resolved to follow Father Paul wherever he went, anxious only to accomplish successfully such work as he should find for them to do.
Each had a certain burden to carry with him — some of the cordials that had been found to give most relief in cases of utter collapse and exhaustion, a few simple medicaments and outward applications thought to be of some use in allaying the pain of those terrible black swellings from which the sickness took its significant name, and some simply-prepared food for the sufferers, who were often like to perish from inanition even before the plague had done its worst. For stricken persons, or those supposed to be stricken, were often turned out of their homes even by their nearest relatives, and forced to wander about homeless and starving, none taking pity upon their misery, until the poison in their blood did its fatal work, and they dropped down to die.
That loosening of the bands of nature and affection in times of deadly sickness has always been one of the most terrible features of the outbreaks of the plague when it has visited either this or other lands. There are some forms of peril that bind men closer and closer together, and that bring into bond of friendship even those who have been before estranged; and terrible though these perils may be, there is always a deep sense of underlying consolation in the closer drawing of the bond of brotherhood. But when the scourge of deadly sickness has passed over the land, the effect has almost always been to slacken this tie; the inherent love of life, natural to human beings, turning to an almost incredible selfishness, and inducing men to abandon their nearest and dearest in the hour of peril, leaving them, if stricken, to die alone, or turning them, sick to death though they might be, away from their doors, to perish untended and without shelter. True, there were many bright exceptions to such a code of barbarity, and devoted men and women arose by the score to strive to ameliorate the condition of the sufferers; but for all that, one of the most terrible features of the period of death and desolation was that of the fearful panic it everywhere produced, and the inhuman neglect and cruelty with which the early sufferers were treated by the very persons who, perhaps only a few days or even hours later, had themselves caught the contagion, and were lying dead or dying in the homes from which they had ejected their own kith and kin before.
Of the fearful havoc wrought in England by this scourge of the Black Death many readers of history are scarcely aware. Whole districts were actually and entirely depopulated, not a living creature of any kind being left sometimes within a radius of many miles; and at the lowest computation made by historians, it is believed that not less than one-half of the entire population perished during the outbreak.
But of anything like the magnitude of such a calamity no person at this time had any conception, and little indeed was Raymond prepared for the sights that he was this day to look upon.
The Father and his two assistants went forth after they had partaken of food, and turned their faces westward.
"There is a small village two miles hence that we will visit first," said the Father, "for the poor people have no pastor or any other person to care for their bodies or souls, and I trow we shall find work to do there. If time permits when we have done what we may there, we will pass on to the little town round the church of St. Michael, whose spire you see yonder on the hillside. Many of the stricken folks within our walls came from thence. The sickness is raging there, and there may be few helpers left by now."
The same sultry haze the travellers had noticed in the infected regions was still hanging over the woods today as they sallied forth; and though the sun was shining in the sky, its beams were thick and blood-red instead of being clear and bright, and there was an oppression in the air which caused the birds to cease their song, and lay on the spirit like a dead weight.
"The curse of God upon the land — the curse of God!" said the Father, in a low, solemn tone, as he led the way, bearing in his hands the Holy Sacrament with which to console the dying. "Men have long been forgetting Him. But He will not alway be forgotten. He will arise in judgment and show men the error of their ways. If in their prosperity they will not remember Him, He will call Himself to their remembrance by a terrible day of adversity. And who may stand before the Lord? Who may abide the day of His visitation?"
Moving along with these and like solemn words of warning and admonition, to which his followers paid all reverent heed, the woodland path was quickly traversed, and the clearing reached which showed the near approach to the village. There was a break in the forest at this point, and some excellent pasture land and arable fields had tempted two farmers to establish themselves here, a small hamlet growing quickly up around the farmsteads. This small community supplied the Brothers with some of the necessaries of life, and every soul there was known to the Father. Some dozen persons had come to the Monastery gates during the past two days, stricken and destitute, and had been taken in there. But all these had died and no others had followed, and Father Paul was naturally anxious to know how it fared with those left behind.
Raymond and Roger both knew the villagers well. The two years spent within the walls of the Brotherhood had made them fully acquainted with the people round about. The little hamlet was a pretty spot: a number of low thatched cottages nestled together beside the stream that watered the meadows, whilst the larger farmsteads, which, however, were only modest dwelling houses with their barns and sheds forming a background to them, stood a little farther back upon a slightly-rising ground, sheltered from the colder winds by a spur of the forest.
Generally one was aware, in approaching the place, of the pleasant homely sounds of life connected with farming. Today, with the golden grain all ready for the reaper's hand, one looked to hear the sound of the sickle in the corn, and the voices of the labourers calling to each other, or singing some rustic harvest song over their task. But instead of that a deadly and death-like silence prevailed; and Raymond, who had quickened his steps as he neared the familiar spot, now involuntarily paused and hung back, as if half afraid of what he would be forced to look upon when once the last turning was passed.
But Father Paul moved steadily on, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left. There was no hesitation or faltering in his step, and the two youths pressed after him, ashamed of their moment's backwardness. The sun had managed to pierce through the haze, and was shining now with some of its wonted brilliancy. As Raymond turned the corner and saw before him the whole of the little hamlet, he almost wished the sun had ceased to shine, the contrast between the beauty and brightness of nature and the scene upon which it looked being almost too fearful for endurance.
Lying beside the river bank, in every attitude and contortion of the death agony, were some dozen prostrate forms of men, women, and children, all dead and still. It seemed as though they must have crawled forth from the houses when the terrible fever thirst was upon them, and dragging themselves down to the water's edge, had perished there. And yet if all were dead, as indeed there could be small doubt from their perfect stillness and rigidity, why did none come forth to bury them? Already the warm air was tainted and oppressive with that plague-stricken odour so unspeakably deadly to the living. Why did not the survivors come forth from their homes and bury the dead out of their sight? Had all fled and left them to their fate?
Father Paul walked calmly onwards, his eyes taking in every detail of the scene.
As he reached the dead around the margin of the stream, he paused and looked upon the faces he had known so well in life, then turning to his two followers, he said:
"I trow these be all dead corpses, but I will examine each if there be any spark of life remaining. Go ye into the houses, and if there be any sound persons within, bid them, in the name of humanity and their own safety, come forth and help to bury their brethren. If they are suffered to lie here longer, every soul in this place will perish!"
Glad enough to turn his eyes from the terrible sight without, Raymond hurried past to the cluster of dwelling places beyond, and entering the first of these himself, signed to Roger to go into the second. He had some slight difficulty in pushing open the door, not because it was fastened, but owing to some encumbrance behind. When, however, he succeeded in forcing his way in, he found that the encumbrance was nothing more or less than the body of a woman lying dead along the floor of the tiny room. Upon a bed in the corner two children were lying, smiling as if in sleep, but both stiff and cold, the livid tokens of the terrible malady visible upon their little bodies, though the end seemed to have been painless. No other person was in the house, and Raymond, drawing a covering over the children as they lay, turned from the house again with a shudder of compassionate sorrow. Outside he met Roger coming forth with a look of awe upon his face.
"There be five souls within you door," he said — "an old woman, her two sons and two daughters. But they are all dead and cold. I misdoubt me if we find one alive in the place."
"We must try farther and see," answered Raymond, his face full of the wondering consternation of so terrible a discovery; and by mutual consent they proceeded in their task together. There was something so unspeakably awful in going about alone in a veritable city of the dead.
And such indeed might this place be called. Roger was fearfully right in his prediction. Each house entered showed its number of victims to the destroyer, but not one of these victims was living to receive comfort or help from the ministrations of those who had come amongst them. And not man alone had suffered; upon the dumb beasts too had the scourge fallen: for when Roger suddenly bethought him that the creatures would want tendance in the absence of their owners, and had gone to the sheds to seek for them, nothing but death met his eye on all sides. Some in their stalls, some in the open fields, some, like their masters, beside the stream, lay the poor beasts all stone dead.
It seemed as if the scourge had fallen with peculiar virulence upon this little hamlet, in the warm cup-like hollow where it lay, and had smitten it root and branch. Possibly the waters of the stream had been poisoned higher up, and the deadly malaria had reached it in that way; possibly some condition of the atmosphere predisposed living things to take the infection. But be the cause what it might, there was no gainsaying the fact. Not a living or breathing thing remained in the hamlet; and little as Raymond knew it, such wholesale destruction was only too common throughout the length and breadth of England. But such a revelation coming upon him suddenly, brought before his very eyes when he had come with the desire to help and tend the living, filled him with an awe that was almost terror, although the terror was not for himself. Personally he had no fear; he had given himself to this work, and he would hold to it be the result what it might. But the thought of the scourge sweeping down upon a peaceful hamlet, and carrying off in a few short days every breathing thing within its limits, was indeed both terrible and pitiful. He could picture only too vividly the terror, the anguish, the agony of the poor helpless people, and longed, not to escape from such scenes, but rather to go forward to other places ere the work of destruction had been accomplished, and be with the sick when the last call came. If he had been but two days earlier in coming forward, might he not have been in time to do a work of mercy and charity even here?
But it was useless musing thus. To act, and not to think, was now the order of the day. He went slowly out from the yard they had last visited, his face as pale as death, but full of courage and high purpose.
"There is nothing living here," he said, as he reached the Father, who had not left the side of the dead. "We have been into all the houses, we have looked everywhere, but there is nothing but dead corpses: man and beast have perished alike. Nothing that breathes is left alive."
The Father looked round upon the scene of smiling desolation — the sunny harvest fields, the laughing brook, the broad meadows — and the ghastly rows of plague-stricken corpses at his feet, and a stern, sad change passed across his face.
"It is the hand of the Lord," he said, "and perchance He smites in mercy as well as in wrath, delivering men from the evil to come. Let us arise and go hence. Our work is for the living and not the dead."
For those three to have attempted to bury all that hamlet would have been an absolute impossibility. Dreadful as was the thought of turning away and leaving the place as it was, it was hopeless to do otherwise, and possibly in the town men might be found able and willing to come out and inter the corpses in one common grave.
With hearts full of awe, the two lads followed their conductor. He had been through similar scenes in other lands. To him there was nothing new in sights such as this. Even the sense of personal peril, little as he had ever regarded it, had long since passed away. But it was something altogether new to Raymond and his companion; and though they had seen death in many terrible forms upon the battlefield, it had never inspired the same feelings of horror and awe. It was impossible to forget that they might at any moment be breathing into their lungs the same deadly poison which was carrying off multitudes on every side, and although there was no conscious fear for themselves in the thought, it could not but fill them with a quickened perception of the uncertainty of life and the unreality of things terrestrial.
In perfect silence the walk towards the little town was accomplished; and as they neared it terrible sights began to reveal themselves even along the roadside. Plainly indeed to be seen were evidences of attempted flight from the plague-stricken place; and no doubt many had made good their escape, but others had fallen down by the wayside in a dying state, and these dead or dying sufferers were the first tokens observed by the travellers of the condition of the town.
Not all were dead, though most were plainly hopeless cases. Raymond and Roger had both learned something during the hours of the previous night, when they had helped the good Brothers over their tasks; and they fearlessly knelt beside the poor creatures, moistening their parched lips, answering their feeble, moaning plaints, and summoning to the side of the dying the Father, who could hear the feeble confession of sin, and pronounce the longed-for absolution to the departing soul.
Passing still onwards — for they could not linger long, and little enough could be done for these dying sufferers, all past hope — they reached the streets of the town itself; and the first sight which greeted their eyes was the figure of a man stripped naked to the waist, his back bleeding from the blows he kept on inflicting upon himself with the thick, knotted cord he held in his hands, a heavy and rough piece of iron being affixed to the end to make the blows more severe. From the waist downwards he was clothed with sackcloth, and as he rushed about the streets shrieking and castigating himself, he called aloud on the people to repent of their sins, and to flee from the wrath of God that was falling upon the whole nation.
Yet, though many dead and dying were lying in the streets about him, and though cries and groans from many houses told that the destroyer was at work there, this Flagellant (as these maniacs, of which at that time there were only too many abroad, were called) never attempted to touch one of them, though he ran almost over their prostrate bodies, and had apparently no fear of the contagion. There were very few people abroad in the streets, and such as were sound kept their faces covered with cloths steeped in vinegar or some other pungent mixture, and walked gingerly in the middle of the road, as if afraid to approach either the houses on each side or the other persons walking in the streets.
A cart was going about, with two evil-looking men in it, who lifted in such of the dead as they found lying by the roadside, and coolly divested them of anything of any value which they chanced to have upon them before conveying them to the great pit just outside which had been dug to receive the victims of the plague.
A wild panic had seized upon the place. Most of the influential inhabitants had fled. There was no rule or order or oversight observed, and the priest of the church, who until this day had kept a certain watch over his flock, and had gone about encouraging and cheering the people, had himself been stricken down with the fell malady, and no one knew whether he were now living or dead.