As the Father passed by, people rushed out from many doors to implore him to come to this house or the other, to administer the last rites to some one dying within. There were other houses marked with a red cross on the doors, which had been for many days closed by the town authorities, until these had themselves fled, being assured that no person could live in that polluted air. What had become of the wretched beings thus shut up, when the watchers who were told off to guard them had fled in terror, it was hard to imagine; and whilst the Father responded to the calls of those who required spiritual assistance at the last dread hour, Raymond beckoned to Roger to follow him in his visitation to those places where the distemper had first showed itself, and where people had hoped to confine it by closing the houses and letting none go forth.
The terribly deadly nature of the malady was well exemplified by the condition of these houses. Scarce ten living souls were found in them, and of these almost all were reduced to the last extremity either by disease or hunger; for none had been nigh them, and they had no strength to try to make their wants known.
Raymond had the satisfaction of seeing some amongst these wretched beings revive somewhat under his ministrations. It was not in every case the real distemper from which they suffered; in not a few the patients had sunk only from fright and the misery of feeling themselves shut away from their fellows. Whenever any persons ailed anything in those days, it was at once supposed that the Black Death was upon them, and they were shunned and abhorred by all their friends and kindred. To these poor creatures it seemed indeed as though an angel from heaven had come down when Raymond bent over them and put food and drink to their lips. Many an office of loving mercy to the sick and dying did he and Roger perform ere daylight faded from the sky; and before night actually fell, the Father had by precept and example got together a band of helpers ready and willing to tend the sick and bury the dead, and the people felt that the terrible panic which had fallen upon them, and caused every one to flee away, had given place to something better and more humane.
Men who had fled their stricken homes and had spent their time carousing in the taverns, trying to drown their fears and their griefs, now returned home to see how it fared with those who had been left behind. Women who had been almost distracted by grief, and had been rushing into the church sobbing and crying, and neglecting the sick, that they might pour out their hearts at the shrine of their favourite saint, were admonished by the Holy Father, so well known to them, to return to their homes and their duties. As the pall of night fell over the stricken city, and the three who had entered it a few hours before still toiled on without cessation, people breathed blessings on them wherever they appeared, and Raymond felt that his work for the Lord in the midst of His stricken people had indeed begun.
CHAPTER XIX. THE STRICKEN SORCERER.
"Thou to Guildford then, my son, and I and the Brethren to London."
So said Father Paul some three weeks later, as he stood once again inside the precincts of the Monastery, with Raymond by his side, looking round the thinned circle of faces of such of the Brothers as had survived the terrible visitation which had passed over them, and now gone, as it seemed, elsewhere. Quite one-half of the inhabitants of that small retreat had fallen victims to the scourge. Scarce ten souls out of all those who had sought shelter within those walls had risen from their beds and gone forth to their desolated homes again. The great trench in the burying ground had received the rest; and of the Brothers who gathered round Father Paul to welcome him back, several showed, by their pinched and stricken appearance, how near they themselves had been to the gates of death.
Few stricken by the fatal sickness itself ever recovered; but there were many others who, falling ill of overwork or some other feverish ailment, were accounted to have caught the distemper, and many of these did amend, though all sickness at such a time seemed to get a firmer hold upon its victims. But Father Paul and both his young assistants had escaped unscathed, though they had been waging a hand-to-hand fight with the destroyer for three long weeks, that seemed years in the retrospect.
The Brothers came crowding round them as about those returned from the grave. Indeed, to them it did almost seem as though this was a resurrection from the dead; for they had long since given up all hope of seeing their beloved Superior and Father again in the flesh.
But the Father himself only accounted his work begun. Although the pestilence appeared to have passed from the immediate district, and such cases as occurred amid the few survivors of the visitation were by no means so fatal as they had been in the beginning, yet the sickness itself in its most virulent form was sweeping along northward and eastward, spreading death and desolation in its track; and Father Paul had but one purpose in his mind, which was to follow in the path of the destroyer, performing for the sufferers wherever he went the same offices of piety and mercy that he had been wont to undertake all these past days; and the Brothers, who had finished their labour of love within the walls of their home, and had grown fearless before the pestilence with that fearlessness which gradually comes to those who look long and steadily upon death, were not wanting in resolve to face it even in its most terrible shape.
So that they one and all vowed that they would go with Father Paul; and his steps were bound for the capital of the kingdom, where he knew that the need would be the sorest.
It seemed to the Brothers, who had long lived beneath his austere but wise and fatherly rule, that not only did he himself bear a charmed life, but that all who worked with him felt the shelter of that charm. Raymond and Roger had returned, having suffered no ill effects from the terrible sights and scenes through which they had passed. Though the country in these almost depopulated districts literally reeked with the pestilence, owing to the effluvia from the carcasses of men and beasts which lay rotting on the ground unburied, yet they had passed unscathed through all, and were ready to go forth again upon the same errand of mercy.
Raymond was much divided in mind as to his own course of action. Much as he longed to remain with Father Paul, whom he continued to revere with a loving admiration that savoured of worship, he yet had a great desire to know how it was faring with his cousin John. He could not but be very sure that the pestilence would not pass Guildford by, and he knew that John would go forth amongst the sick and dying, and bring them into his own house for tendance, even though his own life paid the forfeit. It was therefore with no small eagerness that he longed for news of him; and when he spoke of this to the Father, the latter at once advised that they should part company — he and such of the Brethren as were fit for the journey travelling on to London, whilst the two youths took the direct road to Guildford, to see how matters fared there.
"Ye are but striplings," said the Father kindly, "and though ye be willing and devoted, ye have not the strength of men, nor are ye such seasoned vessels. In London the scenes will be terrible to look upon. It may be that they would be more than ye could well brook. Go, then, to Guildford. They will need helpers there who know how best to wrestle with the foul distemper, and ye have both learned many lessons with me. I verily believe that your work lies there, as mine lies yonder. Go then, and the Lord be with you. It may be we shall meet again in this world, but if not, in that world beyond into which our Blessed Saviour has passed, that through His intercession, offered unceasingly for us, we too may obtain an entrance through the merits of His redeeming Blood."
Then blessing both the boys and embracing them with a tenderness new in one generally so reserved and austere, he sent them away, and they set their faces steadily whence they had come, not knowing what adventures they might meet upon the way.
This return journey was by no means so rapid as the ride hither had been. Both the horses they had then ridden had perished of the sickness, and as none others were to be found, and had they been obtainable might but have fallen down by the wayside to die, the youths travelled on foot. And they did not even take the most direct route, but turned aside to this place or the other, wherever they knew of the existence of human habitations; for wherever such places were, there might there be need for human help and sympathy. And not a few acts of mercy did the boys perform as they travelled slowly onwards through an almost depopulated region.
Time fails to tell of all they saw and heard as they thus journeyed; but they found ample employment for all their skill and energy. The lives of many little children, whose parents had died or fled, were saved by them, and the neglected little orphans left in the kindly care of some devoted Sisterhood, whose inmates gladly received them, fearless of the risk they might run by so doing.
Wandering so often out of their way, they scarce knew their exact whereabouts when darkness fell upon them on the third day of their journeying; but after walking still onwards for some time in what they judged to be the right direction, they presently saw a light in a cottage window, and knocking at the door, asked shelter for the night.
Travellers at such a time as this were regarded with no small suspicion, and the youths hardly looked to get any answer to their request; but rather to their surprise, the door was quickly opened, and Roger uttered a cry of recognition as he looked in the face of the master of the house.
It was no other, in fact, than the ranger with whom as a boy he had found a temporary home, from which home he had been taken in his father's absence and sold into the slavery of Basildene. The boy's cry of astonishment was echoed by the man when once he had made sure that his senses were not deceiving him, but that it was really little Roger, whom he had long believed to be dead; and both he and his companion were eagerly welcomed in and set down to a plentiful meal of bread and venison pasty, whilst the boy told his long and adventurous story as briefly as he could, Stephen listening with parted lips and staring eyes, as if to the recital of some miraculous narrative.
And in truth the tale was strange enough, told in its main aspects: the escape from Basildene, which to himself always partook of the nature of a miracle, the conflict with the powers of darkness in the Monastery, his adventures in France, and now his marvellous escape in the midst of the plague-stricken people whom he had tended and helped. The ranger, who had lost his own wife and children in the distemper, and had himself escaped, had lost all fear of the contagion —indeed he cared little whether he lived or died; and when he heard upon what errand the youths were bent, he declared he would gladly come with them, for the solitude of his cottage was so oppressive to him that he would have welcomed even a plague-stricken guest sooner than be left much longer with only his hounds and his own thoughts for company.
"If I cannot tend the sick, I can at least bury the dead," he said, drawing his horny hand across his eyes, remembering for whom he had but lately performed that last sad office. And Raymond, to whom this offer was addressed, accepted his company gladly, for he knew by recent experience how great was the need for helpers where the sick and the dead so far outnumbered the whole and sound.
He had gone off into a reverie as he sat by the peat fire, whilst Roger and the ranger continued talking together eagerly of many matters, and he heard little of what passed until roused by the name of Basildene spoken more than once, and he commanded his drowsy and wearied faculties to listen to what the ranger was saying.
"Yes, the Black Death has found its way in behind those walls, men say. The old sorcerer tried all his black arts to keep it out; but there came by one this morning who told me that the old man had been seized, and was lying without a soul to go near him. They have but two servants that have ever stayed with them in that vile place, and these both thought the old man's dealings with the devil would at least suffice to keep the scourge away, and felt themselves safer there than elsewhere. But the moment he was seized they both ran away and left him, and there they say he is lying still, untended and unwatched — if he be not dead by now. For as for the son, he had long since made his own preparations. He has shut himself up in a turret, with a plentiful supply of food; and he burns a great fire of scented wood and spices at the foot of the stairway, and another in the place he lives in, and never means to stir forth until the distemper has passed. One of the servants, before he fled, went to the stair foot and called to him to tell him that his father lay a-dying of the plague below; but he only laughed, and said it was time he went to the devil, who had been waiting so long for him; and the man rushed out of the house in affright at the sound of such terrible blasphemy and unnatural wickedness at a time like this."
Raymond's face took a new expression as he heard these words. The lassitude and weariness passed out of it, and a curious light crept into his eyes. Roger and the ranger continued to talk together of many things, but their silent companion still sat motionless beside the hearth. Over his face was stealing a look of purpose — such purpose as follows a struggle of the spirit over natural distaste and disgust.
When the ranger presently left them, to see what simple preparations he could make for their comfort during the night, he motioned to Roger to come nearer, and looking steadily at him, he said:
"Roger, I am going to Basildene tonight, to see what human skill may do for the old Sanghurst. He is our enemy — thine and mine — therefore doubly is it our duty to minister to him in the hour of his extremity. I go forth this night to seek him. Wilt thou go with me? or dost thou fear to fall again under the sway of his evil mind, or his son's, if thou puttest foot within the halls of Basildene again?"
For a moment a look of strong repulsion crossed Roger's face. He shrank back a little, and looked as though he would have implored his young master to reconsider his resolution. But something in the luminous glance of those clear bright eyes restrained him, and presently some of their lofty purpose seemed to be infused into his own soul.
"If thou goest, I too will go," he said. "At thy side no harm from the Evil One can come nigh me. Have I not proved that a hundred times ere now? And the spell has long been broken off my neck and off my spirit. I fear neither the sorcerer nor his son. If it be for us — if it be a call — to go even to him in the hour of his need, I will go without a thought of fear. I go in the name of the Holy Virgin and her Son. I need not fear what man can do against me."
Great was the astonishment of the worthy ranger when he returned to hear the purpose upon which his guests were bent; but he had already imbibed some of that strange reverential admiration for Raymond which he so frequently inspired in those about him, and it did not for a moment occur to him to attempt to dissuade him from an object upon which his mind was bent.
The October night, though dark and moonless, was clear, and the stars were shining in the sky as the little procession started forth. The ranger insisted on being one of the number. Partly from curiosity, partly from sheer hatred of solitude, and a good deal from interest in his companions and their errand of mercy, he had decided to come with them, not merely to show them the way to Basildene, which he could find equally well by night as by day, but to see the result of their journey there, and take on with him to Guildford the description of the old sorcerer's home and his seizure there.
As they moved along through the whispering wood, the man, in low and awe-stricken tones, asked Roger of his old life there, and what it was that made him of such value to the Sanghursts. Raymond had never talked to the lad of that chapter in his past life, always abiding by Father Paul's advice to let him forget it as far as possible.
Now, however, Roger seemed able to speak of it calmly, and without the terror and emotion that any recollection of that episode used to cause him in past years. He could talk now of the strange trances into which he was thrown, and how he was made to see things at a distance and tell all he saw. Generally it was travellers upon the road he was instructed to watch, and forced to describe the contents of the mails they carried with them. Some instinct made the boy many times struggle hard against revealing the nature of the valuables he saw that these people had about them, knowing well how they would be plundered by his rapacious masters, after they had tempted them upon the treacherous swamp not far from Basildene, where, if they escaped with their lives, it would be as much as they could hope to do. But the truth was always wrung from him by suffering at last — not that his body was in any way injured by them, save by the prolonged fasts inflicted upon him to intensify his gift of clairvoyance; but whilst in these trances they could make him believe that any sort of pain was being inflicted, and he suffered it exactly as though it had been actually done upon his bodily frame. Thus they forced from his reluctant lips every item of information they desired; and he knew when plunder was brought into the house, and stored in the deep underground cellars, how and whence it had come — knew, too, that many and many a wretched traveller had been overwhelmed in the swamp who might have escaped with life and goods but for him.
It was the horror of this conviction, and the firm belief that he had been bound over body and soul to Satan, that was killing him by inches when the twin brothers effected his rescue. He did not always remember clearly in his waking moments what had passed in his hours of trance, but the horror of great darkness always remained with him; and at some moments everything would come upon him with a fearful rush, and he would remain stupefied and overwhelmed with anguish.
To all of this Raymond listened with great interest. He and John had read of some such phenomena in their books relating to the history of magic; and little as the hypnotic state was understood in those days, the young student had gained some slight insight into the matter, and was able to speak of his convictions to Roger with some assurance. He told him that though he verily believed such power over the wills of others to be in some sort the work of the devil, it might yet be successfully withstood by a resolute will, bound over to the determination to yield nothing to the strong and evil wills of others. And Roger, who had long since fought his fight and gained strength and confidence, was not afraid of venturing into the stronghold of wickedness — less so than ever now that he might go at Raymond's side.
It was midnight before the lonely house was reached, and Raymond's heart beat high as he saw the outline of the old walls looming up against the gloomy sky. Not a light was to be seen burning in any of the windows, save a single gleam from out the turret at the corner away to the left; and though owls hooted round the place, and bats winged their uncertain flight, no other living thing was to be seen, and the silence of death seemed to brood over the house.
"This is the way to the door that is the only one used," said Stephen, "and we shall find it unlocked for certain, seeing that the servants have run away, and the young master will not go nigh his father, not though he were ten times dying. My lantern will guide us surely enough through the dark passages, and maybe young Roger will know where the old man is like to be found."
"Below stairs, I doubt not, amongst his bottles and books of magic," answered Roger, with a light shiver, as he passed through the doorway and found himself once again within the evil house. "He would think that in yon place no contagion could touch him. He spent his days and nights alike there. He scarce left it save to go abroad, or perchance to have a few hours' sleep in his bed. But the treasure is buried somewhere nigh at hand down in those cellars, though the spot I know not. And he fears to leave it night or day, lest some stealthy hand filch away the ill-gotten gain. Men thought he had the secret whereby all might be changed to gold, and indeed he would ofttimes bring pure gold out from the crucibles over his fire; but he had cast in first, unknown to those who so greedily watched him, the precious baubles he had stolen from travellers upon the road. He was a very juggler with his hands. I have watched him a thousand times at tricks which would have made the fortune of a travelling mountebank. But soft! here is the door at the head of the stairs. Take heed how that is opened, lest the hound fly at thy throat. Give me the lantern, and have thou thy huntsman's knife to plunge into his throat, else he may not let us pass down alive."
But when the door was opened, the hound, instead of growling or springing, welcomed them with whines of eager welcome. The poor beast was almost starved, and had been tamed by hunger to unwonted gentleness.
Raymond, who had food in his wallet, fed him with small pieces as they cautiously descended the stairs, for Basildene would furnish them with more if need be; the larder and cellar there were famous in their way, though few cared to accept of their owner's hospitality.
Roger almost expected to find the great door of that subterranean room bolted and locked, so jealous was its owner of entrance being made there; but it yielded readily to the touch, and the three, with the hound, passed in together.
In a moment Raymond knew by the peculiar atmosphere, which even in so large a place was sickly and fetid, that they were in the presence of one afflicted with the true distemper. The place was in total darkness save for the light of the lantern the ranger carried; but there were lamps in sconces all along the wall, and these Roger quickly lighted, being familiar enough with this underground place, which it had been part of his duty to see to. The light from these lamps was pure and white and very bright, and lit up the weird vaulted chamber from end to end. It shone upon a stiffened figure lying prone upon the floor not far from the vaulted fireplace, upon whose hearth the embers lay black and cold; and Raymond, springing suddenly forward as his glance rested upon this figure, feared that he had come too late, and that the foe of his house had passed beyond the power of human aid.
"Help me to lift him," he said to Stephen; "and, Roger, kindle thou a fire upon the hearth. There may be life in him yet. We will try what we know. Yes, methinks his heart beats faintly; and the tokens of the distemper are plainly out upon him. Perchance he may yet live. Of late I have seen men rise up from their beds whom we have given up for lost."
Raymond was beginning to realize that the black boils, so often looked upon as the death tokens, were by no means in reality anything of the kind. As a matter of fact, of the cases that recovered, most, if not all, had the plague spots upon them. These boils were, in fact, nature's own effort at expelling the virulent poison from the system, and if properly treated by mild methods and poultices, in some cases really brought relief, so that the patient eventually recovered.
But the intensity of the poison, and its rapid action upon the human organs, made cases of recovery rare indeed at the outset, when the outbreak always came in its most virulent form; and truly the appearance of old Peter Sanghurst was such as almost to preclude hope of restoration. Tough as he was in constitution, the glaze of death seemed already in his eyes. He was all but pulseless and as cold as death, whilst the spasmodic twitchings of his limbs when he was lifted spoke of death rather than life.
Still Raymond would not give up hope. He had the fire kindled, and it soon blazed up hot and fierce, whilst the old man was wrapped in a rich furred cloak which Roger produced from a cupboard, and some hot cordial forced between his lips. After one or two spasmodic efforts which might have been purely muscular, he appeared to make an attempt to swallow, and in a few more minutes it became plain that he was really doing so, and with increasing ease each time. The blood began to run through his veins again, the chest heaved, and the breath was drawn in long, labouring gasps. At last the old man's eyes opened, and fixed themselves upon Raymond's face with a long, bewildered stare.
They asked him no questions. They had no desire that he should speak. His state was critical in the extreme. They had but come to minister to his stricken body. To cope with a mind such as his was a task that Raymond felt must be far beyond his own powers. He would have given much to have had Father Paul at this bedside for one brief hour, the more so as he saw the shrinking and terror creeping over the drawn, ashen face. Did his guilty soul know itself to be standing on the verge of eternity? and did the wretched man feel the horror of great darkness infolding him already?
All at once he spoke, and his words were like a cry of terror.
"Alicia! Alicia! how comest thou here?"
Raymond, to whom the words were plainly addressed, knew not how to answer them, or what they could mean; but the wild eyes were still fixed upon his face, and again the old man's excited words broke forth — "Comest thou in this dread hour to claim thine own again? Alicia, Alicia! I do repent of my robbery. I would fain restore all. It has been a curse, and not a blessing; all has been against me — all. I was a happy man before I unlawfully wrested Basildene from thee. Since I have done that deed naught has prospered with me; and here I am left to die alone, neglected by all, and thou alone — thy spirit from the dead — comes to taunt me in my last hour with my robbery and my sin. O forgive, forgive! Thou art dead. Spirits cannot inherit this world's goods, else would I restore all to thee. Tell me what I may do to make amends ere I die? But look not at me with those great eyes of thine, lightened with the fire of the Lord. I cannot bear it — I cannot bear it! Tell me only how I may make restoration ere I am taken hence to meet my doom!"
Raymond understood then. The old man mistook him for his mother, who must have been about his own age when her wicked kinsman had ousted her from her possessions. Had they not told him in the old home how wondrous like to her he was growing? The clouded vision of the old man could see nothing but the face of the youth bending over him, and to him it was the face of an avenging angel. He clasped his hands together in an agony of supplication, and would have cast himself at the boy's feet had he not been restrained. The terrible remorse which so often falls upon a guilty conscience at the last hour had the miserable man in its clutches. His mind was too far weakened to think of his many crimes even blacker than this one. The sight of Raymond had awakened within him the memory of the defrauded woman, and he could think of nothing else. She had come back from the dead to put him in mind of his sin. If he could but make one act of restitution, he felt that he could almost die in peace. He gripped Raymond's hand hard, and looked with agonizing intensity into his face.
"I am not Alicia," he answered gently. "Her spirit is at rest and free, and no thought of malice or hatred could come from her now. I am her son. I know all — how you drove her forth from Basildene, and made yourself an enemy; but you are an enemy no longer now, for the hand of God is upon you, and I am here in His name to strive to soothe your last hours, and point the way upwards whither she has gone."
"Alicia's son! Alicia's son!" almost screamed the old man. "Now Heaven be praised, for I can make restitution of all!"
Raymond raised his eyes suddenly at an exclamation from Roger, to see a tall dark figure standing motionless in the doorway, whilst Peter Sanghurst's fiery eyes were fixed upon his face with a gaze of the most deadly malevolence in them.
CHAPTER XX. MINISTERING SPIRITS.
"The sickness in the town! Alackaday! Woe betide us all! It will be next within our very walls. Holy St. Catherine protect us! May all the Saints have mercy upon us! In Guildford! why, that is scarce five short miles away! And all the men and the wenches are flying as for dear life, though if what men say be true there be few enough places left to fly to! Why, Joan, why answerest thou not? I might as well speak to a block as to thee. Dost understand, girl, that the Black Death is at our very doors — that all our people are flying from us? And yet thou sittest there with thy book, as though this were a time for idle fooling. I am fair distraught — thy father and brother away and all! Canst thou not say something? Hast thou no feeling for thy mother? Here am I nigh distracted by fear and woe, and thou carriest about a face as calm as if this deadly scourge were but idle rumour."
Joan laid down her book, came across to her mother, and put her strong hand caressingly upon her shoulder. Poor, weak, timid Lady Vavasour had never been famed for strength of mind in any of the circumstances of life, and it was perhaps not wonderful that this scare, reaching her ears in her husband's absence, should drive her nearly frantic with terror.
For many days reports of a most disquieting nature had been pouring in. Persons who came to Woodcrych on business or pleasure spoke of nothing but the approach of the Black Death. Some affected to make light of it, protested that far too much was being made of the statements of ignorant and terrified people, and asserted boldly that it would not attack the well-fed and prosperous classes; whilst others declared that the whole country would speedily be depopulated, and whispered gruesome tales of those scenes of death and horror which were shortly to become so common. Then the inhabitants of isolated houses like Woodcrych received visits from travelling peddlers and mountebanks of all sorts, many disguised in Oriental garb, who brought with them terrible stories of the spread of the distemper, at the same time offering for sale certain herbs and simples which they declared to be never-failing remedies in case any person were attacked by the disease; or else they besought the credulous to purchase amulets or charms, or in some cases alleged relics blessed by the Pope, which if always worn upon the person would effectually prevent the onset of the malady. After listening greedily (as the servants in those houses always loved to do) to any story of ghastly horror which these impostors chose to tell them, they were thankful to buy at almost any price some antidote against the fell disease; and even Lady Vavasour had made many purchases for herself and her daughter of quack medicines and talismans or relics.
But hitherto no one had dared to whisper how fast the distemper was encroaching in this very district. Men still spoke of it as though it were far off, and might likely enough die out without spreading, so that now it was with terror akin to distraction that the poor lady heard through her servants that it had well-nigh reached their own doors. One of the lackeys had had occasion to ride over to the town that very day, and had come back with the news that people there were actually dying in the streets. He had seen two men fall down, either dead or stricken for death, before he could turn his beast away and gallop off, and the shops were shut and the church bell was tolling, whilst all men looked in each other's faces as if afraid of what they might see there.
Sir Hugh and his son were far away from Woodcrych at one of their newer possessions some forty miles distant, and in their absence Lady Vavasour felt doubly helpless. She shook off Joan's hand, and recommenced her agitated pacing. Her daughter's calmness was incomprehensible apathy to her. It fretted her even to see it.
"Thou hast no feeling, Joan; thou hast a heart of stone," she cried, bursting into weak weeping. "Why canst thou not give me help or counsel of some sort? What are we to do? What is to become of us? Wouldst have us all stay shut up in this miserable place to die together?"
Joan did not smile at the feeble petulance of the half-distracted woman. Indeed it was no time for smiles of any sort. The peril around and about was a thing too real and too fearful in its character to admit of any lightness of speech; and the girl did not even twit her mother with the many sovereign remedies purchased as antidotes against infection, though her own disbelief in these had brought down many laments from Lady Vavasour but a few days previously.
Brought face to face with the reality of the peril, these wonderful medicines did not inspire the confidence the sanguine purchasers had hoped when they spent their money upon them. Lady Vavasour's hope seemed now to lie in flight and flight alone. She was one of those persons whose instinct is always for flight, whatever the danger to be avoided; and now she was eagerly urging upon Joan the necessity for immediate departure, regardless of the warning of her calmer-minded daughter that probably the roads would be far more full of peril than their own house could ever be, if they strictly shut it up, lived upon the produce of their own park and dairy, and suffered none to go backwards and forwards to bring the contagion with them.
Whether Joan's common-sense counsel would have ever prevailed over the agitated panic of her mother is open to doubt, but all chance of getting Lady Vavasour to see reason was quickly dissipated by a piece of news brought to the mother and daughter by a white-faced, shivering servant.
The message was that the lackey who had but lately returned from Guildford, whilst sitting over the kitchen fire with his cup of mead, had complained of sudden and violent pains, had vomited and fallen down upon the floor in a fit; whereat every person present had fled in wild dismay, perfectly certain that he had brought home the distemper with him, and that every creature in the house was in deadly peril.
Lady Vavasour's terror and agitation were pitiful to see. In vain Joan strove to soothe and quiet her. She would listen to no words of comfort. Not another hour would she remain in that house. The servants, some of whom had already fled, were beginning to take the alarm in good earnest, and were packing up their worldly goods, only anxious to be gone. Horses and pack horses were being already prepared, for Lady Vavasour had given half-a-dozen orders for departure before she had made up her mind what to do or where to go.
Now she was resolved to ride straight to her husband, without drawing rein, or exchanging a word with any person upon the road. Such of the servants as wished to accompany her might do so; the rest might do as they pleased. Her one idea was to be gone, and that as quickly as possible.
She hurried away to change her dress for her long ride, urging Joan to lose not a moment in doing the same; but what was her dismay on her return to find her daughter still in her indoor dress, though she was forwarding her mother's departure by filling the saddlebags with provisions for the way, and laying strict injunctions upon the trusty old servants who were about to travel with her to give every care to their mistress, and avoid so far as was possible any place where there was likelihood of catching the contagion. They were to bait the horses in the open, and not to take them under any roof, and all were to carry their own victuals and drink with them. But that she herself was not to make one of the party was plainly to be learned by these many and precise directions.
This fact became patent to the mother directly she came downstairs, and at once she broke into the most incoherent expression of dismay and terror; but Joan, after letting her talk for a few minutes to relieve her feelings, spoke her answer in brief, decisive sentences.
"Mother, it is impossible for me to go. Old Bridget, as you know, is ill. It is not the distemper, it is one of the attacks of illness to which she has been all her life subject; but not one of these foolish wenches will now go near her. She has nursed and tended me faithfully from childhood. To leave her here alone in this great house, to live or die as she might, is impossible. Here I remain till she is better. Think not of me and fear not for me. I have no fears for myself. Go to our father; he will doubtless be anxious for news of us. Linger not here. Men say that those who fear the distemper are ever the first victims. Farewell, and may health and safety be with you. My place is here, and here I will remain till I see my way before me."
Lady Vavasour wept and lamented, but did not delay her own departure on account of her obstinate daughter. She gave Joan up for lost, but she would not stay to share her fate. She had already seen something of the quiet firmness of the girl, which her father sometimes cursed as stubbornness, and she felt that words would only be thrown away upon her. Lamenting to the last, she mounted her palfrey, and set her train of servants in motion; whilst Joan stood upon the top step of the flight to the great door, and waved her hand to her mother till the cortege disappeared down the drive. A brave and steadfast look was upon her face, and the sigh she heaved as she turned at last away seemed one of relief rather than of sorrow.
Lonely as might be her situation in this deserted house, it could not but be a relief to her to feel that her timid mother would shortly be under the protection of her husband, and more at rest than she could ever hope to be away from his side. He could not keep the distemper at bay, but he could often quiet the restless plaints and causeless terrors of his weak-minded spouse.
As she turned back into the silent house she was aware of two figures in the great hall that were strange there, albeit she knew both well as belonging to two of the oldest retainers of the place, an old man and his wife, who had lived the best part of their lives in Sir Hugh's service at Woodcrych.
"Why, Betty — and you also, Andrew — what do ye here?" asked Joan, with a grave, kindly smile at the aged couple.
With many humble salutations and apologies the old folks explained that they had heard of the hasty and promiscuous flight of the whole household, headed by the mistress, and also that the "sweet young lady" was left all alone because she refused to leave old Bridget; and that they had therefore ventured to come up to the great house to offer their poor services, to wait upon her and to do for her all that lay in their power, and this not for her only, but for the two sick persons already in the house.
"For, as I do say to my wife there," said old Andrew, though he spoke in a strange rustic fashion that would scarce be intelligible to our modern ears, "a body can but die once; and for aught I see, one might as easy die of the Black Death as of the rheumatics that sets one's bones afire, and cripples one as bad as being in one's coffin at once. So I be a-going to look to poor Willum, as they say is lying groaning still upon the kitchen floor, none having dared to go anigh him since he fell down in a fit. And if I be took tending on him, I know that you will take care of my old woman, and see that she does not want for bread so long as she lives."
Joan put out her soft, strong hand and laid it upon the hard, wrinkled fist of the old servant. There was a suspicious sparkle in her dark eyes.
"I will not disappoint that expectation, good Andrew," she said. "Go if you will, whilst we think what may best be done for Bridget. Later on I will come myself to look at William. I have no fear of the distemper; and of one thing I am very sure — that it is never kept away by being fled from and avoided. I have known travellers who have seen it, and have been with the sick, and have never caught the contagion, whilst many fled from it in terror only to be overtaken and struck down as they so ran. We are in God's hands — forsaken of all but Him. Let us trust in His mercy, do our duty calmly and firmly, and leave the rest to Him."
Later in the day, upheld by this same lofty sense of calmness and trust, Joan, after doing all in her power to make comfortable the old nurse, who was terribly distressed at hearing how her dear young lady had been deserted, left her to the charge of Betty, and went down again through the dark and silent house to the great kitchen, where William was still to be found, reclining now upon a settle beside the glowing hearth, and looking not so very much the worse for the seizure of the afternoon.
"I do tell he it were but the colic," old Andrew declared, rubbing his crumpled hands together in the glow of the fire. "He were in a rare fright when I found he — groaning out that the Black Death had hold of he, and that he were a dead man; but I told he that he was the liveliest corpse as I'd set eyes on this seventy years; and so after a bit he heartened up, and found as he could get upon his feet after all. It were naught but the colic in his inside; and he needn't be afraid of nothing worse."
Old Andrew proved right. William's sudden indisposition had been but the result of fright and hard riding, followed by copious draughts of hot beer taken with a view to keeping away the contagion. Very soon he was convinced of this himself; and when he understood how the whole household had fled from him, and that the only ones who had stayed to see that he did not die alone and untended were these old souls and their adored young lady, his heart was filled with loving gratitude and devotion, and he lost no opportunity of doing her service whenever it lay in his power.
Strange and lonely indeed was the life led by those five persons shut up in that large house, right away from all sights and sounds from the world without. The silence and the solitude at last became well-nigh intolerable, and when Bridget had recovered from her attack of illness and was going about briskly again, Joan took the opportunity of speaking her mind to her fully and freely.
"Why do we remain shut up within these walls, when there is so much work to be done in the world? Bridget, thou knowest that I love not my life as some love it. Often it seems to me as though by death alone I may escape a frightful doom. All around us our fellow creatures are dying — too often alone and untended, like dogs in a ditch. Good Bridget, I have money in the house, and we have health and strength and courage; and thou art an excellent good nurse in all cases of sickness. Thou hast taught me some of thy skill, and I long to show it on behalf of these poor stricken souls, so often deserted by their nearest and dearest in the hour of their deadliest peril. If I go, wilt thou go with me? I trow that thou art a brave woman —"
"And if I were not thou wouldst shame me into bravery, Sweetheart," answered the old woman fondly, as she looked into the earnest face of her young mistress. "I too have been thinking of the poor stricken souls. I would gladly risk the peril in such a labour of love. As old Andrew says, we can but die once. The Holy Saints will surely look kindly upon those who die at their post, striving to do as they would have done had they been here with us upon earth."
And when William heard what his young mistress was about to do, he declared that he too would go with her, and assist with the offices to the sick or the dead. He still had a vivid recollection of the moments when he had believed himself left alone to die of the distemper; and fellow feeling and generosity getting the better of his first unreasoning terror, he was as eager as Joan herself to enter upon this labour of love. Bridget, who was a great botanist, in the practical fashion of many old persons in those days, knew more about the properties of herbs than anybody in the country round, and she made a great selection from her stores, and brewed many pungent concoctions which she gave to her young mistress and William to drink, to ward off any danger from infection. She also gave them, to hang about their necks, bags containing aromatic herbs, whose strong and penetrating odour dominated all others, and was likely enough to do good in purifying the atmosphere about the wearer.
There was no foolish superstition in Bridget's belief in her simples. She did not regard them as charms; but she had studied their properties and had learned their value, and knew them to possess valuable properties for keeping the blood pure, and so rendering much smaller any chance of imbibing the poison.
At dusk that same evening, William, who had been out all day, returned, and requested speech of his young mistress. He was ushered into the parlour where she sat, with her old nurse for her companion; and standing just within the threshold he told his tale.
"I went across to the town today. I thought I would see if there was any lodging to be had where you, fair Mistress, might conveniently abide whilst working in that place. Your worshipful uncle's house I found shut up and empty, not a soul within the doors — all fled, as most of the better sort of the people are fled, and every window and door fastened up. Half the houses, too, are marked with black or red crosses, to show that those within are afflicted with the distemper. There are watchmen in the streets, striving to keep within their doors all such as have the Black Death upon them; but these be too few for the task, and the maddened wretches are continually breaking out, and running about the streets crying and shouting, till they drop down in a fit, and lie there, none caring for them. By day there be dead and dying in every street; but at night a cart comes and carries the corpses off to the great grave outside the town."
"And is there no person to care for the sick in all the town?" asked Joan, with dilating eyes.
"There were many monks at first; but the distemper seized upon them worse than upon the townfolks, and now there is scarce one left. Soon after the distemper broke out, Master John de Brocas threw open his house to receive all stricken persons who would come thither to be tended, and it has been full to overflowing night and day ever since. I passed by the house as I came out, and around the door there were scores of wretched creatures, all stricken with the distemper, praying to be taken in. And I saw Master John come out to them and welcome them in, lifting a little child from the arms of an almost dying woman, and leading her in by the hand. When I saw that, I longed to go in myself and offer myself to help in the work; but I thought my first duty was to you, sweet Mistress, and I knew if once I had told my tale you would not hold me back."
"Nay; and I will go thither myself, and Bridget with me," answered Joan, with kindling eyes. "We will start with the first light of the new-born day. They will want the help of women as well as of men within those walls.
"Good Bridget, look well to thy store of herbs, and take ample provision of all such as will allay fever and destroy the poison that works in the blood. For methinks there will be great work to be done by thee and me ere another sun has set; and every aid that nature can give us we will thankfully make use of."
"Your palfrey is yet in the stable, fair Mistress," said William, "and there be likewise the strong sorrel from the farm, whereupon Bridget can ride pillion behind me. Shall I have them ready at break of day tomorrow? We shall then gain the town before the day's work has well begun."
"Do so," answered Joan, with decision. "I would fain have started by night; but it will be wiser to tarry for the light of day. Good William, I thank thee for thy true and faithful service. We are going forth to danger and perchance to death; but we go in a good cause, and we have no need to fear."
And when William had retired, she turned to Bridget with shining eyes, and said:
"Ah, did I not always say that John was the truest knight of them all? The others have won their spurs; they have won the applause of men. They have all their lives looked down on John as one unable to wield a sword, one well-nigh unworthy of the ancient name he bears. But which of yon gay knights would have done what he is doing now? Who of all of them would stand forth fearless and brave in the teeth of this far deadlier peril than men ever face upon the battlefield? I trow not one of them would have so stood before a peril like this. They have left that for the true Knight of the Cross!"
At dawn next day Joan said adieu to her old home, and set her face steadily forward towards Guildford. The chill freshness of the November air was pleasant after the long period of oppressive warmth and closeness which had gone before, and now that the leaves had really fallen from the trees, there was less of the heavy humidity in the air that seemed to hold the germs of distemper and transmit them alike to man and beast.
The sun was not quite up as they started; but as they entered the silent streets of Guildford it was shining with a golden glory in strange contrast to the scenes upon which it would shortly have to look. Early morning was certainly the best time for Joan to enter the town, for the cart had been its round, the dead had been removed from the streets, and the houses were quieter than they often were later in the day. Once in a way a wild shriek or a burst of demoniacal laughter broke from some window; and once a girl, with hair flying wildly down her back, flew out of one of the houses sobbing and shrieking in a frenzy of terror, and was lost to sight down a side alley before Joan could reach her side.
Pursuing their way through the streets, they turned down the familiar road leading to John's house, and dismounting at the gate, Joan gave up her palfrey to William to seek stabling for it behind, and walked up with Bridget to the open door of the house.
That door was kept wide open night and day, and none who came were ever turned away. Joan entered the hall, to find great fires burning there, and round these fires were crowded shivering and moaning beings, some of the latest victims of the distemper, who had been brought within the hospitable shelter of that house of mercy, but who had not yet been provided with beds; for the numbers coming in day by day were even greater than the vacancies made by deaths constantly occurring in the wards (as they would now be called). Helpers were few, and of these one or another would be stricken down, and carried away to burial after a few hours' illness.
Of the wretched beings grouped about the fires several were little children, and Joan's heart went out in compassion to the suffering morsels of humanity. Taking a little moaning infant upon her knee, and letting two more pillow their weary beads against her dress, she signed to Bridget to remove her riding cloak, which she gently wrapped about the scantily-clothed form of a woman extended along the ground at her feet, to whom the children apparently belonged. The woman was dying fast, as her glazing eyes plainly showed.
Probably her case was altogether hopeless; but Joan was not yet seasoned to such scenes, and it seemed too terrible to sit by idle whilst a fellow creature actually died not two yards away. Surely somewhere within that house aid could be found. The girl rose gently from her seat, and still clasping the stricken infant in her arms, she moved towards one of the closed doors of the lower rooms.
Opening this softly, she looked in, and saw a row of narrow pallet beds down each side of the room, and every bed was tenanted. Sounds of moaning, the babble of delirious talk, and thickly-uttered cries for help or mercy now reached her ears, and the terrible breath of the plague for the first time smote upon her senses in all its full malignity. She recoiled for an instant, and clutched at the bag around her neck, which she was glad enough to press to her face.
A great fire was burning in the hearth, and all that could be done to lessen the evil had been accomplished. There was one attendant in this room, which was set apart for men, and he was just now bending over a delirious youth, striving to restrain his wild ravings and to induce him to remain in his bed. This attendant had his back to Joan, but she saw by his actions and his calm self possession that he was no novice to his task; and she walked softly through the pestilential place, feeling that she should not appeal to him for help in vain.
As the sound of the light, firm tread sounded upon the bare boards of the floor, the attendant suddenly lifted himself and turned round. Joan uttered a quick exclamation of surprise, which was echoed by the person in question.
"Raymond!" she exclaimed breathlessly.
"Joan! Thou here, and at such a time as this!"
And then they both stood motionless for a few long moments, feeling that despite the terrible scenes around and about them, the very gates of Paradise had opened before them, turning everything around them to gold.
CHAPTER XXI. THE OLD, OLD STORY
The scourge had passed. It had swept over the length and breadth of the region of which Guildford formed the centre, and had done its terrible work of destruction there, leaving homes desolated and villages almost depopulated. It was still raging in London, and was hurrying northward and eastward with all its relentless energy and deadliness; but in most of the places thus left behind its work seemed to be fully accomplished, and there were no fresh cases.
People began to go about their business as of old. Those who had fled returned to their homes, and strove to take up the scattered threads of life as best they might. In many cases whole families had been swept out of existence; in others (more truly melancholy cases), one member had escaped when all the rest had perished. The religious houses were crowded with the helpless orphans of the sufferers in the epidemic, and the summer crops lay rotting in the fields for want of labourers to get them in.
John's house in Guildford had by this time reassumed its normal aspect. The last of the sick who had not been carried to the grave, but had recovered to return home, had now departed, with many a blessing upon the master, whose act of piety and charity had doubtless saved so many lives at this crisis. The work the young man had set himself to do had been nobly accomplished; but the task had been one beyond his feeble strength, and he now lay upon a couch of sickness, knowing well, if others did not, that his days were numbered.
He had fallen down in a faint upon the very day that the last patient had been able to leave his doors. For a moment it was feared that the poison of the distemper had fastened upon him; but it was not so. The attack was but due to the failure of the heart's action — nature, tried beyond her powers of endurance, asserting herself at last — and they laid him down in his old favourite haunt, with his books around him, having made the place look like it did before the house had been turned into a veritable hospital and mortuary.
When John opened his eyes at last it was to find Joan bending over him; and looking into her face with his sweet, tired smile, he said:
"You will not leave me, Joan?"
"No," she answered gently; "I will not leave you yet. Bridget and I will nurse you. All our other helpers are themselves worn out; but we have worked only a little while. We have not borne the burden and heat of that terrible day."
"You came in a good hour — like angels of mercy that you were," said John, feeling, now that the long strain and struggle was over, a wonderful sense of rest and peace. "I thought it was a dream when first I saw your face, Joan — when I saw you moving about amongst the sick, always with a child in your arms. I have never been able to ask how you came hither. In those days we could never stay to talk. There are many things I would fain ask now. How come you here alone, save for your old nurse? Are your parents dead likewise?"
"I know not that myself," answered Joan, with the calmness that comes from constantly standing face to face with death. "I have heard naught of them these many weeks. William goes ofttimes to Woodcrych to seek for news of them there. But they have not returned, and he can learn nothing."
And then whilst John lay with closed eyes, his face so white and still that it looked scarce the face of a living man, Joan told him all her tale; and he understood then how it was that she had suddenly appeared amongst them like a veritable angel of mercy.
When her story was done, he opened his eyes and said:
"Where is Raymond?"
"They told me he was sleeping an hour since," answered Joan. "He has sore need of sleep, for he has been watching and working night and day for longer than I may tell. He looks little more than a shadow himself; and he has had Roger to care for of late, since he fell ill."
"But Roger is recovering?"
"Yes. It was the distemper, but in its least deadly form, and he is already fast regaining his strength.
"Has Raymond been the whole time with you? I have never had the chance to speak to him of himself."
And a faint soft flush awoke in Joan's cheek, whilst a smile hovered round the corners of her lips.
"Nor I; yet there be many things I would fain ask of him. He went forth to be with Father Paul when first the Black Death made its fatal entry into the country; and from that day forth I heard naught of him until he came hither to me. We will ask him of himself when he comes to join us. It will be like old times come back again when thou, Joan, and he and I gather about the Yule log, and talk together of ourselves and others."
A common and deadly peril binds very closely together those who have faced it and fought it hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder; and in those days of divided houses, broken lives, and general disruption of all ordinary routine in domestic existence, things that in other times would appear strange and unnatural were now taken as a matter of course. It did not occur to Joan as in any way remarkable that she should remain in John's house, nursing him with the help of Bridget, and playing a sister's part until some of his own kith or kin returned. He had been deserted by all of his own name. She herself knew not whether she had any relatives living. Circumstances had thrown her upon his hospitality, and she had looked upon him almost as a brother ever since the days of her childhood.
She knew that he was dying; there was that in his face which told as much all too well to those who had long been looking upon death. To have left him at such a moment would have seemed far more strange and unnatural than to remain. In those times of terror stranger things were done daily, no man thinking aught of it.
So she smiled as she heard John's last words, trying to recall the day when she had first seen Raymond at Master Bernard's house, when he had seemed to her little more than a boy, albeit a very knightly and chivalrous one. Now her feelings towards him were far different: not that she thought less of his knightliness and chivalry, but that she was half afraid to let her mind dwell too much upon him and her thoughts of him; for of late, since they had been toiling together in the hand-to-hand struggle against disease and death, she was conscious of a feeling toward him altogether new in her experience, and his face was seldom out of her mental vision. The sound of his voice was ever in her ears; and she always knew, by some strange intuition, when he was near, whether she could see him or not.
She knew even as John spoke that he was approaching; and as the latch of the door clicked a soft wave of colour rose in her pale cheek, and she turned her head with a gesture that spoke a mute welcome.
"They tell me that thou art sick, good John," said Raymond, coming forward into the bright circle of the firelight.
The dancing flames lit up that pale young face, worn and hollow with long watching and stress of work, and showed that Raymond had changed somewhat during those weeks of strange experience. Some of the dreaminess had gone out of the eyes, to be replaced by a luminous steadfastness of expression which had always been there, but was now greatly intensified. Pure, strong, and noble, the face was that of a man rather than a boy, and yet the bright, almost boyish, alertness and eagerness were still quickly apparent when he entered into conversation, and turned from one companion to another. It was the same Raymond — yet with a difference; and both of his companions scanned him with some curiosity as he took his seat beside John's couch and asked of his cousin's welfare.
"Nay, trouble not thyself over me; thou knowest that my life's sands are well-nigh run out. I have been spared for this work, that thou, my Raymond, gavest me to do. I am well satisfied, and thou must be the same, my kind cousin. Only let me have thee with me to the end — and sweet Mistress Joan, if kind fortune will so favour us. And tell us now of thyself, Raymond, and how it fared with thee before thou camest hither. Hast thou been with Father Paul? And if so, why didst thou leave him? Is he, too, dead?"
"He was not when we parted; he went forward to London when he bid me come to see how it fared with thee, good John, and bring thee his blessing. I should have been with thee one day earlier, save that I turned aside to Basildene, where I heard that the old man lay dying alone."
"Basildene!" echoed both his hearers quickly. "Has the Black Death been there?"
"Ay, and the old man who is called a sorcerer is dead. To me it was given to soothe his dying moments, and give him such Christian burial as men may have when there be no priest at hand to help them to their last rest. I was in time for that."
"Peter Sanghurst dead!" mused John thoughtfully; and looking up at Raymond, he said quickly, "Did he know who and what thou wert?"
"He did; for in his delirium he took me for my mother, and his terror was great, knowing her to be dead. When I told him who I was, he was right glad; and he would fain have made over to me the deeds by which he holds Basildene — the deeds my mother left behind her in her flight, and which he seized upon. He would fain have made full reparation for that one evil deed of his life; but his son, who had held aloof hitherto, and would have left his father to die untended and alone —"
Joan had uttered a little exclamation of horror and disgust; now she asked, quickly and almost nervously:
"The son — Peter Sanghurst? O Raymond, was that bad man there?"
"Yes; and he knows now who and what I am, whereby his old hatred to me is bitterly increased. He holds that I have hindered and thwarted him before in other matters. Now that he knows I have a just and lawful claim on Basildene, which one day I will make good, he hates me with a tenfold deadlier hatred."
"Hates you — when you came to his father in his last extremity? How can he dare to hate you now?"
Raymond smiled a shadowy smile as he looked into the fire.
"Methinks he knows little of filial love. He knew that his father had been stricken with the distemper, but he left him to die alone. He would not have come nigh him at all, save that he heard sounds in the house, and feared that robbers had entered, and that his secret treasure hoards might fall into their hands. He had come down armed to the teeth to resist such marauders, being willing rather to stand in peril of the distemper than to lose his ill-gotten gold. But he found none such as he thought; yet having come, and having learned who and what manner of man I was, he feared to leave me alone with his father, lest I should be told the secret of the hidden hoard, which the old man longed to tell me but dared not. Doubtless the parchment he wished to place in my hands is there; but his son hovered ever within earshot, and the old man dared not speak. Yet with his last breath he called me lord of Basildene, and charged me to remove from it the curse which in his own evil days had fallen upon the place."
"Peter Sanghurst will not love you the more for that," said John.
"Verily no; yet methinks he can scarce hate me more than he does and has done for long."
"He is no insignificant foe," was the thoughtful rejoinder. "His hate may be no light thing."
"He has threatened me oft and savagely," answered Raymond, "and yet no harm has befallen me therefrom."
"Why has he threatened thee?" asked Joan breathlessly; "what hast thou done to raise his ire?"
"We assisted Roger, the woodman's son, to escape from that vile slavery at Basildene, of which doubtless thou hast heard, sweet lady. That was the first cause of offence."
"And the second?"
Raymond's clear gaze sought her face for a moment, and Joan's dark eyes kindled and then slowly dropped.
"The second was on thy account, sweet Joan," said Raymond, with a curious vibration in his voice. "He saw us once together — it is long ago now — and he warned me how I meddled to thwart him again. I scarce understood him then, though I knew that he would fain have won this fair hand, but that thou didst resolutely withhold it. Now that I have reached man's estate I understand him better. Joan, he is still bent upon having this hand. In my hearing he swore a great oath that by fair means or foul it should be his one day. He is a man of resolute determination, and, now that his father no longer lives, of great wealth too, and wealth is power. Thou hast thwarted him till he is resolved to humble thee at all cost. I verily believe to be avenged for all thou hast cost him would be motive enough to make him compass heaven and earth to win thee. What sayest thou? To withstand him may be perilous —"
"To wed him would be worse than death," said Joan, in a very low tone. "I will never yield, if I die to save myself from him."
Unconsciously these two had lowered their voices. John had dropped asleep beside the fire with the ease of one exhausted by weakness and long watching. Joan and Raymond were practically alone together. There was a strange light upon the face of the youth, and into his pale face there crept a flush of faint red.
"Joan," he said, in low, firm tones that shook a little with the intensity of his earnestness, "when I saw thee first, and knew thee for a very queen amongst women, my boyish love and homage was given all to thee. I dreamed of going forth to win glory and renown, that I might come and lay my laurels at thy feet, and win one sweet answering smile, one kindly word of praise from thee. Yet here am I, almost at man's estate, and I have yet no laurels to bring to thee. I have but one thing to offer — the deep true love of a heart that beats alone for thee. Joan, I am no knightly suitor, I have neither gold nor lands — though one day it may be I may have both, and thy father would doubtless drive me forth from his doors did I present myself to him as a suitor for this fair hand. But, Joan, I love thee — I would lay down my life to serve thee — and I know that thou mayest one day be in peril from him who is also mine own bitter foe. Wilt thou then give me the right to fight for thee, to hold this hand before all the world and do battle for its owner, as only he may hope to do who holds it, as I do this moment, by that owner's free will? Give me but leave to call it mine, and I will dare all and do all to win it. Sweet Mistress Joan, my words are few and poor; but could my heart speak for me, it would plead eloquent music. Thou art the sun and star of my life. Tell me, may I hope some day to win thy love?"
Joan had readily surrendered her hand to his clasp, and doubtless this had encouraged Raymond to proceed in his tale of love.
He certainly had not intended thus to commit himself, poor and unknown and portionless as he was, with everything still to win; but a power stronger than he could resist drew him on from word to word and phrase to phrase, and a lovely colour mantled in Joan's cheek as he proceeded, till at last she put forth her other hand and laid it in his, saying:
"Raymond, I love thee now. My heart is thine and thine alone. Go forth, if thou wilt, and win honour and renown — but thou wilt never win a higher honour and glory than I have seen thee winning day by day and hour by hour here in this very house — and come back when and as thou wilt. Thou wilt find me waiting for thee —ever ready, ever the same. I am thine for life or death. When thou callest me I will come."
It was a bold pledge for a maiden to give in those days of harsh parental rule; yet Joan gave it without shrinking or fear. That this informal betrothal might be long before it could hope to be consummated, both the lovers well knew; that there might be many dangers lying before them, they did not attempt to deny. It was no light matter to have thus plighted their troth, when Raymond was still poor and nameless, and Joan, in her father's estimation, plighted to the Sanghurst. But both possessed brave and resolute spirits, that did not shrink or falter; and joyfully happy in the security of their great love, they could afford for a time to forget the world.
Raymond drew from within his doublet the half ring he had always carried about with him, and placed it upon the finger of his love. Joan, on her side, drew from her neck a black agate heart she had always worn there, and gave it to Raymond, who put it upon the silver cord which had formerly supported his circlet of the double ring.
"So long as I live that heart shall hang there," he said. "Never believe that I am dead until thou seest the heart brought thee by another. While I live I part not with it."
"Nor I with thy ring," answered Joan, proudly turning her hand about till the firelight flashed upon it.
And then they drew closer together, and whispered together, as lovers love to do, of the golden future lying before them; and Raymond told of his mother and her dying words, and his love, in spite of all that had passed there, for the old house of Basildene, and asked Joan if they two together would be strong enough to remove the curse which had been cast over the place by the evil deeds of its present owners.
"Methinks thou couldst well do that thyself, my faithful knight," answered Joan, with a great light in her eyes; "for methinks all evil must fly thy presence, as night flies from the beams of day. Art thou not pledged to a high and holy service? and hast thou not proved ere now how nobly thou canst keep that pledge?"
At that moment John stirred in his sleep and opened his eyes. There was in them that slightly bewildered look that comes when the mind has been very far away in some distant dreamland, and where the weakened faculties have hardly the strength to reassert themselves.
"Joan," he said — "Joan, art thou there? art thou safe?"
She rose and bent over him smilingly.
"Here by thy side, good John, and perfectly safe. Where should I be?"
"And Raymond too?"
"Raymond too. What ails thee, John, that thou art so troubled?"
He smiled slightly as he looked round more himself.
"It must have been a dream, but it was a strangely vivid one. Belike it was our talk of a short while back; for I thought thou wast fleeing from the malice of the Sanghurst, and that Raymond was in his power, awaiting his malignant rage and vengeance. I know not how it would have ended — I was glad to wake. I fear me, sweet Joan, that thou wilt yet have a hard battle ere thou canst cast loose from the toil spread for thee by yon bad man."
Joan threw back her head with a queenly gesture.
"Fear not for me, kind John, for now I am no longer alone to fight my battle. I have Raymond for my faithful knight and champion. Raymond and I have plighted our troth this very day. Let Peter Sanghurst do his worst; it will take a stronger hand than his to sunder love like ours!"
John's pale face kindled with sympathy and satisfaction. He looked from one to the other and held out his thin hands.
"My heart's wishes and blessings be with you both," he said. "I have so many times thought of some such thing, and longed to see it accomplished. There may be clouds athwart your path, but there will be sunshine behind the cloud. Joan, thou hast chosen thy knight worthily and well. It may be that men will never call him knight. It may be that he will not have trophies rich and rare to lay at thy feet. But thou and I know well that there is a knighthood not of this world, and in that order of chivalry his spurs have already been won, and he will not, with thee at his side, ever be tempted to forget his high and holy calling. For thou wilt be the guiding star of his life; and thou too art dedicated to serve."
There was silence for a few moments in the quiet room. John lay back on his pillows panting somewhat, and with that strange unearthly light they had seen there before deepening in his eyes. They had observed that look often of late — as though he saw right through them and beyond to a glory unspeakable, shut out for the time from their view. Joan put out her hand and took that of Raymond, as if there was assurance in the warm human clasp. But their eyes were still fixed upon John's face, which was changing every moment.
He had done much to form both their minds, this weakly scion of the De Brocas house, whose life was held by those who bore his name to be nothing but a failure. It was from him they had both imbibed those thoughts and aspirations which had been the first link drawing them together, and which had culminated in an act of the highest self-sacrifice and devotion. And now it seemed to him, as he lay there looking at them, the two beings upon earth that he loved the best (for Raymond was more to him than a brother, and Joan the one woman whom, had things gone otherwise with him, he would fain have made his wife), that he might well leave his work in their hands — that they would carry on to completion the nameless labour of love which he had learned to look upon as the highest form of chivalry.
"Raymond," he said faintly.
Raymond came and bent down over him.
"I am close beside thee, John."
"I know it. I feel it. I am very happy. Raymond, thou wilt not forget me?"
"Never, John, never."
"I have been very happy in thy brotherly love and friendship. It has been very sweet to me. Raymond, thou wilt not forget thy vow? Thou wilt ever be true to that higher life that we have spoken of so oft together?"
Raymond's face was full of deep and steadfast purpose.
"I will be faithful, I will be true," he answered. "God helping me, I will be true to the vow we have made together. Joan shall be my witness now, as I make it anew to thee here."
"Not for fame or glory or praise of man alone," murmured John, his voice growing fainter and fainter, "but first for the glory of God and His honour, and then for the poor, the feeble, the helpless, the needy. To be a champion to such as have none to help them, to succour the distressed, to comfort the mourner, to free those who are wrongfully oppressed, even though kings be the oppressors — that is the true courage, the true chivalry; that is the service to which thou, my brother, art pledged."
Raymond bent his head, whilst Joan's clasp tightened on his hand. They both knew that John was dying, but they had looked too often upon death to fear it now. They did not summon any one to his side. No priest was to be found at that time, and John had not long since received the Sacrament with one who had lately died in the house. There was no restlessness or pain in his face, only a great peace and rest. His voice died away, but he still looked at Raymond, as though to the last he would fain see before his eyes the face he had grown to love best upon earth.
His breath grew shorter and shorter. Raymond thought he made a sign to him to bend his head nearer. Stooping over him, he caught the faintly-whispered words:
"Tell my father not to grieve that I did not die a knight. He has his other sons; and I have been very happy. Tell him that — happier, I trow, than any of them —"
There were a brief silence and a slight struggle for breath, then one whispered phrase:
"I will arise and go to my Father —"
Those were the last words spoken by John de Brocas.
CHAPTER XXII. THE BLACK VISOR.
"Brother, this is like old times," said Gaston, his hand upon Raymond's shoulder as they stood side by side in the extreme prow of the vessel that was conveying them once again towards the sunny south of France.
The salt spray dashed in their faces, the hum of the cordage overhead was in their ears, and their thoughts had gone back to that day, now nigh upon eight years back, when they, as unknown and untried boys, had started forth to see the world together.
Gaston's words broke the spell of silence, and Raymond turned his head to scan the stalwart form beside him with a look of fond admiration and pride.
"Nay, scarce like those old days, Sir Gaston de Brocas," he answered, speaking the name with significant emphasis; and Gaston laughed and tossed back his leonine head with a gesture of mingled pride and impatience as he said:
"Tush, Brother! I scarce know how to prize my knighthood now that thou dost not share it with me — thou so far more truly knightly and worthy. I had ever planned that we had been together in that as in all else. Why wert thou not with me that day when we vanquished the navy of proud Spain? The laurels are scarce worth the wearing that thou wearest not with me."
For Gaston was now indeed a knight. He had fought beside the Prince in the recent engagement at sea, when a splendid naval victory had been obtained over the Spanish fleet. He had performed prodigies of valour on that occasion, and had been instrumental in the taking of many rich prizes. And when the royal party had returned to Windsor, Gaston had been named, with several more youthful gentlemen, to receive knighthood at the hands of the Prince of Wales. Whereupon Master Bernard de Brocas had stood forward and told the story of the parentage of the twin brothers, claiming kinship with them, and speaking in high praise of Raymond, who, since the death of John, had been employed by his uncle in a variety of small matters that used to be John's province to see to. In every point the Gascon youth had shown aptitude and ability beyond the average, and had won high praise from his clerical kinsman, who was more the statesman than the parish priest.
Very warmly had the de Brocas brothers been welcomed by their kinsmen; and as they laid no claim to any lands or revenues in the possession of other members of the family, not the least jealousy or ill-will was excited by their rise in social status. All that Gaston asked of the King was liberty some day, when the hollow truce with France should be broken, and when the King's matters were sufficiently settled to permit of private enterprise amongst his own servants, to gather about him a company of bold kindred spirits, and strive to wrest back from the treacherous and rapacious Sieur de Navailles the ancient castle of Saut, which by every law of right should belong to his own family.
The King listened graciously to this petition, and gave Gaston full encouragement to hope to regain his fathers' lost inheritance. But of Basildene no word was spoken then; for the shrewd Master Bernard had warned Raymond that the time had not yet come to prosecute that claim — and indeed the neglected old house, crumbling to the dust and environed by an evil reputation which effectually kept all men away from it, seemed scarce worth the struggle it would cost to wrest it from the keeping of Peter Sanghurst.
This worthy, since his father's death, had entered upon a totally new course of existence. He had appeared at Court, sumptuously dressed, and with a fairly large following. He had ingratiated himself with the King by a timely loan of gold (for the many drains upon Edward's resources kept him always short of money for his household and family expenses), and was playing the part of a wealthy and liberal man. It was whispered of him, as it had been of his father, that he had some secret whereby to fill his coffers with gold whenever they were empty, and this reputation gave him a distinct prestige with his comrades and followers. He was not accused of black magic, like his father. His secret was supposed to have been inherited by him, not bought with the price of his soul. It surrounded him with a faint halo of mystery, but it was mystery that did him good rather than harm. The King himself took favourable notice of one possessed of such a golden secret, and for the present the Sanghurst was better left in undisturbed possession of his ill-gotten gains.
Raymond had learned the difficult lesson of patience, and accepted his uncle's advice. It was the easier to be patient since he knew that Joan was for the present safe from the persecutions of her hated suitor. Joan had been summoned to go to her father almost immediately upon the death of John de Brocas. He had sent for her to Woodcrych, and she had travelled thither at once with the escort sent to fetch her.
Raymond had heard from her once since that time. In the letter she had contrived to send him she had told him that her mother was dead, having fallen a victim to the dreaded distemper she had fled to avoid, but which had nevertheless seized her almost immediately upon her arrival at her husband's house. He too had been stricken, but had recovered; and his mind having been much affected by his illness and trouble, he had resolved upon a pilgrimage to Rome, in which his daughter was to accompany him. She did not know how long they would be absent from England, and save for the separation from her true love, she was glad to go. Her brother would return to the Court, and only she and her father would take the journey. She had heard nothing all these weeks of the dreaded foe, and hoped he might have passed for ever from her life.
And in this state matters stood with the brothers as the vessel bore them through the tossing blue waves that bright May morning, every plunge of the well-fitted war sloop bringing them nearer and nearer to the well-known and well-loved harbour of Bordeaux.
Yet it was on no private errand that they were bound, though Gaston could not approach the familiar shores of Gascony without thinking of that long-cherished hope of his now taking so much more solid a shape.
The real object of this small expedition was, however, the relief of the town of St. Jean d'Angely, belonging to the English King, which had been blockaded for some time by the French monarch. The distressed inhabitants had contrived to send word to Edward of their strait, and he had despatched the Earl of Warwick with a small picked army to its relief.
The Gascon twins had been eager to join this small contingent, and had volunteered for the service. Gaston was put in command of a band of fine soldiers, and his brother took service with him.
This was the first time for several years that Raymond had been in arms, for of late his avocations had been of a more peaceful nature. But he possessed all the soldier instincts of his race, and by his brother's side would go joyfully into battle again.
He did not know many of the knights and gentlemen serving in this small expedition, nor did Gaston either, for that matter. It was too small an undertaking to attract the flower of Edward's chivalry, and the Black Death had made many gaps in the ranks of the comrades the boys had first known when they had fought under the King's banner. But the satisfaction of being together again made amends for all else. Indeed they scarce had eyes for any but each other, and had so much to tell and to ask that the voyage was all too short for them.
Amongst those on board Raymond had frequently noticed the figure of a tall man always in full armour, and always wearing his visor down, so that none might see his face. His armour was of fine workmanship, light and strong, and seemed in no way to incommode him. There was no device upon it, save some serpents cunningly inlaid upon the breastplate, and the visor was richly chased and inlaid with black, so that the whole effect was gloomy and almost sinister. Raymond had once or twice asked the name of the Black Visor, as men called him, but none had been able to tell him. It was supposed that he was under some vow — a not very uncommon thing in the days of chivalry — and that he might not remove his visor until he had performed some gallant feat of arms.
Sometimes it had seemed to the youth as though the dark eyes looking out through the holes in that black covering were fixed more frequently upon himself than upon any one else; and if he caught full for a moment the fiery gleam, he would wonder for the instant it lasted where and when he had seen those eyes before. But his mind was not in any sense of the word concerned with the Black Visor, and it was only now and then he gave him a passing thought.