Presently Master Grimston ceased to struggle and lay still, like a man who had come out of a sore conflict. Then he opened his eyes, and the Father stopped his prayers, and looking very hard at him he said, "My son, the time is very short—give God the glory." Then Master Grimston, rolling his haggard eyes upon the group, twice strove to speak and could not; but the third time the Father, bending down his head, heard him say in a thin voice, that seemed to float from a long way off, "I slew him ... my sin." Then the Father swiftly gave him shrift, and as he said the last word, Master Grimston's head fell over on the side, and the Father said, "He is gone." And Bridget broke out into a terrible cry, and fell upon Henry's neck, who had entered unseen.
Then the Father bade him lead her away, and put the poor body on the bed; as he did so he noticed that the face of the dead man was strangely bruised and battered, as though it had been stamped upon by the hoofs of some beast. Then Father Thomas knelt, and prayed until the light came filtering in through the shutters; and the cocks crowed in the village, and presently it was day. But that night the Father learnt strange secrets, and something of the dark purposes of God was revealed to him.
In the morning there came one to find the priest, and told him that another body had been thrown up on the shore, which was strangely smeared with sand, as though it had been rolled over and over in it; and the Father took order for its burial.
Then the priest had long talk with Bridget and Henry. He found them sitting together, and she held her son's hand and smoothed his hair, as though he had been a little child; and Henry sobbed and wept, but Bridget was very calm. "He hath told me all," she said, "and we have decided that he shall do whatever you bid him; must he be given to justice?" and she looked at the priest very pitifully. "Nay, nay," said the priest. "I hold not Henry to account for the death of the man; it was his father's sin, who hath made heavy atonement—the secret shall be buried in our hearts."
Then Bridget told him how she had waked suddenly out of her sleep, and heard her husband cry out; and that then followed a dreadful kind of struggling, with the scent of the sea over all; and then he had all at once fallen to the ground and she had gone to him—and that then the priest had come.
Then Father Thomas said with tears that God had shown them deep things and visited them very strangely; and they would henceforth live humbly in His sight, showing mercy.
Then lastly he went with Henry to the store-room; and there, in the box that had dripped with water, lay the coat of the dead man, full of money, and the bag of money too; and Henry would have cast it back into the sea, but the priest said that this might not be, but that it should be bestowed plentifully upon shipwrecked mariners unless the heirs should be found. But the ship appeared to be a foreign ship, and no search ever revealed whence the money had come, save that it seemed to have been violently come by.
Master Grimston was found to have left much wealth. But Bridget would sell the house and the land, and it mostly went to rebuild the church to God's glory. Then Bridget and Henry removed to the vicarage and served Father Thomas faithfully, and they guarded their secret. And beside the nave is a little high turret built, where burns a lamp in a lantern at the top, to give light to those at sea.
Now the beast troubled those of whom I write no more; but it is easier to raise up evil than to lay it; and there are those that say that to this day a man or a woman with an evil thought in their hearts may see on a certain evening in November, at the ebb of the tide, a goatlike thing wade in the water, snuffing at the sand, as though it sought but found not. But of this I know nothing.
THE TROTH OF THE SWORD
Sir Hugh was weary, for he had ridden far and fast that day, and ridden warily too, by bypaths and green forest roads, for the country was much harried by robbers at that time, under the grim chief that went by the name of the Red Hound: he was an outlaw that had been a knight; but for his cruelty and his blackness of heart and his pitiless wickedness he had been driven from his stronghold into the forest, where he lived a hunted life, rending hitherto all that were sent against him, a terror in the land; writing his anger upon broken churches and charred farmsteads. Sparing none but the children whom he took to serve him, and maidens to please himself and his men.
But Sir Hugh had been safe enough; for the Red Hound was out northwards; and Sir Hugh was gallantly attended by a troop of jingling horse, that went swiftly before and behind him, while he rode in the midst, silent as was his wont, his eyes dwelling wistfully upon the green and lonely places of the forest, the bright faces of the flowers, and the woodland things that slipped away into the brake. For all his deeds of might—and Hugh though young in years was old in valour—he had a deep desire for peace and the fair and beautiful arts of life. He could sing tuneably to the lute; and he loved the delicate things of earth with a love of which he spoke to none.
At last they struck out of the forest into a firmer road; and here was a wall by the wayside and a towered gate; but the wood climbed steeply within. At the gate they halted, and presently Sir Hugh was admitted. The road within was paved with stone, and led to the left; and here Sir Hugh dismounted, and saying that he would stretch his limbs, left his horse to be led by the page that rode beside him, giving him a smiling glance, which had made the boy a willing and loving servant. The troop rode off among the copses; and Sir Hugh, taught by the porter, took a grassy path that led steeply through the wood to the right, the porter telling him that he would be the first at the castle gate; for the path was steep and direct, while the road wound at an easier slope, to the top of the hill where the Castle stood.
Sir Hugh unlaced his helmet, for the day had been still and hot. He was a very gracious youth to behold. His face was beardless and clean-cut. His skin was as the skin of a child, for he had lived a pure life, eating and drinking sparingly. Another might have been mocked for this; but Sir Hugh was so gallant a fighter, so courteous, so loving, that he was let to please himself. His eyes were large and quiet; his hair rippled into short brown curls. He had no signs of travel, save a little dust upon his brow; and this he washed off at a rill that fell clear through the wood, dripping from the rocks. And so he went up easily, and glancing about him. The oak-copse interlaced its boughs above his head; the sun had lately set, and there was a soft twilight in the forest. In the pale sky floated a few dark clouds, with rims of fire caught from the sinking sun; sometimes the wood was all about him, with close undergrowth and grassy paths. Sometimes he saw a pile of rocks, all overgrown with moss, indistinct in the gloom. Sometimes he saw a dell where a stream went murmuring down, hidden in climbing plants; sometimes a little lawn would open in the heart of the chase, where a deer stood to graze, leaping lightly into the brake at the sight of him.
He came very suddenly to the end of the path. Through the interlaced leaves of the copse a great bulk loomed up, that seemed strangely high and dark; the wood ended, and he saw the Castle before him, with its turrets and battlements showing black against the green sky; a light or two burnt with a fiery redness in some of the high windows.
He stepped out on to the wide platform of the Castle, and saw before him the wooded ridges of the lower hills, with light veils of mist lying among them, that had a golden hue from the setting sun; beyond, rose the shadowy shapes of mountains, that seemed to guard a sweet and solemn secret of peace in their midst. As he looked round, his troop rode briskly out of the wood, with a sudden clatter, and a sharp ringing of weapons, as they came out upon the paved space; and presently a warder looked out, and the great doors of the Castle were opened to them.
Sir Hugh bore with him a letter of great import. The Lord whom he served, the Earl Fitz-Simon, was a man of haughty strength and great pride. His Countess was lately dead, and he had no son to bear his name. He was old and grizzled and brought a terror about with him. He was as powerful indeed as the King himself, of whom the Earl spoke scornfully, without concealment, doing him a scanty homage when they met. Sir Hugh was of distant kin to him, and had been brought up in his Castle; and the Earl went as near loving him as he had ever gone, wishing that he had him as his son, and indeed desiring that he should have the Earldom after him if he had no heir of his own, and marry his only daughter, a grim maiden. And Hugh loved the Earl very faithfully, giving him the worship of a son.
On the day before the Earl had sent for him; and Hugh had stood beside him as he sate and wrote in silence, watching his great bony hand and his knotted brow, bristled with stiff hair. Presently the Earl had thrown down his pen, and exclaiming that he was but an ill clerk, had smiled pleasantly upon Hugh, telling him in a few sour words that he meant to take another wife, and that his choice had fallen upon the Lady Mary, the daughter of the Lord Bigod (whose Castle it was that Sir Hugh now approached). "A goodly maiden, apt to bear strong children to my body." And as he said this he made a pause, and watched Hugh narrowly to see how he took the news, and whether he had hoped for the Earldom after him. But Hugh had given him an open smile in return, and said that he wished him much happiness, and heirs to rule after him. And the Earl had nodded well-pleased, knowing that Hugh had spoken what was in his heart, and that no other man that he knew would have so wished in Hugh's place; and then the Earl had sworn a coarse oath or two, saying that he was old and spent, and if he did not beget an heir, Hugh should come after him; but that if he did beget a man-child, then that Hugh should have the guarding of him after he himself was gone. And then he did up his letter roughly, splashed wax upon it, and pricked it with a signet; and bade Hugh ride in haste with a score of troopers, saying, "And I trust you with this because you do not turn your eyes aside to vanity, as the priests say, and care nothing for the looks of maidens; therefore you will be a safe messenger; and you will put my ring (he gave it him) upon the Lady Mary's finger before the priest, and kiss her on the lips if you have a mind; and bid her ride within the week to the wedding; and stay not for the Lord Bigod, for he is more maid than man, and will not willingly let his daughter go; but will fear to keep her from my behest."
And then he beat his hand on Hugh's shoulder, as his manner was when he was pleased; and then to Hugh's surprise bent and kissed his cheek, as a man might kiss his son, and then, as if ashamed, frowned upon him, and said "with haste!"—and in an hour Hugh was gone.
Now when they entered the Castle, which had a great court within, full of galleries, there was a great stir of people to see them; the horses were led away to the stables; the troopers passed into the guard room; and an old seneschal with a white staff asked Hugh courteously of his business, and then led him up a flight of steps, and into a long dark room, hung with a faded green arras.
Here sate a pale thin man at a table, looking upon a book, in a velvet gown; the seneschal cried out Hugh's name, who made an obeisance, and then advancing, put the letter in the hands of the Lord Bigod, saying, "From the Earl Fitz-Simon; these." Then the Lord Bigod rent the paper, looking curiously upon it; and read therein. Hugh observed him closely; he looked more like a priest than a knight, but there was something very sweet and noble about his air, and he looked as a man might look who had known both sorrow and thought, and wished well to all the world. The Lord Bigod read the letter, and then grew somewhat pale; then he read it again, and walked to the window, turning it in his hands. He stood so long, holding the letter behind him, and looking out, that Hugh saw that he was wrestling in mind and ill-at-ease. Then he turned, and said very courteously to Hugh, though his voice trembled somewhat, "Know you what is within this letter?" And Hugh said, "Yea, sir." And the Lord Bigod said, "It is a great matter." And then, after another long silence, the Lord Bigod turned to the seneschal who waited at the door, and said, "See that Sir Hugh be well bestowed:" and then with an inclination of the head to Sir Hugh he added, "I will think hereon, and you shall hear my words to-morrow." Hugh turned and followed the seneschal out; and he felt a great pity for the kind Lord whom he had left, for he saw that he was in great sadness of mind and perplexity. The seneschal asked Hugh if he would join the knights, but Hugh said he was weary and would rest. So the seneschal led him to a spacious chamber, from which Hugh could see the tree-tops of the forest, and the mountains very black, with a great orange glow of sunset behind; food was served him, and his page came to him, to do off his armour. And presently, seeing that the page was very weary, he bade him lie down to sleep; so the page lay down upon a little bed that was in a turret opening on the room; and soon after Sir Hugh himself lay down upon a great pillared bed, made of oak, and hung with tapestries. But he could not sleep, but lay wearily gazing at the glimmering window and hearing the breathing of the boy in the turret hard by, till at last he too fell asleep.
The morning came with a great brightness and freshness, with the hoarse cries of the jackdaws that lived in the ledges of the tower; Sir Hugh dressed himself carefully and noiselessly, not to wake the page, who still slept deeply; then he stood beside the boy's bed; the boy stretched out his arms in slumber and then awoke, ashamed to be later than his master, and to find him apparelled.
Presently the seneschal came, and led Hugh to the Hall, where were the two sons of the Lord Bigod, with a large company of knights, that stood up at his appearing, and did him great honour; and then came a message for him to go to the Lord Bigod. Hugh saw at once that he was very weary and had not slept; the letter lay on the table beside him; and he said to Hugh that he had given the letter great thought, and that it was a very honourable behest: "And herewith I accept it for the Lady Mary," he said stammeringly, "who will do as my daughter and as the chosen of the honourable Earl should do." Then he was silent for a space, presently adding, "I have not told my daughter the tidings yet; I will tell her; and then you shall have speech with her; but I would," he added, "that there was not such haste in the matter; for a maiden is a tender thing and merits tender usage; do you think, sir"—and here he looked anxiously upon Hugh—"do you think that the Earl will consent to a longer delay, that the maiden may grow accustomed to the thought? She has as yet spoken to no man but myself and her brothers, and though she is fearless and of a high spirit"—he broke off suddenly, and then with a wistful glance at Sir Hugh, added, "Will the Earl delay awhile?" Sir Hugh felt a great pity for the man who stood so anxiously before him, but he hardened his heart and said, "I think that the Earl will not delay his purpose: he is swift to do his will." A great cloud of sadness came down on the Lord Bigod's face, and he said very low, "That is a good way, the way of a great warrior—so be it then, sir," and he softly withdrew, asking Hugh to wait for him.
Then fell a long silence; and Hugh, looking upon the folded letter on the table, felt it to be a cruel thing; but he never wavered in loyalty to the Earl, and thought to himself that the longer the maiden waited the more would she perchance be terrified; that great men must wed as they would—and other things with which he sought to excuse what seemed a harsh deed.
Suddenly he heard a footstep; a door opened; and the Lord Bigod appeared, leading a maiden into the room, who encircled his arm with her hands. She was tall and slender, apparelled all in white, with a girdle of gold. She was very pale, but bore herself with a gentle and simple grace; and there fell upon Hugh a thought that he cast from him as it were with both his hands. He had never known love, and his heart was as pure as snow; the maidens that he had seen had appeared to him but as distant visions of tenderness and grace, stirring in his heart nothing but a sort of brotherly compassion for things so delicate and frail, and unfit for the hard world in which men must live. But at the sight of the Lady Mary, her great eyes, in which there seemed a trace of swimming tears, he felt suddenly a deep passionate hunger of the heart, as though a sweet and deep mystery, lying far-off, had been brought suddenly near to him. Was this love, that great power of which the poets sung; the power which had lost kingdoms and wrought the destruction of men? He feared it was so indeed. He felt as a poor man might, who had lived in pinching want, and had suddenly found a great treasure of gold, at the stroke of a mattock in his field. One glance passed between them; and it seemed as though some other thing had passed; as though their souls had leapt together. Then he dropped his eyes and stood waiting, while a faint fragrance seemed to pass upon the air. Then the Lord Bigod said very gravely, "Sir Hugh, I have told the Lady Mary of your errand; and she will do the bidding of the Earl in every point. To-day we will make preparation; to-morrow shall the betrothal be; and on the third day the Lady Mary shall ride with you; and now I will leave you together for awhile; for the Lady Mary would ask you many things, and you will be courteous and tell her all." Then he kissed his daughter, and led her to a chair before the table, and motioned to Sir Hugh to be seated at the table-side; and then he went out of the room in haste.
Then the Lady Mary began to speak in a low clear voice that had no trembling in it; but her hands that were clasped together on the table trembled; and Hugh took courage, and told her of the greatness of the Earl and his high courage, praising him generously and nobly; he spoke of the Earl's daughter, and of the kinsfolk that abode there; and of the priest of the Castle, and of the knights; and of the Castle itself, and its great woodland chase; and the Lady Mary heard him attentively, her eyes fixed upon his face, and her lips parted. And then she asked him one or two questions, but broke off, and said, "Sir Hugh, you will know that all this is very new and strange to me; but it is not the newness and strangeness that is most in my heart; but it is the thought of what I leave behind, this house and my kin; and my father who is above all things dear to me—for I know no other place but this, and no other faces have I seen." Then Sir Hugh felt his whole heart melted within him at the sight both of her grief and of her high courage. And the thought that she should thus pass in all her stainless grace to the harsh embrace of the old and grim Earl, came like a horror into his heart; but he only said, "Lady, I have dwelt all my life with the Earl and he has ever used me gently and graciously, and he is as a father to me; I know that men fear him; yet I can but say that he has a true heart full of wisdom and might." And the Lady Mary smiled faintly, and said, "I will be sure it is so indeed." And so she rose, and presently withdrew.
The day passed like a swift dream for Sir Hugh. He could think of nothing but the Lady Mary, with a strange leaping of the heart; that she was in the Castle above him, hidden somewhere like a flower in the dark walls; that he would stand before her to plight his Lord's troth; that he would ride with her through the forest; and that he would have her near him through the months, when she was wedded to the Earl—all this was a secret and urgent joy to him; not that he thought ever to win her love—such a traitorous imagining never even crossed his mind—but he thought that she would be as a sweet sister to him, whom he would guard as he could from every shadow of care; the thought of her sadness, and of her fear of the Earl worked strongly in his heart; but he saw no way out of that; and indeed believed, or tried to believe in his heart, that she would love the Earl for his might, and that he would love her for her grace, and that so all would be well.
The next day he rose very early, and was soon summoned to the chapel. There were few present; there seemed indeed, from soft movements and whisperings, to be ladies in a gallery beside the altar, but they were hidden in a lattice. The sons of the Lord Bigod were there, looking full of joyful excitement; other lords and knights sate within the chapel, and an old priest, in stiff vestments, with a worn and patient face, knelt by the altar, his lips moving as in prayer. Presently the Lord Bigod came in, as pale as death and sore troubled, and with him walked the Lady Mary, who seemed to bring the very peace of God with her. She was pale, but clear of complexion, and with a great brightness in her eyes, as of one whose will was strong. Then Hugh drew near to the altar, and plighted the Earl's troth to her, putting the great ring, with its ruby as red as blood, upon her finger. He noticed, as he waited to put the ring upon her hand, that a ray of light from the window darted through the signet, and cast a light, like a drop of blood, upon the maiden's white palm; and then the voice of the priest, raised softly in blessing, fell upon his ear with a tender hope; and at the end he knelt down very gently, and kissed the Lady Mary's hand in token of fealty; and the thought of the Earl's jest about bidding him to kiss her on the lips came like a shameful thought into his mind.
Then the day passed slowly and sadly; but he saw not the Lady Mary save once, when, as he walked in the wood, trying to cool his hot brain with the quiet, he saw her stand on a balcony looking out over the forest with an infinite and patient sadness of air, as of one that bade farewell.
And again the sun went down, and the night passed; and at daybreak he heard the clatter of horsehoofs in the court, the jingling of the stirrups, and the voices of his troop, who made merry adieux to their new comrades.
Then he came down himself; and saw beside his horse a smaller horse richly caparisoned; then in a moment, very swiftly, came the Lady Mary down the stairs, with the Lord Bigod and her brothers; she kissed her brothers, who looked smilingly at her; and then her father, hanging for a moment on his neck, and whispering a word into his ear; and Hugh could see the Lord Bigod's face working, as he restrained his tears, in anguish of heart. Then she smiled palely upon Hugh; her father lifted her to her horse; and they rode out with a great waving of handkerchiefs and crying of farewells, the bell of the Castle ringing as sweet as honey in the tower.
They rode all day in the green forest, with a troop in front and a troop behind. The air was cool and fresh, and the sun lay sweetly upon the glades and woodpaths. All things seemed to rejoice together; the birds sang out of their simple joy, and the doves cooed, hidden in the heart of great green trees; and the joy of being with the maiden outweighed all other thoughts in the mind of Sir Hugh. Sometimes they were silent, and sometimes they talked softly together like brother and sister. What pleased him best was that she seemed to have put all care and anxiety away from her mind; once or twice, after a silence, he saw a tear glisten on her cheek; but she spoke, with no show of courage, but as though she had formed a purpose, and would take whatever befel her with a gentle tranquillity. The little services that he was enabled to do her seemed to him like a treasure that he laid up for the days to come; and the love which he felt in his heart had no shadow in it; it was simply as the worship of a pure spirit for the most delicate and beautiful thing that the world could hold.
At last the sun set when they were yet some miles from the Earl's Castle; and while Hugh was still counting up the minutes that remained to him, he saw the troop in front come to a halt; and presently one of them rode back, and told him with an uneasy air that there was a great smoke in the wood to the left; and that they thought they were not far from the haunts of the Red Hound. But Hugh said lightly, not to terrify the maiden, that the Red Hound was far to the north; to which the trooper replied with a downcast look, "It was so said, sir." "Ride on then warily!" said Hugh—and he bade the troop behind come up nearer. The Lady Mary presently asked him what the matter was; and though by this time a dreadful anxiety had sprung into Hugh's mind, he told her who the Red Hound was, and she replied that she had heard of him; but seeing that he was somewhat troubled she forbore to speak more of that, but pointed out to him a little tuft of red flowers that grew daintily in the crevice of a rock beside the path. He turned to look at it; and suddenly became aware that something, he could not clearly say what, had slipped away at that moment from the bushes beside the road; the thought came into his mind that this was a spy set to watch them; and so he bade the men draw their swords, and close about them in a ring.
They were now in the thickest of the wood. The green road in which they were riding dipped down to a low marshy place, where a stream soaked through the path. The rock, which seemed like a little pinnacle, rose sharply on their left clear of the bushes: all else was forest, except that a little path or clearing led up to the left, among the trees. There was an utter stillness in the air, which was all full of a golden light. The swords came merrily out of the scabbards with a sudden clang. The troopers closed in about them; but then, with a sudden dark rush out of the wood, there swept down the clearing a number of horsemen, roughly clad with leather cuirasses and gaiters, all armed with long pointed spears. It seemed as though they must have been ambushed there against them, they came on with such suddenness.
In a moment there was a scene of fierce confusion; swords flashed high; there were groans and shouts; a trooper, pierced by a lance, fell writhing at their feet; one of the enemy, cut down by a sword blow, fell to the earth and crouched there, blood dripping from his head and shoulder; but the armoured troopers, well drilled and trained, would have prevailed, had not a flight of arrows sung with a sharp rattle out of the thicket, and four of the men behind him fell, two of them instantly slain, and two grievously wounded. The riderless horses, wounded too, rushed snorting down the road, and another troop of men on foot poured out of the forest behind them.
In the middle of the enemies' lancers rode a tall man, red-haired and scowling, with yet something of a knightly air. Hugh recognised him at once as none other than the Red Hound himself, whom he had seen long ago before the days of his outlawry. He did not join in the fight, but sate on his horse a little apart, shouting a command from moment to moment.
Hugh cast a swift glance round; the men on foot were yet some little way off, running down the road; the troopers in front had pushed the lancemen a little way up the clearing; and Hugh determined to attempt a desperate rush with the Lady Mary up the road: desperate indeed it was, but he saw that if he could but get clear of the fight, there were none that could follow, except perhaps the chief himself; Hugh leant across his horse's neck; the Lady Mary sate still and silent, like the daughter of a line of knights, looking at the combat with a steady and unblenching look. He laid his hand on her bridle rein, and she turned and looked in his eyes; and he saw that therein which made him glad in the midst of the dangers—though he was too much accustomed to battle to have fear for himself—it was as a man, that had been long voyaging, might see, in a clear dawn, the cliffs of his home across the leaping seas.
He pointed, and said a word in her ear; she glanced at him, nodded, and drew up her rein; but at that moment his horse gave a short upward jerk, and then fell grovelling on his knees, an arrow sticking in his side, close to Sir Hugh's knee. He flung his foot clear, and leapt to the Lady's side; and then in a moment he saw that the battle was gone against him past mending. Another flight of arrows sang from the thicket, and four of the troopers in the glade fell from their horses, and the lancers, who were drawing back, pressed down upon them. Then Sir Hugh signed swiftly to the Lady that she should ride clear; but in that moment the Lady's horse fell too. Sir Hugh caught her in his arms, and dragged her free of the horse, tearing her gown by the knee, for the arrow that had slain the horse had pierced through the Lady's garment, though without wounding her. Then he saw that they were very hard beset, and that there was no way out; so he hastened to the rock, laid his hands upon a little ledge about as high as his head; leapt up, set his sword beside him, and then, stooping down, drew the Lady up beside him. Then he shouted to his men to come back to the rock; there were but a handful left; but they drew back slowly, and made a little ring about the base of the rock, while the others drew slowly in around them, but halted at a little distance, fearing the flashing swords.
The Red Hound himself stood near at hand; Hugh heard him shout his commands aloud, and heard him say that they should save the girl alive, and take the Knight captive if they could—and the Lady Mary heard it too, for she turned to Sir Hugh, and with a sudden look of entreaty, said, "Hugh, I must not fall into his hands." He looked at her smiling, and said, "Nay, dear, you shall not."
And then Hugh saw that it was indeed the end, and that his death was at hand; he had seen men in abundance die, and had often wondered how it was that death should come to him at the last. But now, instead of fear, there came to him a sort of fierce joy that he should die with her whom he was now not ashamed to love; and in the midst of the shouting and the tumult, he had a sudden vision of himself and her wandering away, two happy spirits, hand in hand, from the place of their passion.
And now the last of his troopers had fallen. Then the Lady Mary drew close to him, and said, "Is it time?" And he said, "Yes, dear, it is the time; fear nought—you will feel nothing—and you will wait for me, for I shall follow you close. And now, dear one, turn your face from me lest it unman me—there is nought to fear." So she smiled again, and he kissed her on the lips, and she turned from him; and he struck one stroke with his sword; she quivered once, and sinking down moved no more.
Then Sir Hugh prayed a prayer; and looking upon his sword, off which the blood now dripped, he poised it in his hand like a lance. The spearmen had closed in to the rock. But Hugh hurled his sword point foremost at the Red Hound, and saw it sink through his skull, till the hilt clattered on his brow; and then he cast one look upon the Lady; and, as a man might enter the gates of his home, he leapt very joyfully down among the spears.
THE HILL OF TROUBLE
There was once a great scholar, Gilbert by name, who lived at Cambridge, and was Fellow of St. Peter's College there. He was still young, and yet he had made himself a name for learning, and still more for wisdom, which is a different thing, though the two are often confused. Gilbert was a slender, spare man, but well-knit and well-proportioned. He loved to wear old scholarly garments, but he had that sort of grace in wearing them that made him appear better apparelled than most men in new clothes. His hair was thick and curling, and he had small features clearly cut. His lips were somewhat thin, as though from determined thought. He carried his eyes a little wrinkled up, as though to spare them from the light; but he had a gracious look which he turned on those with whom he spoke; and when he opened his eyes upon you, they were large and clear, as though charged with dreams; and he had a very sweet smile, trustful and gentle, that seemed to take any that spoke with him straight to his heart, and made him many friends. He had the look rather of a courtier than of a priest, and he was merry and cheerful in discourse, so that you might be long with him and not know him to be learned. It may be said that he had no enemies, though he did not conceal his beliefs and thoughts, but stated them so courteously and with such deference to opposite views, that he drew men insensibly to his side. It was thought by many that he ought to go into the world and make a great name for himself. But he loved the quiet College life, the familiar talk with those he knew. He loved the great plenty of books and the discourse of simple and wise men. He loved the fresh bright hours of solitary work, the shady College garden, with its butts and meadows, bordered by ancient walls. He loved to sit at meat in the cool and spacious hall; and he loved too the dark high-roofed College Church, and his own canopied stall with the service-books in due order, the low music of the organ, and the sweet singing of the choir. He was not rich, but his Fellowship gave him all that he desired, together with a certain seemly dignity of life that he truly valued; so that his heart was very full of a simple happiness from day to day, and he thought that he would be more than content to live out his life in the peaceful College that he loved so well.
But he was ambitious too; he was writing a great book full of holy learning; and he had of late somewhat withdrawn himself from the life of the College; he sate longer at his studies and he was seen less often in other Colleges. Ten years he gave himself to finish his task, and he thought that it would bring him renown; but that was only a far-off dream, gilding his studies with a kind of peaceful glory; and indeed he loved the doing of his work better than any reward he might get for it.
One summer he felt he wanted some change of life; the sultry Cambridge air, so dry and low, seemed to him to be heavy and lifeless. He began to dream of fresh mountain breezes, and the sound of leaping streams; so at last he packed his books into a box, and set off a long journey into the hills of the West, to a village where an old friend of his was the priest, who he knew would welcome him.
On the sixth day he arrived at the place; he had enjoyed the journey; much of the time he had ridden, but he often walked, for he was very strong and active of body; he had delighted in seeing the places he had passed through, the churches and the towns and the castles that lay beside the way; he had been pleased with the simple friendly inns, and as his custom was had talked with all travellers that he met. And most of all he had loved, as he drew nearer the West, to see the great green slopes of hills, the black heads of mountains, the steep wooded valleys, where the road lay along streams, that dashed among mossy boulders into still pools.
At last he came to the village which he sought, which lay with its grey church and low stone houses by a bridge, in a deep valley. The vicarage lay a little apart in a pleasant garden; and his friend the Vicar had made him greatly welcome. The Vicar was an old man and somewhat infirm, but he loved the quiet life of the country, and knew all the joys and sorrows of his simple flock. A large chamber was set apart for Gilbert, who ranged his books on a great table, and prepared for much quiet work. The window of the chamber looked down the valley, which was very still. There was no pattering of feet in the road, as there was at Cambridge; the only sounds were the crying of cocks or the bleating of sheep from the hill-pastures, the sound of the wind in the woods, and the falling of water from the hills. So Gilbert was well content.
For the first few days he was somewhat restless; he explored the valley in all directions. The Vicar could not walk much, and only crept to and fro in the town, or to church; and though he sometimes rode to the hills, to see sick folk on upland farms, yet he told Gilbert that he must go his walks alone; and Gilbert was not loth; for as he thus went by himself in the fresh air, a stream of pleasant fancies and gentle thoughts passed lightly through his head, and his work shaped itself in his brain, like a valley seen from a height, where the fields and farms lie out, as if on a map, with the road winding among them that ties them with the world.
One day Gilbert walked alone to a very solitary place among the hills, a valley where the woods grew thickly; the valley was an estuary, where the sea came up blue and fresh twice in the day, covering the wide sandbanks with still water that reflected the face of the sky; in the midst of the valley, joined with the hillside by a chain of low mounds, there rose a large round hill, covered with bushes which grew thickly over the slopes, and among little crags, haunted by hawks and crows. It looked a very solitary, peaceful hill, and he stopped at a farm beside the road to inquire of the way thither, because he was afraid of finding himself unable to cross the streams.
At his knock there came out an ancient man, with whom Gilbert entered into simple travellers' talk of the weather and the road; Gilbert asked him the name of the place, and the man told him that it was called the Gate of the Old Hollow. Then Gilbert pointing to the hill that lay in the midst, asked him what that was. The old man looked at him for a moment without answering, and then said in a low voice, "That, sir, is the Hill of Trouble." "That is a strange name!" said Gilbert. "Yes," said the old man, "and it is a strange place, where no one ever sets foot—there is a cruel tale about it; there is something that is not well about the place."
Gilbert was surprised to hear the other speak so gravely; but the old man, who was pleased with his company, asked him if he would not rest awhile and eat; and Gilbert said that he would do so gladly, and the more gladly if the other would tell him the story of the place. The old man led him within into a large room, with plain oak furniture, and brought him bread and honey and milk; and Gilbert ate, while the old man told him the legend of the Hill.
He said that long years ago it was a place of heathen worship, and that there stood a circle of stones upon it, where sacrifice was done; and that men, it was said, were slain there with savage rites; and that when the Christian teachers came, and the valley became obedient to the faith, it was forbidden the villagers to go there, and for long years it was desolate; but there had dwelt in the manor-house hard by a knight, fearless and rough, who regarded neither God nor man, who had lately wedded a wife whom he loved beyond anything in the world. And one day there was with the knight a friend who was a soldier, and after dinner, in foolish talk, the knight said that he would go to the Hill, and he made a wager on it. The knight's lady besought him not to go, but he girded on his sword and went laughing. Now at the time, the old man said, there was much fighting in the valley, for the people were not yet subject to the English king, but paid tribute to their own Lords; and the knight had been one that fought the best. What the knight saw on the hill no one ever knew, but he came back at sundown, pale, and like a man that has been strangely scared, looking behind him as though he expected to be followed by something; and from that day he kept his chamber, and would not go abroad, or if he went out, he went fearfully, looking about him; and the English men-at-arms came to the valley, but the knight that had ever been foremost in the fight would not ride out to meet them, but kept his bed. The manor lay off the road, and he ordered a boy to lie in the copse beside the way, and to come up to the house to tell him if any soldiers went by. But a troop of horse came secretly over the hill; and seeing the place lie so solitary and deserted, and being in haste, they came not in, but one of them shot a bolt at a venture; but the knight, it seemed, must have stolen from his bed, and have been peeping through the shutters; for the knight's lady who sate below in sore shame and grief for her husband's cowardice, heard a cry, and coming up found him in his bedgown lying by the window, and a bolt sticking in his brain.
Her grief and misery were so sore at this, that she was for a time nearly mad; they buried the knight in secret in the churchyard; but the lady sate for many days speaking to no one, beating with her hand upon the table and eating little.
One day it seems that she had the thought to go herself to the Hill of Trouble, so she robed herself in haste, and went at early dawn; she went in secret, and came back at noon, smiling to herself, with all her grief gone; and she sate for three days thus with her hands folded, and from her face it was plain that there was joy in her heart; and on the third evening they found her cold and stiff in her chair, dead an hour since, but she was still smiling. And the lands passed to a distant kinsman. And since that day, said the old man, no one had ever set foot on the Hill, except a child not long since that strayed thither, and came back in a great fear, saying that he had seen and spoken with an old man, that had seemed to be angry, but that another person, all in white, had come between them, and had led him by the hand to the right road; it could not be known why the child was frightened, but he said that it was the way the old man looked, and the suddenness with which he came and went; but of the other he had no fear, though he knew him not. "And that, sir, is the tale."
Gilbert was very much astonished at the tale, and though he was not credulous, the story dwelt strongly in his mind. It was now too late to visit the Hill, even if he had wished; and he could not have so vexed the old man as to visit it from his house. He stood for awhile at the gate looking down at it. It was hot and still in the valley. The tide was out and the warm air quivered over the sandbanks. But the Hill had a stillness of its own, as though it guarded a secret, and lay looking out towards the sea. He could see the small crags upon it, in the calm air, and the bushes that grew plentifully all over it, with here and there a little green lawn, or a glade sloping down to the green flat in which it stood. The old man was beside him and said in his shrill piping voice, "You are not thinking of going to the Hill, sir?" "Not now, at all events," said Gilbert, smiling. But the old man said, "Ah, sir, you will not go—there are other things in this world of ours, beside the hills and woods and farms; it would be strange if that were all. The spirits of the dead walk at noonday in the places they have loved; and I have thought that the souls of those who have done wickedness are sometimes bound to a place where they might have done good things, and while they are vexed at all the evil their hands have wrought, they are drawn by a kind of evil habit to do what they chose to do on earth. Perhaps those who are faithful can resist them—but it is ill to tempt them."
Gilbert was surprised at this wise talk from so simple a man; and he said, "How is it that these thoughts come into your mind?" "Oh, sir," said the other, "I am old and live much alone; and these are some of the thoughts that come into my head as I go about my work, but who sends them to me I cannot tell."
Then Gilbert said farewell, and would have paid for his meal, but the old man courteously refused, and said that it was a pleasure to see a stranger in that lonely place; and that it made him think more kindly of the world to talk so simply with one who was, he was sure, so great a gentleman.
Gilbert smiled, and said he was only a simple scholar; and then he went back to the vicarage house. He told the Vicar of his adventure, and the Vicar said he had heard of the Hill, and that there was something strange in the dread which the place inspired. Then Gilbert said, half impatiently, that it was a pity that people were so ridden by needless superstition, and made fears for themselves when there was so much in the world that it was well to fear. But the old Vicar shook his head. "They are children, it is true," he said, "but children, I often think, are nearer to heaven than ourselves, and perhaps have glimpses of things that it is harder for us to see as we get older and more dull."
But Gilbert made up his mind as they talked that he would see the place for himself; and that night he dreamed of wandering over lonely places with a fear upon him of he knew not what. And waking very early, after a restless night, and seeing the day freshly risen, and the dewy brightness of the valley, he put on his clothes in haste, and taking with him a slice of bread from the table, he set out blithely for the Hill, with an eagerness of spirit that he had been used to feel as a child.
He avoided the farm, and took a track that seemed to lead into the valley, which led him up and down through little nooks and pastures, till he came to the base of the Hill. It was all skirted by a low wall of piled stones covered with grey lichens, where the brambles grew freely; but the grass upon the Hill itself had a peculiar richness and luxuriance, as though it was never trodden or crushed underfoot. Gilbert climbed the wall, but the brambles clung to him as though to keep him back; he disentangled them one by one, and in a moment he found himself in a little green glade, among small crags, that seemed to lead to the top of the Hill. He had not gone more than a few paces when the pleasure and excitement died out of his mind, and left him feeling weary and dispirited. But he said to himself that it was his troubled night, and the walk at the unusual hour, and the lack of food; so he took out his bread and ate it as he walked, and presently he came to the top.
Then he suddenly saw that he was at the place described; in front of him stood a tall circle of stones, very grey with age. Some of them were flung down and were covered with bushes, but several of them stood upright. The place was strangely silent; he walked round the circle, and saw that it occupied the top of the Hill; below him were steep crags, and when he looked over he was surprised to see all down the rocks, on ledges, a number of crows that sate silent in the sun. At the motion he made, a number of them, as though surprised to be disturbed, floated off into the air, with loud jangling cries; and a hawk sailed out from the bushes and hung, a brown speck, with trembling wings. Gilbert saw the rich plain at his feet and the winding creek of the sea, and the great hills on left and right, in a blue haze. Then he stepped back, and though he had a feeling that it would be wiser not to go, he put it aside and went boldly into the circle of stones. He stood there for a moment, and then feeling very weary, sate down on the turf, leaning his back against a stone; then came upon him a great drowsiness. He was haunted by a sense that it was not well to sleep there, and that the dreaming mind was an ill defence against the powers of the air—yet he put the thought aside with a certain shame and fell asleep.
He woke with a sudden start some time after; there was a chill in his limbs, not from the air which glowed bright in the steady sun, but a chill of the spirit that made his hair prickle in an unusual way. He raised himself up and looked round him, for he knew by a certain sense that he was not alone; and then he saw leaning against one of the stones and watching him intently, a very old and weary-looking man. The man was pale and troubled; he had a rough cloak such as the peasants wore, the hood of which was pulled over his head; his hair was white and hung about his ears; he had a staff in his hand. But there was a dark look about him, and Gilbert divined in some swift passage of the spirit that he did not wish him well. Gilbert rose to his feet, and at the same moment the old man drew near; and though he looked so old and feeble, Gilbert had the feeling that he was strong and even dangerous. But Gilbert showed no surprise; he doffed his hat to the old man, and said courteously that he hoped he had not wandered to some private place, where he ought not to be. "The heat was great, and I slept unawares," he said. The old man at first made no answer, and then said in a very low and yet clear voice, "Nay, sir, you are welcome. The Hill is free to all; but it has an evil name, I know, and I see but few upon it." Then Gilbert said courteously that he was but a passer-by, and that he must set off home again, before the sun was high. And at that the old man said, "Nay, sir, but as you have come, you will surely wait awhile and speak with me. I see," he added, "so few of humankind, that my mind and tongue are alike stiff with disuse; but you can tell me something of your world—and I," he added, "can tell you something of mine." Then there came suddenly on Gilbert a great fear, and he looked round on the tall stones of the circle that seemed to be like a prison. Then he said, "I am but a simple scholar from Cambridge, and my knowledge of the world is but small; we work," he said, "we write and read, we talk and eat together, and sometimes we pray." The old man looked at him with a sudden look, under his brows, as he said the words; and then he said, "So, sir, you are a priest; and your faith is a strong one and avails much; but there is a text about the strong man armed who is overcome of the stronger. And though the faith you teach is like a fort in an enemy's country, in which men may dwell safely, yet there is a land outside; and a fort cannot always hold its own." He said this in so evil and menacing a tone that Gilbert said, "Come, sir, these are wild words; would you speak scorn of the faith that is the light of God and the victory that overcometh?" Then the old man said, "Nay, I respect the faith—and fear it even," he added in a secret tone—"but I have grown up in a different belief, and the old is better—and this also is a little stronghold, which holds its own in the midst of foes; but I would not be disputing," he added—and then with a smile, "Nay, sir, I know what is in your mind; you like not this place—and you are right; it is not fit for you to set your holy feet in; but it is mine yet; and so you must even accept the hospitality of the place; you shall look thrice in my glass, and see if you like what you shall see." And he held out to Gilbert a small black shining thing. Gilbert would have wished to refuse it, but his courtesy bade him take it—and indeed he did not know if he could have refused the old man, who looked so sternly upon him. So he took it in his hand. It was a black polished stone like a sphere, and it was very cold to the touch—so cold that he would fain have thrown it down; but he dared not. So he said with such spirit as he could muster, "And what shall I see beside the stone?—it seems a fair and curious jewel—I cannot give it a name." "Nay," said the old man sharply, "it is not the stone; the stone is naught; but it hides a mystery. You shall see it in the stone."
And Gilbert said, "And what shall I see in the stone?" And the old man said, "What shall be."
So Gilbert looked upon the stone; the sun shone upon it in a bright point of light—and for an instant he saw nothing but the gleaming sides of the ball. But in a moment there came upon him a dizziness like that which comes upon a man who, walking on a hill-top, finds himself on the edge of a precipice. He seemed to look into a great depth, into the dark places of the earth—but in the depth there hung a mist like a curtain. Now while he looked at it he saw a commotion in the mist; and looking closer, he saw that it seemed to be something waving to and fro that drove the mist about; and presently he saw the two arms of a man; and then the mist parted, and he saw the figure of a man standing and waving with his arms, like a man who would fan smoke aside; and the smoke fled from the waving arms and rolled away; and the man stepped aside.
Then Gilbert looked beyond, and he saw a room with a low ceiling and a mullioned window; and he knew it at once for his room in St. Peter's College. There were books on the table; and he saw what seemed like himself, risen to his feet, as though at a sound; and then he saw the door open and a man come in who made an obeisance, and the two seemed to talk together, and presently Gilbert saw the other man pull something from a cloth and put it in his own hands. And the figure of himself seemed to draw near the window to look at the thing; and though it was all very small and distant, yet Gilbert could see that he held in his hands a little figure that seemed a statue. And then the mist rolled in again and all was hid.
He came to himself like a man out of a dream, he had been so intent on what appeared; and he saw the hill-top and the circle of stones, and the old man who stood watching him with a secret smile upon his face. Then Gilbert made as though he would give the stone back, but before he could speak, the old man pointed to the stone again—and Gilbert looked again and saw the deep place, and the cloud, and the man part the cloud.
Then he saw within a garden, and he knew it at once to be the garden of St. Peter's; it seemed to be summer, for the trees were in leaf. He saw himself stand, carrying something in his hand, and looking at a place in the garden wall. There was something on the wall, a patch of white, but he could not see what it was; and beneath it there stood a small group of men in scholars' dress who looked upon the wall, but he could not see their faces; but one whom he recognised as the Master of the College stood with a stick in his hand, and pointed to the white patch on the wall—and then something seemed to run by, a cat or dog, and all at once the cloud flowed in over the picture; and again he came to himself and saw the hill-top, and the stones, and the old man, who had drawn a little nearer, and looked at him with a strange smile. And again he pointed to the stone; and Gilbert looked again and saw the cloud work very swiftly and part, and the man who swept the clouds off came forth for an instant, and then was lost to view.
And Gilbert saw a very dark place, with something long and white, that glimmered faintly, lying in the midst; and he bent down to look at it, but could not discern what it was. Then he saw in the darkness which surrounded the glimmering thing some small threads of dusky white, and some small round things; and he looked at them long; and presently discerned that the round things were pebbles, and that the white threads were like the roots of trees; and then he perceived that he was looking into the earth; and then with a sickly chill of fear he saw that the long and glimmering thing was indeed the body of a man, wrapped in grave-clothes from head to foot. And he could now distinguish—for it grew more distinct—the sides of a coffin about it, and some worms that moved to and fro in their dark burrows; but the corpse seemed to shine with a faint light of its own—and then he could see the wasted feet, and the thin legs and arms of the body within; the hands were folded over the breast; and then he looked at the face; and he saw his own face, only greatly sunk and fallen, with a bandage that tied up the chin, and leaden eyes; and then the clouds swept in upon it; and he came to himself like a drowning man, and saw that he was in the same place; and his first thought was a thrill of joy to know that he was alive; but then he groaned aloud, and he saw the old man stand beside him with a very terrible look upon his face, holding out his hand for the stone in silence; so Gilbert gave him back the stone, and then with a fierce anger said, "Why have you shown me this? for this is the trickery of hell." And the old man looked at him very sternly and said, "Why then did you come to this place? You were not called hither, and they that pry must be punished. A man who pulls open the door which leads from the present into the future must not be vexed if he sees the truth—and now, sir," he added very angrily, "depart hence in haste; you have seen what you have seen." So Gilbert went slowly from the circle, and very heavily, and as he stepped outside he looked back. But there was nothing there but the turf and the grey stones.
Gilbert went slowly down the Hill with a shadow upon him, like a man who has passed through a sudden danger, or who has had a sudden glimpse into the dark realities of life. But the whole experience was so strange and dreamlike, so apart from the wholesome current of his life, that his fears troubled him less than he had supposed; still, a kind of hatred for the quiet valley began to creep over him, and he found himself sitting long over his books, looking down among the hills, and making no progress. If he was not silent when in company with the old Vicar, it was because he made a strong effort, and because his courtesy came to his assistance. Indeed the old Vicar thought that he had never known Gilbert so tender or thoughtful as he had been in the last week of his visit. The truth was that it was an effort to Gilbert to talk about himself, and he therefore drew the old priest on to talk about the details of his own life and work. Thus, though Gilbert talked less himself, he was courteously attentive, so that the old man had a sense that there had been much pleasant interchange of feeling, whereas he had contributed the most of the talk himself. Gilbert, too, found a great comfort in the offices of the Church in these days, and prayed much that, whatever should befall him, he might learn to rest in the mighty will of God for himself, whatever that will might be.
Soon after this he went back to Cambridge, and there, among his old friends and in his accustomed haunts, the whole impression of the vision on the Hill of Trouble grew faint and indistinct, especially as no incident occurred to revive it. He threw himself into his work, and the book grew under his hands; and he seemed to be more eager to fill his hours than before, and avoided solitary meditation.
Some three years after the date of his vision, there was announced to him by letter the advent of a great scholar to Cambridge, who had read one of Gilbert's books, and was desirous to be introduced to him. Gilbert was sitting one day in his rooms, after a happy quiet morning, when the porter came to the door and announced the scholar. He was a tall eager man, who came forward with great friendliness, and said some courteous words about his pleasure at having met one whom he was so desirous to see. He carried something in his hand, and after the first compliments, said that he had ventured to bring Gilbert a little curiosity that had lately been dug up at Rome, and which he had been fortunate in securing. He drew off a wrapper, and held out to Gilbert a little figure of a Muse, finely sculptured, with an inscription on the pedestal. Gilbert stepped to the window to look at it, and as he did so it flashed across his mind that this was surely the scene that he had observed in the black stone. He stood for a moment with the statue in his hand, with such a strange look in his face, that the new-comer thought for an instant that his gift must have aroused some sad association. But Gilbert recovered himself in a moment and resolutely put the thought out of his mind, praised the statue, and thereupon entered into easy talk.
The great scholar spent some days at Cambridge, and Gilbert was much with him. They talked of learned matters together, but the great scholar said afterwards that though Gilbert was a man of high genius and of great insight into learning, yet he felt in talking with him as though he had some further and deeper preoccupation of thought.
Indeed when Gilbert, by laying of dates together, became aware that it was three years to a day since he had seen the vision in the stone, he was often haunted by the thought of his visit to the Hill. But this lasted only a few days; and he took comfort at the thought that he had seen a further vision in the stone which seemed at least to promise him three more peaceful years of unchanged work, before he need give way to the heaviness that the third vision had caused him. Yet it lay like a dark background in his thoughts.
He kept very much to his work after this event, and became graver and sterner in face, so that his friends thought that his application to study was harmful. But when they spoke of it to Gilbert, he used to say laughingly that nothing but work made life worthy, and that he was making haste; and indeed the great book grew so fast that he was within sight of the end. He had many wrestles within himself, about this time, as to the goodness and providence of God. He argued to himself that he had been led very tenderly beside the waters of comfort, that he had served God as faithfully as he could—and indeed he had little to reproach himself with, though he began to blame himself for living a life that pleased him, and for not going about more in the world helping weak brethren along the way, as the Lord Christ had done. Yet again he said to himself that the great doctors and fathers of the Church had deemed it praiseworthy that a man should devote all the power of his brain to making the divine oracle clear, and that the apostle Paul had spoken of a great diversity of gifts which could be used faithfully in the service of Christ. Still, he reflected that the truest glimpse into the unknown that he had ever received—for he doubted no longer of the truth of the vision—had come to him from one that was, he thought, outside the mercies of God, an unhallowed soul, shut off by his own will and by his wickedness from the fold; and this was a sore burden to him.
At last the book was done; and he went with it to a friend he had at Oxford, a mighty scholar, to talk over some difficult passages. The opinion of the scholar had been cordial and encouraging; he had said that the book was a very great and sound work, useful for doctrine and exhortation, and that many men had given their whole lives to work without achieving such a result. Gilbert had some of the happiness which comes to one who has completed a lengthy task; and though the time drew nigh at which he might expect a further fulfilment of the vision, he was so filled with gratitude at the thought of the great work he had done, that there was little fear or expectation in his mind.
He returned one summer afternoon to Cambridge, and the porter told him that the Master and several of the Fellows were in the garden, and would fain see him on his arrival. So Gilbert, carrying a little bundle which contained his precious book, went out there at once. The Master had caused to be made a new sundial, which he had affixed in such a way to the wall that those whose chambers gave on the garden could read the time of day without waiting to hear the bells.
When Gilbert came out he saw the little group of Fellows standing by the wall, while the Master with a staff pointed out the legend on the dial, which said that the only hours it told were the hours of sunshine. It came upon Gilbert in a moment that this was the second vision, and though two or three of the group saw him and turned to him with pleasant greetings, he stood for a moment lost in the strangeness of the thing. One of them said, "He stands amazed at the novelty of the design;" and as he said the words, an old gray cat that belonged to the College, and lodged somewhere in the roofs, sprang from a bush and ran past him. One of the Fellows said, "Aha, cats do not love change!" and then Gilbert came forward, and greeted his friends; but there lay a cold and terrible thought in the background of his mind, and he could not keep it out of his face; so that one of the Fellows, drawing him aside, asked if he had a good verdict on the book, for he seemed as one that was ill-pleased. And the Master, fearing that Gilbert did not like the dial, came and said to him courteously that he knew it was a new-fangled thing, but that it was useful, and in itself not unpleasant, and that it would soon catch a grace of congruity from the venerable walls around. "But," he added, "if you do not like it, it shall be put in some other place." Then Gilbert bestirred himself and said that he liked the dial very well, so that the Master was content.
But Gilbert, as soon as he was by himself, delivered his mind up to heavy contemplation; the vision had twice fulfilled itself, and it was hardly to be hoped that it would fail the third time. He sent his book to be copied out fair, and when it was gone it was as though he had lost his companion. The hours passed very slowly and drearily; he wrote a paper, to fill the time, of his wishes with regard to what should be done with his books and little property after his death, and was half minded to tear it up again. And then after a few days of purposeless and irresolute waiting, he made up his mind that he must go again to the West, and see his friend the old priest. And though he did not say it to himself in words, yet a purpose slowly shaped itself in his mind that he must at all cost go to the Hill, and learn again what should be, and that thus alone could he break the spell.
He spent a morning in making his farewells; he tried to speak to his friends as usual, but they noticed long afterwards that he had used a special tenderness and wistfulness in all he said; he sate long in his own room, with a great love in his heart for the beautiful and holy peace of the place, and for all the happiness he had known there; and then he prayed very long and earnestly in the chapel, kneeling in his stall; and his heart was somewhat lightened.
Then he set off; but before he mounted his horse he looked very lovingly at the old front of the College, and his servant saw that his eyes were full of tears and that his lips moved; and so Gilbert rode along to the West.
His journey was very different from the same journey taken six years before; he spoke with none, and rode busily, like one who is anxious to see some sad errand through. He found the old Vicar still more infirm and somewhat blind; but the Vicar said that he was very happy to see him, as he himself was near the end of life, and that he could hope for but few years,—adding that it was far different for Gilbert, who, he supposed, would very soon be a Dean with a Cathedral of his own, and would forget his humble friend the old Vicar. But Gilbert put the wit aside, and talked earnestly with the Vicar about the end of life and what might be hereafter. But the old Vicar said solemnly that he knew not, and indeed cared little. But that he would go into the dark like a child holding a loving hand, and would have no need to fear.
That night Gilbert lay in his bed awake, and very strange thoughts passed through his mind, which he strove to quiet by prayers; and so fell asleep; till at last in the dim dawn he awoke. Then after a moment's thought he took a paper and wrote on it, saying that he was gone out and knew not when he would return; but he prayed the Vicar that when he should find the paper, he should at once fall to prayer for him, for there was a sore conflict before him to fight out, both in soul and body, and what would be the issue he knew not. "And if," the end of the writing ran, "I must depart hence, then pray that my passage may be easy, and that I may find the valley bright." And he laid the paper upon the table. Then he dressed himself, and went out alone into the valley, walking swiftly and intently—so intently that when he passed the farm he marked not that the old farmer was sitting in an arbour in the garden, who called shrilly to him; but Gilbert heard not, and the old farmer was too weak to follow; so Gilbert went down to the Hill of Trouble.
It lay, as it had lain six years before, very still and beautiful in the breathless sunshine. The water was in the creek, a streak of sapphire blue; the birds called in the crags, and the bushes and lawns glistened fresh with dew.
But Gilbert, very pale and with his heart beating fast, came to the wall and surmounted it, and went swiftly up the Hill, till he found himself near the stones; then he looked once round upon the hills and the sea, and then with a word of prayer he stepped within the circle.
This time he had not long to wait. As he entered the circle he saw the old man enter from the opposite side and come to meet him, with a strange light of triumph in his eyes. Then Gilbert looked him in the face with a rising horror, and said, "Sir, I have come again; and I doubt the truth of your vision no longer; I have done my work, and I have twice seen the fulfilment—now therefore tell me of my end—that I may be certified how long I have to live. For the shadow of the doubt I cannot bear."
And the old man looked at him with something of compassion and said, "You are young, and you fear the passage hence, knowing not what may be on the other side of the door; but you need not fear. Even I, who have small ground of hope, am ashamed that I feared it so much. But what will you give me if I grant your boon?"
Then Gilbert said, "I have nothing to give."
Then the old man said, "Think once more." Then was there a silence; and Gilbert said:
"Man, I know not what or who thou art; but I think that thou art a lost soul; one thing I can give thee.... I will myself intercede for thee before the Throne."
Then the old man looked at him for a moment, and said, "I have waited long ... and have received no comfort till now;" and then he said, "Wilt thou promise?"
And Gilbert said, "In the name of God, Amen."
Then the old man stretched out his hand and said, "Art thou ready? for the time is come; and thou art called now;" and he touched Gilbert on the breast.
Gilbert looked into the old man's eyes, and seemed to see there an unfathomable sadness, such as he had never seen; but at the touch a pain so fierce and agonising passed through him, that he sank upon the ground and covered his face with his hands.
Just at this time the old priest found the paper; and he divined the truth. So he called his servant and bade him saddle his horse in haste; and then he fell to prayer.
Then he rode down the valley; and though he feared the place, yet he rode to the Hill of Trouble; and though his sight was dim and his limbs feeble, it seemed to him that some one walked beside the horse and guided him; and as he prayed he knew that all was over, and that Gilbert had peace.
He came soon to the place; and there he found Gilbert lying on the turf; and his sight was so dim that it seemed to him as though some one slipped away from Gilbert's side. He put Gilbert on his horse, and held the poor helpless body thereon, but there was so gentle a smile on the face of the dead that he could not fear.
The body of Gilbert lies in the little churchyard; his great book keeps his memory bright; and on the top of the Hill of Trouble stands a little chapel, built out of the stones of the circle; and on the wall, painted at the old priest's charge, is a picture of the Lord Christ, with wounded hands and side, preaching to the disobedient spirits in prison; and they hear him and are glad.
THE GRAY CAT
The knight Sir James Leigh lived in a remote valley of the Welsh Hills. The manor house, of rough grey stone, with thick walls and mullioned windows, stood on a rising ground; at its foot ran a little river, through great boulders. There were woods all about; but above the woods, the bare green hills ran smoothly up, so high, that in the winter the sun only peeped above the ridge for an hour or two; beyond the house, the valley wound away into the heart of the hills, and at the end a black peak looked over. The place was very sparsely inhabited; within a close of ancient yew trees stood a little stone church, and a small parsonage smothered in ivy, where an old priest, a cousin of the knight, lived. There were but three farms in the valley, and a rough track led over the hills, little used, except by drovers. At the top of the pass stood a stone cross; and from this point you could see the dark scarred face of the peak to the left, streaked with snow, which did not melt until the summer was far advanced.
Sir James was a silent sad man, in ill-health; he spoke little and bore his troubles bitterly; he was much impoverished, through his own early carelessness, and now so feeble in body that he had small hope of repairing the fortune he had lost. His wife was a wise and loving woman, who, though she found it hard to live happily in so lonely a place with a sickly husband, met her sorrows with a cheerful face, visited her poorer neighbours, and was like a ray of sunlight in the gloomy valley. They had one son, a boy Roderick, now about fifteen; he was a bright and eager child, who was happy enough, taking his life as he found it—and indeed he had known no other. He was taught a little by the priest; but he had no other schooling, for Sir James would spend no money except when he was obliged to do so. Roderick had no playmates, but he never found the time to be heavy; he was fond of long solitary rambles on the hills, being light of foot and strong.
One day he had gone out to fish in the stream, but it was bright and still, and he could catch nothing; so at last he laid his rod aside in a hollow place beneath the bank, and wandered without any certain aim along the stream. Higher and higher he went, till he found, looking about him, that he was as high as the pass; and then it came into his mind to track the stream to its source. The Manor was now out of sight, and there was nothing round him but the high green hills, with here and there a sheep feeding. Once a kite came out and circled slowly in the sun, pouncing like a plummet far down the glen; and still Roderick went onwards till he saw that he was at the top of the lower hills, and that the only thing higher than him was the peak itself. He saw now that the stream ran out of a still black pool some way in front of him, that lay under the very shadow of the dark precipice, and was fed by the snows that melted from the face. It was surrounded by rocks that lay piled in confusion. But the whole place wore an air that was more than desolate; the peak itself had a cruel look, and there was an intent silence, which was only broken, as he gazed, by the sound of rocks falling loudly from the face of the hill and thundering down. The sun warned him that he had gone far enough; and he determined to go homewards, half pleased at his discovery, and half relieved to quit so lonely and grim a spot.
That evening, when he sate with his father and mother at their simple meal, he began to say where he had been. His father heard him with little attention, but when Roderick described the dark pool and the sharp front of the peak he asked him abruptly how near he had gone to the pool. Roderick said that he had seen it from a distance, and then Sir James said somewhat sharply that he must not wander so far, and that he was not to go near that place again. Roderick was surprised at this, for his father as a rule interfered little with what he did; but he did not ask his father the reason, for there was something peevish, even harsh, in his tone. But afterwards, when he went out with his mother, leaving the knight to his own gloomy thoughts, as his will and custom was, his mother said with some urgency, "Roderick, promise me not to go to the pool again; it has an evil name, and is better left to itself." Roderick was eager to know the story of the place, but his mother would not tell him—only she would have him promise; so he promised, but complained that he would rather have had a reason given for his promise; but his mother, smiling and holding his hand, said that it should be enough for him to please her by doing her will. So Roderick gave his promise again, but was not satisfied.
The next day Roderick was walking in the valley and met one of the farmers, a young good-humoured man, who had always been friendly with the boy, and had often been to fish with him; Roderick walked beside him, and told him that he had followed the stream nearly to the pool, when the young farmer, with some seriousness, asked him how near he had been to the water. Roderick was surprised at the same question that his father had asked him being asked again, and told him that he had but seen it from a hill-top near, adding, "But what is amiss with the place, for my father and mother have made me promise not to go there again?"
The young farmer said nothing for a moment, but seemed to reflect; then he said that there were stories about the place, stories that perhaps it was foolish to believe, but he went on to say that it was better to be on the safe side in all things, and that the place had an evil fame. Then Roderick with childish eagerness asked him what the stories were; and little by little the farmer told him. He said that something dwelt near or in the pool, it was not known what, that had an enmity to the life of man; that twice since he was a boy a strange thing had happened there; a young shepherd had come by his death at the pool, and was found lying in the water, strangely battered; that, he said, was long before Roderick was born; then he added, "You remember old Richard the shepherd?" "What!" said Roderick, "the old strange man that used to go about muttering to himself, that the boys threw stones at?" "Yes," said the farmer, "the very same. Well, he was not always so—I remember him a strong and cheerful man; but once when the sheep had got lost in the hills, he would go to the pool because he thought he heard them calling there, though we prayed him not to go. He came back, indeed, bringing no sheep, but an altered and broken man, as he was thenceforth and as you knew him; he had seen something by the pool, he could not say what, and had had a sore strife to get away." "But what sort of a thing is this?" said Roderick. "Is it a beast or a man, or what?"
"Neither," said the farmer very gravely. "You have heard them read in the church of the evil spirits who dwelt with men, and entered their bodies, and it was sore work even for the Lord Christ to cast them forth; I think it is one of these who has wandered thither; they say he goes not far from the pool, for he cannot abide the cross on the pass, and the church bell gives him pains." And then the farmer looked at Roderick and said, "You know that they ring the bell all night on the feast of All Souls?" "Yes," said Roderick, "I have heard it ring." "Well, on that night alone," said the farmer, "they say that spirits have power upon men, and come abroad to do them hurt; and so they ring the bell, which the spirits cannot listen to—but, young master, it is ill to talk of these things, and Christian men should not even think of them; but as I said, though Satan has but little power over the baptized soul, yet even so, says the priest, he can enter in, if the soul be willing to admit him,—and so I say, avoid the place! it may be that these are silly stories to affright folk, but it is ill to touch pitch; and no good can be got by going to the pool, and perhaps evil;—and now I think I have told you enough and more than enough." For Roderick was looking at him pale and with wide open eyes.
Is it strange that from that day the thing that Roderick most desired was to see the pool and what dwelt there? I think not; when hearts are young and before trouble has laid its heavy hand upon them, the hard and cruel things of life, wounds, blows, agonies, terrors, seen only in the mirrors of another spirit, are but as a curious and lively spectacle that feeds the mind with wonder. The stories to which Roderick had listened in church of men that were haunted by demons seemed to him but as dim and distant experiences on which he would fain look; and the fainter the thought of his promise grew, the stronger grew his desire to see for himself.
In the month of June, when the heart is light, and the smell of the woods is fresh and sharp, Roderick's father and mother were called to go on a journey, to see an ancient friend who was thought to be dying. The night before they set off Roderick had a strange dream; it seemed to him that he wandered over bare hillsides, and came at last to the pool; the peak rose sharp and clear, and the water was very black and still; while he gazed upon it, it seemed to be troubled; the water began to spin round and round, and bubbling waves rose and broke on the surface. Suddenly a hand emerged from the water, and then a head, bright and unwetted, as though the water had no power to touch it. Roderick saw that it was a man of youthful aspect and commanding mien; he waded out to the shore and stood for a moment looking round him; then he beckoned Roderick to approach, looking at him kindly, and spoke to him gently, saying that he had waited for him long. They walked together to the crag, and then, in some way that Roderick could not clearly see, the man opened a door into the mountain, and Roderick saw a glimmering passage within. The air came out laden with a rich and heavy fragrance, and there was a faint sound of distant music in the hill. The man turned and looked upon Roderick as though inviting him to enter; but Roderick shook his head and refused, saying that he was not ready; at which the man stepped inside with a smile, half of pity, and the door was shut.
Then Roderick woke with a start and wished that he had been bold enough to go within the door; the light came in serenely through the window, and he heard the faint piping of awakening birds in the dewy trees. He could not sleep, and presently dressed himself and went down. Soon the household was awake, for the knight was to start betimes; Roderick sate at the early meal with his father and mother. His father was cumbered with the thought of the troublesome journey, and asked many questions about the baggage; so Roderick said little, but felt his mother's eyes dwell on his face with love. Soon after they rode away; Roderick stood at the door to see them go, and there was so eager and bright a look in his face that his mother was somehow troubled, and almost called him to her to make him repeat his promise, but she feared that he would feel that she did not trust him, and therefore put the thought aside; and so they rode away, his mother waving her hand till they turned the corner by the wood and were out of sight.
Then Roderick began to consider how he would spend the day, with a half-formed design in his mind; when suddenly the temptation to visit the pool came upon him with a force that he had neither strength nor inclination to resist. So he took his rod, which might seem to be an excuse, and set off rapidly up the stream. He was surprised to find how swiftly the hills rose all about him, and how easily he went; very soon he came to the top; and there lay the pool in front of him, within the shadow of the peak, that rose behind it very clear and sharp. He hesitated no longer, but ran lightly down the slope, and next moment he was on the brink of the pool. It lay before him very bright and pure, like a jewel of sapphire, the water being of a deep azure blue; he went all round it. There was no sign of life in the water; at the end nearest the cliff he found a little cool runnel of water that bubbled into the pool from the cliffs. No grass grew round about it, and he could see the stones sloping down and becoming more beautiful the deeper they lay, from the pure tint of the water.