Herbert came up and from a distance saw John stand very meekly with bowed head; and presently he turned away when the angry woman departed, and Herbert heard him sigh very heavily. He had then half formed a purpose to speak with the man, but he trusted him little, and the old story of his crime chased pity out of Herbert's mind.
Now to-day the sight of the neglected house and wretched garden drew his mind to the outcast; Herbert could not think how the man lived, and his heart smote him for not having tried to comfort him.
So he turned aside and lifted the latch, and went up under an old apple tree that hung over the path, and knocked at the door. Presently it was opened by John himself, who stood there, a wretched figure of a man, bowed with disease, and his face all ugly and scarred. Herbert, who loved things beautiful, was strangely touched with disgust at the sight of him, but he overcame it, and spoke gently to him, and asked if he might come in and rest awhile.
The man, although he hardly seemed to understand, made way for him, and Herbert entered a room that he thought the meanest and ugliest he had ever seen. The walls were green with mould, and the paved floor was all sunken and cracked. There was no table, nothing but a bench by the fireplace, on which lay coarse roots and the leaves of some bitter herb.
Herbert went on talking quietly about the fine summer and the pleasant season of the year, and sate down upon the bench. And then he had a great surprise. All about the miserable man who stood before him shone the clearest and purest radiance of light he had ever beheld about a human being, gushing in a pure fountain over his head and heart, untouched by the least spot of darkness. It came into Herbert's mind that he had found a man who was very near to God; and so he put all other things aside, and saying that he was truly sorry that he had not sought him out before, asked him in gentle and loving words to tell him all the old sad story. And there, sitting in the mean room, he heard the tale.
John spoke slowly and haltingly, as one who had little use of speech; and the story was far different from what Herbert had believed. The hoard was not that of John's mother, but John's own, which he had entrusted to her. He had asked it of her for a purpose that seemed good enough, to buy a little garden where he thought he could rear fruits and flowers; but she had had the money so long that she considered it to be her own. In telling the story, John laid no blame upon her, but found much to say against himself, and he seemed bowed down with utter contrition that he had ever asked it of her. She had struck him, it seemed, and so his wrath had overmastered him, and he had torn the money from her hands and gone out. Then she had fallen sick, and died before his return, and after that no one had been willing to listen to him. Herbert had asked him what had become of the money, and John told him, with a sort of shame, that he had thrust it into the church-box—"I could not touch the price of blood," he said.
Then Herbert spoke very lovingly to him and tried to comfort him, but John said that he knew himself to be the most miserable of sinners, and that he could not be forgiven, and that he deserved his chastising every whit. And he told Herbert a tale of secret suffering and hunger and cold and weariness, such as had never fallen on Herbert's ears, but all without any thought of pity for himself—indeed, he said, God was very good to him; for He let him live, and even allowed him to take pleasure in the green trees, and the waving grass, and the voices of birds. "And some day," said John, "when I have suffered enough, I think the Father will forgive me, for I am sorry for my sin."
The water stood in Herbert's eyes, but he found some words of comfort, and knelt and prayed with the outcast, telling him that indeed he was forgiven. And he saw a look of joy strike like sunlight across the poor face, when he said that he would not fail to visit him. And he further told him that he should come to the Parsonage next day, and he would give him work to do; and then he shook his hand and departed, a little gladder than he had been for a month.
But on the next day he was bidden early to the cottage; John had been found sitting on the little bench outside his door, cold and dead, with a strange and upturned look almost as though he had seen the heaven opened.
He was buried a few days after; none were found to stand at the grave but Herbert, and the clerk who came unwillingly.
Then, on the next Sunday, Herbert made a little sermon at Evensong and told them all the story of John's life, and his atonement. "My brothers and sisters," he said very softly, making a pause, the silence in the church being breathless below him, "here was a true saint of God among us, and we knew it not. He sinned, though not so grievously as we thought, he suffered grievously, and he took his suffering as meekly as the little child of whom the dear Lord said that of such was the Kingdom. Dear friends, I tell you a truth from my heart; that in the day when we stand, if we are given to stand, beneath the Throne of God, this our poor brother will be nearer to the Throne than any of us, in robes of light, and very close to the Father's heart. May the Father forgive us all, and let us be pitiful and merciful, if by any means we may obtain mercy."
That night, in a dream, it seemed as if some one came suddenly out of a dark place like a grave, and stood before Herbert, exceedingly glorious to behold. How the change had passed upon him Herbert could not tell, for it was John himself, the same, yet transformed into a spirit of purest light. And he smiled upon Herbert and said, "It is even so, dear brother; and now am I comforted in glory—and now that you have seen the truth, the Father would have me visit you to tell you that the trouble laid upon you is departed. Only be true and faithful, and lead souls the nearest way." And in a moment he was gone, but seemed to leave a shining track upon the darkness.
The next morning Herbert awoke with a strange stirring of the heart. He looked abroad from his window, and saw the dew upon the grass, and the quiet trees awakening. And he could hardly contain himself for gladness. When he went to the church, he knew all at once that his sorrow had departed from him, and that he saw no deeper into the heart than other men. The lights that had seemed to shine round others were gone, and his heart was full of love and pity again.
His first visit was to the house of the old physician, who greeted him very kindly; and Herbert with a kind of happy radiance told him that the trouble was departed from him as suddenly as it came; "and," he added, "dear friend, God has shown me marvellous things—I have seen a soul in glory." The old physician's eyes filled with tears and he said, "This is very wonderful and gracious."
The same day came a carriage from the Bishop to fetch Herbert, for the Bishop desired to see him. He went in haste, and was amazed to see that when the carriage came to the door of the Bishop's house, the Bishop himself came out to receive him as though he had waited for him.
The Bishop greeted him very lovingly and took him into his room, and when the door was shut, he said, "Dear son, I sent you from me the other day in bitterness of heart; for you had spoken the truth to me, and I could not bear it; and now I ask your forgiveness; you found as it were the key to my spirit, and flung the door open; and God has shown me that you were right, and that the most secret shrine of my heart, where the fire should burn clearest, was dark and bare. I gave not God the glory, but laid violent hands upon it for myself; and now, if God will, all shall be changed, and I will do my work for God and not for myself, and strive to be humble of heart," and the Bishop's eyes were full of tears. And he held out his hand to Herbert, who took it; and so they sate for a while. Then Herbert said, "Dear father, I will also tell you something. God has taken away from me the terrible gift; also He has shown me the sight of a human spirit, made perfect in suffering and patience; and I am very joyful thereat." So they held sweet converse together, and were very glad at heart.
THE SNAKE, THE LEPER, AND THE GREY FROST
In the heart of the Forest of Seale lay the little village of Birnewood Fratrum, like a lark's nest in a meadow of tall grass. It was approached by green wood-ways, very miry in winter. The folk that lived there were mostly woodmen. There was a little church, the stones of which seemed to have borrowed the hue of the forest, and close beside it a small timbered house, the Parsonage, with a garden of herbs. Those who saw Birnewood in the summer, thought of it as a place where a weary man might rest for ever, in an ancient peace, with the fresh mossy smell of the wood blowing through it, and the dark cool branching covert to muse in on every side. But it was a different place in winter, with ragged clouds rolling overhead and the bare boughs sighing in the desolate gales; though again in a frosty winter evening it would be fair enough, with the red sun sinking over miles of trees.
From the village green a little track led into the forest, and, a furlong or two inside, ended in an open space thickly overgrown with elders, where stood the gaunt skeleton of a ruined tower staring with bare windows at the wayfarer. The story of the tower was sad enough. The last owner, Sir Ralph Birne, was on the wrong side in a rebellion, and died on the scaffold, his lands forfeited to the crown. The tower was left desolate, and piece by piece the villagers carried away all that was useful to them, leaving the shell of a house, though at the time of which I speak the roof still held, and the floors, though rotting fast, still bore the weight of a foot.
In the Parsonage lived an old priest, Father John, as he was called, and with him a boy who was held to be his nephew, Ralph by name, now eighteen years of age. The boy was very dear to Father John, who was a wise and loving man. To many it might have seemed a dull life enough, but Ralph had known no other, having come to the Parsonage as a child. Of late indeed Ralph had begun to feel a strange desire grow and stir within him, to see what the world was like outside the forest; such a desire would come on him at early morning, in the fresh spring days, and he would watch some lonely traveller riding slowly to the south with an envious look; though as like as not the wayfarer would be envying the bright boy, with his background of quiet woods. But such fancies only came and went, and he said nothing to the old priest about them, who nevertheless had marked the change for himself with the instinct of love, and would sometimes, as he sate with his breviary, follow the boy about with his eyes, in which the wish to keep him strove with the knowledge that the bird must some day leave the nest.
One summer morning, the old priest shut his book, with the air of a man who has made up his mind in sadness, and asked Ralph to walk with him. They went to the tower, and there, sitting in the ruins, Father John told Ralph the story of the house, which he had often heard before. But now there was so tender and urgent a tone in the priest's voice that Ralph heard him wonderingly; and at last the priest very solemnly, after a silence, said that there was something in his mind that must be told; and he went on to say that Ralph was indeed the heir of the tower; he was the grandson of Sir Ralph, who died upon the scaffold; his father had died abroad, dispossessed of his inheritance; and the priest said that in a few days he himself would set out on a journey, too long deferred, to see a friend of his, a Canon of a neighbouring church, to learn if it were possible that some part of the lands might be restored to Ralph by the king's grace. For the young king that had newly come to the throne was said to be very merciful and just, and punished not the sins of the fathers upon the children; but Father John said that he hardly dared to hope it; and then he bound Ralph to silence; and then after a pause he added, taking one of the boy's hands in his own, "And it is time, dear son, that you should leave this quiet place and make a name for yourself; my days draw to an end; perhaps I have been wrong to keep you here to myself, but I have striven to make you pure and simple, and if I was in fault, why, it has been the fault of love." And the boy threw his arms round the priest's neck and kissed him, seeing that tears trembled in his eyes, and said that he was more than content, and that he should never leave his uncle and the peaceful forest that he loved. But the priest saw an unquiet look in his eye, as of a sleeper awakened, and knew the truth.
A few days after, the priest rode away at sunrise; and Ralph was left alone. In his head ran an old tale, which he had heard from the woodmen, of a great treasure of price, which was hidden somewhere in the tower. Then it came into his mind that there dwelt not far away in the wood an ancient wise man who gave counsel to all who asked for it, and knew the virtues of plants, and the courses of buried springs, and many hidden things beside. Ralph had never been to the house of the wise man, but he knew the direction where it lay; so with the secret in his heart, he made at once for the place. The day was very hot and still, and no birds sang in the wood. Ralph walked swiftly along the soft green road, and came at last upon a little grey house of plaster, with beams of timber, that stood in a clearing near a spring, with a garden of its own; a fragrant smell came from a sprawling bush of box, and the bees hummed busily over the flowers. There was no smoke from the chimney, and the single window that gave on the road, in a gable, looked at him like a dark eye. He went up the path, and stood before the door waiting, when a high thin voice, like an evening wind, called from within, "Come in and fear not, thou that tarriest on the threshold." Ralph, with a strange stirring of the blood at the silver sound of the voice, unlatched the door and entered. He found himself in a low dark room, with a door opposite him; in the roof hung bundles of herbs; there was a large oak table strewn with many things of daily use, and sitting in a chair, with his back to the light, sate a very old thin man, with a frosty beard, clad in a loose grey gown. Over the fireplace hung a large rusty sword; the room was very clean and cool, and the sunlight danced on the ceiling, with the flicker of moving leaves.
"Your name and errand?" said the old man, fixing his grey eyes, like flint stones, upon the boy, not unkindly. "Ralph," said the boy. "Ralph," said the old man, "and why not add Birne to Ralph? that makes a fairer name."
Ralph was so much bewildered at this strange greeting, that he stood confused—at which the old man pointed to a settle, and said, "And now, boy, sit down and speak with me; you are Ralph from Birnewood Parsonage, I know—Father John is doubtless away—he has no love for me, though I know him to be a true man."
Then little by little he unravelled the boy's desire, and the story of the treasure. Then he said, kindly enough, "Yes, it is ever thus—well, lad, I will tell you; and heed my words well. The treasure is there; and you shall indeed find it; but prepare for strange sounds and sights." And as he said this, he took the young hand in his own for a moment and a strange tide of sensation seemed to pass along the boy's veins. "Look in my face," the old man went on, "that I may see that you have faith—for without faith such quests are vain." Ralph raised his eyes to those of the old man, and then a sensation such as he had never felt before came over him; it was like looking from a window into a wide place, full of darkness and wonder.
Then the old man said solemnly, "Child, the time is come—I have waited long for you, and the door is open."
Then he said, with raised hand, "The journey is not long, but it must be done in a waking hour; sleep not on the journey; that first. And of three things beware—the Snake, and the Leper, and the Grey Frost; for these three things have brought death to wiser men than yourself. There," he added, "that is your note of the way; now make the journey, if you have the courage."
"But, sir," said Ralph in perplexity, "you say to me, make the journey; and you tell me not whither to go. And you tell me to beware of three things. How shall I know them to avoid them?"
"You will know them when you have seen them," said the old man sadly, "and that is the most that men can know; and as for the journey, you can start upon it wherever you are, if your heart is pure and strong."
Then Ralph said, trembling, "Father, my heart is pure, I think; but I know not whether I am strong."
Then the old man reached out his hand, and took up a staff that leant by the chair; and from a pocket in his gown he took a small metal thing shaped like a five-pointed star; and he said, "Ralph, here is a staff and a holy thing; and now set forth." So Ralph rose, and took the staff and the star, and made a reverence, and murmured thanks; and then he went to the door by which he had entered; but the old man said, "Nay, it is the other door," and then he bent down his head upon his arms like one who wept.
Ralph went to the other door and opened it; he had thought it led into the wood; but when he opened it, it was dark and cold without; and suddenly with a shock of strange terror he saw that outside was a place like a hill-top, with short strong grass, and clouds sweeping over it. He would have drawn back, but he was ashamed; so he stepped out and closed the door behind him; and then the house was gone in a moment like a dream, and he was alone on the hill, with the wind whistling in his ears.
He waited for a moment in the clutch of a great fear; but he felt he was alive and well, and little by little his fear disappeared and left him eager. He went a few steps forward, and saw that the hill sloped downward, and downward he went, by steep slopes of turf and scattered grey stones. Presently the mist seemed to blow thinner, and through a gap he saw a land spread out below him; and soon he came out of the cloud, and saw a lonely forest country, all unlike his own, for the trees seemed a sort of pine, with red stems, very tall and sombre. He looked round, and presently he saw that a little track below him seemed to lead downward into the pines, so he gained the track; and soon he came down to the wood.
There was no sign as yet of any habitation; he heard the crying of birds, and at one place he saw a number of crows that stood round something white that lay upon the ground, and pecked at it; and he turned not aside, thinking, he knew not why, that there was some evil thing there. But he did not feel alone, and he had a thought which dwelt with him that there were others bound upon the same quest as himself, though he saw nothing of them. Once indeed he thought he saw a man walking swiftly, his face turned away, among the pines; but the trees blotted him from his sight. Then he passed by a great open marsh with reeds and still pools of water, where he wished to rest; but he pushed on the faster, and suddenly, turning a corner, saw that the track led him straight to a large stone house, that stood solitary in the wood. He knew in a moment that this was the end of his journey, and marvelled within himself at the ease of the quest; he went straight up to the house, which seemed all dark and silent, and smote loudly and confidently on the door; some one stirred within, and it was presently opened to him. He thought now that he would be questioned, but the man who opened to him, a grave serving-man, made a motion with his hand, and he went up a flight of stone steps.
As he went up, there came out from a door, as though to meet him with honour, a tall and noble personage, very cheerful and comely, and with a courteous greeting took him into a large room richly furnished; Ralph began to tell his story, but the man made a quiet gesture with his hand as though no explanation was needed, and went at once to a press, which he opened, and brought out from it a small coffer, which seemed heavy, and opened it before him; Ralph could not see clearly what it contained, but he saw the sparkle of gold and what seemed like jewels. The man smiled at him, and as though in reply to a question said, "Yes, this is what you came to seek; and you are well worthy of it; and my lord"—he bowed as he spoke—"is glad to bestow his riches upon one who found the road so easy hither, and who came from so honoured a friend." Then he said very courteously that he would willingly have entertained him, and shown him more of the treasures of the house; "but I know," he added, "that your business requires haste and you would be gone;" and so he conducted him very gently down to the door again, and presently Ralph was standing outside with the precious coffer under his arm, wondering if he were not in a dream; because he had found what he sought so soon, and with so little trouble.
The porter stood at the door, and said in a quiet voice, "The way is to the left, and through the wood." Ralph thanked him, and the porter said, "You know, young sir, of what you are to beware, for the forest has an evil name?" And when Ralph replied that he knew, the porter said that it was well to start betimes, because the way was somewhat long. So Ralph went out along the road, and saw the porter standing at the door for a long time, watching him, he thought, with a kind of tender gaze.
Ralph took the road that led to the left, very light-hearted; it was pleasant under the pines, which had made a soft brown carpet of needles; and the scent of the pine-gum was sharp and sweet. He went for a mile or two thus, while the day darkened above him, and the wind whispered like a falling sea among the branches. At last he came to another great marsh, but a path led down to it from the road, and in the path were strange marks as though some heavy thing had been dragged along, with footprints on either side. Ralph went a few steps down the path, when suddenly an evil smell passed by him; he had been thinking of a picture in one of Father John's books of a man fighting with a dragon, and the brave horned creature, with its red mouth and white teeth, with ribbed wings and bright blue burnished mail, and a tail armed with a sting, had seemed to him a curious and beautiful sight, that a man might well desire to see; the thought of danger was hardly in his heart.
Suddenly he heard below him in the reeds a great routing and splashing; the rushes parted, and he saw a huge and ugly creature, with black oily sides and a red mane of bristles, raise itself up and regard him. Its sides dropped with mud, and its body was wrapped with clinging weeds. But it moved so heavily and slow, and drew itself out on to the bank with such pain, that Ralph saw that there was little danger to one so fleet as himself, if he drew not near. The beast opened its great mouth, and Ralph saw a blue tongue and a pale throat; it regarded him hungrily with small evil eyes; but Ralph sprang backwards, and laughed to see how lumberingly the brute trailed itself along. Its hot and fetid breath made a smoke in the still air; presently it desisted, and as though it desired the coolness, it writhed back into the water again. And Ralph saw that it was only a beast that crept upon its prey by stealth, and that though if he had slept, or bathed in the pool, it might have drawn him in to devour him, yet that one who was wary and active need have no fear; so he went on his way; and blew out great breaths to get the foul watery smell of the monster out of his nostrils.
Suddenly he began to feel weary; he did not know what time of day it was in this strange country, where all was fresh like a dewy morning; he had not seen the sun, though the sky was clear, and he fell to wondering where the light came from; as he wondered, he came to a stone bench by the side of the road where he thought he would sit a little; he would be all the fresher for a timely rest; he sate down, and as though to fill the place with a heavenly peace, he heard at once doves hallooing in the thicket close at hand; while he sate drinking in the charm of the sound, there was a flutter of wings, and a dove alighted close to his feet; it walked about crooning softly, with its nodding neck flashing with delicate colours, and its pink feet running swiftly on the grass. He felt in his pocket and found there a piece of bread which he had taken with him in the morning and had never thought of tasting; he crumbled it for the bird, who fell to picking it eagerly and gratefully, bowing its head as though in courteous acknowledgment. Ralph leant forwards to watch it, and the ground swam before his weary eyes. He sate back for a moment, and then he would have slept, when he saw a small bright thing dart from a crevice of the stone seat on to his knee. He bent forward to look at it, and saw that it was a thing like a lizard, but without legs, of a powdered green, strangely bright. It nestled on his knee in a little coil and watched him with keen eyes. The trustfulness of these wild creatures pleased him wonderfully. Suddenly, very far away and yet near him, he heard the sound of a voice, like a man in prayer; it reminded him, he knew not why, of the Wise Man's voice, and he rose to his feet ashamed of his drowsiness. The little lizard darted from his leg and on to the ground, as though vexed to be disturbed, and he saw it close to his feet. The dove saw it too, and went to it as though inquiringly; the lizard showed no fear, but coiled itself up, and as the dove came close, made a little dart at its breast, and the dove drew back. Ralph was amused at the fearlessness of the little thing, but in a moment saw that something ailed the dove; it moved as though dizzy, and then spread its wings as if for flight, but dropped them again and nestled down on the ground. In a moment its pretty head fell forwards and it lay motionless. Then with a shock of fear Ralph saw that he had been nearly betrayed; that this was the Snake itself of which he had been warned; he struck with his staff at the little venomous thing, which darted forward with a wicked hiss, and Ralph only avoided it with a spring. Then without an instant's thought he turned and ran along the wood-path, chiding himself bitterly for his folly. He had nearly slept; he had only not been stung to death; and he thought of how he would have lain, a stiffening figure, till the crows gathered round him and pulled the flesh from his bones.
After this the way became more toilsome; the track indeed was plain enough, but it was strewn with stones, and little thorny plants grew everywhere, which tripped his feet and sometimes pierced his skin; it grew darker too, as though night were coming on. Presently he came to a clearing in the forest; on a slope to his right hand, he saw a little hut of boughs, with a few poor garden herbs about it. A man was crouched among them, as though he were digging; he was only some thirty paces away; Ralph stopped for a moment, and the man rose up and looked at him. Ralph saw a strangely distorted face under a hairless brow. There were holes where the eyes should have been, and in these the eyes were so deeply sunk that they looked but like pits of shade. Presently the other began to move towards him, waving a large misshapen hand which gleamed with a kind of scurfy whiteness; and he cried out unintelligible words, which seemed half angry, half piteous. Ralph knew that the Leper was before him, and though he loathed to fly before so miserable a wretch, he turned and hurried on into the forest; the creature screamed the louder, and it seemed as though he were asking an alms, but he hobbled so slowly on his thick legs, foully bandaged with rags, that Ralph soon distanced him, and he heard the wretch stop and fall to cursing. This sad and fearful encounter made Ralph sick at heart; but he strove to thank God for another danger escaped, and hastened on.
Gradually he became aware by various signs that he was approaching some inhabited place; all at once he came upon a fair house in a piece of open ground, that looked to him at first so like the house of the treasure, that he thought he had come back to it. But when he looked more closely upon it, he saw that it was not the same; it was somewhat more meanly built, and had not the grave and solid air that the other had; presently he heard a sound of music, like a concert of lutes and trumpets, which came from the house, and when it ceased there was clapping of hands.
While he doubted whether to draw near, he saw that the door was opened, and a man, richly dressed and of noble appearance, came out upon the space in front of the house. He looked about him with a grave and serene air, like a prince awaiting guests. And his eyes falling upon Ralph, he beckoned him to draw near. Ralph at first hesitated. But it seemed to him an unkindly thing to turn his back upon this gallant gentleman who stood there smiling; so he drew near. And then the other asked him whither he was bound. Ralph hardly knew what to reply to this, but the gentleman awaited not his answer, but said that this was a day of festival, and all were welcome, and he would have him come in and abide with them. Ralph excused himself, but the gentleman smiled and said, "I know, sir, that you are bound upon a journey, as many are that pass this way; but you carry no burden with you, as is the wont of others." And then Ralph, with a start of surprise and anguish, remembered that he had left his coffer on the seat where he had seen the Snake. He explained his loss to the gentleman, who laughed and said that this was easily mended, for he would send himself a servant to fetch it. And then he asked whether he had been in any peril, and when Ralph told him, he nodded his head gravely, and said it was a great danger escaped. And then Ralph told him of the Leper, at which the gentleman grew grave, and said that it was well he had not stopped to speak with him, for the contagion of that leprosy was sore and sudden. And then he added, "But while I send to recover your coffer, you will enter and sit with us; you look weary, and you shall eat of our meat, for it is good meat that strengtheneth; but wine," he said, "I will not offer you, though I have it here in abundance, for it weakeneth the knees of those that walk on a journey; but you shall delight your heart with music, such as the angels love, and set forth upon your way rejoicing; for indeed it is not late."
And so Ralph was persuaded, and they drew near to the door. Then the gentleman stood aside to let Ralph enter; and Ralph saw within a hall with people feasting, and minstrels in a gallery; but just as he set foot upon the threshold he turned; for it seemed that he was plucked by a hand; and he saw the gentleman, with the smile all faded from his face, and his robe had shifted from his side; and Ralph saw that his side was swollen and bandaged, and then his eye fell upon the gentleman's knee, which was bare, and it was all scurfed and scarred. And he knew that he was in the hands of the Leper himself.
He drew back with a shudder, but the gentleman gathered his robe about him, and said with a sudden sternness, "Nay, it were discourteous to draw back now; and indeed I will compel you to come in." Then Ralph knew that he was betrayed; but he bethought him of the little star that he carried with him, and he took it out and held it before him, and said, "Here is a token that I may not halt." And at that the gentleman's face became evil, and he gnashed with his teeth, and moved towards him, as though to seize him. But Ralph saw that he feared the star. So he went backwards holding it forth; and as the Leper pressed upon him, he touched him with the star; and at that the Leper cried aloud, and ran within the house; and there came forth a waft of doleful music like a dirge for the dead.
Then Ralph went into the wood and stood there awhile in dreadful thought; but it came into his mind that there could be no turning back, and that he must leave his precious coffer behind, "and perhaps," he thought, "the Wise Man will let me adventure again." So he went on with a sad and sober heart, but he thanked God as he went for another danger hardly escaped.
And it grew darker now; so dark that he often turned aside among the trees; till at last he came out on the edge of the forest, and knew that he was near the end. In front of him rose a wide hillside, the top of which was among the clouds; and he could see the track faintly glimmering upwards through the grass; the forest lay like a black wall behind him, and he was now deathly weary of his journey, and could but push one foot before the other.
But for all his weariness he felt that it grew colder as he went higher; he gathered his cloak around him, but the cold began to pierce his veins; so that he knew that he was coming to the Grey Frost, and how to escape from it he knew not. The grass grew crisp with frost, and the tall thistles that grew there snapped as he touched them. By the track there rose in several places tall tussocks of grass, and happening to pass close by one of these, he saw something gleam white amid the grass; so he looked closer upon it, and then his heart grew cold within him, for he saw that the grass grew thick out of the bones of a skeleton, through the white ribs and out of the sightless eyes. And he saw that each of the tussocks marked the grave of a man.
Then he came higher still, and the ground felt like iron below his feet; and over him came a dreadful drowsiness, till his only thought was to lie down and sleep; his breath came out like a white cloud and hung round him, and yet he saw the hill rising in front. Then he marked something lie beside the track; and he saw that it was a man down upon his face, wrapped in a cloak. He tried to lift him up, but the body seemed stiff and cold, and the face was frozen to the ground; and when he raised it the dirt was all hard upon the face. So he left it lying and went on. At last he could go no farther; all was grey and still round him, covered with a bleak hoar-frost. To left and right he saw figures lying, grey and frozen, so that the place was like a battlefield; and still the mountain towered up pitilessly in front; he sank upon his knees and tried to think, but his brain was all benumbed. Then he put his face to the ground, and his breath made a kind of warmth about him, while the cold ate into his limbs; but as he lay he heard a groan, and looking up he saw a figure that lay close to the track rise upon its knees and sink down again.
So Ralph struggled again to his feet with the thought that if he must die he would like to die near another man; and he came up to the figure; and he saw that it was a boy, younger than himself, wrapped in a cloak. His hat had fallen off, and he could see his curls all frosted over a cheek that was smooth and blue with cold. By his side lay a little coffer and a staff, like his own. And Ralph, speaking with difficulty through frozen lips, said, "And what do you here? You are too young to be here." The other turned his face upon him, all drawn with anguish, and said, "Help me, help me; I have lost my way." And Ralph sate down beside him and gathered the boy's body into his arms; and it seemed as though the warmth revived him, for the boy looked gratefully at him and said, "So I am not alone in this dreadful place."
Then Ralph said to him that there was no time to be lost, and that they were near their end. "But it seems to me," he added, "that a little farther up the grass looks greener, as if the cold were not so bitter there; let us try to help each other a few paces farther, if we may avoid death for a little." So they rose slowly and painfully, and now Ralph would lead the boy a step or two on; and then he would lean upon the boy, who seemed to grow stronger, for a pace or two; till suddenly it came into Ralph's mind that the cold was certainly less; and so like two dying men they struggled on, step by step, until the ground grew softer under their feet and the grass darker, and then, looking round, Ralph could see the circle of the Grey Frost below them, all white and hoary in the uncertain light.
Presently they struggled out on to a ridge of the long hill; and here they rested on their staves, and talked for a moment like old friends; and the boy showed Ralph his coffer, and said, "But you have none?" And Ralph shook his head and said, "Nay, I left it on the seat of the Snake." And then Ralph asked him of the Leper's house, and the boy told him that he had seen it indeed, but had feared and made a circuit in the wood, and that he had there seen a fearful sight; for at the back of the Leper's house was a cage, like a kennel of hounds, and in it sate a score of wretched men with their eyes upon the ground, who had wandered from the way; and that he had heard a barking of dogs, and men had come out from the house, but that he had fled through the woods.
While they thus talked together, Ralph saw that hard by them was a rock, and in the rock a hole like a cave; so he said to the boy, "Let us stand awhile out of the wind; and then will we set out again." So the boy consented; and they came to the cave; but Ralph wondered exceedingly to see a door set in the rock-face; and he put out his hand and pulled the door; and it opened; and a voice from within called him by name.
Then in a moment Ralph saw that he was in the house of the Wise Man, who sate in his chair, regarding him with a smile, like a father welcoming a son. All seemed the same; and it was very grateful to Ralph to see the sun warm on the ceiling, and to smell the honeyed air that came in from the garden.
Then he went forward, and fell on his knees and laid the staff and the star down, and would have told the Wise Man his tale; but the Wise Man said, "Went not my heart with thee, my son?"
Then Ralph told him how he had left his treasure, expecting to be chidden. But the Wise Man said, "Heed it not, for thou hast a better treasure in thy heart."
Then Ralph remembered that he had left his companion outside, and asked if he might bring him in; but the Wise Man said, "Nay, he has entered by another way." And presently he bade Ralph return home in peace, and blessed him in a form of words which Ralph could not afterwards remember, but it sounded very sweet. And Ralph asked whether he might come again, but the Wise Man said, "Nay, my son."
Then Ralph went home in wonder; and though the journey had seemed very long, he found that it was still morning in Birnewood.
Then he returned to the Parsonage; and the next day Father John returned, and told him that the lands would be restored to him; and as they talked, Father John said, "My son, what new thing has come to you? for there is a light in your eye that was not lit before." But Ralph could not tell him.
So Ralph became a great knight, and did worthily; and in his hall there hang three pictures in one frame; to the left is a little green snake on a stone bench; to the right a leprous man richly clad; and in the centre a grey mist, with a figure down on its face. And some folk ask Ralph to explain the picture, and he smiles and says it is a vision; but others look at the picture in a strange wonder, and then look in Ralph's face, and he knows that they understand, and that they too have been to the Country of Dreams.
The castle of Tremontes stands in a wood of oaks, a little way off the high-road; it takes its name from the three mounds that rise in the castle yard, covered now with turf and daisies, but piled together within of stones, which cover, so the legend says, the bodies of three Danish knights killed in a skirmish long ago; the river that runs in the creek beside the castle is joined to the sea but a little below, and the tide comes up to Tremontes; when the sea is out, there are bare and evil-smelling mudbanks, with a trickle of brackish water in the midst. But at the time of which I write, the channel was deeper, and little ships with brown sails could be seen running before the wind among the meadows, to discharge their cargoes at the water-gate of the castle. It was a strong place with its leaded roofs and its tower of squared stone, very white and smooth. There was a moat all round the wall, full of water-lilies, where the golden carp could be seen basking on hot days; there was a barbican with a drawbridge, the chains of which rattled and groaned when the bridge was drawn up at sunset, and let down at sunrise; the byre came up to the castle walls on one side; on the other was a paved walk or terrace, and below, a little garden of herbs and sweet flowers; within, was a hall on the ground floor, with a kitchen and buttery; above that, a little chapel and a solar; above that again, a bower and some few bedrooms, and at the top, under the leads, a granary, to which the sacks used to be drawn up by a chain, swung from a projecting penthouse on the top. From the castle leads you could see the wide green flat, with dark patches of woodland, with lines of willows marking the streams; here and there a church tower rose from the trees; to the east a line of wolds, and to the south a glint of sea from the estuary.
Inside, the castle was a sad place enough, dreary and neglected. Marmaduke, the Lord of Tremontes, had been a great soldier in his time, but he had received a grievous wound in the head, and had been carried to Tremontes to die, and yet lingered on; his wife had long been dead, and he had but one son, a boy of ten years old, Robert by name, who was brought up roughly and evilly enough; he played with the village boys, he lived with the half-dozen greedy and idle men-at-arms who loitered in the castle, grumbling at their lack of employment, and killing the time with drinking and foolish games and gross talk. There was an old chaplain in the house, a lazy and gluttonous priest, who knew enough of his trade to mumble his mass, and no more; women there were none, except an old waiting-woman, a silent faithful soul, who loved the boy and petted him, and mourned in secret over his miserable upbringing, but who, having no store of words to tell her thoughts, could only be dumbly kind to him, and careful of his childish hurts and ailments; the boy ate and drank with the men, and aped their swaggering and blasphemous ways, which made them laugh and praise his cunning. The Lord Marmaduke had been nursed back into a sort of poor life, and sate all day in a fur gown in the solar, with a velvet cap on his head to hide his wound, which broke out afresh in the month of May, when he had been wounded; when he was in ill case, he sate silent and frowning, beating his hands on the table; when he was well he muttered to himself, and laughed at Heaven knows what cheerful thoughts, and would sing in a broken voice, fifty times on end, a verse of a foul song; and he would suddenly smite those that tended him, and laugh; sometimes he would wander into the chapel, and kneel peeping through his fingers; and sometimes he would go and stroke his armour, which lay where he had put it off, and cry. The only thing he cared for was to have his keys beside him, and he would tell them one by one, and curse if he could not tell them right. And so the days dragged slowly by. He cared nothing for his son, who never entered the solar except for his own ends. And one of these was to steal away his father's keys, and to unlock every door in the castle; for he was inquisitive and bold; he knew the use of all the keys but one; this was a small strong key, with a head like a quatrefoil; and though he tried to fit it to every cupboard and door in the house, he could never find its place.
But one day when his father was ill and lay abed, staring at the flies on the ceiling, the boy came to the solar, and slipped in behind the dusty arras that hung round the room, making believe that he was a rabbit in its burrow; he went round with his face to the wall, feeling with his hands; and when he came to the corner of the room, the wall was colder to his touch, like iron; and feeling at the place, he seemed to discover hinges and a door. So he dived beneath the arras, and then lifted it up; and he saw that in the wall was a small iron door like a cupboard. Something in his heart held him back, but before he had time to listen to it he had opened the little door, for the keys lay on the table to his hand; and he was peering into a small dark recess of stone, which seemed, for the wail that the little door made on its hinges, not to have been opened for many years.
In the cupboard, which had no shelves, lay some dark objects.
The boy took out the largest, looping the arras up over the little door; it was a rudely made spiked crown or coronet of iron, with odd devices chased upon it; the boy replaced it and drew out the next; this was a rusted iron dagger with torn leather on the hilt. The boy did not care for this—there were many better in the castle armoury. There seemed to be nothing else in the cupboard. But feeling with his hand in the dark corners, he drew out a stone about the size of a hen's egg. This he thought he would take, so he locked the cupboard, let the arras fall, and stood awhile to consider. On the arras opposite him, over the door, was the figure of a man embroidered in green tunic and leggings with a hat drawn over his face and with a finger laid on his lip, as though he had cause to be silent, or to wish others so. The man had a forked beard and a kind of secret smile, as if he mocked the onlooker; and he seemed unpleasantly natural to the boy, as though he divined his thought. He was half minded to put the stone back; but the secrecy of the thing pleased him. Moreover as he held the stone to the light, it seemed half transparent, and sent out a dull red gleam.
So the boy put the stone in his pouch, and soon loved it exceedingly, and desired to keep it with him. He often thrust it in secret places inside and outside the castle, in holes in a hollow elder tree, or chinks of the wall, and it pleased him when he lay in bed on windy rainy nights, to think of the stone lying snug and warm in its small house. Soon he began to attribute a kind of virtue to the thing; he thought that events went better when he had it with him; and he named it in his mind The Wound, because it seemed to him like the red and jewelled wound in the side of the figure of Our Saviour that hung in coloured glass over the chapel altar.
One day he had a terrible shock; he was lying on the terrace, spinning the stone, and watching the little whirling gleams of red light it made on the flags, when a man-at-arms stole upon him, and in wantonness seized the stone, and flung it far into the moat, where it fell with a splash. The boy was angry and smote the man upon the face with all his might, and was sorely beaten for it—for they had no respect for the heir, and indeed there was no one to whom he could complain—but he held his peace; and a week after the stone was restored to him in a way that seemed miraculous; for they ran the water of the moat off, to mend the sluice, so that the water-lilies sank in tangles to the bottom and the carp flapped in the mud; but the boy found the stone lying on the pavement of the sluice.
But the fancy for the stone soon came to an end, as a boy's fancies will; and he carried it with him, or put it into one of his hiding-places and thought no more of The Wound.
Suddenly the peaceful, idle and evil life came to a close. One day he had heard the tinkle of the sacring bell in the chapel, and had slipped in and found the priest at mass—the boy had a curious love for the mass; he liked to see the quaint movements of the priest in his embroidered robe, and a sort of peace settled upon his spirit—and this day he knelt near the screen and sniffed the incense, when he heard a sound behind him, and turning, saw a man booted and cloaked as though from a journey, standing in the door with a paper in his hand, beckoning him. Even as he rose and went out, it came into his mind that this was in some way a summons for him; the letter was from his mother's brother, the Lord Ralph of Parbury, a noble knight; he had been long away fighting in many wars, but on his return heard tell of the illness of Marmaduke, and wrote to bid him send his son to him, and he would train him for a soldier. They had great ado to read the letter, and there was much putting of heads together over it; but the messenger knew the purport, and the boy made up his mind to go, for he felt, he had said to himself, like one of the silly and lazy carp sweltering in the castle moat; so he dressed himself in his best and went. The men-at-arms were sorry to see their playmate go, though they had done him little but evil; and the old priest, half in tears, brought a small book and gave it to the boy; the old nurse clung to him and cried bitterly; but the boy felt nothing but a kind of shame at the thought how glad he was to go; indeed he would hardly have gone to wish farewell to his father, who was in one of his fits, and lay muttering on his bed; but the boy went, and, the door being ajar, he looked in and saw him, pale and fat, gibbering at his fingers, and almost hated him. And so he mounted and rode away, on a hot still summer afternoon, and was glad to see the castle tower sink down among the oaks, as they rode by green tracks and open heaths, little by little into the unknown land to the south.
The years flew fast away with the Lord Ralph; and Robert learnt to be a noble knight. It was hard at first to change from the old sluggish life, when he had none but himself to please; but something caught fire within Robert's soul, and he submitted willingly and eagerly to the discipline of Parbury, which was severe. He grew up strong and straight and fearless, and worthy of fame, so that Ralph was proud of his nephew; two things alone made him anxious; Robert was, he thought, too desirous of praise, too much bent upon excelling others, though Ralph tried to make him learn that it is the doing of noble things in a noble way, for the love of the deed done, and for the honour of it, that makes a worthy knight—and not the desire to be held worthy. Moreover, Robert had but little chivalry or tenderness of spirit; he was not cruel, for he disdained it; but he was hard, and despised weakness and grace; cared not for child, or even horse or hound, and held the love of women in contempt, saying that a soldier should have no time to marry until he was old and spent; and that then it was too late. It even made Ralph sorry that Robert had no love for Tremontes or for his father, or for any of those whom he had left behind; for a knight's face, said Ralph, should be set forward in gladness, but he should look backward in love and recollection. But Robert understood nothing of such talk; or cared not; and indeed there was little to blame in him; for he was courteous and easy in peace; and he was strong and valiant and joyful in war. He made no friend, but he was admired by many and feared by some.
Then, when Robert was within a few days of twenty-five, came a messenger, an old and gross man-at-arms with rusty armour, riding on a broken horse; he was one of the merry comrades of Robert's childhood; but Robert seemed hardly to know him, though he acknowledged his greeting courteously, and stayed not to talk, but opened the letter he had brought, and read gravely; and when he had read he said to the messenger, "So my lord is dead." And the messenger would have babbled about the end that the Lord Marmaduke had made, which indeed had been a bitter one, but Robert cut him short, and asked him a plain question or two about affairs, and frowned at his stumbling answers; and then Robert went to his uncle, and after due obeisance said, "Sir, my father, it seems, is dead, and with your leave I must ride to Tremontes and take my inheritance." And the Lord Ralph, seeing no sign of sorrow, said, "Your father was a great knight." "Ay, once," said Robert, "doubtless, but as I knew him more tree than man." And presently he took horse and rode all night to Tremontes; and when the old man-at-arms would have ridden beside him, and reminded him with a poor smile of some passages of his childhood, Robert said sourly, "Man, I hate my childhood, and will hear no word of it; and you and your fellow-knaves treated me ill; and your kindness was worse than your anger. Ride behind me."
So they rode sadly enough, until at evening, with a great red sunset glowing in the west, and smouldering behind the tree-trunks, he saw the dark tower of Tremontes looking solemnly out above the oaks. Then the man-at-arms asked humbly that he might ride forward and announce the new lord's coming; but Robert forbade him, and rode alone into the court.
He gave his horse to the man-at-arms and walked into the house; in the hall he found a drunken company and much ugly mirth. He surveyed the scene awhile in disgust, for they cried out at first for him to join them, till it came upon them who it was that looked upon them; so they stumbled to their feet and did him obeisance, and slunk out one by one upon some pretence of business, leaving him alone with the old priest, who was heavier and grosser than before. But he had his wits as well as he ever had, and would have told Robert how his father had made a blessed end, with holy oil and sacraments and all due comfort of Mother Church, but Robert cut him short; and after a lonely meal in the great hall, turned to look at such few parchments that there were in the house, and sent for the steward to see how his inheritance stood. It was a miserable tale he had to tell of neglect and thriftlessness; and Robert said very soon that he could only hope to save his estate by living poorly and giving diligence—and that he had no mind to do; so he resolved that if he could find a purchaser, he would sell the home of his fathers, and himself set out into the world he loved, to carve out a fortune, if he might, with his sword.
Among the parchments was one that was closely sealed; it bore a date before his birth; he read it at first listlessly enough, but presently he caught sight of words that made his heart beat faster. It seemed from the script that his father, as a young man, had served for awhile with a great Duke of Spain, the prince of a little kingdom, and that he had even saved his life in battle, and would have been promoted to high honour, but that he had been recalled home to take his inheritance; but the Duke, so said the writing, had given him the iron crown and dagger that the Lord of the Marches wore, and with them the great ruby of the dukedom, that was worth a king's ransom. And the parchment said that it was pledged by the Duke, by all the most sacred relics of Spain, bones of saints and wood of the True Cross, that should he or any of his heirs come before the Duke with these tokens, the Duke would promote him to chief honour.
Here then was the secret of the iron door and his father's constant fingering of the keys; and this was the plaything of his youth, The Wound, as he had called it. Robert bowed his head upon his hands and tried to recollect where he had thrust it last; but though he thought of a score of hiding-places where it might be, he could not remember where it certainly lay. Could he have thrown away by his childish folly a thing which would give him, if he cared to claim it, high honour and great place?—and if he cared not to claim that boon, but only sold the jewel, which was undoubtedly his own, he might be a great lord, among the wealthiest in the land.
Robert sate long in thought in the silent solar, with a candle burning beside him; once or twice his old nurse came in upon him, and longed to kiss him and clasp her child close; but he looked coldly upon her and seemed hardly to remember her.
At last the day began to brighten in the east; and Robert cast himself for awhile upon his father's bed to sleep, and slept a broken sleep. In the morning he first went to the cupboard and found the crown and dagger as he had left them; but though he searched high and low for the jewel, he could not find it in any of the secret places where he used to lay it; and at last he took the crown and dagger in despair, turned adrift the men-at-arms, and left none but the old nurse in the house. The priest asked for some gift or pension that would not leave him destitute, but Robert said, "Go to, you have lived in gluttony and sloth all the years at the expense of my estate; and now that you have nearly beggared me, you ask for more—you are near your end; live cleanly and wisely for a few years, ere you depart to your own place."
"Nay," said the priest whimpering, and with a miserable smile, "but I am old, and it is hard to change."
"So said the carp," quoth Robert with a hard smile, "when they dangled him up with a line out of the moat. Change and adventure are meet for all men. And I look that I do a good deed, when I restore a recreant shepherd to the fold." The priest went off, crying unworthy tears and cursing the new lord, to try and find a priest's office if he could; and Robert rode grimly away, back to his uncle, and told him all the tale.
His uncle sate long in thought, and then said that his resolve to sell the castle of Tremontes and the estate was, he believed, a wise one; and it should be his care to find a purchaser. "I myself," he said, "have none nearer than yourself to whom to leave my lands;" and then he advised Robert, if he would try his fortune, to take the crown and dagger, and to seek out the Duke or his heir, and to tell him the whole story, and how the precious jewel was lost.
So Robert rode away to London; and his uncle was sad to see him go so stonily and sullenly, with a mind so bent upon himself, and, it seemed, without love for a living thing; and as Robert rode he pondered; and it seemed to him a useless quest, because he thought that the giving back of the jewel was part of the terms, and that the Duke would not promote a man who brought him nothing but a memory of old deeds; and moreover, he thought that the Duke would not believe the story, but would think that he had the jewel safe at home, and wished to gain fortune in Spain, and keep the wealth as well. And as he rode into London, it seemed to him as though some wise power put it into his heart what he should do; for he rode by the sign of a maker of rich glass for church windows; and at once a thought darted into his mind; and going in, he sought out the master of the shop, and told him that he had lost a jewel from a crown, a jewel of price, and that he was ashamed that the crown should lack it; and he asked if he could make him a jewel of glass to set in its place; and he described the jewel, how large it was and how dull outside, and its fiery heart; and the craftsman smiled shrewdly and foxily, and told him to return on the third day, and he should have his will. On the third day he came again; and the craftsman, opening a box, took from it a jewel so like The Wound, that he thought for a moment that he must have recovered it; so he paid a mighty price for it, and set off light-hearted for Spain.
After weary wandering, and many strange adventures by sea and land, he rode one day to the Duke's palace gate. It was a great bare house of stone, within a wall, at the end of a little town. It was far larger and greater than he had dreamed; he was stayed at the gate, for he knew as yet but a few words of the language; but he had written on a parchment who he was, and that he desired to see the Duke. And presently there came out a seneschal in haste, and he was led within honourably, and soon he was had into a small room, richly furnished. He was left alone, and the seneschal showed him through which door the Duke would come.
Presently a door opened, and there came in an old shrunken man, in a furred gown, very stately and noble, holding the paper in his hand. Robert did obeisance, but the Duke raised him, and spoke courteously to him in the English tongue, and desired to see his tokens.
Then Robert brought forth the crown and the dagger and the jewel, and the Duke looked at them in silence for awhile, shading his eyes. And then he praised the Lord Marmaduke very nobly, saying that he owed his life to him. And then he told Robert that he would be true to his word, and promote him to honour; but he said that first he must abide with him many days, and go in and out with his knights, and learn the Spanish tongue and the Spanish way of life; so Robert abode with him in great content, and was treated with honour by all, but especially by the Duke, who often sent for him and spoke much of former days.
Then at last there came a day when the Duke sent for him and in the presence of all his lords told them the story and passed the crown and the dagger and the jewel from hand to hand; and the lords eyed the stone curiously and handled it tenderly; and then the Duke said that the knight who could, for the sake of honour, restore a jewel that could buy a county—there was not the like of it in the world, save in the Emperor's crown—was a true knight indeed; and therefore he made Robert Lord of the Marches, put the crown on his head, and a purple robe with a cape of miniver on his shoulders, and commanded that he should be used by all as if of royal birth.
The greatness of his reward was a surprise to Robert, and he had it in his heart to tell the Duke the truth. But the lords passed before him and did obeisance, and he put the good hour aside.
Very soon Robert set out for the Castle of the Marches; and he found it a marvellous house, fit for a king, with wide lands. And there he abode for several years, and did worthily; for he was an excellent knight, and a prudent general; moreover he was just and kind; and the people feared and obeyed his rule, and lived in peace, though none loved Robert; but he made the land prosperous and great, and cleared it of robbers, and raised a mighty revenue for the Duke, who praised him and made him great presents.
One day he heard that the Duke was ill; the next a courier came in haste to summon him to the Duke's presence; he wondered at this; but went with a great retinue. He found the Duke feeble and bent, but with a bright eye; he kissed Robert, like a brother prince, and as they sate alone he opened his heart to him and told him that he had done worthily; he had none of his kin, or none fit to hold his dukedom after him; but that all he desired was that his people should be well ruled, and that he had determined that Robert should succeed him. "There will be envious and grasping hands," he said, "held out—but you are strong and wise, and the people will be content to be ruled by you," and then he showed him a paper that made him a prince in title, and that gave him the Dukedom on his own death.
Now there lived in the Duke's house a wise and learned man named Paul, an alchemist, who knew the courses of the stars and the virtues of plants, and many other secret things; and the Duke delighted much in his conversation, which was ingenious and learned. But Robert heard him vacantly, thinking that such studies were fit only for children. And Paul being old and gentle, loved not Robert, but held that the Duke trusted him overmuch. And one night, when Robert and other lords were sitting with the Duke, Paul being present, the talk turned on the virtues of gems; and Paul, as if making an effort that he had long prepared for, told the Duke of a curious liquor, an aqua fortis, that he had distilled, which was a marvellous thing to test the worth of gems, and would tell the true from the false; and the Duke bade him bring the liquor and show him how the spirit worked. And it seemed to Robert that, as Paul spoke, a shadowy hand came from the darkness and clutched at his heart, enveloping him in blackness, so that he sate in a cold dream. And Paul went out, and presently returned bringing a small phial of gold—for the liquor, he said, would eat its way through any baser metal—and in the other hand a little dish of gems. Some of them, he said, were true gems, others of them less precious, and others naught but sparkling glass; and he poured a drop on each; the true gems sparkled unhurt in the clear liquid, the less precious threw off little flakes of impurity, and the glass hissed and melted in the potent venom. And Robert, contrary to his wont, came and stood, sick at heart, feeling the old man's eyes fixed on him with a steady gaze. At last Paul said, "The Prince Robert"—for the Duke had told the lords of the honour he had given him—"seems to wonder more than his wont at these simple toys and tricks; shall not the Duke let us test the great ruby, that its worth may be the better proven? perhaps too it has some small impurity to be purged away, and will shine more bravely, like a noble heart under affliction." And the Duke said, "Yes, let the ruby be brought."
So the lord that had the charge of the Duke's jewels brought a casket, and there in its place lay the great ruby, red as blood. And Robert would have spoken, but the words died upon his tongue, and he saw the shadow of the end.
Then Paul took the ruby and laid it on his dish; and as he raised the phial to pour, he looked at Robert, and said "But perhaps it is shame to treat so great a gem so discourteously?" And the Duke being old and curious said, "Nay, but pour." But then, as Paul raised the phial, the Duke lifted his hand, and said very pleasantly, "Yet after all, I hold not the jewel my own, but the Lord Robert's, who hath so faithfully restored it to me. What will you, my lord?" he said, turning with a smile to Robert. And Robert, looking and smiling very stonily, said, in a voice that he could scarcely command, "Pour, sir, pour!" So Paul poured the liquor.
The great ruby flashed for a moment, and then a thin white steam floated up, while the gem rose in a blood-stained foam, hissing and bubbling. Then there was a silence; and then Robert put his hand to his heart and stood still; the Duke looked at him, and Paul said in his ear, "Now, Lord Robert, play the man!—I knew the secret."
Then Robert rising from his place said that he would ask the Duke's leave to speak to him in private on this matter, and the Duke, coldly but courteously, led the way into an inner room, and there Robert told him all the story. Perhaps a younger man might have been more ready to forgive; but the Duke was old; and when Robert had done the story, he sate looking so aged and broken, that a kind of pity came into Robert's mind, and crushed the pity he felt for himself. But at last the Duke spoke. "You have deceived me," he said, "and I do not know that I can even think that your story is true; you can serve me no longer, for you have done unworthily." And with that he tore the parchment across, and dropped it on the ground, and then made a gesture of dismissal; and Robert rose, hoping that the Duke would yet relent, and said at last, "May I hope that your Grace can say that you forgive me? I do not ask to be restored—but in all other things I have served you well." "No, my Lord Robert," said the Duke at last coldly and severely, "I cannot forgive; for I have trusted one who has deceived me."
So Robert went slowly out of the room through the hall; and no man spoke to him and he spoke to none. Only Paul came to join him, and looked at him awhile, and then said, "Lord Robert, I have been the means of inflicting a heavy blow upon you; but it was not I who struck, but God, to whom I think you give no allegiance." And Robert said, "Nay, Sir Paul, trouble not yourself; you have done as a faithful servant of the Duke should do to a faithless servant; I bear you no malice; as you say, it is not you who strike."
Then the old man said, "Believe me, Lord Robert, that the day will come, and I think it is not far distant, when you will be grateful to the stroke which, at the cost of grievous pain to yourself, has revealed your soul to yourself. All men know the worst that can be known of you; the cup is emptied to the dregs; it is for you to fill it." Then he put out his hand, and Robert grasped it, and went out into the world alone. That night he sent a courier to his castle to say that he would return no more, and that all things were the Duke's; and he sent back to the Duke, by a private messenger, the crown and the dagger; and the Duke mourned over the loss of his trusty servant, but could not forgive him nor hear him spoken of.
Robert only kept for himself the sum of gold with which he had come to the Duke's court; and he travelled into France, for he knew that he would find fighting there, and took service in the army of Burgundy; he was surprised within himself to find how little he cared for the loss of his greatness; indeed he felt that a certain secret heaviness and blackness of spirit had left him, and that he was almost light-hearted; but in one of the first battles he fought in he was stricken from his horse, and trampled under foot. And they took him for tendance to a monastery near the field; and in a few weeks, when he came slowly back to life, he knew that he could fight no more.
Then indeed he fell into a great despair and darkness of spirit. It seemed as though some cruel and secret enemy had struck him blow after blow, and not content with visiting him with shame, had rent from him all that made him even wish to live. But in the monastery lived a wise old monk, with whom he had much talk, and in his weakness told him all his life and his fall. And one day the two sate together in the cloister, on a day in spring, while a bird sang very blithely in a bush that was all pricked with green points and shoots. And the old monk said, "This is a strange tale, Lord Robert, that you have told me; and the wonder grows as I think of it; but it seems to me that God has led you in a wonderful manner; He made you strong and bold and self-sufficient; and then He has taken these things from you, not gently, because you were strong to bear, but very sternly; He has led you through deep waters and yet you live; and He will set you upon the rock that is higher, so that you may serve Him yet."
And then it seemed, in a silence made beautiful by the sweet piping of the bird, that a little flower rose and blossomed in Robert's soul; he saw, in a sudden way that cannot be told in words, that he was indeed in stronger hands than his own; and there came into his mind that in following after strong things, he had missed the thing that was stronger than all—Love, that holds the world in his grasp.
So it came to pass that the Lord Robert became the thing that he had most despised—a monk. And he found here that his courage, which he had thought the strongest thing he had, was yet hardly strong enough to bear the doing of mean and sordid tasks, such as a monk must often do; but it became to him a kind of fierce pleasure to trample on himself, and to do humbly and severely all menial things. He swept the church, he dug in the garden, he fetched and carried burdens, and spared himself in nothing.
But after a time he fell ill; he missed, no doubt, the old activities of life; his days had been full of business and occupation, and though he did not look back—indeed a deep trench seemed to have been dug across his life, and he saw himself across it like a different man, and he could often hardly believe that he was the same—yet it seemed as though some spring had been broken in his spirit. He fell into long sad musings, and waters of bitterness flowed across his soul. The monks thought that he would die, he became so wan and ghost-like; but he never failed in his duty, and though his life stretched before him like a weary road, he knew that it would be long before he reached the end, and that he had many leagues yet to traverse, before the night fell cold on the hills.
Now, there was business to be done for the House in England, and Robert was sent there, the Prior hoping that the change and stir might lighten the load upon his spirit.
It happened at last that he found himself, in the course of his journeyings, not far from Tremontes. His uncle, the Lord Ralph, he heard, was dead, and his lands had gone to the nearest of his kin. He knew nothing of what had befallen Tremontes, but he made enquiries, saying that he had seen the Lord Robert in Spain; he found that there was great curiosity about him; he was plied with questions, and he was forced to speak of himself, as in a strange dream, and to hear the story of his disgrace told with many wild imaginings. It seemed that Ralph had himself undertaken the care of Tremontes, and had turned it by diligence into a rich estate, hoping, it was said, to hand it over to the Lord Robert on his return; but that as he had disappeared and made no sign, it was supposed that he had died fighting, and the Lord Ralph having died suddenly, Tremontes had passed with the rest of his estate.
Early one summer morning Robert set off across the broad green flat, and trudged to Tremontes. The country had hardly altered, and it was with a strange thrill of delight that one by one the familiar landmarks came into view; and at last he saw the castle itself over the oaks. He had learnt that there was a priest there as chaplain, a wise and sad man, to whom he bore a letter. Twenty years had passed since he saw the castle last, but it looked to his eyes no older; the hens picked and cried in the byre; the sun shone pleasantly as ever upon the lilied pool and the warm terrace. Robert felt no sadness, but a kind of hunger to be remembered, to be welcomed, to be received with loving looks. The porter led him in, up into the familiar hall, where sate a few sober men-at-arms, who rose and made a seemly obeisance; and he was presently sitting in a little parlour that opened on the chapel, talking quietly to the old priest, who seemed glad enough to have his company. Robert told him that he had known Tremontes in his youth; and after he had spoken of many indifferent things, he asked that he might withdraw for a little into the chapel, and say a silent prayer for those who were departed.
The old priest understood him and led the way; and in a moment Robert found himself seated by the little arcade, looking at the dim figure that hung in the window, where he had sate as a boy, when the messenger had come to summon him away. How it all came back to him! The years were obliterated in a flash; he put out his hand idly to the arcade, where the pillars stood out from the wall, and his fingers touched a small dusty thing that lay between a pillar and the stones. It was hardly with surprise that he raised it, and saw that he held the ruby, where he had put it in that careless hour.
Then there beat upon his mind a great wave of thought, and he saw how gentle had been the hand that led him, and how surely he had been guided; he looked into the depth of his soul, and saw the very secret counsels of God. That was an hour full of a strange and marvellous happiness, when he felt like a child leaning against a father's knee. He had no longer any repining or any questioning; but he knelt, full of a mysterious peace, resigning himself utterly into the mighty hands of the Father.
Presently the waning light warned him that the day was turning to the evening; and he came out and spoke to the priest, but with such a solemn and tranquil radiance of mien that the priest said to him, "I thought, brother, when you came to me, that you had a strange thing to tell me; but now you seem like one who has laid his very self down at the foot of the Cross." And Robert smiled and said, "I think I have."
Presently he set off; and a foolish fancy came and fluttered in his mind for a moment, that he ought not to come like a thief and steal so rich a thing away; till he reflected in himself that he had but to speak the word and the whole was his.
The old priest had told him that the Lord of Tremontes, Richard, was a just man, and ruled the estate well and bountifully; that he would have none but honest men to labour for him, and that he was liberal and kind. Just as Robert went out of the gate he met a grave man, in rich but sober attire, riding in, who drew aside to let the monk pass and put off his hat to him. Then it came into Robert's mind to speak to him, and he said, "Do I speak with the Lord Richard of Tremontes?"
"Richard of Parbury, father," said the Lord. "Tremontes is indeed held by me, but I have no lordship here. The Lord Robert of Tremontes may yet be living; we know not if he be alive or dead; and I but hold the estate for him and administer it for him; and if he returns he will find it, I believe, not worse than he left it."
Then Robert made up his mind and said, "Lord Richard, I have a message for you from the Lord Robert—but for your ears alone. I have seen him and know him. You have doubtless heard of his disgrace and his fall; and he will not return. He was but anxious to know that the estate was justly ruled and administered, and he resigns it into your hands."
Then the Lord Richard dismounted from his horse, and bade the monk enter and speak with him at large; but he would not. Then the Lord Richard said, "This is not a light matter, father; a great estate, craving your pardon, cannot thus pass by word of mouth."
"And it shall not," said the monk, "the Lord Robert shall send you due quittance."
Then the Lord Richard said, "Father, be it so, then; but should the Lord Robert return and claim the estate, it is his."
Then the monk said, "He will not return; he is dead to the world." And then he added, for he saw that the Lord Richard was pondering the matter, "I that speak with you am he." Then he blessed the Lord Richard, and departed in haste—and so solemn was his face and manner, that the Lord Richard did not stay him, but went within in wonder and awe.
Then Robert returned to the monastery, with a quiet joy in his heart; and he made a quittance of the estate, and sent it secretly to the Lord Richard by a faithful hand; and when the Lord Richard came in haste to see the monk and speak with him, he had departed for Spain.
Robert journeyed many days and came at last again to the house of the Duke. And he was then admitted, and bidden to dinner; so he sate in the hall that he knew, and no man recognised him in the thin and sunburnt monk that sate and spoke so low and courteously; and afterwards he asked audience of the Duke, who still lived, but was very near his end; and when he was alone with him, he drew out the stone and said, "My lord, your faithful and loving servant has found the ruby and herewith restores it; and he asks your forgiveness, for he loves you truly;" and Robert knelt beside him, and wept, but not for bitterness of heart.
Then said the Duke, speaking low, "My son, I have need to be forgiven and not to forgive." And they had great joy together, and Robert told him all that was in his heart.
"My lord," he said, "God hath led me by a strange path into peace; He saw the evil strength of my heart, and smote me in my pride; and He made me as a little child that He might receive me; and I am His."
And it came that the Duke was sick unto death; and he sent for Robert, who abode in the city, and would have given him the stone; but Robert said with a smile that he would not have it, for he had learnt at least the meaning of one text, that the price of wisdom is above rubies. And he kissed the hand of the Duke.
And the Duke died and was buried; but of Robert's life and death I know no more; but in the High Church, near the altar, is a stone grave, on which are the words "Brother Robert," and underneath the crown of a prince. So I think he lies there, all of him that doth fade.
THE CLOSED WINDOW
The Tower of Nort stood in a deep angle of the downs; formerly an old road led over the hill, but it is now a green track covered with turf; the later highway choosing rather to cross a low saddle of the ridge, for the sake of the beasts of burden. The tower, originally built to guard the great road, was a plain, strong, thick-walled fortress. To the tower had been added a plain and seemly house, where the young Sir Mark de Nort lived very easily and plentifully. To the south stretched the great wood of Nort, but the Tower stood high on an elbow of the down, sheltered from the north by the great green hills. The villagers had an odd ugly name for the Tower, which they called the Tower of Fear; but the name was falling into disuse, and was only spoken, and that heedlessly, by ancient men, because Sir Mark was vexed to hear it so called. Sir Mark was not yet thirty, and had begun to say that he must marry a wife; but he seemed in no great haste to do so, and loved his easy, lonely life, with plenty of hunting and hawking on the down. With him lived his cousin and heir, Roland Ellice, a heedless good-tempered man, a few years older than Sir Mark; he had come on a visit to Sir Mark, when he first took possession of the Tower; and there had seemed no reason why he should go away; the two suited each other; Sir Mark was sparing of speech, fond of books and of rhymes. Roland was different, loving ease and wine and talk, and finding in Mark a good listener. Mark loved his cousin, and thought it praiseworthy of him to stay and help to cheer so sequestered a house, since there were few neighbours within reach.
And yet Mark was not wholly content with his easy life; there were many days when he asked himself why he should go thus quietly on, day by day, like a stalled ox; still, there appeared no reason why he should do otherwise; there were but few folk on his land, and they were content; yet he sometimes envied them their bondage and their round of daily duties. The only place where he could else have been was with the army, or even with the Court; but Sir Mark was no soldier, and even less of a courtier; he hated tedious gaiety, and it was a time of peace. So because he loved solitude and quiet he lived at home, and sometimes thought himself but half a man; yet was he happy after a sort, but for a kind of little hunger of the heart.
What gave the Tower so dark a name was the memory of old Sir James de Nort, Mark's grand-father, an evil and secret man, who had dwelt at Nort under some strange shadow; he had driven his son from his doors, and lived at the end of his life with his books and his own close thoughts, spying upon the stars and tracing strange figures in books; since his death the old room in the turret top, where he came by his end in a dreadful way, had been closed; it was entered by a turret-door, with a flight of steps from the chamber below. It had four windows, one to each of the winds; but the window which looked upon the down was fastened up, and secured with a great shutter of oak.
One day of heavy rain, Roland, being wearied of doing nothing, and vexed because Mark sat so still in a great chair, reading in a book, said to his cousin at last that he must go and visit the old room, in which he had never set foot. Mark closed his book, and smiling indulgently at Roland's restlessness, rose, stretching himself, and got the key; and together they went up the turret stairs. The key groaned loudly in the lock, and, when the door was thrown back, there appeared a high faded room, with a timbered roof, and with a close, dull smell. Round the walls were presses, with the doors fast; a large oak table, with a chair beside it, stood in the middle. The walls were otherwise bare and rough; the spiders had spun busily over the windows and in the angles. Roland was full of questions, and Mark told him all he had heard of old Sir James and his silent ways, but said that he knew nothing of the disgrace that had seemed to envelop him, or of the reasons why he had so evil a name. Roland said that he thought it a shame that so fair a room should lie so nastily, and pulled one of the casements open, when a sharp gust broke into the room, with so angry a burst of rain, that he closed it again in haste; little by little, as they talked, a shadow began to fall upon their spirits, till Roland declared that there was still a blight upon the place; and Mark told him of the death of old Sir James, who had been found after a day of silence, when he had not set foot outside his chamber, lying on the floor of the room, strangely bedabbled with wet and mud, as though he had come off a difficult journey, speechless, and with a look of anguish on his face; and that he had died soon after they had found him, muttering words that no one understood. Then the two young men drew near to the closed window; the shutters were tightly barred, and across the panels was scrawled in red, in an uncertain hand, the words CLAUDIT ET NEMO APERIT, which Mark explained was the Latin for the text, He shutteth and none openeth. And then Mark said that the story went that it was ill for the man that opened the window, and that shut it should remain for him. But Roland girded at him for his want of curiosity, and had laid a hand upon the bar as though to open it, but Mark forbade him urgently. "Nay," said he, "let it remain so—we must not meddle with the will of the dead!" and as he said the word, there came so furious a gust upon the windows that it seemed as though some stormy thing would beat them open; so they left the room together, and presently descending, found the sun struggling through the rain.
But both Mark and Roland were sad and silent all that day; for though they spake not of it, there was a desire in their minds to open the closed window, and to see what would befall; in Roland's mind it was like the desire of a child to peep into what is forbidden; but in Mark's mind a sort of shame to be so bound by an old and weak tale of superstition.