"(Our lives are in peril.)
"Put off time." Then aloud—
"Well, now, wilt have t'other bottle?—Say nay."
"No, not I."
"But I tell thee, there are half-a-dozen jolly fellows. Tired."
"Ay, but I am too wearied," said Gerard. "Go thou."
"Nay, nay!" Then he went to the door and called out cheerfully "Landlord, the young milksop will not rise. Give those honest fellows t'other bottle. I will pay for't in the morning."
He heard a brutal and fierce chuckle.
Having thus by observation made sure the kitchen door was shut, and the miscreants were not actually listening, he examined the chamber door closely: then quietly shut it, but did not bolt it; and went and inspected the window.
It was too small to get out of, and yet a thick bar of iron had been let in the stone to make it smaller; and just as he made this chilling discovery, the outer door of the house was bolted with a loud clang.
Denys groaned. "The beasts are in the shambles."
But would the thieves attack them while they were awake? Probably not.
Not to throw away this their best chance, the poor souls now made a series of desperate efforts to converse, as if discussing ordinary matters; and by this means Gerard learned all that had passed, and that the girl was gone for aid.
"Pray Heaven she may not lose heart by the way," said Denys, sorrowfully.
And Denys begged Gerard's forgiveness for bringing him out of his way for this.
Gerard forgave him.
"I would fear them less, Gerard, but for one they call the Abbot. I picked him out at once. Taller than you, bigger than us both put together. Fights with an axe. Gerard, a man to lead a herd of deer to battle. I shall kill that man to-night, or he will kill me. I think somehow 'tis he will kill me."
"Saints forbid! Shoot him at the door! What avails his strength against your weapon?"
"I shall pick him out; but if it comes to hand fighting, run swiftly under his guard, or you are a dead man. I tell thee neither of us may stand a blow of that axe: thou never sawest such a body of a man."
Gerard was for bolting the door; but Denys with a sign showed him that half the door-post turned outward on a hinge, and the great bolt was little more than a blind. "I have forborne to bolt it," said he, "that they may think us the less suspicious."
Near an hour rolled away thus. It seemed an age. Yet it was but a little hour, and the town was a league distant. And some of the voices in the kitchen became angry and impatient.
"They will not wait much longer," said Denys, "and we have no chance at all unless we surprise them."
"I will do whate'er you bid," said Gerard meekly.
There was a cupboard on the same side as the door; but between it and the window. It reached nearly to the ground, but not quite. Denys opened the cupboard door and placed Gerard on a chair behind it. "If they run for the bed, strike at the napes of their necks! a sword cut there always kills or disables." He then arranged the bolsters and their shoes in the bed so as to deceive a person peeping from a distance, and drew the short curtains at the head.
Meantime Gerard was on his knees. Denys looked round and saw him.
"Ah!" said Denys, "above all, pray them to forgive me for bringing you into this guet-apens!"
And now they grasped hands and looked in one another's eyes oh, such a look! Denys's hand was cold, and Gerard's warm.
They took their posts.
Denys blew out the candle.
"We must keep silence now."
But in the terrible tension of their nerves and very souls they found they could hear a whisper fainter than any man could catch at all outside that door. They could hear each other's hearts thump at times.
"Good news!" breathed Denys, listening at the door. "They are casting lots."
"Pray that it may be the Abbot."
"If he comes alone I can make sure of him."
"I fear I shall go mad, if they do not come soon."
"Shall I feign sleep? Shall I snore?"
"Do then and God have mercy on us!"
Denys snored at intervals.
There was a scuffling of feet heard in the kitchen, and then all was still.
Denys snored again. Then took up his position behind the door.
But he, or they, who had drawn the lot, seemed determined to run no foolish risks. Nothing was attempted in a hurry.
When they were almost starved with cold, and waiting for the attack, the door on the stairs opened softly and closed again. Nothing more.
There was another harrowing silence.
Then a single light footstep on the stair; and nothing more.
Then a light crept under the door and nothing more.
Presently there was a gentle scratching, not half so loud as a mouse's, and the false door-post opened by degrees, and left a perpendicular space, through which the light streamed in. The door, had it been bolted, would now have hung by the bare tip of the bolt, which went into the real door-post, but as it was, it swung gently open of itself. It opened inwards, so Denys did not raise his crossbow from the ground, but merely grasped his dagger.
The candle was held up, and shaded from behind by a man's hand.
He was inspecting the beds from the threshold, satisfied that his victims were both in bed.
The man glided into the apartment. But at the first step something in the position of the cupboard and chair made him uneasy. He ventured no further, but put the candle on the floor and stooped to peer under the chair; but as he stooped, an iron hand grasped his shoulder, and a dagger was driven so fiercely through his neck that the point came out at his gullet. There was a terrible hiccough, but no cry; and half-a-dozen silent strokes followed in swift succession, each a death-blow, and the assassin was laid noiselessly on the floor.
Denys closed the door, bolted it gently, drew the post to, and even while he was going whispered Gerard to bring a chair. It was done.
"Help me set him up."
"Frighten them! Gain time."
Even while saying this, Denys had whipped a piece of string round the dead man's neck, and tied him to the chair, and there the ghastly figure sat fronting the door.
"Denys, I can do better. Saints forgive me!"
"What? Be quick then, we have not many moments."
And Denys got his crossbow ready, and tearing off his straw mattress, reared it before him and prepared to shoot the moment the door should open, for he had no hope any more would come singly, when they found the first did not return.
While thus employed, Gerard was busy about the seated corpse, and to his amazement Denys saw a luminous glow spreading rapidly over the white face.
Gerard blew out the candle; and on this the corpse's face shone still more like a glowworm's head.
Denys shook in his shoes, and his teeth chattered.
"What, in Heaven's name, is this?" he whispered.
"Hush! 'tis but phosphorus, but 'twill serve."
"Away! they will surprise thee."
In fact, uneasy mutterings were heard below, and at last a deep voice said, "What makes him so long? is the drole rifling them?"
It was their comrade they suspected then, not the enemy. Soon a step came softly but rapidly up the stairs: the door was gently tried.
When this resisted, which was clearly not expected, the sham post was very cautiously moved, and an eye no doubt peeped through the aperture: for there was a howl of dismay, and the man was heard to stumble back and burst into the kitchen, here a Babel of voices rose directly on his return.
Gerard ran to the dead thief and began to work on him again.
"Back, madman!" whispered Denys.
"Nay, nay. I know these ignorant brutes; they will not venture here awhile. I can make him ten times more fearful."
"At least close that opening! Let them not see you at your devilish work."
Gerard closed the sham post, and in half a minute his brush gave the dead head a sight to strike any man with dismay. He put his art to a strange use, and one unparalleled perhaps in the history of mankind. He illuminated his dead enemy's face to frighten his living foe: the staring eyeballs he made globes of fire; the teeth he left white, for so they were more terrible by the contrast; but the palate and tongue he tipped with fire, and made one lurid cavern of the red depths the chapfallen jaw revealed: and on the brow he wrote in burning letters "La Mort." And, while he was doing it, the stout Denys was quaking, and fearing the vengeance of Heaven; for one mans courage is not another's; and the band of miscreants below were quarrelling and disputing loudly, and now without disguise.
The steps that led down to the kitchen were fifteen, but they were nearly perpendicular: there was therefore in point of fact no distance between the besiegers and besieged, and the latter now caught almost every word. At last one was heard to cry out, "I tell ye the devil has got him and branded him with hellfire. I am more like to leave this cursed house than go again into a room that is full of fiends."
"Art drunk? or mad? or a coward?" said another.
"Call me a coward, I'll give thee my dagger's point, and send thee where Pierre sits o' fire for ever.
"Come, no quarrelling when work is afoot," roared a tremendous diapason, "or I'll brain ye both with my fist, and send ye where we shall all go soon or late."
"The Abbot," whispered Denys gravely.
He felt the voice he had just heard could belong to no man but the colossus he had seen in passing through the kitchen. It made the place vibrate. The quarrelling continued some time, and then there was a dead silence.
"Look out, Gerard."
"Ay. What will they do next?"
"We shall soon know."
"Shall I wait for you, or cut down the first that opens the door?"
"Wait for me, lest we strike the same and waste a blow. Alas! we cannot afford that."
Sudden came into the room a thing that made them start and their hearts quiver.
And what was it? A moonbeam.
Even so can this machine, the body, by the soul's action, be strung up to start and quiver. The sudden ray shot keen and pure into that shamble.
Its calm, cold, silvery soul traversed the apartment in a stream of no great volume, for the window was narrow.
After the first tremor Gerard whispered, "Courage, Denys! God's eye is on us even here." And he fell upon his knees with his face turned towards the window.
Ay it was like a holy eye opening suddenly on human crime and human passions. Many a scene of blood and crime that pure cold eye had rested on; but on few more ghastly than this, where two men, with a lighted corpse between them, waited panting, to kill and be killed. Nor did the moonlight deaden that horrible corpse-light. If anything it added to its ghastliness: for the body sat at the edge of the moonbeam, which cut sharp across the shoulder and the ear, and seemed blue and ghastly and unnatural by the side of that lurid glow in which the face and eyes and teeth shone horribly. But Denys dared not look that way.
The moon drew a broad stripe of light across the door, and on that his eyes were glued. Presently he whispered, "Gerard!"
Gerard looked and raised his sword.
Acutely as they had listened, they had heard of late no sound on the stair. Yet therein the door-post, at the edge of the stream of moonlight, were the tips of the fingers of a hand.
The nails glistened.
Presently they began to crawl and crawl down towards the bolt, but with infinite slowness and caution. In so doing they crept into the moonlight. The actual motion was imperceptible, but slowly, slowly, the fingers came out whiter and whiter; but the hand between the main knuckles and the wrist remained dark.
Denys slowly raised his crossbow.
He levelled it. He took a long steady aim.
Gerard palpitated. At last the crossbow twanged. The hand was instantly nailed, with a stern jar, to the quivering door-post. There was a scream of anguish. "Cut," whispered Denys eagerly, and Gerard's uplifted sword descended and severed the wrist with two swift blows. A body sank down moaning outside.
The hand remained inside, immovable, with blood trickling from it down the wall. The fierce bolt, slightly barbed, had gone through it and deep into the real door-post.
"Two," said Denys, with terrible cynicism.
He strung his crossbow, and kneeled behind his cover again.
"The next will be the Abbot."
The wounded man moved, and presently crawled down to his companions on the stairs, and the kitchen door was shut.
There nothing was heard now but low muttering. The last incident had revealed the mortal character of the weapons used by the besieged.
"I begin to think the Abbot's stomach is not so great as his body," said Denys.
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the following events happened all in a couple of seconds. The kitchen door was opened roughly, a heavy but active man darted up the stairs without any manner of disguise, and a single ponderous blow sent the door not only off its hinges, but right across the room on to Denys's fortification, which it struck so rudely as nearly to lay him flat. And in the doorway stood a colossus with a glittering axe.
He saw the dead man with the moon's blue light on half his face, and the red light on the other half and inside his chapfallen jaws: he stared, his arms fell, his knees knocked together, and he crouched with terror.
"LA MORT!" he cried, in tones of terror, and turned and fled. In which act Denys started up and shot him through both jaws. He sprang with one bound into the kitchen, and there leaned on his axe, spitting blood and teeth and curses.
Denys strung his bow and put his hand into his breast.
He drew it out dismayed.
"My last bolt is gone," he groaned.
"But we have our swords, and you have slain the giant."
"No, Gerard," said Denys gravely, "I have not. And the worst is I have wounded him. Fool! to shoot at a retreating lion. He had never faced thy handiwork again, but for my meddling."
"Ha! to your guard! I hear them open the door."
Then Denys, depressed by the one error he had committed in all this fearful night, felt convinced his last hour had come. He drew his sword, but like one doomed. But what is this? a red light flickers on the ceiling. Gerard flew to the window and looked out. There were men with torches, and breastplates gleaming red. "We are saved! Armed men!" And he dashed his sword through the window shouting, "Quick! quick! we are sore pressed."
"Back!" yelled Denys; "they come! strike none but him!"
That very moment the Abbot and two men with naked weapons rushed into the room. Even as they came, the outer door was hammered fiercely, and the Abbot's comrades hearing it, and seeing the torchlight, turned and fled. Not so the terrible Abbot: wild with rage and pain, he spurned his dead comrade, chair and all, across the room, then, as the men faced him on each side with kindling eyeballs, he waved his tremendous axe like a feather right and left, and cleared a space, then lifted it to hew them both in pieces.
His antagonists were inferior in strength, but not in swiftness and daring, and above all they had settled how to attack him. The moment he reared his axe, they flew at him like cats, and both together. If he struck a full blow with his weapon he would most likely kill one, but the other would certainly kill him: he saw this, and intelligent as well as powerful, he thrust the handle fiercely in Denys's face, and, turning, jobbed with the steel at Gerard. Denys went staggering back covered with blood. Gerard had rushed in like lightning, and, just as the axe turned to descend on him, drove his sword so fiercely through the giant's body, that the very hilt sounded on his ribs like the blow of a pugilist, and Denys, staggering back to help his friend, saw a steel point come out of the Abbot behind.
The stricken giant bellowed like a bull, dropped his axe, and clutching Gerard's throat tremendously, shook him like a child. Then Denys with a fierce snarl drove his sword into the giant's back. "Stand firm now!" and he pushed the cold steel through and through the giant and out at his breast.
Thus horribly spitted on both sides, the Abbot gave a violent shudder, and his heels hammered the ground convulsively. His lips, fast turning blue, opened wide and deep, and he cried, "LA MORT!-LA MORT!-LA MORT!!" the first time in a roar of despair, and then twice in a horror-stricken whisper, never to be forgotten.
Just then the street door was forced.
Suddenly the Abbot's arms whirled like windmills, and his huge body wrenched wildly and carried them to the doorway, twisting their wrists and nearly throwing them off their legs.
"He'll win clear yet," cried Denys: "out steel! and in again!"
They tore out their smoking swords, but ere they could stab again, the Abbot leaped full five feet high, and fell with a tremendous crash against the door below, carrying it away with him like a sheet of paper, and through the aperture the glare of torches burst on the awe-struck faces above, half blinding them.
The thieves at the first alarm had made for the back door, but driven thence by a strong guard ran back to the kitchen, just in time to see the lock forced out of the socket, and half-a-dozen mailed archers burst in upon them. On these in pure despair they drew their swords.
But ere a blow was struck on either side, the staircase door behind them was battered into their midst with one ponderous blow, and with it the Abbot's body came flying, hurled as they thought by no mortal hand, and rolled on the floor spouting blood from back and bosom in two furious jets, and quivered, but breathed no more.
The thieves smitten with dismay fell on their knees directly, and the archers bound them, while, above, the rescued ones still stood like statues rooted to the spot, their dripping swords extended in the red torchlight, expecting their indomitable enemy to leap back on them as wonderfully as he had gone.
"Where be the true men?"
"Here be we. God bless you all! God bless you!"
There was a rush to the stairs, and half-a-dozen hard but friendly hands were held out and grasped them warmly.
"Y'have saved our lives, lads," cried Denys, "y'have saved our lives this night."
A wild sight met the eyes of the rescued pair. The room flaring with torches, the glittering breastplates of the archers, their bronzed faces, the white cheeks of the bound thieves, and the bleeding giant, whose dead body these hard men left lying there in its own gore.
Gerard went round the archers and took them each by the hand with glistening eyes, and on this they all kissed him; and this time he kissed them in return. Then he said to one handsome archer of his own age, "Prithee, good soldier, have an eye to me. A strange drowsiness overcomes me. Let no one cut my throat while I sleep—for pity's sake."
The archer promised with a laugh; for he thought Gerard was jesting: and the latter went off into a deep sleep almost immediately.
Denys was surprised at this: but did not interfere; for it suited his immediate purpose. A couple of archers were inspecting the Abbot's body, turning it half over with their feet, and inquiring, "Which of the two had flung this enormous rogue down from an upper storey like that; they would fain have the trick of his arm."
Denys at first pished and pshawed, but dared not play the braggart, for he said to himself, "That young vagabond will break in and say 'twas the finger of Heaven, and no mortal arm, or some such stuff, and make me look like a fool." But now, seeing Gerard unconscious, he suddenly gave this required information.
"Well, then, you see, comrades, I had run my sword through this one up to the hilt, and one or two more of 'em came buzzing about me; so it behoved me have my sword or die: so I just put my foot against his stomach, gave a tug with my hand and a spring with my foot, and sent him flying to kingdom come! He died in the air, and his carrion rolled in amongst you without ceremony: made you jump, I warrant me. But pikestaves and pillage! what avails prattling of, these trifles once they are gone by? buvons, camarades, buvons."
The archers remarked that it was easy to say "buvons" where no liquor was, but not so easy to do it.
"Nay, I'll soon find you liquor. My nose hath a natural alacrity at scenting out the wine. You follow me: and I my nose: bring a torch!" And they left the room, and finding a short flight of stone steps, descended them and entered a large, low, damp cellar.
It smelt close and dank: and the walls were encrusted here and there with what seemed cobwebs; but proved to be saltpetre that had oozed out of the damp stones and crystallized.
"Oh! the fine mouldy smell," said Denys; "in such places still lurks the good wine; advance thy torch. Diable! what is that in the corner? A pile of rags? No: 'tis a man."
They gathered round with the torch, and lo! a figure crouched on a heap in the corner, pale as ashes and shivering.
"Why, it is the landlord," said Denys.
"Get up, thou craven heart!" shouted one of the archers.
"Why, man, the thieves are bound, and we are dry that bound them. Up! and show us thy wine; for no bottles see here."
"What, be the rascals bound?" stammered the pale landlord; "good news. W-w-wine? that will I, honest sirs."
And he rose with unsure joints and offered to lead the way to the wine cellar. But Denys interposed. "You are all in the dark, comrades. He is in league with the thieves."
"Alack, good soldier, me in league with the accursed robbers! Is that reasonable?"
"The girl said so anyway."
"The girl! What girl? Ah! Curse her, traitress!"
"Well," interposed the other archer; "the girl is not here, but gone on to the bailiff. So let the burghers settle whether this craven be guilty or no: for we caught him not in the act: and let him draw us our wine."
"One moment," said Denys shrewdly. "Why cursed he the girl? If he be a true man, he should bless her as we do."
"Alas, sir!" said the landlord, "I have but my good name to live by, and I cursed her to you, because you said she had belied me."
"Humph! I trow thou art a thief, and where is the thief that cannot lie with a smooth face? Therefore hold him, comrades: a prisoner can draw wine an if his hands be not bound."
The landlord offered no objection; but on the contrary said he would with pleasure show them where his little stock of wine was, but hoped they would pay for what they should drink, for his rent was due this two months.
The archers smiled grimly at his simplicity, as they thought it; one of them laid a hand quietly but firmly on his shoulder, the other led on with the torch.
They had reached the threshold when Denys cried "Halt!"
"Here be bottles in this corner; advance thy light."
The torch-bearer went towards him. He had just taken off his scabbard and was probing the heap the landlord had just been crouched upon.
"Nay, nay," cried the landlord, "the wine is in the next cellar. There is nothing there."
"Nothing is mighty hard, then," said Denys, and drew out something with his hand from the heap.
It proved to be only a bone.
Denys threw it on the floor: it rattled.
"There is nought there but the bones of the house," said the landlord.
"Just now 'twas nothing. Now that we have found something 'tis nothing but bones. Here's another. Humph? look at this one, comrade; and you come too and look at it, and bring you smooth knave along."
The archer with the torch, whose name was Philippe, held the bone to the light and turned it round and round.
"Well?" said Denys.
"Well, if this was a field of battle, I should say 'twas the shankbone of a man; no more, no less. But 'tisn't a battlefield, nor a churchyard; 'tis an inn."
"True, mate; but yon knave's ashy face is as good a light to me as a field of battle. I read the bone by it, Bring yon face nearer, I say. When the chine is amissing, and the house dog can't look at you without his tail creeping between his legs, who was the thief? Good brothers mine, my mind it doth misgive me. The deeper I thrust the more there be. Mayhap if these bones could tell their tale they would make true men's flesh creep that heard it."
"Alas! young man, what hideous fancies are these! The bones are bones of beeves, and sheep, and kids, and not, as you think, of men and women. Holy saints preserve us!"
"Hold thy peace! thy words are air. Thou hast not got burghers by the ear, that know not a veal knuckle from their grandsire's ribs; but soldiers-men that have gone to look for their dear comrades, and found their bones picked as clean by the crows as these I doubt have been by thee and thy mates. Men and women, saidst thou? And prithee, when spake I a word of women's bones? Wouldst make a child suspect thee. Field of battle, comrade! Was not this house a field of battle half an hour agone? Drag him close to me, let me read his face: now then, what is this, thou knave?" and he thrust a small object suddenly in his face.
"Alas! I know not."
"Well, I would not swear neither: but it is too like the thumb bone of a man's hand; mates, my flesh it creeps. Churchyard! how know I this is not one?"
And he now drew his sword out of the scabbard and began to rake the heap of earth and broken crockery and bones out on the floor.
The landlord assured him he but wasted his time. "We poor innkeepers are sinners," said he; "we give short measure and baptize the wine: we are fain to do these things; the laws are so unjust to us; but we are not assassins. How could we afford to kill our customers? May Heaven's lightning strike me dead if there be any bones there but such as have been used for meat. 'Tis the kitchen wench flings them here: I swear by God's holy mother, by holy Paul, by holy Dominic, and Denys my patron saint—ah!"
Denys held out a bone under his eye in dead silence. It was a bone no man, however ignorant, however lying, could confound with those of sheep or oxen. The sight of it shut the lying lips, and palsied the heartless heart.
The landlord's hair rose visibly on his head like spikes, and his knees gave way as if his limbs had been struck from under him. But the archers dragged him fiercely up, and kept him erect under the torch, staring fascinated at the dead skull which, white as the living cheek opposed, but no whiter, glared back again at its murderer, whose pale lip now opened and opened, but could utter no sound.
"Ah!" said Denys solemnly, and trembling now with rage, "look on the sockets out of which thou hast picked the eyes, and let them blast thine eyes, that crows shall pick out ere this week shall end. Now, hold thou that while I search on. Hold it, I say, or here I rob the gallows—" and he threatened the quaking wretch with his naked sword, till with a groan he took the skull and held it, almost fainting.
Oh! that every murderer, and contriver of murder, could see him, sick, and staggering with terror, and with his hair on end, holding the cold skull, and feeling that his own head would soon be like it. And soon the heap was scattered, and alas! not one nor two, but many skulls were brought to light, the culprit moaning at each discovery.
Suddenly Denys uttered a strange cry of distress to come from so bold and hard a man; and held up to the torch a mass of human hair. It was long, glossy, and golden. A woman's beautiful hair. At the sight of it the archers instinctively shook the craven wretch in their hands: and he whined.
"I have a little sister with hair just so fair and shining as this," gulped Denys. "Jesu! if it should be hers! There quick, take my sword and dagger, and keep them from my hand, lest I strike him dead and wrong the gibbet. And thou, poor innocent victim, on whose head this most lovely hair did grow, hear me swear this, on bended knee, never to leave this man till I see him broken to pieces on the wheel even for thy sake."
He rose from his knee. "Ay, had he as many lives as here be hairs, I'd have them all, by God," and he put the hair into his bosom. Then in a sudden fury seized the landlord fiercely by the neck, and forced him to his knees; and foot on head ground his face savagely among the bones of his victims, where they lay thickest; and the assassin first yelled, then whined and whimpered, just as a dog first yells, then whines, when his nose is so forced into some leveret or other innocent he has killed.
"Now lend me thy bowstring, Philippe!" He passed it through the eyes of a skull alternately, and hung the ghastly relic of mortality and crime round the man's neck; then pulled him up and kicked him industriously into the kitchen, where one of the aldermen of the burgh had arrived with constables, and was even now taking an archer's deposition.
The grave burgher was much startled at sight of the landlord driven in bleeding from a dozen scratches inflicted by the bones of his own victims, and carrying his horrible collar. But Denys came panting after, and in a few fiery words soon made all clear.
"Bind him like the rest," said the alderman sternly. "I count him the blackest of them all."
While his hands were being bound, the poor wretch begged piteously that "the skull might be taken from him."
"Humph!" said the alderman. "Certes I had not ordered such a thing to be put on mortal man. Yet being there, I will not lift voice nor finger to doff it. Methinks it fits thee truly, thou bloody dog. 'Tis thy ensign, and hangs well above a heart so foul as thine."
He then inquired of Denys if he thought they had secured the whole gang, or but a part.
"Your worship," said Denys, "there are but seven of them, and this landlord. One we slew upstairs, one we trundled down dead, the rest are bound before you."
"Good! go fetch the dead one from upstairs, and lay him beside him I caused to be removed."
Here a voice like a guinea-fowl's broke peevishly in. "Now, now, now, where is the hand? that is what I want to see." The speaker was a little pettifogging clerk.
"You will find it above, nailed to the door-post by a crossbow bolt."
"Good!" said the clerk. He whispered his master, "What a goodly show will the 'pieces de conviction' make!" and with this he wrote them down, enumerating them in separate squeaks as he penned them. Skulls—Bones—A woman's hair—A thief's hands 1 axe—2 carcasses—1 crossbow bolt. This done, he itched to search the cellar himself: there might be other invaluable morsels of evidence, an ear, or even an earring. The alderman assenting, he caught up a torch and was hurrying thither, when an accident stopped him, and indeed carried him a step or two in the opposite direction.
The constables had gone up the stair in single file.
But the head constable no sooner saw the phosphorescent corpse seated by the bedside, than he stood stupefied; and next he began to shake like one in an ague, and, terror gaining on him more and more, he uttered a sort of howl and recoiled swiftly. Forgetting the steps in his recoil, he tumbled over backward on his nearest companion; but he, shaken by the shout of dismay, and catching a glimpse of something horrid, was already staggering back, and in no condition to sustain the head constable, who, like most head constables, was a ponderous man. The two carried away the third, and the three the fourth, and they streamed into the kitchen, and settled on the floor, overlapping each other like a sequence laid out on a card-table. The clerk coming hastily with his torch ran an involuntary tilt against the fourth man, who, sharing the momentum of the mass, knocked him instantly on his back, the ace of that fair quint; and there he lay kicking and waving his torch, apparently in triumph, but really in convulsion, sense and wind being driven out together by the concussion.
"What is to do now, in Heaven's name?" cried the alderman, starting up with considerable alarm. But Denys explained, and offered to accompany his worship. "So be it," said the latter. His men picked themselves ruefully up, and the alderman put himself at their head and examined the premises above and below. As for the prisoners, their interrogatory was postponed till they could be confronted with the servant.
Before dawn, the thieves, alive and dead, and all the relics and evidences of crime and retribution, were swept away into the law's net, and the inn was silent and almost deserted. There remained but one constable, and Denys and Gerard, the latter still sleeping heavily.
Gerard awoke, and found Denys watching him with some anxiety.
"It is you for sleeping! Why, 'tis high noon."
"It was a blessed sleep," said Gerard; "methinks Heaven sent it me. It hath put as it were a veil between me and that awful night. To think that you and I sit here alive and well. How terrible a dream I seem to have had!"
"Ay, lad, that is the wise way to look at these things when once they are past, why, they are dreams, shadows. Break thy fast, and then thou wilt think no more on't. Moreover, I promised to bring thee on to the town by noon, and take thee to his worship."
Gerard then sopped some rye bread in red wine and ate it to break his fast: then went with Denys over the scene of combat, and came back shuddering, and finally took the road with his friend, and kept peering through the hedges, and expecting sudden attacks unreasonably, till they reached the little town. Denys took him to "The White Hart".
"No fear of cut-throats here," said he. "I know the landlord this many a year. He is a burgess, and looks to be bailiff. 'Tis here I was making for yestreen. But we lost time, and night o'ertook us—and—
"And you saw a woman at the door, and would be wiser than a Jeanneton; she told us they were nought."
"Why, what saved our lives if not a woman? Ay, and risked her own to do it."
"That is true, Denys; and though women are nothing to me, I long to thank this poor girl, and reward her, ay, though I share every doit in my purse with her. Do not you?"
"Where shall we find her?"
"Mayhap the alderman will tell us. We must go to him first."
The alderman received them with a most singular and inexplicable expression of countenance. However, after a moment's reflection, he wore a grim smile, and finally proceeded to put interrogatories to Gerard, and took down the answers. This done, he told them that they must stay in the town till the thieves were tried, and be at hand to give evidence, on peril of fine and imprisonment. They looked very blank at this.
"However," said he, "'twill not be long, the culprits having been taken red-handed." He added, "And you know, in any case you could not leave the place this week."
Denys stared at this remark, and Gerard smiled at what he thought the simplicity of the old gentleman in dreaming that a provincial town of Burgundy had attraction to detain him from Rome and Margaret.
He now went to that which was nearest both their hearts.
"Your worship," said he, "we cannot find our benefactress in the town."
"Nay, but who is your benefactress?"
"Who? why the good girl that came to you by night and saved our lives at peril of her own. Oh sir, our hearts burn within us to thank and bless her; where is she?"
"In prison, sir; good lack, for what misdeed?"
"Well, she is a witness, and may be a necessary one."
"Why, Messire Bailiff," put in Denys, "you lay not all your witnesses by the heels I trow."
The alderman, pleased at being called bailiff, became communicative. "In a case of blood we detain all testimony that is like to give us leg bail, and so defeat justice, and that is why we still keep the women folk. For a man at odd times hides a week in one mind, but a woman, if she do her duty to the realm o' Friday, she shall undo it afore Sunday, or try. Could you see yon wench now, you should find her a-blubbering at having betrayed five males to the gallows. Had they been females, we might have trusted to a subpoena. For they despise one another. And there they show some sense. But now I think on't, there were other reasons for laying this one by the heels. Hand me those depositions, young sir." And he put on his glasses. "Ay! she was implicated; she was one of the band."
A loud disclaimer burst from Denys and Gerard at once.
"No need to deave me," said the alderman. "Here 'tis in black and white. 'Jean Hardy (that is one of the thieves), being questioned, confessed that—humph? Ay, here 'tis. 'And that the girl Manon was the decoy, and her sweetheart was Georges Vipont, one of the band; and hanged last month: and that she had been deject ever since, and had openly blamed the band for his death, saying if they had not been rank cowards, he had never been taken, and it is his opinion she did but betray them out of very spite, and—
"His opinion," cried Gerard indignantly; "what signifies the opinion of a cut-throat, burning to be revenged on her who has delivered him to justice? And an you go to that, what avails his testimony? Is a thief never a liar? Is he not aye a liar? and here a motive to lie? Revenge, why, 'tis the strongest of all the passions. And oh, sir, what madness to question a detected felon and listen to him lying away an honest life—as if he were a true man swearing in open day, with his true hand on the Gospel laid!"
"Young man," said the alderman, "restrain thy heat in presence of authority! I find by your tone you are a stranger. Know then that in this land we question all the world. We are not so weak as to hope to get at the truth by shutting either our left ear or our right."
"And so you would listen to Satan belying the saints!"
"Ta! ta! The law meddles but with men and women, and these cannot utter a story all lies, let them try ever so. Wherefore we shut not the barn-door (as the saying is) against any man's grain. Only having taken it in, we do winnow and sift it. And who told you I had swallowed the thief's story whole like fair water? Not so. I did but credit so much on't as was borne out by better proof."
"Better proof?" and Gerard looked blank. "Why, who but the thieves would breathe a word against her?"
"Herself, sir? what, did you question her too?"
"I tell you we question all the world. Here is her deposition; can you read?—Read it yourself, then."
Gerard looked at Denys and read him Manon's deposition.
"I am a native of Epinal. I left my native place two years ago because I was unfortunate: I could not like the man they bade me. So my father beat me. I ran away from my father. I went to service. I left service because the mistress was jealous of me. The reason that she gave for turning me off was, because I was saucy. Last year I stood in the marketplace to be hired with other girls. The landlord of 'The Fair Star' hired me. I was eleven months with him. A young man courted me. I loved him. I found out that travellers came and never went away again. I told my lover. He bade me hold my peace. He threatened me. I found my lover was one of a band of thieves. When travellers were to be robbed, the landlord went out and told the band to come. Then I wept and prayed for the travellers' souls. I never told. A month ago my lover died.
"The soldier put me in mind of my lover. He was bearded like him I had lost. I cannot tell whether I should have interfered, if he had had no beard. I am sorry I told now."
The paper almost dropped from Gerard's hands. Now for the first time he saw that Manon's life was in mortal danger. He knew the dogged law, and the dogged men that executed it. He threw himself suddenly on his knees at the alderman's feet. "Oh, sir! think of the difference between those cruel men and this poor weak woman! Could you have the heart to send her to the same death with them; could you have the heart to condemn us to look on and see her slaughtered, who, but that she risked her life for ours, had not now been in jeopardy? Alas, sir! show me and my comrade some pity, if you have none for her, poor soul. Denys and I be true men, and you will rend our hearts if you kill that poor simple girl. What can we do? What is left for us to do then but cut our throats at her gallows' foot?"
The alderman was tough, but mortal; the prayers and agitation of Gerard first astounded, then touched him. He showed it in a curious way. He became peevish and fretful. "There, get up, do," said he. "I doubt whether anybody would say as many words for me. What ho, Daniel! go fetch the town clerk." And on that functionary entering from an adjoining room, "Here is a foolish lad fretting about yon girl. Can we stretch a point? say we admit her to bear witness, and question her favourably."
The town clerk was one of your "impossibility" men.
"Nay, sir, we cannot do that: she was not concerned in this business. Had she been accessory, we might have offered her a pardon to bear witness."
Gerard burst in, "But she did better. Instead of being accessory, she stayed the crime; and she proffered herself as witness by running hither with the tale."
"Tush, young man, 'tis a matter of law." The alderman and the clerk then had a long discussion, the one maintaining, the other denying, that she stood as fair in law as if she had been accessory to the attempt on our travellers' lives. And this was lucky for Manon: for the alderman, irritated by the clerk reiterating that he could not do this, and could not that, and could not do t'other, said "he would show him he could do anything he chose," And he had Manon out, and upon the landlord of "The White Hart" being her bondsman, and Denys depositing five gold pieces with him, and the girl promising, not without some coaxing from Denys, to attend as a witness, he liberated her, but eased his conscience by telling her in his own terms his reason for this leniency.
"The town had to buy a new rope for everybody hanged, and present it to the bourreau, or compound with him in money: and she was not in his opinion worth this municipal expense, whereas decided characters like her late confederates, were." And so Denys and Gerard carried her off, Gerard dancing round her for joy, Denys keeping up her heart by assuring her of the demise of a troublesome personage, and she weeping inauspiciously. However, on the road to "The White Hart" the public found her out, and having heard the whole story from the archers, who naturally told it warmly in her favour, followed her hurrahing and encouraging her, till finding herself backed by numbers she plucked up heart. The landlord too saw at a glance that her presence in the inn would draw custom, and received her politely, and assigned her an upper chamber: here she buried herself, and being alone rained tears again.
Poor little mind, it was like a ripple, up and down, down and up, up and down. Bidding the landlord be very kind to her, and keep her a prisoner without letting her feel it, the friends went out: and lo! as they stepped into the street they saw two processions coming towards them from opposite sides. One was a large one, attended with noise and howls and those indescribable cries by which rude natures reveal at odd times that relationship to the beasts of the field and forest, which at other times we succeed in hiding. The other, very thinly attended by a few nuns and friars, came slow and silent.
The prisoners going to exposure in the market-place. The gathered bones of the victims coming to the churchyard.
And the two met in the narrow street nearly at the inn door, and could not pass each other for a long time, and the bier, that bore the relics of mortality, got wedged against the cart that carried the men who had made those bones what they were, and in a few hours must die for it themselves. The mob had not the quick intelligence to be at once struck with this stern meeting: but at last a woman cried, "Look at your work, ye dogs!" and the crowd took it like wildfire, and there was a horrible yell, and the culprits groaned and tried to hide their heads upon their bosoms, but could not, their hands being tied. And there they stood, images of pale hollow-eyed despair, and oh how they looked on the bier, and envied those whom they had sent before them on the dark road they were going upon themselves! And the two men who were the cause of both processions stood and looked gravely on, and even Manon, hearing the disturbance, crept to the window, and, hiding her face, peeped trembling through her fingers, as women will.
This strange meeting parted Denys and Gerard. The former yielded to curiosity and revenge, the latter doffed his bonnet, and piously followed the poor remains of those whose fate had so nearly been his own. For some time he was the one lay mourner: but when they had reached the suburbs, a long way from the greater attraction that was filling the market-place, more than one artisan threw down his tools, and more than one shopman left his shop, and touched with pity or a sense of our common humanity, and perhaps decided somewhat by the example of Gerard, followed the bones bareheaded, and saw them deposited with the prayers of the Church in hallowed ground.
After the funeral rites Gerard stepped respectfully up to the cure, and offered to buy a mass for their souls.
Gerard, son of Catherine, always looked at two sides of a penny: and he tried to purchase this mass a trifle under the usual terms, on account of the pitiable circumstances. But the good cure gently but adroitly parried his ingenuity, and blandly screwed him up to the market price.
In the course of the business they discovered a similarity of sentiments. Piety and worldly prudence are not very rare companions: still it is unusual to carry both so far as these two men did. Their collision in the prayer market led to mutual esteem, as when knight encountered knight worthy of his steel. Moreover the good cure loved a bit of gossip, and finding his customer was one of those who had fought the thieves at Domfront, would have him into his parlour and hear the whole from his own lips. And his heart warmed to Gerard, and he said "God was good to thee. I thank Him for't with all my soul. Thou art a good lad." He added drily, "Shouldst have told me this tale in the churchyard. I doubt, I had given thee the mass for love. However," said he (the thermometer suddenly falling), "'tis ill luck to go back upon a bargain. But I'll broach a bottle of my old Medoc for thee: and few be the guests I would do that for." The cure went to his cupboard, and while he groped for the choice bottle, he muttered to himself, "At their old tricks again!"
"Plait-il?" said Gerard.
"I said nought. Ay, here 'tis."
"Nay, your reverence. You surely spoke: you said, 'At their old tricks again!'"
"Said I so in sooth?" and his reverence smiled. He then proceeded to broach the wine, and filled a cup for each. Then he put a log of wood on the fire, for stoves were none in Burgundy. "And so I said 'At their old tricks!' did I? Come, sip the good wine, and, whilst it lasts, story for story, I care not if I tell you a little tale."
Gerard's eyes sparkled.
"Thou lovest a story?"
"As my life."
"Nay, but raise not thine expectations too high, neither. 'Tis but a foolish trifle compared with thine adventures."
THE CURE'S TALE.
"Once upon a time, then, in the kingdom of France, and in the duchy of Burgundy, and not a day's journey from the town where now we sit a-sipping of old Medoc, there lived a cure. I say he lived; but barely. The parish was small, the parishioners greedy; and never gave their cure a doit more than he could compel. The nearer they brought him to a disembodied spirit by meagre diet, the holier should be his prayers in their behalf. I know not if this was their creed, but their practice gave it colour.
"At last he pickled a rod for them.
"One day the richest farmer in the place had twins to baptize. The cure was had to the christening dinner as usual; but ere he would baptize the children, he demanded, not the christening fees only, but the burial fees. 'Saints defend us, parson, cried the mother; 'talk not of burying! I did never see children liker to live.' 'Nor I,' said the cure, 'the praise be to God. Natheless, they are sure to die, being sons of Adam, as well as of thee, dame. But die when they will, 'twill cost them nothing, the burial fees being paid and entered in this book.' 'For all that 'twill cost them something,' quoth the miller, the greatest wag in the place, and as big a knave as any; for which was the biggest God knoweth, but no mortal man, not even the hangman. 'Miller, I tell thee nay,' quo' the cure. 'Parson, I tell you ay,' quo' the miller. ''Twill cost them their lives.' At which millstone conceit was a great laugh; and in the general mirth the fees were paid and the Christians made.
"But when the next parishioner's child, and the next after, and all, had to pay each his burial fee, or lose his place in heaven, discontent did secretly rankle in the parish. Well, one fine day they met in secret, and sent a churchwarden with a complaint to the bishop, and a thunderbolt fell on the poor cure. Came to him at dinner-time a summons to the episcopal palace, to bring the parish books and answer certain charges. Then the cure guessed where the shoe pinched. He left his food on the board, for small his appetite now, and took the parish books and went quaking.
"The bishop entertained him with a frown, and exposed the plaint. 'Monseigneur,' said the cure right humbly, 'doth the parish allege many things against me, or this one only?' 'In sooth, but this one,' said the bishop, and softened a little. 'First, monseigneur, I acknowledge the fact.' ''Tis well,' quoth the bishop; 'that saves time and trouble. Now to your excuse, if excuse there be.' 'Monseigneur, I have been cure of that parish seven years, and fifty children have I baptized, and buried not five. At first I used to say, "Heaven be praised, the air of this village is main healthy;" but on searching the register book I found 'twas always so, and on probing the matter, it came out that of those born at Domfront, all, but here and there one, did go and get hanged at Aix. But this was to defraud not their cure only, but the entire Church of her dues, since "pendards" pay no funeral fees, being buried in air. Thereupon, knowing by sad experience their greed, and how they grudge the Church every sou, I laid a trap to keep them from hanging; for, greed against greed, there be of them that will die in their beds like true men ere the Church shall gain those funeral fees for nought.' Then the bishop laughed till the tears ran down, and questioned the churchwarden, and he was fain to confess that too many of the parish did come to that unlucky end at Aix. 'Then,' said the bishop, 'I do approve the act, for myself and my successors; and so be it ever, till they mend their manners and die in their beds.' And the next day came the ringleaders crestfallen to the cure, and said, 'Parson, ye were even good to us, barring this untoward matter: prithee let there be no ill blood anent so trivial a thing.' And the cure said, 'My children, I were unworthy to be your pastor could I not forgive a wrong; go in peace, and get me as many children as may be, that by the double fees the cure you love may miss starvation.'
"And the bishop often told the story, and it kept his memory of the cure alive, and at last he shifted him to a decent parish, where he can offer a glass of old Medoc to such as are worthy of it. Their name it is not legion."
A light broke in upon Gerard, his countenance showed it.
"Ay!" said his host, "I am that cure: so now thou canst guess why I said 'At their old tricks.' My life on't they have wheedled my successor into remitting those funeral fees. You are well out of that parish. And so am I."
The cure's little niece burst in, "Uncle, the weighing—la! a stranger!" And burst out.
The cure rose directly, but would not part with Gerard.
"Wet thy beard once more, and come with me."
In the church porch they found the sexton with a huge pair of scales, and weights of all sizes. Several humble persons were standing by, and soon a woman stepped forward with a sickly child and said, "Be it heavy be it light, I vow, in rye meal of the best, whate'er this child shall weigh, and the same will duly pay to Holy Church, an if he shall cast his trouble. Pray, good people, for this child, and for me his mother hither come in dole and care!"
The child was weighed, and yelled as if the scale had been the font.
"Courage! dame," cried Gerard. "This is a good sign. There is plenty of life here to battle its trouble."
"Now, blest be the tongue that tells me so," said the poor woman. She hushed her ponderling against her bosom, and stood aloof watching, whilst another woman brought her child to scale.
But presently a loud, dictatorial voice was heard, "Way there, make way for the seigneur!"
The small folk parted on both sides like waves ploughed by a lordly galley, and in marched in gorgeous attire, his cap adorned by a feather with a topaz at its root, his jerkin richly furred, satin doublet, red hose, shoes like skates, diamond-hilted sword in velvet scabbard, and hawk on his wrist, "the lord of the manor." He flung himself into the scales as if he was lord of the zodiac as well as the manor: whereat the hawk balanced and flapped; but stuck: then winked.
While the sexton heaved in the great weights, the cure told Gerard, "My lord had been sick unto death, and vowed his weight in bread and cheese to the poor, the Church taking her tenth."
"Permit me, my lord; if your lordship continues to press your lordship's staff on the other scale, you will disturb the balance."
His lordship grinned and removed his staff, and leaned on it. The cure politely but firmly objected to that too.
"Mille diables! what am I to do with it, then?" cried the other.
"Deign to hold it out so, my lord, wide of both scales."
When my lord did this, and so fell into the trap he had laid for Holy Church, the good cure whispered to Gerard. "Cretensis incidit in Cretensem!" which I take to mean, "Diamond cut diamond." He then said with an obsequious air, "If that your lordship grudges Heaven full weight, you might set the hawk on your lacquey, and so save a pound."
"Gramercy for thy rede, cure," cried the great man, reproachfully. "Shall I for one sorry pound grudge my poor fowl the benefit of Holy Church? I'd as lieve the devil should have me and all my house as her, any day i' the year."
"Sweet is affection," whispered the cure.
"Between a bird and a brute," whispered Gerard.
"Tush!" and the cure looked terrified.
The seigneur's weight was booked, and Heaven I trust and believe did not weigh his gratitude in the balance of the sanctuary. For my unlearned reader is not to suppose there was anything the least eccentric in the man, or his gratitude to the Giver of health and all good gifts. Men look forward to death, and back upon past sickness with different eyes. Item, when men drive a bargain, they strive to get the sunny side of it; it matters not one straw whether it is with man or Heaven they are bargaining. In this respect we are the same now, at bottom, as we were four hundred years ago: only in those days we did it a grain or two more naively, and that naivete shone out more palpably, because, in that rude age, body prevailing over mind, all sentiments took material forms. Man repented with scourges, prayed by bead, bribed the saints with wax tapers, put fish into the body to sanctify the soul, sojourned in cold water for empire over the emotions, and thanked God for returning health in 1 cwt. 2 stone 7 lb 3 oz. 1 dwt. of bread and cheese.
Whilst I have been preaching, who preach so rarely and so ill, the good cure has been soliciting the lord of the manor to step into the church, and give order what shall be done with his great-great-grandfather.
"Ods bodikins! what, have you dug him up?"
"Nay, my lord, he never was buried."
"What, the old dict was true after all?"
"So true that the workmen this very day found a skeleton erect in the pillar they are repairing. I had sent to my lord at once, but I knew he would be here."
"It is he! 'Tis he!" said his descendant, quickening his pace. "Let us go see the old boy. This youth is a stranger, I think."
"Know then that my great-great-grandfather held his head high and being on the point of death, revolted against lying under the aisle with his forbears for mean folk to pass over. So, as the tradition goes, he swore his son (my great-grandfather), to bury him erect in one of the pillars of the church" (here they entered the porch). "'For,' quoth he, 'NO BASE MAN SHALL PASS OVER MY STOMACH.' Peste!" and even while speaking, his lordship parried adroitly with his stick a skull that came hopping at him, bowled by a boy in the middle of the aisle, who took to his heels yelling with fear the moment he saw what he had done. His lordship hurled the skull furiously after him as he ran, at which the cure gave a shout of dismay and put forth his arm to hinder him, but was too late.
The cure groaned aloud. And as if this had evoked spirits of mischief, up started a whole pack of children from some ambuscade, and unseen, but heard loud enough, clattered out of the church like a covey rising in a thick wood.
"Oh! these pernicious brats," cried the cure. "The workmen cannot go to their nonemete but the church is rife with them. Pray Heaven they have not found his late lordship; nay, I mind, I hid his lordship under a workmen's jerkin, and—saints defend us! the jerkin has been moved."
The poor cure's worst misgivings were realized: the rising generation of the plebians had played the mischief with the haughty old noble. "The little ones had jockeyed for the bones oh," and pocketed such of them as seemed adapted for certain primitive games then in vogue amongst them.
"I'll excommunicate them," roared the curate, "and all their race."
"Never heed," said the scapegrace lord: and stroked his hawk; "there is enough of him to swear by. Put him back! put him back!"
"Surely, my lord, 'tis your will his bones be laid in hallowed earth, and masses said for his poor prideful soul?"
The noble stroked his hawk.
"Are ye there, Master Cure?" said he. "Nay, the business is too old: he is out of purgatory by this time, up or down. I shall not draw my purse-strings for him. Every dog his day. Adieu, Messires, adieu, ancestor;" and he sauntered off whistling to his hawk and caressing it.
His reverence looked ruefully after him.
"Cretensis incidit in Cretensem," said he sorrowfully. "I thought I had him safe for a dozen masses. Yet I blame him not, but that young ne'er-do-weel which did trundle his ancestor's skull at us: for who could venerate his great-great-grandsire and play football with his head? Well it behoves us to be better Christians than he is." So they gathered the bones reverently, and the cure locked them up, and forbade the workmen, who now entered the church, to close up the pillar, till he should recover by threats of the Church's wrath every atom of my lord. And he showed Gerard a famous shrine in the church. Before it were the usual gifts of tapers, etc. There was also a wax image of a falcon, most curiously moulded and coloured to the life, eyes and all. Gerard's eye fell at once on this, and he expressed the liveliest admiration. The cure assented. Then Gerard asked, "Could the saint have loved hawking?"
The cure laughed at his simplicity. "Nay, 'tis but a statuary hawk. When they have a bird of gentle breed they cannot train, they make his image, and send it to this shrine with a present, and pray the saint to work upon the stubborn mind of the original, and make it ductile as wax: that is the notion, and methinks a reasonable one, too."
Gerard assented. "But alack, reverend sir, were I a saint, methinks I should side with the innocent dove, rather than with the cruel hawk that rends her."
"By St. Denys you are right," said the cure. "But, que voulez-vous? the saints are debonair, and have been flesh themselves, and know man's frailty and absurdity. 'Tis the Bishop of Avignon sent this one."
"What! do bishops hawk in this country?"
"One and all. Every noble person hawks, and lives with hawk on wrist. Why, my lord abbot hard by, and his lordship that has just parted from us, had a two years' feud as to where they should put their hawks down on that very altar there. Each claimed the right hand of the altar for his bird."
"Nay! nay! thou knowest we make them doff both glove and hawk to take the blessed eucharist. Their jewelled gloves will they give to a servant or simple Christian to hold: but their beloved hawks they will put down on no place less than the altar."
Gerard inquired how the battle of the hawks ended.
"Why, the abbot he yielded, as the Church yields to laymen. He searched ancient books, and found that the left hand was the more honourable, being in truth the right hand, since the altar is east, but looks westward. So he gave my lord the soi-disant right hand, and contented himself with the real right hand, and even so may the Church still outwit the lay nobles and their arrogance, saving your presence."
"Nay, sir, I honour the Church. I am convent bred, and owe all I have and am to Holy Church."
"Ah, that accounts for my sudden liking to thee. Art a gracious youth. Come and see me whenever thou wilt."
Gerard took this as a hint that he might go now. It jumped with his own wish, for he was curious to hear what Denys had seen and done all this time. He made his reverence and walked out of the church; but was no sooner clear of it than he set off to run with all his might: and tearing round a corner, ran into a large stomach, whose owner clutched him, to keep himself steady under the shock; but did not release his hold on regaining his equilibrium.
"Let go, man," said Gerard.
"Not so. You are my prisoner."
"What for, in Heaven's name?"
"What for? Why, sorcery."
The culprits were condemned to stand pinioned in the marketplace for two hours, that should any persons recognize them or any of them as guilty of other crimes, they might depose to that effect at the trial.
They stood, however, the whole period, and no one advanced anything fresh against them. This was the less remarkable that they were night birds, vampires who preyed in the dark on weary travellers, mostly strangers.
But just as they were being taken down, a fearful scream was heard in the crowd, and a woman pointed at one of them, with eyes almost starting from their sockets: but ere she could speak she fainted away.
Then men and women crowded round her, partly to aid her, partly from curiosity. When she began to recover they fell to conjectures.
"'Twas at him she pointed."
"Nay, 'twas at this one."
"Nay, nay," said another, "'twas at yon hangdog with the hair hung round his neck."
All further conjectures were cut short. The poor creature no sooner recovered her senses than she flew at the landlord like a lioness. "My child! Man! man! Give me back my child." And she seized the glossy golden hair that the officers had hung round his neck, and tore it from his neck, and covered it with kisses; then, her poor confused mind clearing, she saw even by this token that her lost girl was dead, and sank suddenly down shrieking and sobbing so over the poor hair, that the crowd rushed on the assassin with one savage growl. His life had ended then and speedily, for in those days all carried death at their girdles. But Denys drew his sword directly, and shouting "A moi, camarades!" kept the mob at bay. "Who lays a finger on him dies." Other archers backed him, and with some difficulty they kept him uninjured, while Denys appealed to those who shouted for his blood.
"What sort of vengeance is this? would you be so mad as rob the wheel, and give the vermin an easy death?"
The mob was kept passive by the archers' steel rather than by Denys's words, and growled at intervals with flashing eyes. The municipal officers, seeing this, collected round, and with the archers made a guard, and prudently carried the accused back to gaol.
The mob hooted them and the prisoners indiscriminately. Denys saw the latter safely lodged, then made for "The White Hart," where he expected to find Gerard.
On the way he saw two girls working at a first-floor window. He saluted them. They smiled. He entered into conversation. Their manners were easy, their complexion high.
He invited them to a repast at "The White Hart." They objected. He acquiesced in their refusal. They consented. And in this charming society he forgot all about poor Gerard, who meantime was carried off to gaol; but on the way suddenly stopped, having now somewhat recovered his presence of mind, and demanded to know by whose authority he was arrested.
"By the vice-baillie's," said the constable.
"The vice-baillie? Alas! what have I, a stranger, done to offend a vice-baillie? For this charge of sorcery must be a blind. No sorcerer am I; but a poor true lad far from his home."
This vague shift disgusted the officer. "Show him the capias, Jacques," said he.
Jacques held out the writ in both hands about a yard and a half from Gerard's eye; and at the same moment the large constable suddenly pinned him; both officers were on tenterhooks lest the prisoner should grab the document, to which they attached a superstitious importance.
But the poor prisoner had no such thought. Query whether he would have touched it with the tongs. He just craned out his neck and read it, and to his infinite surprise found the vice-bailiff who had signed the writ was the friendly alderman. He took courage and assured his captor there was some error. But finding he made no impression, demanded to be taken before the alderman.
"What say you to that, Jacques?"
"Impossible. We have no orders to take him before his worship. Read the writ!"
"Nay, but good kind fellows, what harm can it be? I will give you each an ecu."
"Jacques, what say you to that?"
"Humph! I say we have no orders not to take him to his worship. Read the writ!"
"Then say we take him to prison round by his worship."
It was agreed. They got the money; and bade Gerard observe they were doing him a favour. He saw they wanted a little gratitude as well as much silver. He tried to satisfy this cupidity, but it stuck in his throat. Feigning was not his forte.
He entered the alderman's presence with his heart in his mouth, and begged with faltering voice to know what he had done to offend since he left that very room with Manon and Denys.
"Nought that I know of," said the alderman.
On the writ being shown him, he told Gerard he had signed it at daybreak. "I get old, and my memory faileth me: a discussing of the girl I quite forgot your own offence: but I remember now. All is well. You are he I committed for sorcery. Stay! ere you go to gaol, you shall hear what your accuser says: run and fetch him, you."
The man could not find the accuser all at once. So the alderman, getting impatient, told Gerard the main charge was that he had set a dead body a burning with diabolical fire, that flamed, but did not consume. "And if 'tis true, young man, I'm sorry for thee, for thou wilt assuredly burn with fire of good pine logs in the market-place of Neufchasteau."
"Oh, sir, for pity's sake let me have speech with his reverence the cure."
The alderman advised Gerard against it. "The Church was harder upon sorcerers than was the corporation."
"But, sir, I am innocent," said Gerard, between snarling and whining.
"Oh, if you think you are innocent—officer, go with him to the cure; but see he 'scape you not. Innocent, quotha?"
They found the cure in his doublet repairing a wheelbarrow. Gerard told him all, and appealed piteously to him. "Just for using a little phosphorus in self-defence against cut-throats they are going to hang."
It was lucky for our magician that he had already told his tale in full to the cure, for thus that shrewd personage had hold of the stick at the right end. The corporation held it by the ferule. His reverence looked exceedingly grave and said, "I must question you privately on this untoward business." He took him into a private room and bade the officer stand outside and guard the door, and be ready to come if called. The big constable stood outside the door, quaking, and expecting to see the room fly away and leave a stink of brimstone. Instantly they were alone the cure unlocked his countenance and was himself again.
"Show me the trick on't," said he, all curiosity.
"I cannot, sir, unless the room be darkened."
The cure speedily closed out the light with a wooden shutter. "Now, then."
"But on what shall I put it?" said Gerard. "Here is no dead face. 'Twas that made it look so dire." The cure groped about the room. "Good; here is an image: 'tis my patron saint."
"Heaven forbid! That were profanation."
"Pshaw! 'twill rub off, will't not?"
"Ay, but it goes against me to take such liberty with a saint," objected the sorcerer.
"Fiddlestick!" said the divine.
"To be sure by putting it on his holiness will show your reverence it is no Satanic art."
"Mayhap 'twas for that I did propose it." said the cure subtly.
Thus encouraged, Gerard fired the eyes and nostrils of the image and made the cure jump. Then lighted up the hair in patches; and set the whole face shining like a glow-worm's.
"By'r Lady," shouted the cure, "'tis strange, and small my wonder that they took you for a magician, seeing a dead face thus fired. Now come thy ways with me!"
He put on his grey gown and great hat, and in a few minutes they found themselves in presence of the alderman. By his side, poisoning his mind, stood the accuser, a singular figure in red hose and red shoes, a black gown with blue bands, and a cocked hat.
After saluting the alderman, the cure turned to this personage and said good-humouredly, "So, Mangis, at thy work again, babbling away honest men's lives! Come, your worship, this is the old tale! two of a trade can ne'er agree. Here is Mangis, who professes sorcery, and would sell himself to Satan to-night, but that Satan is not so weak as buy what he can have gratis, this Mangis, who would be a sorcerer, but is only a quacksalver, accuses of magic a true lad, who did but use in self-defence a secret of chemistry well-known to me and all churchmen."
"But he is no churchman, to dabble in such mysteries," objected the alderman.
"He is more churchman than layman, being convent bred, and in the lesser orders," said the ready cure. "Therefore, sorcerer, withdraw thy plaint without more words!"
"That I will not, your reverence," replied Mangis stoutly. "A sorcerer I am, but a white one, not a black one. I make no pact with Satan, but on the contrary still battle him with lawful and necessary arts, I ne'er profane the sacraments, as do the black sorcerers, nor turn myself into a cat and go sucking infants' blood, nor e'en their breath, nor set dead men o' fire. I but tell the peasants when their cattle and their hens are possessed, and at what time of the moon to plant rye, and what days in each month are lucky for wooing of women and selling of bullocks and so forth: above all, it is my art and my trade to detect the black magicians, as I did that whole tribe of them who were burnt at Dol but last year."
"Ay, Mangis. And what is the upshot of that famous fire thy tongue did kindle?"
"Why, their ashes were cast to the wind."
"Ay. But the true end of thy comedy is this. The parliament of Dijon hath since sifted the matter, and found they were no sorcerers, but good and peaceful citizens; and but last week did order masses to be said for their souls, and expiatory farces and mysteries to be played for them in seven towns of Burgundy; all which will not of those cinders make men and women again. Now 'tis our custom in this land, when we have slain the innocent by hearkening false knaves like thee, not to blame our credulous ears, but the false tongue that gulled them. Therefore bethink thee that, at a word from me to my lord bishop, thou wilt smell burning pine nearer than e'er knave smelt it and lived, and wilt travel on a smoky cloud to him whose heart thou bearest (for the word devil in the Latin it meaneth 'false accuser'), and whose livery thou wearest."
And the cure pointed at Mangis with his staff.
"That is true i'fegs," said the alderman, "for red and black be the foul fiendys colours."
By this time the white sorcerer's cheek was as colourless as his dress was fiery. Indeed the contrast amounted to pictorial. He stammered out, "I respect Holy Church and her will; he shall fire the churchyard, and all in it, for me: I do withdraw the plaint."
"Then withdraw thyself," said the vice-bailiff.
The moment he was gone the cure took the conversational tone, and told the alderman courteously that the accused had received the chemical substance from Holy Church, and had restored it her, by giving it all to him.
"Then 'tis in good hands," was the reply; "young man, you are free. Let me have your reverence's prayers."
"Doubt it not! Humph! Vice-baillie, the town owes me four silver franks, this three months and more."
"They shall be paid, cure, ay, ere the week be out."
On this good understanding Church and State parted. As soon as he was in the street Gerard caught the priest's hand, and kissed it.
"Oh, sir! Oh, your reverence. You have saved me from the fiery stake. What can I say, what do? what?"
"Nought, foolish lad. Bounty rewards itself. Natheless—Humph?—I wish I had done't without leasing. It ill becomes my function to utter falsehoods."
"Falsehood, sir?" Gerard was mystified.
"Didst not hear me say thou hadst given me that same phosphorus? 'Twill cost me a fortnight's penance, that light word." The cure sighed, and his eye twinkled cunningly.
"Nay, nay," cried Gerard eagerly. "Now Heaven forbid! That was no falsehood, father: well you knew the phosphorus was yours, is yours." And he thrust the bottle into the cure's hand. "But alas, 'tis too poor a gift: will you not take from my purse somewhat for Holy Church?" and now he held out his purse with glistening eyes.
"Nay," said the other brusquely, and put his hands quickly behind him; "not a doit. Fie! fie! art pauper et exul. Come thou rather each day at noon and take thy diet with me; for my heart warms to thee;" and he went off very abruptly with his hands behind him.
But they itched in vain.
Where there's a heart there's a Rubicon.
Gerard went hastily to the inn to relieve Denys of the anxiety so long and mysterious an absence must have caused him. He found him seated at his ease, playing dice with two young ladies whose manners were unreserved, and complexion high.
Gerard was hurt. "N'oubliez point la Jeanneton!" said he, colouring up.
"What of her?" said Denys, gaily rattling the dice.
"She said, 'Le peu que sont les femmes.'"
"Oh, did she? And what say you to that, mesdemoiselles?"
"We say that none run women down, but such as are too old, or too ill-favoured, or too witless to please them."
"Witless, quotha? Wise men have not folly enough to please them, nor madness enough to desire to please them," said Gerard loftily; "but 'tis to my comrade I speak, not to you, you brazen toads, that make so free with a man at first sight."
"Preach away, comrade. Fling a byword or two at our heads. Know, girls, that he is a very Solomon for bywords. Methinks he was brought up by hand on 'em."
"Be thy friendship a byword!" retorted Gerard. "The friendship that melts to nought at sight of a farthingale."
"Malheureux!" cried Denys, "I speak but pellets, and thou answerest daggers."
"Would I could," was the reply. "Adieu."
"What a little savage!" said one of the girls.
Gerard opened the door and put in his head. "I have thought of a byword," said he spitefully—
"Qui hante femmes et dez Il mourra en pauvretez.
"There." And having delivered this thunderbolt of antique wisdom, he slammed the door viciously ere any of them could retort.
And now, being somewhat exhausted by his anxieties, he went to the bar for a morsel of bread and a cup of wine. The landlord would sell nothing less than a pint bottle. Well then he would have a bottle; but when he came to compare the contents of the bottle with its size, great was the discrepancy: on this he examined the bottle keenly, and found that the glass was thin where the bottle tapered, but towards the bottom unnaturally thick. He pointed this out at once.
The landlord answered superciliously that he did not make bottles: and was nowise accountable for their shape.
"That we will see presently," said Gerard. "I will take this thy pint to the vice-bailiff."
"Nay, nay, for Heaven's sake," cried the landlord, changing his tone at once. "I love to content my customers. If by chance this pint be short, we will charge it and its fellow three sous insteads of two sous each."
"So be it. But much I admire that you, the host of so fair an inn, should practise thus. The wine, too, smacketh strongly of spring water."
"Young sir," said the landlord, "we cut no travellers' throats at this inn, as they do at most. However, you know all about that, 'The White Hart' is no lion, nor bear. Whatever masterful robbery is done here, is done upon the poor host. How then could he live at all if he dealt not a little crooked with the few who pay?"
Gerard objected to this system root and branch. Honest trade was small profits, quick returns; and neither to cheat nor be cheated.
The landlord sighed at this picture. "So might one keep an inn in heaven, but not in Burgundy. When foot soldiers going to the wars are quartered on me, how can I but lose by their custom? Two sous per day is their pay, and they eat two sous' worth, and drink into the bargain. The pardoners are my good friends, but palmers and pilgrims, what think you I gain by them? marry, a loss. Minstrels and jongleurs draw custom and so claim to pay no score, except for liquor. By the secular monks I neither gain nor lose, but the black and grey friars have made vow of poverty, but not of famine; eat like wolves and give the poor host nought but their prayers; and mayhap not them: how can he tell? In my father's day we had the weddings; but now the great gentry let their houses and their plates, their mugs and their spoons to any honest couple that want to wed, and thither the very mechanics go with their brides and bridal train. They come not to us: indeed we could not find seats and vessels for such a crowd as eat and drink and dance the week out at the homeliest wedding now. In my father's day the great gentry sold wine by the barrel only; but now they have leave to cry it, and sell it by the galopin, in the very market-place. How can we vie with them? They grow it. We buy it of the grower. The coroner's quests we have still, and these would bring goodly profit, but the meat is aye gone ere the mouths be full."
"You should make better provision," suggested his hearer.
"The law will not let us. We are forbidden to go into the market for the first hour. So, when we arrive, the burghers have bought all but the refuse. Besides, the law forbids us to buy more than three bushels of meal at a time: yet market day comes but once a week. As for the butchers, they will not kill for us unless we bribe them."
"Courage!" said Gerard kindly, "the shoe pinches every trader somewhere."
"Ay: but not as it pinches us. Our shoe is trode all o' one side as well as pinches us lame. A savoir, if we pay not the merchants we buy meal, meat, and wine of, they can cast us into prison and keep us there till we pay or die. But we cannot cast into prison those who buy those very victuals of us. A traveller's horse we may keep for his debt; but where, in Heaven's name? In our own stable, eating his head off at our cost. Nay, we may keep the traveller himself; but where? In gaol? Nay, in our own good house, and there must we lodge and feed him gratis. And so fling good silver after bad? Merci; no: let him go with a wanion. Our honestest customers are the thieves. Would to Heaven there were more of them. They look not too close into the shape of the canakin, nor into the host's reckoning: with them and with their purses 'tis lightly come, and lightly go. Also they spend freely, not knowing but each carouse may be their last. But the thief-takers, instead of profiting by this fair example, are for ever robbing the poor host. When noble or honest travellers descend at our door, come the Provost's men pretending to suspect them, and demanding to search them and their papers. To save which offence the host must bleed wine and meat. Then come the excise to examine all your weights and measures. You must stop their mouths with meat and wine. Town excise. Royal excise. Parliament excise. A swarm of them, and all with a wolf in their stomachs and a sponge in their gullets. Monks, friars, pilgrims, palmers, soldiers, excisemen, provost-marshals and men, and mere bad debtors, how can 'The White Hart' butt against all these? Cutting no throats in self-defence as do your 'Swans' and 'Roses' and 'Boar's Heads' and 'Red Lions' and 'Eagles,' your 'Moons,' 'Stars,' and 'Moors,' how can 'The White Hart' give a pint of wine for a pint? And everything risen so. Why, lad, not a pound of bread I sell but cost me three good copper deniers, twelve to the sou; and each pint of wine, bought by the tun, costs me four deniers; every sack of charcoal two sous, and gone in a day. A pair of partridges five sous. What think you of that? Heard one ever the like? five sous for two little beasts all bone and feather? A pair of pigeons, thirty deniers. 'Tis ruination!!! For we may not raise our pricen with the market. Oh, no, I tell thee the shoe is trode all o' one side as well as pinches the water into our eyn. We may charge nought for mustard, pepper, salt, or firewood. Think you we get them for nought? Candle it is a sou the pound. Salt five sous the stone, pepper four sous the pound, mustard twenty deniers the pint; and raw meat, dwindleth it on the spit with no cost to me but loss of weight? Why, what think you I pay my cook? But you shall never guess. A HUNDRED SOUS A YEAR AS I AM A LIVING SINNER.