"Let us go in," she said.
Looking up, they saw the field of heaven strewn thick with stars, the clouds driven off, the wind dropt. And then they went into the hovel hand-in-hand, as they had gone out.
As soon as he saw them come in together the old man fell to chuckling and rubbing his hands.
"Wife Mald, wife Mald, look up!" cried he; "there will be a wedding this night. See, they are hand-fasted already."
Mald the witch rose up from the hearth at last and faced the betrothed. She was terrible to view in her witless old age; her face drawn into furrows and dull as lead, her bleared eyes empty of sight or conscience, and her thin hair scattered before them. It was despair, not sorrow, that Prosper read on such a face. Now she peered upon the hand-locked couple, now she parted the hair from her eyes, now slowly pointed a finger at them. Her hand shook with palsy, but she raised it up to bless them. To Prosper she said—
"Thou who art as pitiful as death, shalt have thy reward. And it shall be more than thou knowest."
To the girl she gave no promises, but with her crutch hobbled over the floor to where she stood. She put her hand into her daughter's bosom and felt there; she seemed contented, for she said to her very earnestly—
"Keep thou what thou hast there till the hour of thy greatest peril. Then it shall not fail thee to whomsoever thou shalt show it."
Then she withdrew her hand and crawled back to crouch over the ashes of the fire; nor did she open her lips again that night, nor take any part or lot in what followed.
"Call the priest, old man," said Prosper, "for the night is spending, and to-morrow we should be up before the sun."
The old thief went to a little door and opened it, whispering,
"Come, father;" and there came out Brother Bonaccord of Lucca, very solemn, vested in a frayed vestment.
"Young sir," he said, wagging a portentous finger, "you are of the simple folk our good Father Francis loved. No harm should come of this. And I pray our Lady that I never may play a worse trick on a maid than this which I shall play now."
"We have no ring," said Prosper to all this prelude.
"Content you, my master," replied Matt-o'-the-Moor; "here is what you need."
And he gave him a silver ring made of three thin wires curiously knotted in an endless plait.
"The ring will serve the purpose," Prosper said. "Now, brother, at your disposition."
Brother Bonaccord had no book, but seemed none the worse for that. He took the ring, blessed it, gave it to Prosper, and saw that he put it in its proper place; he said all the words, blessed the kneeling couple, and gave them a brisk little homily, which I spare the reader. There they were wedded.
Matt-o'-the-Moor at the end of the ceremony gave Prosper a nudge in the ribs. He pointed to a heap of leaves and litter.
"The marriage-bed," he said waggishly, and blew out the light.
Isoult lay down on the bed; Prosper took off his body-armour and lay beside her, and his naked sword lay between them.
Dom Galors knew a woman in East Morgraunt whose name was Maulfry. She lived in Tortsentier, a lonely tower hidden deep in the woods, and had an unwholesome reputation. She was held to be a courtesan. Many gentlemen adventurous in the forest, it was said, had found dishonourable ease and shameful death at her hands. She would make them great cheer at first with hunting parties, dancing in the grass- rides, and love everywhere: so much had been seen, the rest was surmise. It was supposed that, being tired, or changing for caprice, she had them drugged, rifled them at leisure, slew them one way or another, and set her nets for the next newcomer. This, I say, was surmise, and so it remained. Tortsentier was hard to come at, Morgraunt wide, death as easy as lying. Men in it had other uses for their eyes than to spy at their neighbours, and found their weapons too often needed in their own quarrels to spare them for others. To see a man once did not set you looking for him to come again. You might wander for a month in Morgraunt before you got out. True, the odds were against your doing either; but whose business was that?
Galors probably knew the truth of it, for he was very often at Tortsentier. He knew, for instance, of Maulfry's taste for armour. The place was full of it, and had a frieze of shields, which Maulfry herself polished every day, as brave with blazonry as on the day they first went out before their masters. Maulfry was very fond of heraldry. It was a great delight of hers to go through her collection with such a man as Galors, who thoroughly understood the science, conning over the quarterings, the legends, the badges and differences, and capping each with its appropriate story, its little touch of romance, its personal reference to each owner in turn. There was no harm in all this, and for Galors' part he would be able to testify that there was no luxurious company there when he came, and no dark hints of violence, treachery, or mischief for the most suspicious eye to catch at. Tortsentier was not so far from the Abbey liberties that one might not fetch at it in a six hours' ride, provided one knew the road. Galors was a great rider and knew the road by heart. He was a frequent visitor of Maulfry's, therefore, and would have seen what there was to see. If the cavillers had known that it would have quieted many a whisper over the fire. They might have been told, further, that Maulfry and he were very old friends, and from a time long before his entry into religion at Holy Thorn. If there had been love between them, it had left no scar. Love with Galors was a pastime: he might make a woman his mistress, but he could never allow her to be his master. And whatever there had been in this sort, any love now left in Maulfry for the monk was largely tempered with respect. They were excellent friends.
It was to Tortsentier and to Maulfry that Dom Galors rode through the rain when he had finished biting his nails in the quarry. Very late that night he knocked at her door. Maulfry, who slept by day, opened at once, and when she saw who it was made him very welcome. She sent her page up with dry clothes, heaped logs on the fire, and set a table against his return, with venison, and white bread, and sweet wine. Galors, who was ravenous by now, needed no pressing: he sat down and ate without speaking, nor did she urge him for a message or for news, but kept her place by the fire, smiling into it until he had done. She was a tall, dark woman, very handsome and finely shaped, having the neck, arms, and bosom of Juno, or of that lady whom Nicholas the Pisan sculptor fashioned on her model to be Queen of Heaven and Earth. And Maulfry suffered no one to be in doubt as to the abundance and glory of her treasure.
When Galors was well fed she beckoned him with a nod to his place on the settle. He came and sat by the side of her, blinking into the fire for some minutes without a word.
"Well, friend," said Maulfry at last, "and what do you want with your servant at such an hour? For though I am not unused to have guests, it is seldom that you are of the party in these days."
Galors, who never made prefaces, told her everything, except the real rank and condition of Isoult. As to that, he said that the lady in question was undoubtedly an heiress, as she was undeniably a beauty, but he was careful to make it plain that her inheritance, and not her person, tempted him. This I believe to have been the truth by now. He then related what had passed in the quarry, and what he intended to do next. He added—
"Whether I succeed or not—and as to that much depends upon you—I am resolved to abjure my frock and my vows, and to aim henceforward for a temporal crown."
"I think the frock is all that need concern you," said Maulfry.
"You are right, pretty lady," he replied "and that shall concern me no more. You shall furnish me with a suit of mail out of your store, with a shield, a good spear and a sword. I have already a horse, which I owe to the vicarious bounty of the Lord Abbot, exercised through me, his right-hand man. This then will be all I shall ask of you on my account, so far as I can see at present. With what I know to back them they may win me an earldom and a pretty partner. At least they will enable me to pay Master Red-Feather my little score."
The pupils of Maulfry's eyes narrowed to a pair of pin points.
"What is this?" she said quickly. "Red feathers? A surcoat white and green? A gold baldrick? Did he bear a fesse dancettee upon his shield, a hooded falcon for his crest?" Her questions chimed with her panting.
"By baldrick and shield I know him for a Gai of Starning," said Galors. "So much is certain, but which of them in particular I cannot tell certainly. There were half-a-dozen at one time. Not Malise, I think. He is too thin-lipped for such work as that. He can do sums in his head, is a ready reckoner. This lad was quick enough to act, but not quick enough to refrain from acting. Malise would not have acted. He can see too far ahead. Nor is it Osric. He would have made speeches and let vapours. This lad was quiet."
"Quiet as God," said Maulfry with a stare.
"But," Galors went on, "you need not think for him, who or what he was. I shall meet him to-morrow, and if things go as they should you shall see me again very soon. You shall come to a wedding. A wedding in Tortsentier will not be amiss, dame. Moreover, it will be new. If I fail—well, then also you shall see me, and serve me other ways. Will you do this?"
Maulfry frowned a little as she thought. Then she laughed.
"You know very well I will do more for you than this. And how much will you do for me, Galors?"
"Ask and see," said Galors.
"I too may have accounts to settle."
"You will find me a good bailiff, Maulfry. Punctual at the audit."
Maulfry laughed again as she looked up at her armour. Galors' look followed hers.
"Choose, Galors," she said; "choose, my champion. Choose, Sir Galors de Born!"
Galors took a long and deliberate survey.
"I will go in black," said he, "and for the rest, since I am no man of race, the coat is indifferent to me." So he began to read and comment upon his texts. "Je tiendray—why, so I shall, but it savours of forecast, brags a little."
"None the worse for my knight," said Maulfry.
"No, no," he laughed, "but let me get something of which to brag first. Hum. Dieu m'en garde—we will leave God out of the reckoning, I think. Designando—I will do more than point out, by the Rood! Jesus, Amor, Ma Dame—I know none of these. Entra per me—Oh brave, brave! 'Tis your latest, dame?"
Maulfry's eyes grew hard and bright. "Choose it, choose, my Galors!" she cried. "And if with that you beat down the red feather, and blind the hooded hawk, you will serve me more than you dream. Oh, choose, choose!"
"Entra per me pleases me, I confess. But what are the arms? Wickets?"
"Three white wicket-gates on a sable field. It was the coat of Salomon de Montguichet."
"Salomon?" said Galors all in a whisper. "Never Salomon? Do you not remember?"
Maulfry laughed. "I should remember, I think. But there is no monopoly. What we choose others can choose. The name is free to the world, and a great name."
Galors, visibly uneasy; thought hard about it. Then he swore. "And I go for great deeds, by Heaven! Give it me, Dame. I will have it. Entra per me! And shut the wickets when I am in!"
He kissed Maulfry then and there, and they went to bed.
THE SALLY AT DAWN
On the morning after his strange wedding Prosper rose up early, quite himself. He left Isoult asleep in the bed, but could see neither old man, old woman, nor friar; so far as he could tell, he and his wife were alone in the cottage. Now he must think what to do. He admitted freely enough to himself that he had not been in a condition for this overnight; the girl's mood had exalted him; he had acted, and rightly acted (he was clear about this); now he must think what to do. The first duty was plain: he went out into the air and bathed in a pool; he took a quick run and set his blood galloping; then he groomed and fed his horse; put on his armour, and said his prayers. In the course of this last exercise he again remembered his wife, on whose account he had determined to make up his mind. He rose from his knees at once and walked about the heath, thinking it out.
"It is clear enough," he said to himself, "that neither my wife nor I desired marriage. We are not of the same condition; we have not—I speak for myself and by implication for her also—we have not those desires which draw men and women towards each other. Love, no doubt, is a strange and terrible thing: it may lead a man to the writing of verses and a most fatiguing search for words, but it will not allow him to be happy in anything except its own satisfaction; and in that it seems absurd to be happy. Marriage is in the same plight: it may be a good or a bad thing; without love it is a ridiculous thing. Nevertheless my wife and I are of agreement in this, that we think marriage better than being hanged. I do not understand the alternatives, but I accept them, and am married. My wife will not be hanged. For the rest, I shall take her to Gracedieu. The devout ladies there will no doubt make a nun of her; she will be out of harm's way, and all will be well."
He said another prayer, and rose up much comforted. And then as he got up Isoult came out of the cottage.
She ran towards him quickly, knelt down before he could prevent her, took his hand and kissed it. She was very shy of him, and when he raised her up and kissed her forehead, suffered the caress with lowered eyes and a face all rosy. Prosper found her very different from the tattered bride of over-night. She had changed her rags for a cotton gown of dark blue, her clouds of hair were now drawn back over her ears into a knot and covered with a silk hood of Indian work. On her feet, then bare, he now saw sandals, round her waist a leather belt with a thin dagger attached to it in a silver sheath. She looked very timidly, even humbly up at him whenever he spoke to her—with the long faithfulness of a dog shining in her big eyes: but she looked like a girl who was to be respected, and even Prosper could not but perceive what a dark beauty she was. Pale she was, no doubt, except when she blushed; but this she did as freely as hill-side clouds in March.
"Where is your wedding-ring, my child?" he asked her, when he had noticed that it was not where he had put it.
"Lord, it is here," said she, blushing again. She drew from her neck a fine gold chain whereon were the ring and another trinket which beamed like glass.
Is that where you would have it, Isoult?"
"Yes, lord," she answered. "For this present it must be there."
"As you will," said Prosper. "Let us break our fast and make ready, for we must be on our journey before we see the sun." Isoult went into the cottage as Brother Bonaccord came out with good-morning all over his puckered face.
Isoult brought bread and goats'-milk cheese, and they broke their fast sitting on the threshold, while the sun slowly rose behind the house and lit up the ground before them—a broken moorland with heather- clumps islanded in pools of black water. The white forest mist hid every distance and the air was shrewdly cold; but Prosper and the friar gossiped cheerfully as they munched.
"We friars," said Brother Bonaccord, "have been accused of a foible for wedding-rings. I grant you I had rather marry a healthy couple than leave them aching, and that the sooner there's a christening the better I am pleased. Another soul for Christ to save; another point against the devil, thinks I! I have heard priests say otherwise: they will christen if they must, and marry if it is not too late; but they would sooner bury you any day. Go to! They live in the world (which I vow is an excellent place), and eat and drink of it; yet they shut their eyes, pretending all the time that they are not there, but rather in skyey mansions. If this is not a fit and proper place for us men, why did God Almighty take six days a-thinking before He bid it out of the cooking pot? For a gift to the devil? Not He! 'Stop bubbling, you rogue,' says He; 'out of the pot with you and on to the platter, that these gentlemen and ladies of mine may cease sucking their fingers and dip in the dish!' Pooh! Look at your mother Mary and your little brother Gesulino. There was a wedding for you, there was a sacring! Beloved sons are ye all, young men; full of grace are ye, young women! God be good, who told me to couple ye and keep the game a-going! Take my blessing, brother, and the sleek and tidy maid you have gotten to wife; I must be on the road. I am for Hauterive out of the hanging Abbot's country. He'll be itching about that new gallows of his, thinking how I should look up there."
He kissed them both very heartily and trudged out into the mist, waving his hand.
"There goes a good soul," said Prosper. "Give me something to drink, child, I beseech you."
Isoult brought a great bowl of milk and gave it into his hands, afterwards (though he never saw her) she drank of it from the place where he had put his lips. Then it was time for them also to take the road. Isoult went away again, and returned leading Prosper's horse and shield; she brought an ass for herself to ride on. Curtseying to him she asked—
"Is my lord ready?"
"Ready for anything in life, my child," said he as he took her up and put her on the ass. Then he mounted his horse. They set off at once over the heath, striking north. None watched them go.
The sky was now without cloud. White all about, it swam into clear blue overhead. A light breeze, brisk and fresh, blew the land clear, only little patches of the morning mist hung torn and ragged about the furze-bushes. The forest was still densely veiled, but the sun was up, the larks afloat; the rains of over-night crisped and sparkled on the grass: there was promise of great weather. Presently with its slant roofs shining, its gilded spires and cross, Prosper saw on his left the great Abbey of Holy Thorn. He saw the river with a boat's sail, the village of Malbank Saint Thorn on the further bank and the cloud of thin blue smoke over it; far across the heath came the roar of the weirs. Behind it and on all sides began to rise before him the dark rampart of trees—Morgraunt.
Prosper's heart grew merry within him at the sight of all this freshness, the splendour of the morning. He was disposed to be well contented with everything, even with Isoult, upon whom he looked down once or twice, to see her pacing gently beside him, a guarded and graceful possession. "Well, friend," he said to himself, "you have a proper-seeming wife, it appears, of whom it would be well to know something."
He began to question her, and this time she told him everything he asked her, except why she was called Isoult la Desirous. As to this, she persisted that she could not tell him. He took it good-temperedly, with a shrug.
"I see something mysterious in all this, child," said he, "and am not fond of mysteries. But I married thee to draw thee from the hangman and not thy secrets from thee. Keep thy counsel therefore."
She hung her head.
To all other questions she was as open as he could wish. From her earliest childhood, he learned, she had known servitude, and been familiar with scorn and reproach. She had been swineherd, goose-girl, scare-crow, laundress, scullery-wench, and what not, as her mother could win for her. She could never better herself, because of the taint of witchcraft and all the unholiness it brought upon her. As laundress and scullery-maid she bad been at the Abbey; that had been her happiest time but for one circumstance, of which she told him later. Of her father she spoke little, save that he had often beaten her; of her mother more tenderly—it seemed they loved each other—but with an air of constraint. Her parents were undoubtedly in ill-savour throughout the tithing; her father, a rogue who would cut a throat as easily as a purse, her mother, a wise woman patently in league with the devil. But she said that, although she could not tell the reason of it, the Abbot had protected them from judgment many a time—whether it was her father for breaking the forest-law, deer-stealing, wood- cutting, or keeping running dogs; or her mother from the hatred and suspicion of the Malbank people, on account of her sorceries and enchantments. More especially did the Abbot take notice of her, and, while he never hesitated to expose her to every infamous reproach or report, and (apparently) to take a delight in them, yet guarded her from the direct consequences as if she had been sacred. This her parents knew very well, and never scrupled to turn to their advantage. For when hard put to it they would bring her forward between them, set her before the Abbot, and say, "For the sake of the child, my lord, let us go." Which the Abbot always did.
Cried Prosper here, "What did he want, this fatherly Abbot?"
"My lord," said Isoult, "he sought to have me put away."
"Well, child," Prosper chuckled, "he has got his wish."
"He wished it long ago, lord," she said; "before I was marriageable."
"And it was not to thy taste?"
"It was not of that then that thou wert La Desirous?"
"No, lord," said Isoult in a low voice.
"So I thought," was Prosper's comment to himself. "The friar was out."
She went on to tell him of her service with the Abbey as laundry-maid, then as scullery-girl; then she spoke of Galors. She told him how this monk had seen her by chance in the Abbey kitchen; how he sought to get too well acquainted with her; how she had fled the service and refused to go back. Nevertheless, and in spite of that, she had had no peace because of him. He chanced upon her again when she was among the crowd at the Alms Gate waiting for the dole, had kept her to the end, and spoken with her then and there, telling her all his desire, opening all his wicked heart. She fled from him again for the time; but every day she must needs go up for the dole, so every day she saw him and endured his importunities. This had lasted up to the very day she saw Prosper: at that time he had nearly prevailed upon her by his own frenzy and her terror of the Abbot's, threat. She never doubted the truth of what he told her, for the Abbot's privy mind had been declared to much the same purpose to Mald her mother.
"But this privy mind of his," said Prosper, "must have swung wide from its first leaning, which seems to have been to preserve thee. Could he not have ruined thee without a charter? An Abbot and a cook-maid! Could he not have ruined thee without a rope?"
"My lord," she replied, "I think he was merciful. I was to be hanged by his desire; but there was worse with Galors."
"Ah, I had forgotten him," Prosper said.
She had spoken all this in a low voice through which ran a trembling, as when a great string on a harp is touched and thrills all the music. Prosper thought she would have said more if she dared. Although she spoke great scorn of herself and hid nothing, yet he knew without asking that she had been truthful when she told him she was pure. He looked at her again and made assurance double; yet he wondered how it could be.
"Tell me, Isoult," he said presently, "when thou sawest me come into the quarry, didst thou know that I should take thee away?"
"Yes, lord," said she, "when I saw your face I knew it."
"What of my face, child? Hadst thou seen me before that day?"
She did not answer this.
"It is likely enough," he went on. "For in my father's day we often rode, I and my brothers, with him in the Abbey fees, hawking or hunting the deer. And if thou wert gooseherd or shepherdess thou mightest easily have seen us."
Isoult said, "My lord, if I had seen thee twenty times before or none, I had trusted thee when I saw thy face."
"How so, child?" asked he.
For answer to this she looked quickly up at him for a moment, and then hung her head, blushing. He had had time to see that dog's look of trust again in her eyes.
"My wife takes kindly to me!" he thought. "Let us hope she will find Gracedieu even more to her mind."
They rode on, being now very near the actual forest. Prosper began again with his questions.
"What enmity," he said, "the Abbot had for thee, Isoult, or what lurking pity, or what grain of doubt, I cannot understand. It seems that he wished thy ruin most devoutly, but that being a Christian and a man of honour he sought to compass it in a Christian and gentlemanly way. Might not marriage have appeared to him the appointed means? And should I not tell him that thou art ruined according to his aspirations?"
"Lord," said she, "he will know it."
"Saints and angels!" Prosper cried, "who will tell him? Not Brother Bonaccord, who loves no monks."
"Nay, lord, but my mother will tell him for the ruin of Galors, who hates her and is hated again. Moreover, there are many in Malbank who will find it out soon enough."
"How is that, child?"
"Lord, many of them sought to have me."
"I can well believe it," said Prosper; and after a pause he said again—"I would like to meet this Galors of thine out of his frock. He looked a long-armed, burly rogue; it seemed that there might be some fighting in him. Further, some chastisement of him, if it could conveniently be done, would seem to be my duty, since he has touched at thy honour, which is now mine. I should certainly like to meet him unfrocked."
"Lord,"' answered the girl, "that will come soon enough. I pray that thine arm be strong, for he is very fierce, and a terrible man in Malbank, more often armed than in his robe."
"He must be an indifferent monk," Prosper said; "God seems not well served in such a man's life. Holy Church would be holier without him."
"He is a great hunter, my lord," said Isoult.
"It would certainly seem so," said Prosper grimly. "Where should I find him likeliest?"
"Lord, look for him in Martle Brush."
"Ah! And where is that?"
"Lord, it is here by," said Isoult.
Prosper looked about him sharply. He found that they had left the heath, and were riding down a smooth grassy place into a deep valley. The decline was dotted with young oak-trees, sparse at the top but thickening in clusters and ranks lower down. Between the stems, but at some distance, he could see a herd of deer feeding on the rank grass by a brook at the bottom. Beyond the brook again the wood grew still thicker with holly trees and yews interspersed with the oaks: the land he could see rose more abruptly on that side, and was densely wooded to the top of another ridge as high as that which he and Isoult descended. The ridge itself was impenetrably dark with a forest gloom which never left it at this season of the year. As he studied the place, Martle Brush as he supposed it to be, he saw a hart in the herd stop feeding and lift his head to snuff the air, then with his antlers thrown back, trot off along the brook, and all the herd behind him. This set him thinking; he knew the deer had not winded him. The breeze set from them rather, over the valley, from the north-east. He said nothing to his companion, but kept his eyes open as they began to descend deeper into the gorge. Presently he saw three or four crows which had been wheeling over the tops of the trees come and settle on a dead oak by the brook-side. Still there was no sign of a man. Again he glanced down at Isoult; this time she too was alert, with a little flush in her cheeks, but no words on her lips to break the silence they kept. So they descended the steep place, picking their way as best they could among the loose rocks and boulders, with eyes painfully at gaze, yet with no reward, until they reached a place where the track went narrowly between great rooted rocks with holly trees thick on either side. Immediately before them was the brook, shallow and fordable, with muddy banks; the track ran on across it and steeply up the opposite ridge. Midway of this Prosper now saw a knight fully armed in black (but with a white plume to his helmet), sitting a great black horse, his spear erect and his shield before him. He could even make out the cognizance upon it—three white wicket-gates argent on a field sable—but not the motto. The shield set him thinking where he could have seen it before, for he knew it perfectly well. Then suddenly Isoult said, "Lord, this is Galors the Monk."
"Ho, ho!" said Prosper, "is this Galors? I like him better than I did."
"Lord," she asked in a tremble, "what wilt thou do?"
"Do!" he cried; "are there so many things to do? You are not afraid, child?"
"No, lord, I am not afraid," she replied, and looked down at her belt.
"Now, Isoult," said Prosper, "you are to stay here on your beast while I go down and clear the road."
She obeyed him at once, and sat very still looking at Galors and at Prosper, who rode forward to the level ground by the ford. There he stopped to see what the other man would be at. Galors played the impenetrable part which had served him so well with the Abbot Richard, in other words, did nothing but sit where he was with his spear erect, like a bronze figure on a bridge. Impassivity had always been the strength of Galors; women had bruised themselves against it: but Prosper had little to do with women's ways.
"Sir, why do you bar my passage?" he sang out, irrepressibly cheerful at present. Galors never answered him a word. Prosper divined him at this; he was to climb the hill, and so be at the double disadvantage of having no spear and of being below him that had one. "The pale rascal means to make this a game of skittles," he thought to himself. "We shall see, my man. In the mean time I wish I knew your shield." So saying he forded the brook, stayed, called out again, "Whose shield is that, Galors?" and again got no reply. "Black dog!" cried he in a rage, "take your vantage and expect no more." Whereupon he set his horse at the hill and rode up with his shield before him.
The black knight feutred his spear, clapped spurs to his horse's flanks, and bore down the hill. He rode magnificently: horse and man had the impetus of a charging bull, and it looked ill for the man below. But Prosper had learned a trick from his father, which he in turn had had at Acre from the Moslems in one of the intervals of the business there. In those days men fought like heroes, but between whiles remembered that they were gentlemen and good fellows pitted against others equally happy in these respects.
The consequence was that many a throat was cut by many a hand which the day before had poured out wine for its delight, and nobody was any the worse. The infidels loved Mahomet, but they loved a horse too, and Baron Jocelyn was not the man to forget a lesson in riding. So soon, therefore, as Galors was upon him, Prosper slid his left foot from the stirrup and slipt round his horse almost to the belly, clinging with his shield arm to the bow of the saddle. The spear struck his shield at a tangent and glanced off. It was a bad miss for Galors, since horse and man drove down the incline and were floundering in the brook before they could stay. Prosper whipped round to see Galors mired, was close on his quarter and had cut through the shank of the spear, close to the guard, in a trice.
"Fight equal, my friend, and you will fight more at ease in the long run," was all he said. Galors let fly an oath at him, furious. He drew his great sword and cut at him with all his force; Prosper parried and let out at his shoulder. He got in between the armour plates; first blow went to him. This did not improve Galors' temper or mend his fighting. There was a sharp rally in the brook, some shrewd knocks passed. The lighter man and horse had all the advantage; Galors never reached his enemy fairly. He set himself to draw Prosper out of the slush of mud and water, and once on firmer ground went more warily to work. Then a chance blow from Prosper struck his horse on the crest and went deep. The beast stumbled and fell with his rider upon him both lay still.
"A broken neck," thought Prosper, cursing his luck. Galors never moved. "What an impassive rogue it is!" Prosper cried, with all his anger clean gone from him. He dismounted and went to where his man lay, threw his sword on the grass beside him, and proceeded to unlace Galors's hauberk. Galors sprang up and sent Prosper flying; he set his heel on the sword blade and broke it short. Then he turned his own upon the unarmed man. "By God, the man is for a murder!" Prosper grew white with a cold rage: he was on his feet, the flame of his anger licked up his poverty: Galors had little chance. Prosper made a quick rush and drove at the monk with his shield arm, using the shield like an axe; he broke down his guard, got at close quarters, dropt his shield and caught Galors under the arms. They swayed and rocked together like storm-driven trees, Prosper transported with his new- lighted rage, Galors struggling to justify his treachery by its only excuse. Below his armpits he felt Prosper's grip upon him; he was encumbered with shield and sword, both useless—the sword, in fact, sawing the air. Then they fell together, Prosper above; and that was the end of the bout. Prosper slipped out his poniard and drove it in between the joints of the gorget. Then he got up, breathing hard, and looked at his enemy as he lay jerking on the grass, and at the bright stream coming from his neck.
"The price of treachery is heavy," said he. "I ought to kill him. And there are villainies behind that to be reckoned with, to say nothing of all the villainies to do when that hole shall be stuffed. The shield—ah, the shield! No, monk, on second thoughts, I will not kill you yet. It would be dealing as you dealt, it would prevent our meeting again; it would cut me off all chance of learning the history of your arms. White wicket-gates! Where, under heaven's eye, have I been brought up against three white wicket-gates? Ha! there is a motto too." Entra per me, he read, and was no wiser. "This man and I will meet again," he said. "Meantime I will remember Entra per me." He raised his voice to call to Isoult—"Come, child; the way is clear enough."
She came over the brook at once, alighted on the further side, and came creeping up to her husband to kneel before him as once before that morning; but he put his hand on her shoulder to stay her. "Come," he said, smiling, "no more ceremony between you and me, my dear. Rather let us get forward out of the reach of hue-and-cry. For when the foresters find him that will be the next move in the game." To Galors he turned with a "By your leave, my friend," and took his sword; then having put Isoult upon her donkey and mounted his own beast, he led the way up the ridge wondering where they had best turn to avoid hue-and-cry. Isoult, who guessed his thoughts, told him of the minster at Gracedieu.
Sanctuary attached to the Church, she said, as all the woodlanders knew.
"Excellent indeed," Prosper cried; "that jumps with what I had determined on before. Moreover, I suppose that Gracedieu is outside the Malbank fee?"
"Yes, lord, it is far beyond that."
"And how far is it to Gracedieu?"
"It is the journey of two days and nights, my lord."
"Well," said he, "then those nights we must sleep in the forest. How will that suit you, child?"
"Ah, my lord," breathed the girl, "I have very often slept there."
"And what shall we do for food, Isoult?"
"I will provide for that, my lord."
THE BLOOD-CHASE AND THE LOVE-CHASE
It was by this time high noon, hot and still. Having climbed the ridge, they found themselves at the edge of a dense beech-wood, to which there appeared no end. From their vantage-ground they could see that the land sloped very gradually away into the distance; upon it the giant trees stood like pillars of a church, whose floor was brown with the waste and litter of a hundred years. Long alleys of shade stretched out on all sides of them into the dark unknown of Mid- Morgraunt; there seemed either no way or countless ways before them, and one as good as the other. They rested themselves in sheer bewilderment, ate of the bread and apples which Isoult had brought with her; then Prosper found out how tired he was.
"Wife," said he, "if all the devils in Christendom were after me it would not keep me awake. I must sleep for half-an-hour."
"Sleep, sleep, my lord; I will take the watch," said Isoult, longing to serve him.
He unlaced his helm and body-armour without more ado, and laid his head in the girl's lap. She had very cool and soft hands, and now she put one of them upon his forehead for a solace, peering down nervously to see how he would take such daring from his servant. What she saw comforted her not a little, indeed she thought herself like to die of joy. He wondered again that such delicate little hands should have been reared on Spurnt Heath, and endured the service of the lowest; it was a half-comical content that made him send her a smiling acknowledgment; but she took it for a friendly message between them, and though the laughter in his eyes brought a mist over hers she was content. Prosper dropped asleep. Through the soft veil of her happiness she watched him patiently and still as a mouse. She was serving him at last; she could dare look tenderly at him when he was asleep—and she did. Something of the mother, something of the manumitted slave, something of the dumb creature brought up against a crisis which only speech can make tolerable,—something of these three lay in her wet eyes; she wanted ineffably more, but she was happy (she thought). She was not apt to look further than this, that she was in love, and suffered to serve her master. The dull torment of her life past, the doubts or despair which might beset and perplex her life to come, were all blurred and stilled by this boon of service, as a rosy mist makes beautiful the space of time between a day of storms and a dripping night. When the roaring of the wind dies down and the sun rays out in a clear pool of heaven, men have ease and forget their buffetings; they walk abroad to bathe their vexed souls in the evening calms. So now Isoult la Desirous, with no soul to speak of, bathed her quickened instincts. She felt at peace with a world which had used her but ill so long as she was in touch with all that was noble in it. This glorious youth, this almost god, suffered her to touch his brow, to look at him, to throne his head, to adore him. Oh, wonderful! And as tears are never far from a girl's eyes, and never slow to answer the messages of her heart, so hers flowed freely and quietly as from a brimming well; nor did she check them or wish them away, but let them fall where they would until they encroached upon the privileged hand. Lese majeste! She threw her head back and shook them from her; she was more guarded how she did after that.
Then she heard something over the valley below which gave her heart- beats a new tune. A great ado down there, horses, dogs, voices of men shouting for more. She guessed in a moment that the foresters had come upon the body of Galors, knew that hue-and-cry was now only a question of hours, and all her joys at an end. She took her hand from Prosper's forehead, and he awoke then and there, and smiled up at her.
"Lord," said she, "it is time for us to be going, for they have found Dom Galors; and at the Abbey they have many slot-hounds."
"Good, my child," he answered. "I am ready for anything in the world. Let us go."
He got up instantly and armed himself; they mounted their animals and plunged into the great shade of the beeches. All the steering they could do now was by such hints of the sun as they could glean here and there. Prosper by himself would have been fogged in a mile, but Isoult had not lived her fifteen years of wild life for nothing: she had the fox's instinct for an earth, and the hare's for doubling on a trail. The woods spoke to her as they spoke to each other, as they spoke to the beasts, or the beasts among themselves. What indeed was this poor little doubtful wretch but one of those, with a stray itching to be more? Soul or none, she had an instinct which Prosper discovered and learned to trust. For the rest of the day she tacitly led the knight- at-arms in the way he should go.
But with all her help they made a slow pace. The forest grew more and more dense; there seemed no opening, no prospect of an opening. She knew what must be in store for them if the Abbot had uncoupled his bloodhounds, so she strained every nerve in her young body, listened to every murmur or swish of the trees, every one of the innumerable, inexplicable noises a great wood gives forth. She suffered, indeed, intensely; yet Prosper never knew it. He played upon her, quite unconsciously, by wondering over the difficulties of the road, the slowness of their going, the probable speed of the Abbot's dogs and foresters, and so on. Her meekness and cheerful diligence delighted him. The nuns of Gracedieu, he promised himself, should know what a likely novice he was bringing them. He should miss her, pardieu! after two or three days' companionship. So they struggled on.
Towards the time of dusk, which was very soon in that gloomy solitude, Isoult heard in the far distance the baying of the dogs, and began to tremble, knowing too well what all that meant. Yet she said nothing. Prosper rode on, singing softly to himself as his custom was, his head carried high, his light and alert look taking in every dark ambush as a thing to be conquered—very lordly to look upon. The girl, who had never seen his like, adored him, thought him a god; the fact was, she had no other. Therefore, as one does not lightly warn the blessed gods, she rode silent but quaking by his side, with her ears still on the strain for the coming danger, and all her mind set on the fear that Prosper would find out. Above all she heard a sound which shocked her more, her own heart knocking at her side.
Then at last Prosper reined up, listening too. "Hush!" he said, "what is that?"
This was a new sound, more hasty and murmurous than any girl's heart, and much more dreadful than the music of the still distant hounds; it was very near, a rushing and pattering sound, as of countless beasts running. Isoult knew it.
"Wolves!" she said; "let be, there is no harm from them save in the winter."
As she spoke a grey bitch-wolf came trotting through the trees, swiftly but in pain, and breathing very short. She was covered with slaver and red foam, her tongue lolled out at the side of her mouth long and loose, she let blood freely from a wound in the throat, and one of her ears was torn and bleeding. She looked neither to right nor left, did not stay to smell at the scent of the horse; all her pains were spent to keep running. She broke now and again into a rickety canter, but for the most part trotted straight forward, with many a stumble and missed step, all picked up with indescribable feverish diligence; and as she went her blood flowed, and her panting kept pace with her padding feet. So she came and so went, hunted by what followed close upon her; the murmur of the host, the host itself—dogs and bitches in a pack, making great pace. They came on at a gallop, a sea of wolves that surged restlessly, yet were one rolling tide. Here and there a grinning head cast up suddenly out of the press seemed like the broken crest of some hastier wave impatient with his fellows; so they snarled, jostled, and snapped at each other. Then one, playing choragus, would break into a howl, and there would be a long anthem of howls until the forest rang with the terror; but the haste, the panting and the padding of feet were the most dreadful, because incessant; the thrust head would be whelmed, the sharp voice drowned in howls; the grey tide and the lapping of it never stopped.
The fugitives watched this chase, in which they might have read a parable of their own affair, sweep past them like a bad dream. In the dead hush that followed they heard what was a good deal more significant for them, the baying of the dogs.
"What now?" said Prosper to himself, "there are the dogs. If I make haste they can make it better; if I stay, how on earth shall I keep my convoy out of their teeth?"
It was too late to wonder; even at that moment Isoult gasped and caught at his arm, leaning from her saddle to cling to him as she had done once before. But this was a danger not to be shamed away by a man armed. He followed her look, and saw the first dog come on with his nose to the ground. A thought struck him. "Wait," he said.
Sure enough, the great dog hit on the line of the wolves and got the blood in his nostrils. He was puzzled, his tail went like a flag in a gale as he nosed it out.
Prosper watched him keenly, it was touch-and-go, but never troubled his breath. "Take your choice, friend," he said. The dog beat to and fro for some long minutes. He could not deny himself—he followed the wolves.
"That love-chase is like to be our salvation," said Prosper. "Wait now. Here are some more of the Abbot's friends." It was as good as a play to him—a hunter; but to Isoult, the wild little outcast, it was deadly work. Like all her class, she held dogs in more fear than their masters. You may cajole a man; to a dog the very attempt at it is a damning proof against you.
As Prosper had predicted, the dogs, coming on by twos and threes, got entangled in the cross-trail. They hesitated over it, circled about it as the first had done, and like him they followed the hotter and fresher scent. One, however, in a mighty hurry, ran clean through it, and singled out his own again. They saw him coming; in his time he saw them. He stopped, threw up his head, and bayed a succession of deep bell-notes at them, enough to wake the dead.
"I must deal with this beast," Prosper said. "Leave me to manage him, and stay you here." He dismounted, ungirt his sword, which he gave to Isoult to hold, then began to run through the wood as if he was afraid. This brought the dog on furiously; in fifty yards he was up with his quarry. Prosper went on running; the dog chose his time, and sprang for his throat. Prosper, who had been waiting for this, ducked at the same minute; his dagger was in his hand. He struck upwards at the dog as he rose, and ripped his belly open. "That was your last jump, my friend," quoth he, "but I hope there are no more of you. It is a game that not always answers."
It was while he was away upon this errand that Isoult thought she saw a tall woman in a black cloak half-hidden behind a tree. The woman, she could have sworn, stood there in the dusk looking fixedly at her; it was too dark to distinguish anything but the white disk of a face and the black mass she made in her cloak, yet there was that about her, some rigid aspect of attention, which frightened the girl. She turned her head for a moment to see Prosper homing, and when she looked again into the trees there was certainly no woman. She thought she must have fancied it all, and dismissed the thought without saying anything to Prosper.
They took up their journey again, safe from dogs for the time. The music had died away in the distance; they knew that if the wolf-pack were caught there would be work enough for more hounds than the Abbey could furnish. Then it grew dark, and Isoult weary and heavy with sleep. She swayed in her saddle.
"Ah," said Prosper, "we will stay here. You shall sleep while I keep watch."
"It is very still, my lord. Wilt thou not let me watch for a little?" she asked.
Prosper laughed. "There are many things a man's wife can do for him, my dear," he said, "but she cannot fight dogs or men. And she cannot sleep with one eye open Eat what you have, and then shut your pair of eyes. You are not afraid for me?"
Isoult looked at him quickly. Then she said—"My lord is—," and stopped confused.
"What is thy lord, my girl?" asked he.
"He is good to his servant," she whispered in her low thrilled voice.
They ate what bread was left, and drank a little water. Before all was finished Isoult was nodding. Prosper bestirred himself to do the best he could for her; he collected a heap of dried leaves, laid his cloak upon them, and picked up Isoult to lay her upon the cloak. His arms about her woke her up. Scarce knowing what she did, dreaming possibly of her mother, she put up her face towards his; but if Prosper noticed it, no errant mercy from him sent her to bed comforted. He put her down, covered her about with the cloak, and patted her shoulder with an easy—"Good-night, my lass." This was cold cheer to the poor girl, who had to be content with his ministry of the cloak. It was too dark to tell if he was looking at her as he stooped; and ah, heavens! why should he look at her? The dark closed round his form, stiffly erect, sitting on the root of the great tree which made a tent for them both, and then it claimed her soul. She lost her trouble in sleep; he kept the watch all night.
Towards the grey of the morning, seeing that the whole forest was at peace, with no sign of dogs or men all that night, and now even a rest from the far howling of the wolves, Prosper's head dropt to his breast. In a few seconds he slept profoundly. Isoult awoke and saw that he slept: she lay watching him, longing but not daring. When she saw that he looked blue and pinched about the cheekbones, that his cheeks were yellow where they should be red, and grey where they had been white, she knew he was cold; and her humbleness was not proof against this justification of her desires. She crept out of her snug nest, crawled towards her lord and felt his hands; they were ice. "Asleep he is mine," she thought. She picked up the cloak, then crept again towards him, seated herself behind and a little above him, threw the cloak over both and snuggled it well in. She put her arms about him and drew him close to her bosom. His head fell back at her gentle constraint; so he lay like a child at the breast. The mother in her was wild and throbbing. Stooped over him she pored into his face. A divine pity, a divine sense of the power of life over death, of waking over sleep, drew her lower and nearer. She kissed his face—the lids of his eyes, his forehead and cheeks. Like an unwatched bird she foraged at will, like a hardy sailor touched at every port but one. His mouth was too much his own, too firm; it kept too much of his sovereignty absolute. Otherwise she was free to roam; and she roamed, very much to his material advantage, since the love that made her rosy to the finger-tips, in time warmed him also. He slept long in her arms.
She began to be very hungry.
"He too will be hungry when he wakes," she thought; "what shall I do? We have nothing to eat." She looked down wistfully at his head where it lay pillowed. "What would I not give him of mine?" The thought flooded her. But what could she do?
She heard the pattering of dry leaves, the crackle of dry twigs snapt, and looking up, saw a herd of deer feeding in a glade not very far off.
Idly as she watched them, it came home to her that there were hinds among them with calves. One she noticed in particular feed a little apart, having two calves near her which had just begun to nibble a little grass. Vaguely wondering still over her plight, she pictured her days of shepherding in the downs where food had often failed her, and the ewes perforce mothered another lamb. That hind's udder was full of milk: a sudden thought ran like wine through her blood. She slid from Prosper, got up very softly, took her cup, and went towards the browsing deer. The hind looked up (like all the herd) but did not start nor run. A brief gaze satisfied it that here was no enemy, neither a stranger to the forest walks; it fell-to again, and suffered Isoult to come quite close, even to lay her hand upon its neck. Then she stood for a while stroking the red hind, while all the herd watched her. She knelt before the beast, clasping both arms about its neck; she fondled it with her face, as if asking the boon she would have. Some message passed between them, some assurance, for she let go of the hind's neck and crawled on hands and knees towards the udder. The deer never moved, though it turned its head to watch her. She took the teat in her mouth, sucked and drew milk. The herd stood all about her motionless; the hind nuzzled her as if she had been one of its own calves; so she was filled.
Next she had to fill her cup. This was much more difficult. The hind must be soothed and fondled again, there must be no shock on either side. She started the flow with her mouth; then she knelt against the animal with her head pressed to its side, took the teat in her hand and succeeded. She filled the cup with Prosper's breakfast. She got up, kissed the hind between the eyes, stroked its neck many times, and went tiptoe back to her lord and master. She found him still sound asleep, so sat quietly watching him till he should wake, with the cup held against her heart to keep it warm.
Broad daylight and a chance beam of sun through the trees woke him at last. It would be about seven o'clock. He stretched portentously, and sat up to look about him; so he encountered her tender eyes before she had been able to subdue their light.
"Good-morning, Isoult," said he. "Have I been long asleep?"
"A few hours only, lord."
"I am hungry. I must eat something."
"Lord, I have milk for thee."
He took the cup she tendered, looking at her.
"Drink first, my child," he said.
"Lord, I have drunk already."
He drained the cup without further ado.
"Good milk," he said when he had done. He took these things, you see, very much as they came.
His next act was to kneel face to the sun and begin his prayers. Something made him stop; he turned him to his wife.
"Hast thou said thy prayers, Isoult?"
"No, lord," said she, reddening.
"Come then and pray with me. It is a good custom."
She obeyed him so far as to kneel down by his side. He began again. She had nothing to say, so he stopped again.
"Dost thou forget thy prayers since thou art a wife, Isoult?"
"Lord, I know none," said she with a shameful face.
"Thou art not a Christian then?"
"If a Christian prays, my lord, I am not a Christian."
"But thou hast been baptized?"
"How knowest thou?"
"The Lord Abbot once reproached me before my parents that I had disgraced Holy Baptism; and my father beat me soundly for it, saying that of all his afflictions that was the hardest to bear. This he did in the presence of the Lord Abbot himself. Therefore I know that I have been beaten for the sake of my baptism."
Prosper was satisfied.
"It is enough, Isoult. Thou art certainly a Christian. Nevertheless, such an one should pray (and women as well as men), even though it may very well be that he knows not what he is saying. Prayer is a great mystery, look you. Yet this I know, that it is also a great comfort. For remember that if a Christian prays—knowing or not knowing the meaning of the act and the upshot of it—he is very sure it is acceptable to Saint Mary, and through her to God Almighty Himself. So much so, indeed, that he is emboldened thereafter to add certain impertinences and urgent desires of his own, which Saint Mary is good enough to hear, and by her intercession as often as not to win to be accepted. Some add a word or two to their saint or guardian, others invoke all the saints in a body; but it is idle to do one or any of these things without you have prayed first. So you must by all means learn to pray. Sit down by me here and I will teach you."
She sat as close to him as she dared on the trunk of the beech, while he taught her to say after him, "Pater noster qui es in coelis", and "Ave Maria gratia plena." In this way they spent a full hour or more, going over and over the Latin words till she was as perfect as he. In the stress of the task, which interested Prosper vastly, their hands met more than once; finally Prosper's settled down over hers and held it. In time he caught the other. Isoult's heart beat wildly; she had never been so happy. When she had all the words pat they knelt down and prayed together, with the best results.
"Now, child," said Prosper, "you may add what you choose of your own accord; and be sure that our Lady will hear you. It is a great merit to be sure of this. The greater the Christian the surer he is. I also will make my petition. You have no patron?"
"No, lord, I have never heard of such an one."
"I recommend you to Saint Isidore. His name is the nearest to yours that I can remember. For the rest, he is very strong. Ask, then, what you will now, my child, and doubt nothing."
Isoult bent her head and shut her eyes for the great essay. What could she say? What did she want? She was kneeling by Prosper's side, his hand held hers a happy prisoner.
"Mary, let him take me! Saint Isidore, let him take me—all, all, all!" This was what she panted to Heaven.
Prosper prayed, "My Lady, I beseech thee a good ending to this adventure which I have undertaken lightly, it may be, but with an honest heart. Grant also a good and honourable end to myself, and to this my wife, who is a Christian without knowing it, and by the help of thy servants at Gracedieu shall be a better. Per Christum dominum, etc."
Then he crossed himself, and taught Isoult to do the same, and the great value of the exercise.
"Now, child," he said, "I have done thee a better turn in teaching thee to pray and sign thyself meekly and devoutly than ever I did by wedding thee in the cottage. Thy soul, my dear, thy soul is worth a hundred times thy pretty person. Saint Bernard, I understand, says, 'My son, think of the worms when thou art disposed to cherish thyself in a looking-glass.' It is to go far. Saint Bernard was a monk, and it is a monk's way to think of nastiness; but he was right in the main. Your soul is the chief part of you. Now to finish: when we are at Gracedieu thou shalt confess and go to Mass. Then thou wilt be as good a Christian as I am."
"Lord, is that all I must do?" she asked meekly.
Prosper grew grave. He put his hand on the girl's shoulder, as he said—
"Deal justly, live cleanly, breathe sweet breath. Praise God in thy heart when He is kind, bow thy head and knees when He is angry; look for Him to be near thee at all times. Do this, and beyond it trust thy heart."
"Lord, I will do it."
"Thou art a good child, Isoult. I am pleased with thee," he said, and kissed her. She turned her face lest he should see that she was crying. Soon afterwards they set off towards Gracedieu.
The day, the night, the next morning found them on the journey. They had to travel slowly, could indeed have made better pace on foot; for Mid-Morgraunt is a tangle of brush and undergrowth, and the swamps (which are many and of unknown depth) have all to be circled.
There seemed, however, to be no further pursuit; they could go at their ease, for they met nobody. On the other hand, they met with no food more solid than milk. There were deer in plenty. Isoult was able to feed herself and her husband, and keep both from exhaustion, without suspicion from him or much cost to herself. The second time of doing it, it is true, she went tremblingly to work, and was like to bungle it. What one may do on the flood one may easily miss on the ebb; moreover, it was night-time, she was tired, and not sure of herself. Nevertheless, she was fed, and Prosper was fed. Next morning she was as cool as you choose, singled out her hind as she walked into the herd, went on all fours and sucked like a calf. She grew nice, indeed. The beast she tried first had rough milk; this would do for her well enough, but my lord must have of the best. She chose another with great care, played milk-maid to her, and drew Prosper full measure.
He, her sovereign, took every event with equal mind, and placidly, whether it was a wedding, a fight, or a miraculous fountain of milk. If she had drawn his food from herself he would not have questioned her; if it had been her last ounce of life he would not have thanked her the more. You cannot blame him for this. To begin with, he knew nothing of her or her doings when he was asleep or on the watch. And a young man is a prodigal always, of another's goods besides his own, while a young woman is his banker, never so rich as when he overdraws. Deprived of him by her own act, his wife in name, she was his servant in reality. His servant and, just now, his sumpter-beast. Very wistfully she served him, but very diligently, only asking that he should neither thank nor blame her. It very seldom occurred to him to do either; but so sure as he threw a "good child" at her, she had a lump in her throat and smarting eyes. True, she had her little rewards, to be enjoyed when he could not guess that her heart was all in a flutter, or see that her cheeks were wet. Night and morning they said their Pater Noster and Ave Maria, out of which (although she understood them as little as he did) she did not fail to suck the comfort he had promised her. She learned also to speak familiarly to Saint Isidore and Madonna. This served her in good stead later in her career. Meantime, night and morning they knelt side by side, their arms touched, sometimes their hands strayed and joined company. Then hers ended by resting where they were, as in a warm nest. Pray what more could a girl ask of the Christian faith?
By sunset of the second day passed in this fashion they were before the great west front of Gracedieu Minster, knocking at the Mercy Door. It opened. They were safe for the present, and Prosper felt his horizon enlarged.
After Vespers that day Prosper demanded an audience of the Lady Abbess, and had it. He found her a handsome, venerable old lady, at peace with all the world and, so far as that comported with her religion, a woman of it. She had held high rank in it by right of birth; she knew what it could do, and what not do, of good and evil. Now that she was old enough to call its denizens her children, she folded her hands and played grandmother. Naturally, therefore, she knew Prosper by name; for that, as much as his frank looks, she made him welcome. She did not ask it, but he could see that she expected to be enlightened upon the subject of Isoult—doubtful company for a knight; so having made up his mind how much he could afford to tell her, he did not waste time in preliminaries.
"Madam," said he, after the first greetings of good company, "a knight adventuring in this forest cannot see very far before his face, and may make error worse by what he does to solve error. If by mischance such a thing should befall him, he must not faint, but persist until he has loosed not only the knot he has tied himself, but that as well which he has made more inexorable."
The Lady Abbess bowed very graciously, waiting for him to be done with phrases. Prosper went on—
"I found this damsel in the hands of a knave, who offered her a choice of death or dishonour. I took her into my own, and so far have spared her either. The rascal who had her now lies with a split gullet many leagues from here, in such a condition that he will trouble her no more I hope. Add to this, that I have questioned her, and find her honest, meek, and a Christian. She is, as you, will see for yourself, very good-looking: it was near to be her undoing. I cannot tell you, nor will you ask me, first, her name (for I am not certain of it), second, the name of her enemy (for that would involve a great company whereof he is a most unworthy member), nor third, what means I employed to insure immunity for her body, and honour for my own as well as hers; for this would involve us all. In time I shall certainly achieve the adventure thus thrust upon me, but for the present my intention is for High March Castle, and the Countess of Hauterive, who was a friend of my father's, and is, as I know, one of yours. If you will permit it I will leave Isoult with you. She will serve you well and faithfully in a hundred ways; she is very handy and quick, a good girl, anxious to be a better. If you can make a nun of her, well and good: by that means the adventure will achieve itself. I leave you to judge, however; but if you cannot help me there, let her stay with you for a year. After that I will fetch her and achieve the adventure otherwise."
The Abbess smiled at the young man's judicial airs, which very ill concealed the elevation of his mind. She only said that she would gladly help him in the honourable task he had set himself, and doubted not but that the girl would prove a good and useful servant to the convent. But she added—
"It is easy to see, sir, that as a Christian your part is of the Church militant. I would remind you that a nun is not made in a year."
"I mentioned a year because it was a long time, and for the sake of an example of what I had designed," said Prosper calmly. "However, if it takes longer, and you think well of it, I shall not complain."
"And what does the girl say?" the Abbess inquired. "For some sort of vocation is necessary for the religious life, you must understand."
"I have not yet spoken to Isoult about it," he replied. "She will do what I tell her. She is a very good girl."
"I think I should speak to her myself," said the Abbess, not without decision.
"So you shall," Prosper agreed; "but it will be better that I prepare her. If you will allow me I will do so at once, as I should leave early to-morrow."
"There goes a young man who should climb high," said the Lady Abbess, as her guest paid his respects.
Prosper went into the cloister, and found Isoult sitting with the mistress of the novices and her girls who were at work there. She looked tired and constrained, but lit up when he came in, firing a girl's signals in her cheeks. As for her eyes, the moment Prosper appeared they never wavered from him.
He excused himself to the nun, saying that he had business with Isoult, which by leave of the Abbess he might transact in the guest chamber. One of the novices conducted him; Isoult followed meekly.
Once alone with her, Prosper sat down by the fire and told Isoult to fetch a stool and sit by him. She did as she was bid, sat at his knee, folded her hands in her lap, and waited for him to begin, looking thoughtfully into the fire. Prosper laid a hand upon her shoulder.
"Isoult," he said, "We have got our sanctuary, as you see, and for all that appears need neither have sought nor claimed it. We have had no pursuit worthy the name. It is evident to me that they have calculated the deserts of Master Galors at Malbank, and put it at our figure. Nevertheless, I am glad to be at Gracedieu, for I had decided upon it before ever we met and drubbed that monk. When I saved you from being hanged I saved your body; now I shall think of your soul's health, which (the Church tells us) is far more precious. For it would seem that a man can do without a body, but by no means without a soul. Now, I have married you, Isoult, and by that act saved your body; but I have not as yet done any more, for though I have heard many things of marriage, I never heard that it was good for the soul. Moreover, for marriage to be tolerable, I suppose love is necessary,"—Isoult started,—"and that we certainly know nothing about it." Isoult shivered very slightly, so slightly that Prosper did not notice it. "I have thought a great deal about you, my child," he continued, "since I married you, and something also of myself, my destinies, and duties as a knight and good Christian. I have decided to go at once to High March, where I shall find the Countess Isabel. She, being an old friend of my family's, will no doubt take me into her service. I shall fight for her of course, I shall win honour and renown, very likely a fief. With that behind me I shall go to Starning and trounce my brother Malise, baron or no baron. I shall bring him to his knees in a cold sweat, and then I shall say—'Get up, you ass, and learn not to meddle again with a gentleman, and son of a gentleman.'
"In addition to that business I have a certain matter to inquire into concerning a lady whom I met in the purlieus of this forest, and a dead man she had with her. I do not like the looks of that case. Certainly I must inquire into it, and do what pertains. There may be other things needing my direction, but if there are I have forgotten them for the moment.
"You will think that in all this I have also forgotten you, child. Far from it. Listen now. You cannot of course go to High March. You would not be happy there, nor am I in a position to make you happy. No, no; you shall stay here with the good nuns, and be useful to them, and happy with them. You shall learn to serve God, so that in time you may become a nun yourself. You know my thoughts about monks, that I do not like them. But nuns are quite otherwise. Our Lord Jesus was served by two women, of whom Mary was assuredly a nun, and Martha a religious woman equally, probably of the begging order—a sister of Saint Clare, or of the order of Mount Carmel. The point is, I believe, still in doubt. So you see that you have excellent examples before you to persevere. When I have put my affairs in train at High March I will come and see you; and as you are my wife, if any trouble should come about you, any sickness, or threatening from without, or any private grief, send me word, and I will never fail you. Moreover, have no doubts of my fidelity: I am a gentleman, Isoult, as you know. And indeed such pranks are not to my taste."
He stopped talking, but not patting the girl's shoulder. It was almost more than she could endure. At first her blank and sheer dismay had been almost comical; she had looked at him as if he was mad, or talking gibberish. The even flow of his reasoning went on, and with it a high satisfaction in all his plans patent even to her cloudy intellect; gradually thus the truth dawned upon her, and as he continued she lost the sense of his spoken thoughts in the mad cross- tides of her own unuttered. Now her crying instinct was for rescue at all costs, at any hazard. Prayers, entreaties, cravings for reprieve thronged unvoiced and not to be voiced through every fibre of her body. Could he not spare her? Could he not? If she could turn suddenly upon him, clasp his knees, worm herself between his arms, put her face—wet, shaking, tremulous, but ah, Lord! how full of love—near to his! If she could! She could not; shame froze her, choked not speech only but act; she was dumb through and through—a dumb animal.
"Well, Isoult, what do you say?" he asked in his cheerful voice. He could hardly hear her answer, it came so low.
"I will do thy pleasure, lord," she murmured.
He stooped and kissed her forehead, not noticing how she shook.
"Good child," he said, "good child! I am more than satisfied with you, and hope that I may have proved as pleasant a traveller as I have found you to be. My salute must be for good-night and farewell, Isoult, for to-morrow morning I shall be gone before you have turned your side in bed. That is where you should be now, my dear. Your head is very hot—a sign that you are tired. Forget not what I have said to you in anything; forget not to trust me. They will show you your bed. Good-bye, Isoult."
She muttered something inaudible with her lips, and went out without looking at him again. Every bone in her body ached so cruelly that she could hardly drag herself along. She could neither think nor cry out; what strength she had went towards carrying this new load, which, while it paralyzed, for the present numbed her as well. The mistress of the novices was shocked to see her white drawn face, heavily- blacked eyes, and to hear a dead voice come dully from such pretty lips.
"My dear heart," said the good woman, "you are tired to death. Come with me to the still-room; I will give you a cordial." The liquor at least sent some blood to her face and lips, with whose help she was able to find her bed. For that night she had for bedfellow a fat nun, who snored and moaned in her sleep, was fretful at the least stir, and effectually prevented her companion from snoring, in turn, if she had been afflicted with that disease. Isoult stirred little enough: being worn out with grief entirely new to her, to say nothing of her fatigue of travel, she lay like a log and (what she had never done before) dreamed horribly. Very early, before light, she was awake and face to face with her anguish again. She lay in a waking stupor, fatally sensible, but incapable of responsible action. She had to hear Prosper's voice in the courtyard sharply inquiring of the way, his words to his horse, all his clinking preparations; she heard his high- sung "Heaven be with you; pray for me," and the diminishing chorus of Saracen's hoofs on the road. She trembled so much during this torment that she feared to shake the bed. Very weakness at last took pity on her; she swooned asleep again, this time dreamless. The fat nun getting up for Prime, also took enough pity upon her to let her he. So it was that Prosper left Gracedieu.
Through the days of rain and falling leaves, when all the forest was sodden with mist; through the dark days of winter, hushed with snow, she stayed with the nuns, serving them meekly in whatever tasks they set her. She was once more milk-maid and cowherd, laundress again, still-room maid for a season, and in time (being risen so high) tire- woman to the Lady Abbess herself. Short of profession you can get no nearer the choir than that. It was not by her tongue that she won so much favour—indeed she hardly spoke at all; as for pleasantness she never showed more than the ghost of a smile. "I am in bondage," she said to herself, "in a strange house, and no one knows what treasure I hide in my bosom." There she kept her wedding-ring. But if she was subdued, she was undeniably useful, and there are worse things in a servant than to go staidly about her work with collected looks and sober feet, to have no adventurous traffic with the men-servants about the granges or farms, never to see nor hear what it would be inconvenient to know—in a word, to mind her business. In time therefore—and that not a long one as times go—her featness and patience, added to her beauty (for it was not long before the gentler life or the richer possession made her very handsome), won her the regard of everybody in the house.
The Abbess, as I have told you already, took her into high favour before Christmas was over—actually by Epiphany she could suffer no other to dress her or be about her person.
She loved pretty maids, she said, when they were good. Isoult was both, so the Abbess loved her. The two got to know each other, to take each other's measure—to their reciprocal advantage. Isoult was very guarded how she did; what she said was always impersonal, what she heard never went further. The Abbess was pleased. She would often commend her, take her by the chin, turn up her face and kiss her. A frequent strain of her talk was openly against Prosper's ideas: the Abbess thought Prosper a ridiculous youth.
"Child," she would say—and Isoult thrilled at the familiar word (Prosper's!)—"Child, you are too good-looking to be a nun. In due season we must find you a husband. Your knight seemed aghast at the thought that salvation could be that way. Some fine morning the young gentleman will sing a very different note. Meantime he is wide of the mark. For our blessed Lord loveth not as men love (who love as they are made), nor would He have them who are on the earth and of it do otherwise than seek the fairest that it hath to give them. Far from that, but He will draw eye to eye and lip to lip, so both be pure, saying, 'Be fruitful, and plenish the earth.' But to those not so favoured as you are He saith, 'Come, thou shalt be bride of Heaven, and lie down in the rose-garden of the Lamb.' So each loves in her degree, and according to the measure of her being; and it is very well that this should be so, in order that the garners of Paradise may one day be full."
This sort of talk, by no means strange on the old lady's part, sometimes tempted Isoult to tell her story—that she was a wife already. No doubt she would have done it had not a thought forborne her. Prosper did not love her; their relations were not marital—so much she knew as well as anybody. She would never confess her love for him, even to Prosper himself; she could not bring herself to own that she loved and was unloved. She thought that was a disgrace, one that would flood her with shame and Prosper with her, as her husband though only in name. She thought that she would rather die than utter this secret of hers; she believed indeed that she soon would die. That was why she never told the Abbess, and again why she made no effort nor had any temptation to run away and find him out. It seemed to her that her mere appearance before him would be a confession of deep shame.
But she never ceased for an hour to think of him, poor miserable. In bed she would lie for whole watches awake, calling his name over and over again in a whisper. Her ring grew to be a familiar, Prosper's genius. She would take it from her bosom and hold it to her lips, whisper broken words to it, as if she were in her husband's arms. With the same fancy she would try to make it understand how she loved him. That is a thing very few girls so much as know, and still fewer can utter even to their own hearts; and so it proved with her. She was as mute and shamefaced before the ring as before the master of the ring. So she would sigh, put it back in its nest, and hide her face in the pillow to cool her cheeks. At last in tears she would fall asleep. So the days dragged.
In February, when the light drew out, when there was a smell of wet woods in the air, when birds sang again in the brakes, and here and there the bushes facing south budded, matters grew worse for her. She began to be very heavy, her nightly vigils began to tell. She could not work so well, she lagged in her movements, fell into stares and woke with starts, blundered occasionally. She had never been a fanciful girl, having no nurture for such flowering; but now her visions began to be distorted. Her love became her thorn, her side one deep wound. More and more of the night was consumed in watchings; she cried easily and often (for any reason or no reason), and she was apt to fall faint. So February came and went in storms, and March brought open weather, warm winds, a carpet of flowers to the woods. This enervated, and so aggravated her malady: the girl began to droop and lose her good looks. In turn the Abbess, who was really fond of her, became alarmed. She thought she was ill, and made a great pet of her. She got no better.
She was allowed her liberty to go wherever she pleased. In her trouble she used to run into the woods, with a sort of blind sense that physical distress would act counter to her sick soul. She would run as fast as she could: her tears flew behind her like rain. Over and over to herself she whispered Prosper's name as she ran—"Prosper! Prosper le Gai! Prosper! Prosper, my lord!" and so on, just as if she were mad. It was in the course of these distracted pranks that she discovered and fell in love with a young pine tree, slim and straight. She thought that it (like the ring) held the spirit of Prosper, and adored him under its bark. She cut a heart in it with his name set in the midst and her own beneath. Ceremony thereafter became her relief and all she cared about. She did mystic rites before her tree (in which the ring played a part), forgetting herself for the time. She would draw out her ring and look at it, then kiss it. Then it must be lifted up to the length of its chain as she had seen the priest elevate the Host at Mass; she genuflected and fell prone in mute adoration, crying all the time with tears streaming down her face. She was at this time like to dissolve in tears! Without fail the mysteries ended with the Pater Noster, the Ave, a certain Litany which the nuns had taught her, and some gasping words of urgency to the Virgin and Saint Isidore. Love was scourging her slender body at this time truly, and with well-pickled rods.
On a certain day of mid-March,—it would be about the twelfth,—as she was at these exercises about the mystic tree, a tall lady in Lincoln green and silver furs came out of a thicket and saw Isoult, though Isoult saw not her. She stood smiling, watching the poor devotee; then, choosing her time, came quietly behind her, saw the heart and read the names. This made her smile all the more, and think a little. Then she touched Isoult on the shoulder with the effect of bringing her from heaven to dull earth in a trice. By some instinct—she was made of instincts, quick as a bird—the girl concealed her ring before she turned.
"Why are you crying, child?" said this smiling lady.
"Oh ma'am!" cried the girl, half crazy and beside herself with her troubles—"Oh, ma'am! let me tell you a little!"
She told her more than a little: she told her in fact everything—in a torrent of words and tears—except the one thing that might have helped her. She did not say that she was married, though short of that she gulped the shame of loving unloved.
"Poor child!" said the lady when she had heard the sobbed confession, "you are indeed in love. And Prosper le Gai is your lover? And you are Isoult la Desirous? So these notches declare at least: they are yours, I suppose?"
"Yes, indeed, ma'am," said Isoult; "but he is not my lover. He is my master."
"Oh, of course, of course, child," the lady laughed—"they are always the master. If we are the mistress we are lucky. And do you love him so much, Isoult?"
"Yes, ma'am," said she.
"Silly girl, silly girl! How much do you love him now?"
"I could not tell you, ma'am."
"Could you tell him then?"
"Ah, no, no!"
"But you have told him, silly?"
"No, ma'am, indeed."
"It needs few words, you must know."
"They are more than I can dare, ma'am."
"It can be done without words at all. Come here, Isoult. Listen."
She whispered in her ear.
Isoult grew very grave. Her eyes were wide at this minute, all black, and not a shred of colour was left in her face.
"Ah, never!" she cried.
Maulfry laughed heartily.
"You are the dearest little goose in the world!" she cried. "Come and kiss me at once."
Isoult did as she was told. Maulfry did not let her go again.
"Now," she went on, with her arms round the girl's waist and her arch face very near, "now you are to know, Isoult, that I am a wonderful lady. I am friends with half the knights in the kingdom; I have armour of my own, shields and banneroles, and halberts and swords, enough to frighten the Countess Isabel out of her three shires. I could scare the Abbot Richard and the Abbess Mechtild by the lift of a little finger. Oh, I know what I am saying! It so happens that your Prosper is a great friend of mine. I am very fond of him, and of course I must needs be interested in what you tell me. Well now—come with me and find him. Will you? I dare say he is not very far off."
Isoult stared at her without speaking. Doubt, wonder, longing, prayer, quavered in her eyes as each held the throne for a time.
"He told me to stay at Gracedieu," she faltered. It seemed to her that she was maiming her own dream.
"He tells me differently then," said Maulfry, smiling easily; "I suppose even a lover may change his mind."
"Oh! Oh! you have seen him?
"Certainly I have seen him."
"And he says—"
"What do you think he says? Might it not be, Come and find me?"
"He is—ah, he is ill?"
"He is well."
"I know of none."
"I am to leave Gracedieu and come with you, ma'am?"
"Yes. Are you afraid?"
For answer Isoult fell flat down and kissed Maulfry's silver hem.
"I will follow you to death!" she cried.
Maulfry shivered, then arched her brows.
"It will not be so bad as all that," she said. "Come then, we will find the horses."
Isoult looked down confusedly at her grey frock.
"You little jay bird, who's to see you here among the trees? Come with me, I'll set you strutting like a peacock before I've done with you," said Maulfry, in her mocking, good-humoured way.
They went together. Maulfry had hold of Isoult by the hand. Presently they came to an open glade where there were two horses held by a mounted groom. As soon as he saw them coming the groom got off, helped Isoult first, then his mistress. They rode away at a quick trot down the slope; the horses seemed to know the way.
Maulfry was in high spirits. She played a thousand tricks, and enveigled from the brooding girl her most darling thoughts. Before they had made their day's journey she had learnt all that she wanted to know, or rather what she knew already. It confirmed what Galors had told her: she believed his story. For her part Isoult, having once made the plunge, gave her heart its way, bathed it openly in love, and was not ashamed. To talk of Prosper more freely than she had ever dared even to herself, to talk of loving him, of her hopes of winning him! She seemed a winged creature as she flew through the hours of a forest day. It pleased her, too, to think that she was being discreet in saying nothing of her marriage. If Prosper had not thought fit to reveal it to his accomplished friend she must keep the secret by all means—his and hers. Instead of clouding her hopeful visions this gave them an evening touch of mystery. It elevated her by making her an accomplice. He and she were banded together against this all-wise lady. No doubt she would learn it in time—in his time; and then Isoult dreamed (and blushed as she dreamed) of another part, wherein she would snuggle herself into his arm and whisper, "Have I not been wise?" Then she would be kissed, and the lady would laugh to learn how she had been outwitted by a young girl. Ah, what dreams! Isoult's wings took her a far flight when once she had spread them to the sun.
Journeying thus they reached a road by nightfall, and a little House of Access. To go direct to Tortsentier they should have passed this house on the left-hand, for the tower was south-east from Gracedieu. But there was a reason for the circuit, as for every other twist of Maulfry's; the true path would have brought them too nearly upon that by which Prosper and Isoult had come seeking sanctuary. Instead they struck due east, and hit the main road which runs from High March to Market Basing; then by going south for another day they would win Tortsentier. Isoult, of course, as a born woodlander would know the whereabouts of Maulfry's dwelling from any side but the north. She was of South Morgraunt, and therefore knew nothing of the north or middle forest. All this Maulfry had calculated. At the House of Access the girl was actually a day's journey nearer Prosper than she had been at the convent, but she knew nothing of it. Consequently her night's rest refreshed her, waking dreams stayed the night, and left traces of their rosy flames in her cheeks next morning. Maulfry, waking first, looked at her as she lay pillowing her cheek on her arm, with her wild hair spread behind her like a dark cloud. Maulfry, I say, looked at her.
"You are a little beauty, my dear," she thought to herself. "Countess or bastard, you are a little beauty. And there is countess in your blood somewhere, I'll take an oath. Hands and feet, neck and head, tell the story. There was love and a young countess and a hot-brained troubadour went to the making of you, my little lady. A ditch-full of witches could not bring such tokens to a villein. Galors, my dear friend, if I owed nothing to Master le Gai, I doubt if I should help you to this. 'Tis too much, my friend, with an earldom. She needs no crown, pardieu!"