The room had suddenly lost its comfort and become cold and desolate. The lamps were burning low and the coloured hangings were in deep shadow. The storm was knocking fiercely at the lattice.
The monk rose with a shiver to do her bidding, but he was forestalled. Steps sounded on the stairs and the steward entered. The woman in the bed had opened her mouth to upbraid, when something in his dim figure struck her silent.
The old man stumbled forward and fell on his knees beside her.
"Madam, dear madam," he stammered, "ill news has come to this house.... There is a post in from Avesnes.... The young master..."
"Philip," and the woman's voice rose to a scream. "What of my son?"
"The lord has taken away what He gave. He is dead, slain in a scuffle with highway robbers.... Oh, the noble young lord! The fair young knight! Woe upon this stricken house!"
The woman lay very still, white the old man on his knees drifted into broken prayers. Then he observed her silence, scrambled to his feet in a panic, and lit two candles from the nearest brazier. She lay back on the pillows in a deathly faintness, her face drained of blood. Only her tortured eyes showed that life was still in her.
Her voice came at last, no louder than a whisper. It was soft now, but more terrible than the old harshness.
"I follow Philip," it said. "Sic transit gloria.... Call me Arnulf the goldsmith and Robert the scrivener.... Quick, man, quick. I have much to do ere I die."
As the steward hurried out, the Cluniac, remembering his office, sought to offer comfort, but in his bland worldling's voice the consolations sounded hollow. She lay motionless, while he quoted the Scriptures. Encouraged by her docility, he spoke of the certain reward promised by Heaven to the rich who remembered the Church at their death. He touched upon the high duties of his Order and the handicap of its poverty. He bade her remember her debt to the Abbot of Cluny.
She seemed about to speak and he bent eagerly to catch her words.
"Peace, you babbler," she said. "I am done with your God. When I meet Him I will outface Him. He has broken His compact and betrayed me. My riches go to the Burgrave for the comfort of this city where they were won. Let your broken rush of a Church wither and rot!"
Scared out of all composure by this blasphemy, the Cluniac fell to crossing himself and mumbling invocations. The diplomat had vanished and only the frightened monk remained. He would fain have left the room had he dared, but the spell of her masterful spirit held him. After that she spoke nothing....
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Again there was a noise on the stairs and she moved a little, as if mustering her failing strength for the ultimate business. But it was not Arnulf the gold smith. It was Anton, and he shook like a man on his way to the gallows.
"Madam, dear madam," he stammered, again on his knees. "There is another message. One has come from the Bredestreet with word of your lady daughter. An hour ago she has borne a child...A lusty son, madam."
The reply from the bed was laughter.
It began low and hoarse like a fit of coughing, and rose to the high cackling mirth of extreme age. At the sound both Anton and the monk took to praying. Presently it stopped, and her voice came full and strong as it had been of old.
"Mea culpa," it said, "mea maxima culpa. I judged the Sire God over hastily. He is merry and has wrought a jest on me. He has kept His celestial promise in His own fashion. He takes my brave Philip and gives me instead a suckling.... So be it. The infant has my blood, and the race of Forester John will not die. Arnulf will have an easy task. He need but set the name of this new-born in Philip's place. What manner of child is he, Anton? Lusty, you say, and well-formed? I would my arms could have held him.... But I must be about my business of dying. I will take the news to Philip."
Hope had risen again in the Cluniac's breast. It seemed that here was a penitent. He approached the bed with a raised crucifix, and stumbled over the whimpering monkey. The woman's eyes saw him and a last flicker woke in them.
"Begone, man," she cried. "I have done with the world. Anton, rid me of both these apes. And fetch the priest of St. Martin's, for I would confess and be shriven. Yon curate is no doubt a fool, but he serves my jesting God."
CHAPTER 4. EYES OF YOUTH
On the morning of Shrove Tuesday, in the year of our Lord 1249, Sir Aimery of Beaumanoir, the envoy of the most Christian king, Louis of France, arrived in the port of Acre, having made the voyage from Cyprus with a fair wind in a day and a night in a ship of Genoa flying the red and gold banner of the Temple. Weary of the palms and sun-baked streets of Limasol and the eternal wrangling of the Crusading hosts, he looked with favour at the noble Palestine harbour, and the gilt steeples and carven houses of the fair city. From the quay he rode to the palace of the Templars and was admitted straightway to an audience with the Grand Master. For he had come in a business of some moment.
The taste of Cyprus was still in his mouth; the sweet sticky air of the coastlands; the smell of endless camps of packed humanity, set among mountains of barrels and malodorous sprouting forage-stuffs; the narrow streets lit at night by flares of tarry staves; and over all that rotting yet acrid flavour which is the token of the East. The young damoiseau of Beaumanoir had grown very sick of it all since the royal dromonds first swung into Limasol Bay. He had seen his friends die like flies of strange maladies, while the host waited on Hugh of Burgundy. Egypt was but four days off across the waters, and on its sands Louis had ordained that the War of the Cross should begin.
... But the King seemed strangely supine. Each day the enemy was the better forewarned, and each day the quarrels of Templar and Hospitaller grew more envenomed, and yet he sat patiently twiddling his thumbs, as if all time lay before him and not a man's brief life. And now when at long last the laggards of Burgundy and the Morea were reported on their way, Sir Aimery had to turn his thoughts from the honest field of war. Not for him to cry Montjole St. Denis by the Nile. For behold he was now speeding on a crazy errand to the ends of the earth.
There had been strange councils in the bare little chamber of the Most Christian King. Those locusts of the dawn whom men called Tartars, the evil seed of the Three Kings who had once travelled to Bethlehem, had, it seemed, been vouchsafed a glimpse of grace. True, they had plundered and eaten the faithful and shed innocent blood in oceans, but they hated the children of Mahound worse than the children of Christ. On the eve of Christmas-tide four envoys had come from their Khakan, monstrous men with big heads that sprang straight from the shoulder, and arms that hung below the knee, and short thin legs like gnomes. For forty weeks they had been on the road, and they brought gifts such as no eye had seen before—silks like gossamer woven with wild alphabets, sheeny jars of jade, and pearls like moons. Their Khakan, they said, had espoused the grandchild of Prester John, and had been baptized into the Faith. He marched against Bagdad, and had sworn to root the heresy of Mahound from the earth. Let the King of France make a league with him, and between them, pressing from east and west, they would accomplish the holy task. Let him send teachers to expound the mysteries of Cod, and let him send knights who would treat on mundane things. The letter, written in halting Latin and sealed with a device like a spider's web, urged instant warfare with Egypt. "For the present we dwell far apart," wrote the Khakan; "therefore let us both get to business."
So Aimery had been summoned to the King's chamber, where he found his good master, the Count of St. Pol, in attendance with others. After prayer, Louis opened to them his mind. Pale from much fasting and nightly communing with God, his face was lit again with that light which had shone in it when on the Friday after Pentecost the year before he had received at St. Denis the pilgrim's scarf and the oriflamme of France.
"God's hand is in this, my masters," he said. "Is it not written that many shall come from the east and from the west to sit down with Abraham in his kingdom? I have a duty towards those poor folk, and I dare not fail."
There was no man present bold enough to argue with the white fire in the King's eyes. One alone cavilled. He was a Scot, Sir Patrick, the Count of Dunbar, who already shook with the fever which was to be his death.
"This Khakan is far away, sire," he said. "If it took his envoys forty weeks to reach us, it will be a good year before his armies are on the skirts of Egypt. As well make alliance with a star."
But Louis was in missionary mood. "God's ways are not as our ways. To Him a thousand years are a day, and He can make the weakest confound a multitude. This far-away King asks for instruction, and I will send him holy men to fortify his young faith. And this knight, of whom you, my lord of St. Pol, speak well, shall bear the greetings of a soldier."
Louis' face, which for usual was grave like a wise child's, broke into a smile which melted Aimery's heart. He scarcely heard the Count of St. Pol as that stout friend enlarged on his merits. "The knight of Beaumanoir," so ran the testimony, "has more learning than any clerk. In Spain he learned the tongues of the heathen, and in Paris he read deep in their philosophy. Withal he is a devout son of Holy Chutch."
The boy blushed at the praise and the King's kindly regard. But St. Pol spoke truth, for Aimery, young as he was, had travelled far both on the material globe and in the kingdom of the spirit. As a stripling he had made one of the Picardy Nation in the schools of Paris. He had studied the metaphysics of Aristotle under Aquinas, and voyaged strange seas of thought piloted by Roger, the white-bearded Englishman. Thence, by the favour of the Queen-mother, he had gone as squire to Alphonso's court of Castile, where the Spanish doctors had opened windows for him into the clear dry wisdom of the Saracens. He had travelled with an embassy to the Emperor, and in Sicily had talked with the learned Arabs who clustered around the fantastic Frederick. In Italy he had met adventurers of Genoa and Venice who had shown him charts of unknown oceans and maps of Prester John's country and the desert roads that led to Cambaluc, that city farther than the moon, and told him tales of awful and delectable things hidden beyond the dawn. He had returned to his tower by the springs of Canche, a young man with a name for uncanny knowledge, a searcher after concealed matters, negligent of religion and ill at ease in his world.
Then Louis cast his spell over him. He saw the King first at a great hunting in Avesnes and worshipped from afar the slight body, royal in every line of it, and the blue eyes which charmed and compelled, for he divined there a spirit which had the secret of both earth and heaven. While still under the glamour he was given knighthood at the royal hands, and presently was weaned from unwholesome fancies by falling in love. The girl, Alix of Valery, was slim like a poplar and her eyes were grey and deep as her northern waters. She had been a maid of Blanche the Queen, and had a nun's devoutness joined to a merry soul. Under her guiding Aimery made his peace with the Church, and became notable for his gifts to God, for he derived great wealth from his Flemish forbears. Yet the yeast of youth still wrought in him, and by Alix's side at night he dreamed of other lands than his grey-green Picardy. So, when the King took the croix d'outre mer and summoned his knights to the freeing of Jerusalem, Sir Aimery of Beaumanoir was the first to follow. For to him, as to others like him, the goal was no perishable city made by mortal hands, but that beata urbs without foundations which youth builds of its dreams.
He heard mass by the King's side and, trembling with pride, kissed the royal hands and set out on his journey. His last memory of Louis was of a boyish figure in a surcoat of blue samite, gazing tenderly on him as of bidding farewell to a brother.
The Grand Master of the Templars, sitting in a furred robe in a warm upper chamber, for he had an ague on him, spoke gloomily of the mission. He would have preferred to make alliance with the Soldan of Egypt, and by his aid recover the Holy Cities. "What Khakan is this?" he cried, "to whom it is a journey of a lifetime to come nigh? What kind of Christian will you make of men that have blood for drink and the flesh of babes for food, and blow hither and thither on horses like sandstorms? Yours is a mad venture, young sir, and I see no good that can come of it." Nevertheless he wrote letters of commendation to the Prince of Antioch and the Constable of Armenia; and he brought together all those about the place who had travelled far inland to make a chart of the journey.
Aimery heeded little the Templar's forebodings, for his heart had grown high again and romance was kindling his fancy. There was a knuckle of caution in him, for he had the blood of Flemish traders in his veins, though enriched by many nobler streams. "The profit is certain," a cynic had whispered to him ere they left Aigues Mortes. "Should we conquer we shall grow rich, and if we fail we shall go to heaven." The phrase had fitted some of his moods, notably the black ones at Limasol, but now he was all aflame with the quixotry of the Crusader. He neither needed nor sought wealth, nor was he concerned about death. His feet trod the sacred soil of his faith, and up in the hills which rimmed the seaward plain lay all the holiness of Galilee and Nazareth, the three tabernacles built by St. Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, the stone whence Christ ascended into heaven, the hut at Bethlehem which had been the Most High's cradle, the sanctuary of Jerusalem whose every stone was precious. Presently his King would win it all back for God. But for him was the sterner task—no clean blows in the mellay among brethren, but a lone pilgrimage beyond the east wind to the cradle of all marvels. The King had told him that he carried the hopes of Christendom in his wallet; he knew that he bore within himself the delirious expectation of a boy. Youth swelled his breast and steeled his sinews and made a golden mist for his eyes. The new, the outlandish, the undreamed-of!—Surely no one of the Seven Champions had had such fortune! Scribes long after would write of the deeds of Aimery of Beaumanoir, and minstrels would sing of him as they sang of Roland and Tristan.
The Count of Jaffa, whose tower stood on the borders and who was therefore rarely quit of strife, convoyed him a stage or two on his way. It was a slender company: two Franciscans bearing the present of Louis to the Khakan—a chapel-tent of scarlet cloth embroidered inside with pictures of the Annunciation and the Passion; two sumpter mules with baggage; Aimery's squire, a lad from the Boulonnais; and Aimery himself mounted on a Barbary horse warranted to go far on little fodder. The lord of Jaffa turned back when the snows of Lebanon were falling behind on their right. He had nodded towards the mountains.
"There lives the Old Man and his Ishmaelites. Fear nothing, for his fangs are drawn." And when Aimery asked the cause of the impotence of the renowned Assassins, he was told—"That Khakan whom ye seek."
After that they made good speed to the city of Antioch, where not so long before angels from heaven had appeared as knights in white armour to do battle for the forlorn Crusaders. There they were welcomed by the Prince and sent forward into Armenia, guided by the posts of the Constable of that harassed kingdom. Everywhere the fame of the Tartars had gone abroad, and with each mile they journeyed the tales became stranger. Conquerers and warriors beyond doubt, but grotesque paladins for the Cross. Men whispered their name with averted faces, and in the eyes of the travelled ones there was the terror of sights remembered outside the mortal pale. Aimery's heart was stout, but he brooded much as the road climbed into the mountains. Far off in Cyprus the Khakan had seemed a humble devotee at Christ's footstool, asking only to serve and learn; but now he had grown to some monstrous Cyclops beyond the stature of man, a portent like a thundercloud brooding over unnumbered miles. Besides, the young lord was homesick, and had long thoughts of Alix his wife and the son she had borne him. As he looked at the stony hills he remembered that it would now be springtide in Picardy, when the young green of the willows fringed every watercourse and the plovers were calling on the windy downs.
The Constable of Armenia dwelt in a castle of hewn stone about which a little city clustered, with mountains on every side to darken the sky, He was as swarthy as a Saracen and had a long nose like a Jew, but he was a good Christian and a wise ruler, though commonly at odds with his cousin of Antioch. From him Aimery had more precise news of the Khakan.
There were two, said the Constable. "One who rules all Western Asia east of the Sultan's principates. Him they call the Ilkhan for title, and Houlagou for name. His armies have eaten up the Chorasmians and the Muscovites and will presently bite their way into Christendom, unless God change their heart. By the Gospels, they are less and more than men. Swinish drinkers and gluttons, they rise from their orgies to sweep the earth like a flame. Here inside our palisade of rock we wait fearfully."
"And the other?" Aimery asked.
"Ah, he is as much the greater as the sun is greater than a star. Kublai they name him, and he is in some sort the lord of Houlagou. I have never met the man who has seen him, for he dwells as far beyond the Ilkhan as the Ilkhan is far from the Pillars of Hercules. But rumour has it that he is a clement and beneficent prince, terrible in battle, but a lover of peace and all good men. They tell wonders about his land of Cathay, where strips of parchment stamped with the King's name take the place of gold among the merchants, so strong is that King's honour. But the journey to Cambaluc, the city of Kublai, would fill a man's lifetime."
One April morning they heard mass after the odd Syrian fashion, and turned their faces eastward. The Constable's guides led them through the mountains, up long sword-cuts of valleys and under frowning snowdrifts, or across stony barrens where wretched beehive huts huddled by the shores of unquiet lakes. Presently they came into summer, and found meadows of young grass and green forests on the hills' skirts, and saw wide plains die into the blueness of morning. There the guides left them, and the little cavalcade moved east into unknown anarchies.
The sky grew like brass over their heads, and the land baked and rutted with the sun's heat. It seemed a country empty of man, though sometimes they came on derelict ploughlands and towns of crumbling brick charred and glazed by fire. In sweltering days they struggled through flats where the grass was often higher than a horse's withers, and forded the tawny streams which brought down the snows of the hills. Now and then they would pass wandering herdsmen, who fled to some earth-burrow at their appearance. The Constable had bidden them make for the rising sun, saying that sooner or later they would foregather with the Khakan's scouts. But days passed into weeks and weeks into months, and still they moved through a tenantless waste. They husbanded jealously the food they had brought, but the store ran low, and there were days of empty stomachs and light heads. Unless, like the King of Babylon, they were to eat grass in the fashion of beasts, it seemed they must soon famish.
But late in summertime they saw before them a wall of mountain, and in three days climbed by its defiles to a pleasant land, where once more they found the dwellings of man. It appeared that they were in a country where the Tartars had been for some time settled and which had for years been free of the ravages of war. The folks were hunters and shepherds who took the strangers for immortal beings and offered food on bent knees like oblations to a god. They knew where the Ilkhan dwelt, and furnished guides for each day's journey. Aimery, who had been sick of a low fever in the plains, and had stumbled on in a stupor torn by flashes of homesickness, found his spirits reviving. He had cursed many times the futility of his errand. While the Franciscans were busied with their punctual offices and asked nothing of each fresh day but that it should be as prayerful as the last, he found a rebellious unbelief rising in his heart. He was travelling roads no Christian had ever trod, on a wild-goose errand, while his comrades were winning fame in the battle-front. Alas! that a bright sword should rust in these barrens!
But with the uplands peace crept into his soul and some of the mystery of his journey. It was a brave venture, whether it failed or no, for he had already gone beyond the pale even of men's dreams. The face of Louis hovered before him. It needed a great king even to conceive such a mission.... He had been sent on a king's errand too. He stood alone for France and the Cross in a dark world. Alone, as kings should stand, for to take all the burden was the mark of kingship. His heart bounded at the thought, for he was young. His father had told him of that old Flanders grandam, who had sworn that his blood came from proud kings.
But chiefly he thought of Louis with a fresh warmth of love. Surely the King loved him, or he would not have chosen him out of many for this fateful work. He had asked of him the ultimate service, as a friend should. Aimery reconstructed in his inner vision all his memories of the King: the close fair hair now thinning about the temples; the small face still contoured like a boy's; the figure strung like a bow; the quick, eager gestures; the blue dove's eyes, kindly and humble, as became one whose proudest title was to be a "sergeant of the Crucified." But those same eyes could also steel and blaze, for his father had been called the Lion, his mother Semiramis, and his grandsire Augustus. In these wilds Aimery was his vicegerent and bore himself proudly as the proxy of such a monarch.
The hour came when they met the Tartar outposts. A cloud of horse swept down on them, each man riding loose with his hand on a taut bowstring. In silence they surrounded the little party, and their leader made signs to Aimery to dismount. The Constable had procured for him a letter in Tartar script, setting out the purpose of his mission. This the outpost could not read, but they recognised some word among the characters, and pointed it out to each other with uncouth murmurings. They were strange folk, with eyes like pebbles and squat frames and short, broad faces, but each horse and man moved in unison like a centaur.
With gestures of respect the Tartars signalled to the Christians to follow, and led them for a day and a night southward down a broad valley, where vines and fruit trees grew and peace dwelt in villages. They passed encampments of riders like themselves, and little scurries of horsemen would ride athwart their road and exchange greetings. On the second morning they reached a city, populous in men but not in houses. For miles stretched lines of skin tents, and in the heart of them by the river's edge stood a great hall of brick, still raw from the builders.
Aimery sat erect on his weary horse with the hum of an outlandish host about him, himself very weary and very sick at heart. For the utter folly of it all had come on him like the waking from a dream. These men were no allies of the West. They were children of the Blue Wolf, as the Constable had said, a monstrous brood, swarming from the unknown to blight the gardens of the world. A Saracen compared to such was a courteous knight.. .. He thought of Kublai, the greater Khakan. Perhaps in his court might dwell gentlehood and reason. But here was but a wolf pack in the faraway guise of man.
They gave the strangers food and drink—halfcooked fish and a porridge of rye and sour spiced milk, and left them to sleep until sundown. Then the palace guards led them to the presence.
The hall was immense, dim and shapeless like the inside of a hill, not built according to the proportions of mankind. Flambeaux and wicks floating in great basins of mutton fat showed a dense concourse of warriors, and through an aisle of them Aimery approached the throne. In front stood a tree of silver, springing from a pedestal of four lions whose mouths poured streams of wine, syrup, and mead into basins, which were emptied by a host of slaves, the cup-bearers of the assembly. There were two thrones side by side, on one of which sat a figure so motionless that it might have been wrought of jasper. Weighted with a massive head-dress of pearls and a robe of gold brocade, the little grandchild of Prester John seemed like a doll on which some princess had lavished wealth and fancy. The black eyelashes lay quiet on her olive cheeks, and her breathing did not stir her stiff, jewelled bodice.
"I have seen death in life," thought Aimery as he shivered and looked aside.
Houlagou, her husband, was a tall man compared with the others. His face was hairless, and his mouth fine and cruel. His eyes were hard like agates, with no light in them. A passionless power lurked in the low broad forehead, and the mighty head sunk deep between the shoulders; but the power not of a man, but of some abortion of nature, like storm or earthquake. Again Aimery shivered. Had not the prophets foretold that one day Antichrist would be reborn in Babylon?
Among the Ilkhan's scribes was a Greek who spoke a bastard French and acted as interpreter. King Louis' letter was read, and in that hall its devout phrases seemed a mockery. The royal gifts were produced, the tent-chapel with its woven pictures and the sacred utensils. The half-drunk captains fingered them curiously, but the eyes from the throne scarcely regarded them.
"These are your priests," said the Khakan "Let them talk with my priests and then go their own way. I have little concern with priestcraft."
Then Aimery spoke, and the Greek with many haltings translated. He reminded Houlagou of the Tartar envoys who had sought from his King instruction in the Christian faith and had proclaimed his baptism.
"Of that I know nothing," was the answer. "Maybe 'twas some whim of my brother Kublai. I have all the gods I need."
With a heavy heart Aimery touched on the proposed alliance, the advance on Bagdad, and the pinning of the Saracens between two fires. He spoke as he had been ordered, but with a bitter sense of futility, for what kind of ally could be looked for in this proud pagan?
The impassive face showed no flicker of interest.
"I am eating up the Caliphs," he said, "but that food is for my own table. As for allies, I have need of none. The children of the Blue Wolf do not make treaties."
Then he spoke aside to his captains, and fixed Aimery with his agate eyes. It was like listening to a voice from a stone.
"The King of France has sent you to ask for peace. Peace, no doubt, is good, and I will grant it of my favour. A tribute will be fixed in gold and silver, and while it is duly paid your King's lands will be safe from my warriors. Should the tribute fail, France will be ours. I have heard that it is a pleasant place."
The Ilkhan signed that the audience was over. The fountains of liquor ceased to play, and the drunken gathering stood up with a howling like wild beasts to acclaim their King. Aimery went back to his hut, and sat deep in thought far into the night.
He perceived that the shadows were closing in upon him. He must get the friars away, and with them a message to his master. For himself there could be no return, for he could not shame his King who had trusted him. In the bestial twilight of this barbaric court the memory of Louis shone like a star. He must attempt to reach Kublai, of whom men spoke well, though the journey cost him his youth and his life. It might mean years of wandering, but there was a spark of hope in it. There, in the bleak hut, he suffered the extreme of mental anguish A heavy door seemed to have closed between him and all that he held dear. He fell on his knees and prayed to the saints to support his loneliness. And then he found comfort, for had not God's Son suffered even as he, and left the bright streets of Paradise for loneliness among the lost?
Next morning he faced the world with a clearer eye. It was not difficult to provide for the Franciscans. They, honest men, understood nothing save that the Tartar king had not the love of holy things for which they had hoped. They explained the offices of the Church as well as they could to ribald and uncomprehending auditors, and continued placidly in their devotions. As it chanced, a convoy was about to start for Muscovy, whence by ship they might come to Constantinople. The Tartars made no objection to their journey, for they had some awe of these pale men and were glad to be quit of foreign priestcraft. With them Aimery sent a letter in which he told the King that the immediate errand had been done, but that no good could be looked for from this western Khakan. "I go," he said, "to Kublai the Great, in Cathay, who has a heart more open to God. If I return not, know, Sire, that I am dead in your most loving service, joyfully and pridefully as a Christian knight dies for the Cross, his King, and his lady." He added some prayers on behalf of the little household at Beaumanoir and sealed it with his ring. It was the ring he had got from his father, a thick gold thing in which had been cut his cognisance of three lions' heads.
This done, he sought an audience with the Ilkhan, and told him of his purpose. Houlagou did not speak for a little, and into his set face seemed to creep an ill-boding shadow of a smile. "Who am I," he said at length, "to hinder your going to my brother Kublai? I will give you an escort to my eastern borders."
Aimery bent his knee and thanked him, but from the courtiers rose a hubbub of mirth which chilled his gratitude. He was aware that he sailed on very desperate waters.
Among the Tartars was a recreant Genoese who taught them metal work and had once lived at the court of Cambaluc. The man had glimmerings of honesty, and tried hard to dissuade Aimery from the journey. "It is a matter of years," he told him, "and the road leads through deserts greater than all Europe and over mountains so high and icy that birds are frozen in the crossing. And a word in your ear, my lord. The Ilkhan permits few to cross his eastern marches. Beware of treason, I say. Your companions are the blood-thirstiest of the royal guards."
But from the Genoese he obtained a plan of the first stages of the road, and one morning in autumn he set out from the Tartar city, his squire from the Boulonnais by his side, and at his back a wild motley of horsemen, wearing cuirasses of red leather stamped with the blue wolf of Houlagou's house.
October fell chill and early in those uplands, and on the fourth day they came into a sprinkling of snow. At night round the fires the Tartars made merry, for they had strong drink in many skin bottles, and Aimery was left to his own cold meditations. If he had had any hope, it was gone now, for the escort made it clear that he was their prisoner Judging from the chart of the Genoese, they were not following any road to Cambaluc, and the sight of the sky told him that they were circling round to the south. The few Tartar words he had learned were not enough to communicate with them, and in any case it was clear that they would take no orders from him. He was trapped like a bird in the fowler's hands. Escape was folly, for in an hour their swift horses would have ridden him down. He had thought he had grown old, but the indignity woke his youth again, and he fretted passionately. If death was his portion, he longed for it to come cleanly in soldier fashion.
One night his squire disappeared. The Tartars, when he tried to question them, only laughed and pointed westward. That was the last he heard of the lad from the Boulonnais.
And then on a frosty dawn, when the sun rose red-rimmed over the barrens, he noted a new trimness in his escort. They rode in line, and they rode before and behind him, so that his captivity was made patent. On a ridge far to the west he saw a great castle, and he knew the palace of Houlagou. His guess had been right; he had been brought back by a circuit to his starting-point.
Presently he was face to face with the Ilkhan, who was hunting. The Greek scribe was with him, so the meeting had been foreseen. The King's face was dark with the weather and his stony eyes had a glow in them.
"O messenger of France," he said, "there is a little custom of our people that I had forgotten. When a stranger warrior visits us it is our fashion to pit him in a bout against one of our own folk, so that if he leaves us alive he may speak well of his entertainment."
"I am willing," said Aimery. "I have but my sword for weapon."
"We have no lack of swordsmen," said the Ilkhan. "I would fain see the Frankish way of it."
A man stepped out from the ring, a great square fellow shorter by a head than Aimery, and with a nose that showed there was Saracen blood in him. He had a heavy German blade, better suited for fighting on horseback than on foot. He had no buckler, and no armour save a headpiece, so the combatants were fairly matched.
It was a contest of speed and deftness against a giant's strength, for a blow from the great weapon would have cut deep into a man's vitals. Aimery was weary and unpractised, but the clash of steel gave life to him. He found that he had a formidable foe, but one who lacked the finer arts of the swordsman. The Tartar wasted his strength in the air against the new French parries and guards, though he drew first blood and gashed his opponent's left arm. Aimery's light blade dazzled his eyes, and presently when breath had grown short claimed its due. A deft cut on the shoulder paralysed the Tartar's sword arm, and a breaststroke brought him to his knees.
"Finish him," said the Ilkhan.
"Nay, sire," said Aimery, "it is not our custom to slay a disabled foe."
Houlagou nodded to one of his guards, who advanced swinging his sword. The defeated man seemed to know his fate, and stretched out his neck. With a single blow his head rolled on the earth.
"You have some skill of the sword, Frenchman," said the Ilkhan. "Hear, now, what I have decreed concerning you. I will have none of this journey to my brother Kublai. I had purposed to slay you, for you have defied my majesty. You sought to travel to Cathay instead of bearing my commands forthwith to your little King. But I am loath to kill so stout a warrior. Swear to me allegiance, and you shall ride with me against the Caliphs."
"And if I refuse?" Aimery asked.
"Then you die ere sundown."
"I am an envoy, sire, from a brother majesty, and of such it is the custom to respect the persons."
"Tush!" said the Ilkhan, "there is no brother majesty save Kublai. Between us we rule the world."
"Hear me, then," said Aimery. The duel had swept all cobwebs from his brain and doubts from his heart. "I am a knight of the Sire Christ and of the most noble King Louis, and I can own no other lord. Do your work, King. I am solitary among your myriads, but you cannot bend me."
"So be it," said Houlagou.
"I ask two boons as one about to die. Let me fall in battle against your warriors. And let me spend the hours till sundown alone, for I would prepare myself for my journey."
"So be it," said Houlagou, and turned to his hounds.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The damoiseau of Beaumanoir sat on a ridge commanding for fifty miles the snow-sprinkled uplands. The hum of the Tartars came faint from a hollow to the west, but where he sat he was in quiet and alone.
He had forgotten the ache of loss which had preyed on him.... His youth had not been squandered. The joy of young manhood which had been always like a tune in his heart had risen to a nobler song. For now, as it seemed to him, he stood beside his King, and had found a throne in the desert. Alone among all Christian men he had carried the Cross to a new world, and had been judged worthy to walk in the footprints of his captain Christ. A great gladness and a great humility possessed him.
He had ridden beyond the ken of his own folk, and no tale of his end would ever be told in that northern hall of his when the hearth-fire flickered on the rafters. That seemed small loss, for they would know that he had ridden the King's path, and that can have but the one ending.... Most clear in his memory now were the grey towers by Canche, where all day long the slow river made a singing among the reeds. He saw Alix his wife, the sun on her hair, playing in the close with his little Philip. Even now in the pleasant autumn weather that curly-pate would be scrambling in the orchard for the ripe apples which his mother rolled to him. He had thought himself born for a high destiny. Well, that destiny had been accomplished. He would not die, but live in the son of his body, and his sacrifice would be eternally a spirit moving in the hearts of his seed. He saw the thing clear and sharp, as if in a magic glass. There was a long road before the house of Beaumanoir, and on the extreme horizon a great brightness.
Now he remembered that he had always known it, known it even when his head had been busy with ardent hopes. He had loved life and had won life everlasting. He had known it when he sought learning from wise books. When he kept watch by his armour in the Abbey church of Corbie and questioned wistfully the darkness, that was the answer he had got. In the morning, when he had knelt in snow-white linen and crimson and steel before the high altar and received back his sword from God, the message had been whispered to his heart. In the June dawn when, barefoot, he was given the pilgrim's staff and entered on his southern journey, he had had a premonition of his goal. But now what had been dim, like a shadow in a mirror, was as clear as the colours in a painted psaltery. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," he sighed, as his King was wont to sigh. For he was crossing the ramparts of the secret city.
He tried to take the ring from his finger that he might bury it, for it irked him that his father's jewel should fall to his enemies. But the wound had swollen his left hand, and he could not move the ring.
He was looking westward, for that way lay the Holy Places, and likewise Alix and Picardy. His minutes were few now, for he heard the bridles of the guards, as they closed in to carry him to his last fight.... He had with him a fragment of rye-cake and beside him on the ridge was a little spring. In his helmet he filled a draught, and ate a morsel. For, by the grace of the Church to the knight in extremity, he was now sealed of the priesthood, and partook of the mystic body and blood of his Lord....
Somewhere far off there was a grass fire licking the hills, and the sun was setting in fierce scarlet and gold. The hollow of the sky seemed a vast chapel ablaze with lights, like the lifting of the Host at Candlemas.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The tale is not finished. For, as it chanced, one Maffeo of Venice, a merchant who had strayed to the court of Cambaluc and found favour there, was sent by Kublai the next year on a mission to Europe, and his way lay through the camp of Houlagou. He was received with honour, and shown the riches of the Tartar armies. Among other things he heard of a Frankish knight who had fallen in battle with Houlagou's champions, and won much honour, they said, having slain three. He was shown the shrivelled arm of this knight, with a gold ring on the third finger. Maffeo was a man of sentiment, and begged for and was given the poor fragment, meaning to accord it burial in consecrated ground when he should arrive in Europe. He travelled to Bussorah, whence he came by sea to Venice. Now at Venice there presently arrived the Count of St. Pol with a company of Frenchmen, bound on a mission to the Emperor. Maffeo, of whom one may still read in the book of Messer Marco Polo, was become a famous man in the city, and strangers resorted to his house to hear his tales and see his treasures. From him St. Pol learned of the dead knight, and, reading the cognisance on the ring, knew the fate of his friend. On his return journey he bore the relic to Louis at Paris, who venerated it as the limb of a saint; and thereafter took it to Beaumanoir, where the Lady Alix kissed it with proud tears. The arm in a rich casket she buried below the chapel altar, and the ring she wore till her death.
CHAPTER 5. THE MAID
The hostel of the Ane Raye poured from its upper and lower windows a flood of light into the gathering August dusk. It stood, a little withdrawn among its beeches, at a cross-roads, where the main route southward from the Valois cut the highway from Paris to Rheims and Champagne. The roads at that hour made ghostly white ribbons, and the fore-court of dusty grasses seemed of a verdure which daylight would disprove. Weary horses nuzzled at a watertrough, and serving-men in a dozen liveries made a bustle around the stables, which formed two sides of the open quadrangle. At the foot of the inn signpost beggars squatted—here a leper whining monotonously, there lustier vagrants dicing for supper. At the main door a knot of young squires stood talking in whispers—impatient, if one judged from the restless clank of metal, but on duty, as appeared when a new-comer sought entrance and was brusquely denied. For in an upper room there was business of great folk, and the commonalty must keep its distance.
That upper room was long and low-ceiled, with a canopied bed in a corner and an oaken table heaped with saddle-bags. A woman sat in a chair by the empty hearth, very bright and clear in the glow of the big iron lantern hung above the chimney. She was a tall girl, exquisitely dressed, from the fine silk of her horned cap to the amethyst buckles on her Spanish shoes. The saddle-bags showed that she was fresh from a journey, but her tirewoman's hands must have been busy, for she bore no marks of the road.
Her chin was in her hands, and the face defined by the slim fingers was small and delicate, pale with the clear pallor of perfect health, and now slowly flushing to some emotion. The little chin was firm, but the mouth was pettish. Her teeth bit on a gold chain, which encircled her neck and held a crystal reliquary. A spoiled pretty child, she looked, and in a mighty ill temper.
The cause of it was a young man who stood disconsolately by a settle a little way out of the lantern's glow. The dust of the white roads lay on his bodyarmour and coated the scabbard of his great sword. He played nervously with the plume of a helmet which lay on the settle, and lifted his face now and then to protest a word. It was an honest face, ruddy with wind and sun and thatched with hair which his mislikers called red but his friends golden.
The girl seemed to have had her say. She turned wearily aside, and drew the chain between her young lips with a gesture of despair.
"Since when have you become Burgundian, Catherine?" the young man asked timidly. The Sieur Guy de Laval was most notable in the field but he had few arts for a lady's chamber.
"I am no Burgundian," she said, "but neither am I Armagnac. What concern have we in these quarrels? Let the Kings who seek thrones do the fighting. What matters it to us whether knock-kneed Charles or fat Philip reign in Paris?"
The young man shuddered as if at a blasphemy "This is our country of France. I would rid it of the English and all foreign bloodsuckers."
"And your way is to foment the quarrel among Frenchmen? You are a fool, Guy. Make peace with Burgundy and in a month there will be no Goddams left in France."
"It is the voice of La Tremouille."
"It is the voice of myself, Catherine of Beaumanoir. And if my kinsman of La Tremouille say the same, the opinion is none the worse for that. You meddle with matters beyond your understanding.... But have done with statecraft, for that is not the heart of my complaint. You have broken your pledged word, sir. Did you not promise me when you set out that you would abide the issue of the Bourbon's battle before you took arms? Yet I have heard of you swashbuckling in that very fight at Rouvray, and only the miracle of God brought you out with an unbroken neck."
"The Bourbon never fought," said de Laval sullenly. "Only Stewart and his Scots stood up against Fastolf's spears. You would not have me stay idle in face of such odds. I was not the only French knight who charged. There was La Hire and de Saintrailles and the Bastard himself."
"Yet you broke your word," was the girl's cold answer. "Your word to me. You are forsworn, sir."
The boy's face flushed deeply. "You do not understand, my sweet Catherine. There have been mighty doings in Touraine, which you have not heard of in Picardy. Miracles have come to pass. Orleans has been saved, and there is now a great army behind Charles. In a little while we shall drive the English from Paris, and presently into the sea. There is hope now and a clear road for us Frenchmen. We have heard the terrible English 'Hurra' grow feeble, and 'St. Denis' swell like a wind in heaven. For God has sent us the Maid...."
The girl had risen and was walking with quick, short steps from hearth to open window.
"Tell me of this maid," she commanded.
"Beyond doubt she is a daughter of God," said de Laval.
"Beyond doubt. But I would hear more of her."
Her tone was ominously soft, and the young man was deceived by it. He launched into a fervid panegyric of Jeanne of Arc. He told of her doings at Orleans, when her standard became the oriflamme of France, and her voice was more stirring than trumpets; of her gentleness and her wisdom. He told of his first meeting with her, when she welcomed him in her chamber. "She sent for wine and said that soon she would drink it with me in Paris. I saw her mount a plunging black horse, herself all in white armour, but unhelmeted. Her eyes were those of a great captain, and yet merciful and mild like God's Mother. The sight of her made the heart sing like a May morning. No man could fear death in her company. They tell how..."
But he got no farther. The girl's face was pale with fury, and she tore at her gold neck-chain till it snapped.
"Enough of your maid!" she cried. "Maid, forsooth! The shame of her has gone throughout the land. She is no maid, but a witch, a light-of-love, a blasphemer. By the Rood, Sir Guy, you choose this instant between me and your foul peasant. A daughter of Beaumanoir does not share her lover with a crack-brained virago."
The young man had also gone pale beneath his sunburn. "I will not listen," he cried. "You blaspheme a holy angel."
"But listen you shall," and her voice quivered with passion. She marched up to him and faced him, her slim figure as stiff as a spear. "This very hour you break this mad allegiance and conduct me home to Beaumanoir. Or, by the Sorrows of Mary, you and I will never meet again."
De Laval did not speak, but stood gazing sadly at the angry loveliness before him. His own face had grown as stubborn as hers.
"You do not know what you ask," he said at length. "You would have me forswear my God, and my King, and my manhood."
"A fig for such manhood," she cried with ringing scorn. "If that is a man's devotion, I will end my days in a nunnery. I will have none of it, I tell you. Choose, my fine lover choose between me and your peasant."
The young man looked again at the blazing eyes and then without a word turned slowly and left the room. A moment later the sound of horses told that a company had taken the road.
The girl stood listening till the noise died away. Then she sank all limp in a chair and began to cry. There was wrath in her sobs, and bitter self-pity. She had made a fine tragedy scene, but the glory of it was short. She did not regret it, but an immense dreariness had followed on her heroics. Was there ever, she asked herself, a more unfortunate lady?
And she had been so happy. Her lover was the bravest gallant that ever came out of Brittany; rich too, and well beloved, and kin to de Richemont, the Constable. In the happy days at Beaumanoir he was the leader in jousts and valiances, the soul of hunting parties, the lightest foot in the dance. The Beaumanoirs had been a sleepy stock, ever since that Sir Aimery, long ago, who had gone crusading with Saint Louis and ridden out of the ken of mortals. Their wealth had bought them peace, and they had kept on good terms alike with France and Burgundy, and even with the unruly captains of England. Wars might sweep round their marches, but their fields were unravaged. Shrewd, peaceable folk they were, at least the males of the house. The women had been different, for the daughters of Beaumanoir had been notable for beauty and wit and had married proudly, till the family was kin to half the nobleness of Artois and Picardy and Champagne. There was that terrible great-aunt at Coucy, and the aunts at Beaulieu and Avranches, and the endless cousinhood stretching as far south as the Nivernais.... And now the main stock had flowered in her, the sole child of her father, and the best match to be found that side of the Loire.
She sobbed in the chagrin of a new experience. No one in her soft cushioned life had ever dared to gainsay her. At Beaumanoir her word was law. She had loved its rich idleness for the power it gave her. Luxurious as she was, it was no passive luxury that she craved, but the sense of mastery, of being a rare thing set apart. The spirit of the women of Beaumanoir burned fiercely in her.. . She longed to set her lover in the forefront of the world. Let him crusade if he chose, but not in a beggars' quarrel. And now the palace of glass was shivered, and she was forsaken for a peasant beguine. The thought set her pacing to the window.
There seemed to be a great to-do without. A dozen lanterns lit up the forecourt, and there was a tramping of many horses. A shouting, too, as if a king were on the move. She hurriedly dried her eyes and arranged her dress, tossing the reliquary and its broken chain on the table. Some new guests; and the inn was none too large. She would have the landlord flayed if he dared to intrude on the privacy which she had commanded. Nay, she would summon her people that instant and set off for home, for her company was strong enough to give security in the midnight forests.
She was about to blow a little silver whistle to call her steward when a step at the door halted her. A figure entered, a stranger. It was a tall stripling, half armed like one who is not for battle but expects a brush at any corner of the road. A long surcoat of dark green and crimson fell stiffy as if it covered metal, and the boots were spurred and defended in front with thin plates of steel. The light helm was open and showed a young face. The stranger moved wearily as if from a long journey.
"Good even to you, sister," said the voice, a musical voice with the broad accent of Lorraine. "Help me to get rid of this weariful harness."
Catherine's annoyance was forgotten in amazement. Before she knew what she did her fingers were helping the bold youth to disarm. The helm was removed, the surcoat was stripped, and the steel corslet beneath it. With a merry laugh the stranger kicked off the great boots which were too wide for his slim legs.
He stretched himself, yawning, and then laughed again. "By my staff," he said, "but I am the weary one." He stood now in the full glow of the lantern, and Catherine saw that he wore close-fitting breeches of fine linen, a dark pourrpoint, and a tunic of blue. The black hair was cut short like a soldier's, and the small secret face had the clear tan of one much abroad in wind and sun. The eyes were tired and yet merry, great grey eyes as clear and deep as a moorland lake.... Suddenly she understood. It may have been the sight of the full laughing lips, or the small maidenly breasts outlined by the close-fitting linen. At any rate she did not draw back when the stranger kissed her cheek.
"Ah, now I am woman again," said the crooning voice. The unbuckled sword in its leather sheath was laid on the table beside the broken reliquary. "Let us rest side by side, sister, for I long for maids' talk."
But now Catherine started and recoiled. For on the blue tunic she had caught sight of an embroidered white dove bearing in its beak the scroll De par le Roy du ciel. It was a blazon the tale of which had gone through France.
"You are she!" she stammered. "The witch of Lorraine!"
The other looked wonderingly at her. "I am Jeanne of Arc," she said simply. "She whom they call the Pucelle. Do you shrink from me, sister?"
Catherine's face was aflame. She remembered her lost lover, and the tears scarcely dry. "Out upon you!" she cried. "You are that false woman that corrupt men's hearts." And again her fingers sought the silver whistle.
Jeanne looked sadly upon her. Her merry eyes had grown grave.
"I pray you forbear. I do not heed the abuse of men, but a woman's taunts hurt me. They have spoken falsely of me, dear sister. I am no witch, but a poor girl who would fain do the commands of God."
She sank on the settle with the relaxed limbs of utter fatigue. "I was happy when they told me there was a lady here. I bade Louis and Raymond and the Sieur d'Aulon leave me undisturbed till morning, for I would fain rest. Oh, but I am weary of councils! They are all blind. They will not hear the plain wishes of God.... And I have so short a time! Only a year, and now half is gone!"
The figure had lost all its buoyancy, and become that of a sad, overwrought girl. Catherine found her anger ebbing and pity stealing into her heart. Could this tired child be the virago against whom she had sworn vengeance? It had none of a woman's allure' no arts of the light-of-love. Its eyes were as simple as a boy's.... She looked almost kindly at the drooping Maid.
But in a moment the languor seemed to pass from her. Her face lit up, as to the watcher in the darkness a window in a tower suddenly becomes a square of light. She sank on her knees, her head thrown back, her lips parted, the long eyelashes quiet on her cheeks. A sudden stillness seemed to fall on everything. Catherine held her breath, and listened to the beating of her heart.
Jeanne's lips moved, and then her eyes opened. She stood up again, her face entranced and her gaze still dwelling on some hidden world... Never had Catherine seen such happy radiance.
"My Brothers of Paradise spoke with me. They call me sometimes when I am sad. Their voices said to me, 'Daughter of God, go forward. We are at your side.'"
Catherine trembled. She seemed on the edge of a world of which in all her cosseted life she had never dreamed, a world of beautiful and terrible things. There was rapture in it, and a great awe. She had forgotten her grievances in wonder.
"Do not shrink from me," said the voice which seemed to have won an unearthly sweetness. "Let us sit together and tell our thoughts. You are very fair. Have you a lover?"
The word brought the girl to earth. "I had a lover, but this night I dismissed him. He fights in your company, and I see no need for this war."
Jeanne's voice was puzzled. "Can a man fight in a holier cause than to free his country?"
"The country..." But Catherine faltered. Her argument with Guy now seemed only pettishness.
"You are a great lady," said Jeanne, "and to such as you liberty may seem a little thing. You are so rich that you need never feel constraint. But to us poor folk freedom is life itself. It sweetens the hind's pottage, and gives the meanest an assurance of manhood.... Likewise it is God's will. My Holy Ones have told me that sweet France shall be purged from bondage. They have bidden me see the King crowned and lead him to Paris.... After that they have promised me rest."
She laid an arm round Catherine's neck and looked into her eyes.
"You are hungry, sister mine," she said.
The girl started. For the eyes were no longer those of a boy, but of a mother—very wise, very tender. Her own mother had died so long ago that she scarcely remembered her. A rush of longing came over her for something she had never known. She wanted to lay her head on that young breast and weep.
"You are hungry—and yet I think you have been much smiled on by fortune. You are very fair, and for most women to be beautiful is to be happy. But you are not content, and I am glad of it. There is a hunger that is divine...."
She broke off, for the girl was sobbing. Crumpled on the floor, she bent her proud head to the Maid's lap "What must I do?" she cried piteously. "The sight of you makes me feel my rottenness. I have been proud of worthless things and I have cherished that wicked pride that I might forget the doubts knocking on my heart. You say true, I am not content. I shall never be content, I am most malcontent with myself.... Would to God that like you I had been born a peasant!"
The tragic eyes looked up to find the Maid laughing—a kind, gentle merriment. Catherine flushed as Jeanne took her tear-stained face in her hands.
"You are foolish, little sister. I would I had been born to your station. My task would have been easier had I been Yoland of Sicily or that daughter of the King of Scots from whom many looked for the succour of France. Folly, folly! There is no virtue in humble blood. I would I had been a queen! I love fine clothes and rich trappings and the great horse which d'Alencon gave me. God has made a brave world and I would that all His people could get the joy of it. I love it the more because I have only a little time in it."
"But you are happy," said the girl, "and I want such happiness."
"There is no happiness," said the Maid, "save in doing the will of God our Father."
"But I do not know His will.... I am resolved now. I will take the vows and become a religious, and then I shall find peace. I am weary of all this confusing world."
"Foolish one," and Jeanne played with the little curls which strayed around Catherine's ear. "You were not born for a nunnery. Not that way God calls you."
"Show me His way," the girl implored.
"He shows His way privily to each heart, and His ways are many. For some the life of devout contemplation, but not for you, sister. Your blood is too fiery and your heart too passionate.... You have a lover? Tell me his name."
Docilely Catherine whispered it, and Jeanne laughed merrily.
"Sir Guy! My most loyal champion. By my staff, you are the blessed maid. There is no more joyous knight in all the fields of France."
"I do not seek wedlock. Oh, it is well for you who are leading armies and doing the commands of God. Something tells me that in marriage I shall lose my soul."
The girl was on her knees with her hands twined. "Let me follow you," she cried. "I will bring a stout company behind me. Let me ride with you to the freeing of France. I promise to be stalwart."
The Maid shook her head gently.
"Then I take the vows." The obstinate little mouth had shut and there were no tears now in the eyes.
"Listen, child," and Jeanne took the suppliant hands in hers. "It is true that God has called me to a holy task. He has sent His angels to guide me and they talk with me often. The Lady of Fierbois has given me a mystic sword. I think that in a little while this land will be free again.... But I shall not see it, for God's promise is clear, and for me it does not give length of days. I did not seek this errand of mine. I resisted the command, till God was stern with me and I submitted with bitter tears. I shall die a maid, and can never know the blessedness of women. Often at night I weep to think that I shall never hold a babe next my heart."
The face of Jeanne was suddenly strained with a great sadness. It was Catherine's turn to be the comforter. She sat herself beside her and drew her head to her breast.
"For you I see a happier fate—a true man's wife—the mother of sons. Bethink you of the blessedness. Every wife is like the Mother of God—she has the hope of bearing a saviour of mankind. She is the channel of the eternal purpose of Heaven. Could I change—could I change! What fortunate wife would envy a poor maid that dwells in the glare of battle?... Nay, I do not murmur. I do God's will and rejoice in it. But I am very lonely."
For a little there was silence, an ecstatic silence. Something hard within Catherine melted and she felt a gush of pity. No longer self-pity, but compassion for another. Her heart grew suddenly warm. It was as if a window had been opened in a close room to let in air and landscape.
"I must rest, for there is much ado to-morrow. Will you sleep by me, for I have long been starved of a woman's comradeship?"
In the great canopied bed the two girls lay till morning. Once in the darkness Catherine started and found her arms empty. Jeanne was kneeling by the window, her head thrown back and the moonlight on her upturned face. When she woke in the dawn the Maid was already up, trussing the points of her breeches and struggling with her long boots. She was crooning the verse of a ballad:
"Serais je nonette' Crois que non—"
and looking with happy eyes at the cool morning light on the forest.
"Up, sleepy-head," she cried. "Listen to the merry trampling of the horses. I must start, if I would spare the poor things in the noon. Follow me with your prayers, for France rides with me. I love you, sweet sister; Be sure I will hasten to you when my work is done."
So the Maid and her company rode off through the woods to Compiegne, and a brooding and silent Catherine took the north road to Picardy.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The promise was kept. Once again Catherine saw and had speech of Jeanne. It was nearly two years later, when she sat in a May gloaming in the house of Beaumanoir, already three months a bride. Much had happened since she had ridden north from the inn at the forest cross-roads. She had summoned de Laval to her side, and the lovers had been reconciled. Her father had died in the winter and the great fortune and wide manors of the family were now her own. Her lover had fought with Jeanne in the futile battles of the spring, but he had been far away when in the fatal sortie at Compiegne the Maid was taken by her enemies. All the summer of that year he had made desperate efforts at rescue, but Jeanne was tight in English hands, and presently was in prison at Rouen awaiting judgment, while her own king and his false councillors stirred not hand or foot to save her. Sir Guy had hurled himself on Burgundy, and with a picked band made havoc of the eastern roads, but he could not break the iron cordon of Normandy. In February they had been wed, but after that Beaumanoir saw him little, for he was reading Burgundy a lesson in the Santerre.
Catherine sat at home, anxious, tremulous, but happy. A new-made wife lives in a new world, and though at times she grieved for the shame of her land, her mind was too full of housewifely cares, and her heart of her husband, for long repining. But often the thought of Jeanne drove a sword into her contentment.... So when she lifted her eyes from her embroidery and saw the Maid before her, relief and gladness sent her running to greet her.
Long afterwards till she was very old Catherine would tell of that hour. She saw the figure outlined against a window full of the amethyst sky of evening. The white armour and the gay surcoat were gone.
Jeanne was still clad like a boy in a coarse grey tunic and black breeches, but her boots did not show any dust of the summer roads. Her face was very pale, as if from long immurement, and her eyes were no more merry. They shone instead with a grave ardour of happiness, which checked Catherine's embrace and set her heart beating.
She walked with light steps and kissed the young wife's cheek—a kiss like thistledown.
"You are free?" Catherine stammered. Her voice seemed to break unwillingly in a holy quiet.
"I am free," the Maid answered. "I have come again to you as I promised. But I cannot bide long. I am on a journey."
"You go to the King?" said Catherine.
"I go to my King."
The Maid's hand took Catherine's, and her touch was like the fall of gossamer. She fingered the girl's broad ring which had come from distant ancestors, the ring which Sir Aimery of Beaumanoir had worn in the Crusades. She raised it and pressed it to her.
Catherine's limbs would not do her bidding. She would fain have risen in a hospitable bustle, but she seemed to be held motionless. Not by fear, but by an exquisite and happy awe. She remembered afterwards that from the Maid's rough clothes had come a faint savour of wood-smoke, as from one who has been tending a bonfire in the autumn stubble.
"God be with you, lady, and with the good knight, your husband. Remember my word to you, that every wife is like Mary the Blessed and may bear a saviour of mankind. The road is long, but the ways of Heaven are sure."
Catherine stretched out her arms, for a longing so fierce had awoke in her that it gave her power to move again. Never in her life had she felt such a hunger of wistfulness. But Jeanne evaded her embrace. She stood poised as if listening.
"They are calling me. I go. Adieu, sweet sister."
A light shone in her face which did not come from the westering sun. To Catherine there was no sound of voices, but the Maid seemed to hear and answer. She raised her hand as if in blessing and passed out.
Catherine sat long in an entranced silence. Waves of utter longing flowed over her, till she fell on her knees and prayer passionately to her saints, among whom not the least was that grey-tunicked Maid whose eyes seemed doorways into heaven. Her tirewoman found her asleep on her faldstool.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Early next morning there came posts to Beaumanoir, men on weary horses with a tragic message. On the day before, in the market-place of Rouen, the chief among the daughters of God had journeyed through the fire to Paradise.
CHAPTER 6. THE WOOD OF LIFE
The Lady Catherine de Laval, in her own right Countess of Beaumanoir, and mistress of fiefs and manors, rights of chase and warren, mills and hospices, the like of which were not in Picardy, was happy in all things but her family. Her one son had fallen in his youth in an obscure fray in Guienne, leaving two motherless boys who, after her husband's death, were the chief business of life to the Countess Catherine. The elder, Aimery, grew to manhood after the fashion of the men of her own house, a somewhat heavy country gentleman, much set upon rustic sports, slow at learning, and averse alike from camps and cities. The ambition of the grandmother found nothing to feed upon in the young lord of Beaumanoir. He was kind, virtuous and honest, but dull as a pool on a winter's highway.
Catherine would fain have had the one youth a soldier and the other a saint, and of the two ambitions she most cherished the latter. The first made shipwreck on the rustic Aimery, and therefore the second burned more fiercely. She had the promise from the saints that her line had a great destiny, and the form of it she took to be sanctitude. For, all her married days she had ruled her life according to the canons of God, fasting and praying, cherishing the poor, tending the afflicted, giving of her great wealth bountifully to the Church. She had a name for holiness as far as the coasts of Italy. Surely from the blood of Beaumanoir one would arise to be in dark times a defender of the Faith, a champion of Christ whom after death the Church should accept among the beatified. Such a fate she desired for her seed more hungrily than any Emperor's crown.
In the younger, Philip, there was hope. He had been an odd child, slim and pale while Aimery was large and ruddy, shy where his brother was bold and bold where he was shy. He was backward in games and unready in a quarrel, but it was observed that he had no fear of the dark, or of the Green Lady that haunted the river avenue. Father Ambrose, his tutor, reported him of quick and excellent parts, but marred by a dreaminess which might grow into desidia that deadly sin. He had a peculiar grace of body and a silken courtesy of manner which won hearts. His grey eyes, even as a small boy, were serious and wise. But he seemed to dwell aloof, and while his brother's moods were plain for all to read, he had from early days a self-control which presented a mask to his little world. With this stoicism went independence. Philip walked his own way with a gentle obstinacy. "A saint, maybe," Father Ambrose told his grandmother. "But the kind of saint that the Church will ban before it blesses."
To the old dame of Beaumanoir the child was the apple of her eye; and her affection drew from him a tenderness denied to others. But it brought no confidences. The dreaming boy made his own world, which was not, like his grandmother's, one of a dark road visited rarely by angels, with heaven as a shining city at the end of it; or, like his brother's, a green place of earthy jollity. It was as if the Breton blood of the Lavals and Rohans had brought to the solid stock of Beaumanoir the fairy whimsies of their dim ancestors. While the moors and woodlands were to Aimery only places to fly a hawk or follow a stag, to Philip they were a wizard land where dreams grew. And the mysteries of the Church were also food for his gold fancy, which by reshaping them stripped them of all terrors. He was extraordinarily happy, for he had the power to make again each fresh experience in a select inner world in which he walked as king, since he was its creator.
He was a child of many fancies, but one especially stayed with him. When still very small, he slept in a cot in his grandmother's room, the walls of which were hung with tapestry from the Arras looms. One picture caught his eye, for the morning sun struck it, and when he woke early it glowed invitingly before him. It represented a little river twining about a coppice. There was no figure in the piece, which was bounded on one side by a great armoire, and on the other by the jamb of the chimney; but from extreme corner projected the plume of a helmet and the tip of a lance. There was someone there; someone riding towards the trees. It grew upon Philip that that little wood was a happy place, most happy and desirable. He fancied himself the knight, and he longed to be moving up the links of the stream. He followed every step of the way, across the shallow ford, past the sedges of a backwater, between two clumps of willows, and then over smooth green grass to the edge of the wood. But he never tried to picture what lay inside. That was sacred—even from his thoughts.
When he grew older and was allowed to prowl about in the scriptorium of the Abbey of Montmirail which lay by the Canche side, he found his wood again. It was in a Psaltery on which a hundred years before some Flemish monk had lavished his gold and vermilion. Opposite the verse of Psalm xxiii., "In loco pascuae," was a picture almost the same as that in the bedroom arras. There were the river, the meadows, and the little wood, painted in colours far brighter than the tapestry. Never was such bloom of green or such depth of blue. But there was a difference. No lance or plume projected from the corner. The traveller had emerged from cover, and was walking waist-deep in the lush grasses. He was a thin, nondescript pilgrim, without arms save a great staff like the crozier of a Bishop. Philip was disappointed in him and preferred the invisible knight, but the wood was all he had desired. It was indeed a blessed place, and the old scribe had known it, for a scroll of gold hung above it with the words "Sylva Vitae."
At the age of ten the boy had passed far beyond Father Ambrose, and was sucking the Abbey dry of its learning, like some second Abelard. In the cloisters of Montmirail were men who had a smattering of the New Knowledge, about which Italy had gone mad, and, by the munificence of the Countess Catherine, copies had been made by the Italian stationarii of some of the old books of Rome which the world had long forgotten. In the Abbey library, among a waste of antiphonaries and homilies and monkish chronicles, were to be found texts of Livy and Lucretius and the letters of Cicero. Philip was already a master of Latin, writing it with an elegance worthy of Niccolo the Florentine. At fourteen he entered the college of Robert of Sorbonne, but found little charm in its scholastic pedantry. But in the capital he learned the Greek tongue from a Byzantine, the elder Lascaris, and copied with his own hand a great part of Plato and Aristotle. His thirst grew with every draught of the new vintage. To Pavia he went and sat at the feet of Lorenzo Vallo. The company of Pico della Mirandola at Florence sealed him of the Platonic school, and like his master he dallied with mysteries and had a Jew in his house to teach him Hebrew that he might find a way of reconciling the Scriptures and the classics, the Jew and the Greek. From the verses which he wrote at this time, beautifully turned hexameters with a certain Lucretian cadence, it is clear that his mind was like Pico's, hovering about the borderland of human knowledge, clutching at the eternally evasive. Plato's Banquet was his gospel, where the quest of truth did not lack the warmth of desire. Only a fragment remains now of the best of his poems, that which earned the praise of Ficino and the great Lorenzo, and it is significant that the name of the piece was "The Wood of Life."
At twenty Philip returned to Beaumanoir after long wanderings. He was the perfect scholar who had toiled at books and not less at the study of mankind. But his well-knit body and clear eyes showed no marks of bookishness, and Italy had made him a swordsman. A somewhat austere young man, he had kept himself unspotted in the rotting life of the Italian courts, and though he had learned from them suavity had not lost his simplicity. But he was more aloof than ever. There was little warmth in the grace of his courtesy, and his eyes were graver than before. It seemed that they had found much, but had had no joy of it, and that they were still craving. It was a disease of the time and men called it aegritudo. "No saint," the aged Ambrose told the Countess. "Virtuous, indeed, but not with the virtue of the religious. He will never enter the Church. He has drunk at headier streams." The Countess was nearing her end. All her days, for a saint, she had been a shrewd observer of life, but with the weakening of her body's strength she had sunk into the ghostly world which the Church devised as an ante-room to immortality. Her chamber was thronged with lean friars like shadows. To her came the Bishop of Beauvais, once a star of the Court, but now in his age a grim watch-dog of the Truth. To him she spoke of her hopes for Philip.
"An Italianate scholar!" cried the old man. "None such shall pollute the Church with my will. They are beguiled by such baubles as the holy Saint Gregory denounced, poetarum figmenta sive deliramenta. If your grandson, madame, is to enter the service of God he must renounce these pagan follies."
The Bishop went, but his words remained. In the hour of her extremity the vision of Catherine was narrowed to a dreadful antagonism of light and darkness—God and Antichrist—the narrow way of salvation and a lost world. She was obsessed by the peril of her darling. Her last act must be to pluck him from his temptress. Her mood was fanned by the monks who surrounded her, narrow men whose honesty made them potent.
The wan face on the bed moved Philip deeply. Tenderness filled his heart, and a great sense of alienation, for the dying woman spoke a tongue he had forgotten. Their two worlds were divided by a gulf which affection could not bridge. She spoke not with her own voice but with that of her confessors when she pled with him to do her wishes.
"I have lived long," she said, "and know that the bread of this world is ashes. There is no peace but in God. You have always been the child of my heart, Philip, and I cannot die at ease till I am assured of your salvation.... I have the prevision that from me a saint shall be born. It is God's plain commandment to you. Obey, and I go to Him with a quiet soul."
For a moment he was tempted. Surely it was a little thing this, to gladden the dying. The rich Abbey of Montmirail was his for the taking, and where would a scholar's life be more happily lived than among its cool cloisters? A year ago, when he had been in the mood of seeing all contraries but as degrees in an ultimate truth, he might have assented. But in that dim chamber, with burning faces around him and the shadow of death overhead, he discovered in himself a new scrupulousness. It was the case of Esau; he was bidden sell his birthright for pottage, and affection could not gloze over the bargain.
"I have no vocation," he said sadly. "I would fain do the will of God, but God must speak His will to each heart, and He does not speak thus to me."
There was that in the words which woke a far-away memory of her girlhood. Once another in a forest inn had spoken thus to her. She stretched out her hand to him, and he covered it with kisses.
But in the night the priests stirred her fears again, and next morning there was another tragic pleading, from which Philip fled almost in tears. Presently he found himself denied her chamber, unless he could give assurance of a changed mind. And so the uneasy days went on, till in a dawn of wind amid a great praying and chanting the soul of the Countess Catherine passed, and Aimery reigned in Beaumanoir.
The place had grown hateful to Philip and he made ready to go. For him in his recalcitrancy there was only a younger son's portion, the little seigneury of Eaucourt, which had been his mother's. The good Aimery would have increased the inheritance, but Philip would have none of it. He had made his choice, and to ease his conscience must abide strictly by the consequences. Those days at Beaumanoir had plucked him from his moorings. For the moment the ardour of his quest for knowledge had burned low. He stifled in the air of the north, which was heavy with the fog of a furious ignorance. But his mind did not turn happily to the trifling of his Italian friends. There was a tragic greatness about such as his grandmother, a salt of nobility which was lacking among the mellow Florentines. Truth, it seemed to him, lay neither with the old Church nor the New Learning, and not by either way could he reach the desire of his heart.
Aimery bade him a reluctant farewell. "If you will not keep me company here, I go to the wars. At Beaumanoir I grow fat. Ugh, this business of dying chills me." And then with a very red face he held out a gold ring. "Take it, Philip. She cherished it, and you were her favourite and should wear it. God knows I have enough."
Likewise he presented him with a little vellum-bound book. "I found this yesterday, and you being the scholar among us should have it. See, the grandmother's name is written within."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It was a bright May morning when Philip, attended by only two lackeys as became a poor man, rode over the bridge of Canche with eyes turned southward. In the green singing world the pall lifted from his spirits. The earth which God had made was assuredly bigger and better than man's philosophies. "It would appear," he told himself, "that like the younger son in the tale, I am setting out to look for fortune."
At an inn in the city of Orleans he examined his brother's gift. It was a volume of careful manuscript, entitled Imago Mundi, and bearing the name of one Pierre d'Ailly, who had been Bishop of Cambray when the Countess Catherine was a child. He opened it and read of many marvels—how that the world was round, as Pythagoras held, so that if a man travelled west he would come in time to Asia where the sun rose. Philip brooded over the queer pages, letting his fancy run free, for he had been so wrapped up in the mysteries of man's soul that he had forgotten the mysteries of the earth which is that soul's place of pilgrimage. He read of cities with silver walls and golden towers waiting on the discoverer, and of a river on whose banks "virescit sylva vitae." And at that phrase he fell to dreaming of his childhood, and a pleasant unrest stirred in his heart. "Aimery has given me a precious viaticum," he said.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
He travelled by slow stages into Italy, for he had no cause for haste. At Pavia he wandered listlessly among the lecture halls. What had once seemed to him the fine gold of eloquence was now only leaden rhetoric. In his lodging at Florence he handled once again his treasures—his books from Ficino's press; his manuscripts, some from Byzantium yellow with age, some on clean white vellum new copied by his order; his busts and gems and intaglios. What had become of that fervour with which he had been used to gaze on them? What of that delicious world into which, with drawn curtains and a clear lamp, he could retire at will? The brightness had died in the air.
He found his friends very full of quarrels. There was a mighty feud between two of them on the respective merits of Cicero and Quintilian as lawgivers in grammar, and the air was thick with libels. Another pair wrangled in public over the pre-eminence of Scipio and Julius Caesar; others on narrow points of Latinity. There was a feud among the Platonists on a matter of interpretation, in which already stilettos had been drawn. More bitter still was the strife about mistresses—kitchen-wenches and courtesans, where one scholar stole shamelessly from the other and decked with names like Leshia and Erinna.... Philip sickened at what he had before tolerated, for he had brought back with him from the north a quickened sense of sin. Maybe the Bishop of Beauvais had been right. What virtue was there in this new knowledge if its prophets were apes and satyrs! Not here grew the Wood of Life. Priapus did not haunt its green fringes.
His mind turned towards Venice. There the sea was, and there men dwelt with eyes turned to spacious and honourable quests, not to monkish hells and heavens or inward to unclean hearts. And in Venice in a tavern off the Merceria he spoke with destiny.
It was a warm evening, and, having dined early, he sought the balcony which overlooked the canal. It was empty but for one man who sat at a table with a spread of papers before him on which he was intently engaged. Philip bade him good evening, and a face was raised which promptly took his fancy. The stranger wore a shabby grey doublet, but he had no air of poverty, for round his neck hung a massive chain of gold, and his broad belt held a richly chased dagger. He had unbuckled his sword, and it lay on the table holding down certain vagrant papers which fluttered in the evening wind. His face was hard and red like sandstone, and around his eyes were a multitude of fine wrinkles. It was these eyes that arrested Philip. They were of a pale brown as if bleached by weather and gazing over vast spaces; cool and quiet and friendly, but with a fire burning at the back of them. The man assessed Philip at a glance, and then, as if liking what he found in him, smiled so that white furrows appeared in his tanned cheeks. With a motion of his hand he swept aside his papers and beckoned the other to sit with him. He called on the drawer to bring a flask of Cyprus.
"I was about to have my evening draught," he said. "Will you honour me with your company, sir?"
The voice was so pleasant that Philip, who was in a mood to shun talk, could not refuse. He sat down by the board, and moved aside a paper to make room for the wine. He noticed that it was a map.
The Bishop of Cambray had made him curious about such things. He drew it to him, and saw that it was a copy of Andrea Bianco's chart, drawn nearly half a century before, showing the Atlantic Sea with a maze of islands stretching westwards.
The other shook his head. "A poor thing and out of date. Here," and he plucked a sheet from below the rest, "here is a better, which Fra Mauro of this city drew for the great prince, Henry of Portugal."
Philip looked at the map, which showed a misshapen sprawling Africa, but with a clear ocean way round the south of it. His interest quickened. He peered at the queer shapes in the dimming light.
"Then there is a way to the Indies by sea?"
"Beyond doubt. I myself have turned the butt of Africa.... If these matters interest you? But the thought of that dry land has given me an African thirst. He, drawer!"
He filled his glass from a fresh bottle. "'Twas in June four years back. I was in command of a caravel in the expedition of Diaz. The court of Lisbon had a fit of cold ague and we sailed with little goodwill; therefore it was our business to confound the doubters or perish. Already our seamen had reached the mouth of that mighty river they called the Congo, and clearly the butt of Africa could not be distant. We had the course of Cam and Behaim to guide us thus far, but after that was the darkness."
The man's face had the intent look of one who remembers with passion. He told of the struggle to cross the Guinea Deep instead of hugging the shore; of blue idle days of calm when magic fish flew aboard and Leviathan wallowed so near that the caravels were all but overwhelmed by the wave of him; of a storm which swept the decks and washed away the Virgin on the bows of the Admiral's ship; of landfall at last in a place where the forests were knee deep in a muddy sea, strange forests where the branches twined like snakes; of a going ashore at a river mouth full of toothed serpents and giant apes, and of a fight with Behemoth among the reeds. Then a second storm blowing from the east had flung them seaward, and for weeks they were out of sight of land, steering by strange stars. They had their magnets and astrolabes, but it was a new world they had entered, and they trusted God rather than their wits. At last they turned eastward.
"What distance before the turn?" Philip asked.
"I know not. We were far from land and no man can measure a course on water."
"Nay, but the ancients could," Philip cried, and he explained how the Romans had wheels of a certain diameter fixed to their ships' sides which the water turned in its passing, and which flung for each revolution a pebble into a tally-box.
The other's eyes widened. "A master device! I would hear more of it. What a thing it is to have learning. We had only the hour-glass and guesswork."
Then he told how on a certain day the crews would go no farther, being worn out by storms, for in those seas the tides were like cataracts and the waves were mountains. The admiral, Bartholomew Diaz, was forced to put about with a heavy heart, for he believed that a little way to the east he should find the southern cape of Africa. He steered west by north, looking for no land till Guinea was sighted. "But on the second morning we saw land to the northward, and following it westward came to a mighty cape so high that the top was in the clouds. There was such a gale from the east that we could do no more than gaze on it as we scudded past. Presently, still keeping land in sight, we were able to bend north again, and when we came into calm waters we captains went aboard the admiral's ship and knelt and gave thanks to God for His mercies. For we, the first of mortals, had rounded the butt of Africa and prepared the sea-road to the Indies."
"A vision maybe."
"Nay, it was no vision. I returned there under mild skies, when it was no longer a misty rock, but a green mountain. We landed, and set up a cross and ate the fruits and drank the water of the land. Likewise we changed its name from the Cape of Storms, as Diaz had dubbed it, to the Bona Esperanza, for indeed it seemed to us the hope of the world."
"And beyond it?"
"Beyond it we found a pleasant country, and would doubtless have made the Indies, if our ships had not grown foul and our crews mutinous from fear of the unknown. It is clear to me that we must establish a port of victualling in that southern Africa before we can sail the last stage to Cathay."
The man spoke modestly and simply as if he were talking of a little journey from one village to another. Something in his serious calm powerfully caught Philip's fancy. In all his days he had never met such a one.
"I have not your name, Signor," he said.
"They call me Battista de Cosca, a citizen of Genoa, but these many years a wanderer. And yours?"
Philip gave it and the stranger bowed. The de Lavals were known as a great house far beyond the confines of France.
"You contemplate another voyage?"
The brown man nodded. "I am here on the quest of maps, for these Venetians are the princes of mapmaking. Then I sail again."
A sudden longing had taken Philip. It was as if a bright strange world had been spread before him compared with which the old was tarnished and dingy.
Battista shook his head. "Not Cathay. To go there would be only to make assurance of that which we already know. I have shown the road: let others plan its details and build hostelries. For myself I am for a bolder venture."
The balcony was filling up. A noisy group of young men were chattering at one table, and at others some of the merchants from the Merceria were at wine. But where the two sat it was quiet and dusky, though without on the canal the sky made a golden mirror. Philip could see his companion's face in the reflected light, and it reminded him of the friars who had filled the chamber of his dying grandmother. It was strained with a steadfast ardour.
Battista leaned his elbows on the board and his eyes searched the other's.
"I am minded to open my heart to you," he said. "You are young and of a noble stock. Likewise you are a scholar. I am on a mission, Sir Philip—the loftiest, I think, since Moses led Israel over the deserts. I am seeking a promised land. Not Cathay, but a greater. I sail presently, not the African seas, but the Sea of Darkness, the Mare Atlanticum." He nodded towards Bianco's map. "I am going beyond the Ultimate Islands."
"Listen," he went on, and his voice fell very low and deep. "I take it we live in these latter days of which the prophets spoke. I remember a monk in Genoa who said that the Blessed Trinity ruled in turn, and that the reign of the Father was accomplished and that of the Son nearing its close; and that now the reign of the Spirit was at hand. It may have been heresy—I am no scholar—but he pointed a good moral. For, said he, the old things pass away and the boundaries of the world are shifting. Here in Europe we have come to knowledge of salvation, and brought the soul and mind of man to an edge and brightness like a sword. Having perfected the weapon, it is now God's will that we enter into possession of the new earth which He has kept hidden against this day, and He has sent His Spirit like a wind to blow us into those happy spaces.... Now, mark you, sir, this earth is not a flat plain surrounded by outer darkness, but a sphere hung in the heavens and sustained by God's hand. Therefore if a man travel east or west he will, if God prosper him, return in time to his starting-point."
The speaker looked at Philip as if to invite contradiction, but the other nodded.
"It is the belief of the best sailors," Battista went on; "it is the belief of the great Paolo Toscanelli in this very land of Italy."
"It was the belief of a greater than he. The ancients—"
"Ay, what of your ancients?" Battista asked eagerly.
Philip responded with a scholar's zest. "Four centuries before our Lord's birth Aristotle taught the doctrine, from observing in different places the rise and setting of the heavenly bodies. The sages Eratosthenes, Hipparchus and Ptolemy amplified the teaching. It is found in the poetry of Manilius and Seneca, and it was a common thought in the minds of Virgil and Ovid and Pliny. You will find it in St. Augustine, and St. Isidore and Beda, and in many of the moderns. I myself have little knowledge of such things, but on the appeal to high authority your doctrine succeeds.'
"What a thing is learning!" Battista exclaimed with reverence. "Here have I and such as I been fumbling in the dark when the great ones of old saw clearly!... It follows, then, that a voyage westward will bring a man to Cathay?"
"Assuredly. But how will he return? If the earth is a sphere, his course will be a descent, and on his way back he will have to climb a great steep of waters."
"It is not so," said Battista vigorously. "Though why it is not so I cannot tell. Travelling eastward by land there is no such descent, and in this Mediterranean sea of ours one can sail as easily from Cadiz to Egypt as from Egypt to Cadiz. There is a divine alchemy in it which I cannot fathom, but the fact stands."
"Then you would reach Cathay by the west?"
"Not Cathay." The man's voice was very earnest. "There is a land between us and Cathay, a great islandland beyond the Seven Cities of Antillia."
"Cipango," said Philip, who had read Marco Polo's book in the Latin version published a year or two before.
"Nay, not Cipango. On this side Cipango. Of Cipango the Venetians have told us much, but the land I seek is not Cipango."
He drew closer to Philip and spoke low. "There was a Frenchman, a Rochellois he is dead these ten years—but I have spoken with him. He was whirled west by storms far beyond Antillia, and was gripped by a great ocean stream and carried to land. What think you it was? No less than Hy-Brasil. There he found men, broad-faced dusky men, with gentle souls, and saw such miracles as have never been vouchsafed to mortals. 'Twas not Cipango or Cathay' for there were no Emperors or cities, but a peaceful race dwelling in innocence. The land was like Eden, bringing forth five harvests in the year, and vines and all manner of fruits grew without tillage. Tortorel was the man's name, and some thought him mad, but I judged differently. I have talked with him and I have copied his charts. I go to find those Fortunate Islands."
"I have friends. There is a man of my own city—Cristoforo Colombo, they call him. He is a hard man and a bitter, but a master seaman, and there is a fire in him that will not be put out. And there may be others."
His steadfast burning eyes held Philip's.
"And you—what do you seek?" he asked.
Philip was aware that he had come to a cross roads in life. The easy path he had planned for himself was barred by his own nature. Something of his grandmother's blood clamoured within him for a sharper air than the well-warmed chamber of the scholar. This man, chance met in a tavern, had revealed to him his own heart.
"I am looking for the Wood of Life," he said simply and was amazed at his words.
Battista stared at him with open mouth, and then plucked feverishly at his doublet. From an inner pocket he produced a packet rolled in fine leather, and shook papers on the table. One of these was a soiled and worn slip of parchment, covered with an odd design. "Look," he said hoarsely. "Tortorel's map!"
It showed a stretch of country, apparently a broad valley running east to a seashore. Through it twined a river and on both sides were hills dotted with trees. The centre seemed to be meadows, sown with villages and gardens. In one crook of the stream lay a little coppice on which many roads converged, and above it was written the words "Sylva Vitae."
"It is the finger of God," said Battista. "Will you join me and search out this Wood of Life?"
At that moment there was a bustle at the door giving on the main room of the tavern. Lights were being brought in and a new company were entering. They talked in high-pitched affected voices and giggled like bona-robas. There were young men with them, dressed in the height of the fashion; a woman or two, and a man who from the richness of his dress seemed to be one of the princely merchants who played Maecenas to the New Learning. But what caught Philip's sight was a little group of Byzantines who were the guests of honour. They wore fantastic headdresses and long female robes, above which their flowing dyed beards and their painted eyebrows looked like masks of Carnival time. After Battista's gravity their vain eyes and simpering tones seemed an indecent folly. These were the folk he had called friends, this the life he had once cherished. Assuredly he was well rid of it.
He grasped Battista's hand.
"I will go with you," he said, "over the edge of the world."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
As it happened Philip de Laval did not sail with Columbus in that first voyage which brought him to San Salvador in the Bahamas. But he and Battista were in the second expedition, when the ship under the command of the latter was separated by a storm from her consorts, and driven on a westerly course when the others had turned south. It was believed to be lost, and for two years nothing was heard of its fate. At the end of that time a tattered little vessel reached Bordeaux, and Philip landed on the soil of Franc. He had a strange story to tell. The ship had been caught up by a current which had borne it north for the space of fifteen days till landfall was made on the coast of what we now call South Carolina. There it had been beached in an estuary, while the crew adventured inland. The land was rich enough, but the tribes were not the gentle race of Battista's imagining. There had been a savage struggle for mastery, till the strangers made alliances and were granted territory between the mountains and the sea. But they were only a handful and Philip was sent back for further colonists and for a cargo of arms and seeds and implements.