"What do you, young man," he asked in a high thin voice, "cumbering my gate with those nags of yours? Would you sell that mail you have on the pack-horse? If so I do not deal in such stuff, though it seems good of its kind. So get on with it elsewhere."
"Nay, sir," I answered, "I have naught to sell who in this hive of traders seek one bee and cannot find him."
"Hive of traders! Truly the great merchants of the Cheap would be honoured. Have they stung you, then, already, young bumpkin from the countryside, for such I write you down? But what bee do you seek? Stay, now, let me guess. Is it a certain old knave named John Grimmer, who trades in gold and jewels and other precious things and who, if he had his deserts, should be jail?"
"Aye, aye, that's the man," I said.
"Surely he also will be honoured," exclaimed the old fellow with a cackle. "He's a friend of mine and I will tell him the jest."
"If you would tell me where to find him it would be more seasonable."
"All in good time. But first, young sir, where did you get that fine armour? If you stole it, it should be better hid."
"Stole it!" I began in wrath. "Am I a London chapman——?"
"I think not, though you may be before all is done, for who knows what vile tricks Fortune will play us? Well, if you did not steal it, mayhap you slew the wearer and are a murderer, for I see black blood on the steel."
"Murderer!" I gasped.
"Aye, just as you say John Grimmer is a knave. But if not, then perchance you slew the French knight who wore it on Hastings Hill, ere you loosed the three arrows at the mouth of the cave near Minnes Rock."
Now I gaped at him.
"Shut your mouth, young man, lest those teeth of yours should fall out. You wonder how I know? Well, my friend John Grimmer, the goldsmith knave, has a magic crystal which he purchased from one who brought it from the East, and I saw it in that crystal."
As he spoke, as though by chance he pushed back the hood that covered his head, revealing a wrinkled old face with a mocking mouth which drooped at one corner, a mouth that I knew again, although many years had passed since I looked upon it as a boy.
"You are John Grimmer!" I muttered.
"Yes, Hubert of Hastings, I am that knave himself. And now tell me, what did you do with the gold piece I gave you some twelve summers gone?"
Then I was minded to lie, for I feared this old man. But thinking better of it, I answered that I had spent it on a dog. He laughed outright and said:
"Pray that it is not an omen and that you may not follow the gold piece to the dogs. Well, I like you for speaking the truth when you are tempted to do otherwise. Will you be pleased to shelter for a while beneath the roof of John Grimmer, the merchant knave?"
"You mock me, sir," I stammered.
"Perhaps, perhaps! But there's many a true word spoken in jest; for if you do not know it now you will learn it afterwards that we are all knaves, each in his own fashion, who if we do not deceive others, at least deceive ourselves, and I perhaps more than most. Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
Then, waiting for no reply, he drew a silver whistle from under his dusty robe and blew it, whereon—so swiftly that I marvelled whether he were waiting—a stout-built serving man appeared to whom he said:
"Take these horses to the stable and treat them as though they were my own. Unload the pack beast, and when it has been cleaned, set the mail and the other gear upon it in the room that has been made ready for this young master, Hubert of Hastings, my nephew."
Without a word the man led off the horses.
"Be not afraid," chuckled John Grimmer, "for though I am a knave, dog does not eat dog and what is yours is safe with me and those who serve me. Now enter," and he led the way into the house, opening the iron-studded oak door with a key from his pouch.
Within was a shop where I saw precious things such as furs and gold ornaments lying about.
"The crumbs to catch the birds, especially the ladybirds," he said with a sweep of his hand, then took me through the shop into a passage and thence to a room on the right. It was not a large room but more wonderfully furnished than any I had ever seen. In the centre was a table of black oak with cunningly carved legs, on which stood cups of silver and a noble centre piece that seemed to be of gold. From the ceiling, too, hung silver lamps that already had been lit, for the evening was closing in, and gave a sweet smell. There was a hearth also with what was rare, a chimney, upon which burned a little fire of logs, while the walls were hung with tapestries and broidered silks.
Whilst I stared about me, my uncle took off his cloak beneath which he was clothed in some rich but rather threadbare stuff, only retaining the velvet skullcap that he wore. Then he bade me do the same, and when I had laid my outer garment aside, looked me all over in the lamplight.
"A proper young man," he muttered to himself, "and I'd give all I have to be his age and like him. I suppose those limbs and sinews of his came from his father, for I was ever thin and spare, as was my father before me. Nephew Hubert, I have heard all the tale of your dealings with the Frenchmen, on whom be God's curse, at Hastings yonder; and I say that I am proud of you, though whether I shall stay so is another matter. Come hither."
I obeyed, and taking me by my curling hair with his delicate hand, he drew down my head and kissed me on the brow, muttering, "Neither chick nor child for me and only this one left of the ancient blood. May he do it honour."
Then he motioned to me to be seated and rang a little silver bell that stood upon the table. As in the case of the man without, it was answered instantly from which I judged that Master Grimmer was well served. Before the echoes of the bell died away a door opened, the tapestry swung aside, and there appeared two most comely serving maids, tall and well-shaped both of them, bearing food.
"Pretty women, Nephew, no wonder that you look at them," he said when they had gone away to fetch other things, "such as I like to have about me although I am old. Women for within and men for without, that is Nature's law, and ill will be the day when it is changed. Yet beware of pretty women, Nephew, and I pray you kiss not those as you did the lady Blanche Aleys at Hastings, lest it should upset my household and turn servants into mistresses."
I made no answer, being confounded by the knowledge that my uncle showed of me and my affairs, which afterwards I discovered he had, in part at any rate, from the old priest, my confessor, who had written to commend me to him, telling my story and sending the letter by a King's messenger, who left for London on the morrow of the Burning. Nor did he wait for any, for he bade me sit down and eat, plying me with more meats than I could swallow, all most delicately dressed, also with rare wines such as I had never tasted, which he took from a cupboard where they were kept in curious flasks of glass. Yet as I noted, himself he ate but little, only picking at the breast of a fowl and drinking but the half of a small silver goblet filled with wine.
"Appetite, like all other good things, for the young," he said with a sigh as he watched my hearty feasting. "Yet remember, Nephew, that if you live to reach it, a day will come when yours will be as mine is. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity!"
At length, when I could eat no more, again he rang the silver bell and those fair waiting girls dressed alike in green appeared and cleared away the broken meats. After they were gone he crouched over the fire rubbing his thin hands to warm them, and said suddenly:
"Now tell me of my sister's death and all the rest of your tale."
So as well as I was able I told him everything from the hour when I had first sighted the French fleet on board my fishing-boat to the end.
"You are no fool," he said when I had finished, "who can talk like any clerk and bring things that have happened clearly to the listener's eye, which I have noted few are able to do. So that's the story. Well, your mother had a great heart, and she made a great end, such an one as was loved of our northern race, and that even I, the old merchant knave, desire and shall not win, who doubtless am doomed to die a cow's death in the straw. Pray the All-Father Odin—nay, that is heresy for which I might burn if you or the wenches told it to the priests—pray God, I mean, that He may grant you a better, as He did to old Thorgrimmer, if the tale be true, Thorgrimmer whose sword you wear and have wielded shrewdly, as that French knight knows in hell to-day."
"Who was Odin?" I asked.
"The great god of the North. Did not your mother tell you of him? Nay, doubtless she was too good a Christian. Yet he lives on, Nephew. I say that Odin lives in the blood of every fighting man, as Freya lives in the heart of every lad and girl who loves. The gods change their names, but hush! hush! talk not of Odin and of Freya, for I say that it is heresy, or pagan, which is worse. What would you do now? Why came you to London?"
"Because my mother bade me and to seek my fortune."
"Fortune—what is fortune? Youth and health are the best fortune, though, if they know how to use it, those who have wealth as well may go further than the rest. Also beauteous things are pleasant to the sight and there is joy in gathering them. Yet at the last they mean nothing, for naked we came out of the blackness and naked we return there. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!"
Thus began my life in London in the house of my uncle, John Grimmer, who was called the Goldsmith. In truth, however, he was more than this, since not only did he fashion and trade in costly things; he lent out moneys to interest upon security to great people who needed it, and even to the king Richard and his Court. Also he owned ships and did much commerce with Holland, France, yes, and with Spain and Italy. Indeed, although he appeared so humble, his wealth was very large and always increased, like a snowball rolling down a hill; moreover, he owned much land, especially in the neighbourhood of London where it was likely to grow in value.
"Money melts," he would say, "furs corrupt with moth and time, and thieves break in and steal. But land—if the title be good—remains. Therefore buy land, which none can carry away, near to a market or a growing town if may be, and hire it out to fools to farm, or sell it to other fools who wish to build great houses and spend their goods in feeding a multitude of idle servants. Houses eat, Hubert, and the larger they are, the more they eat."
No word did he say to me as to my dwelling on with him, yet there I remained, by common consent, as it were. Indeed on the morrow of my coming a tailor appeared to measure me for such garments as he thought I should wear, by his command, I suppose, as I was never asked for payment, and he bade me furnish my chamber to my own liking, also another room at the back of the house that was much larger than it seemed, which he told me was to be mine to work in, though at what I was to work he did not say.
For a day or two I remained idle, staring at the sights of London and only meeting my uncle at meals which sometimes we ate alone and sometimes in the company of sea-captains and learned clerks or of other merchants, all of whom treated him with great deference and as I soon guessed, were in truth his servants. At night, however, we were always alone and then he would pour out his wisdom on me while I listened, saying little. On the sixth day, growing weary of this idleness, I made bold to ask him if there was aught that I could do.
"Aye, plenty if you have a mind to work," he answered. "Sit down now, and take pen and paper and write what I shall tell you."
Then he dictated a short letter to me as to shipping wine from Spain, and when it was sanded, read it carefully.
"You have it right," he said, seeming pleased, "and your script is clear if boyish. They taught you none so ill yonder at Hastings where I thought you had only learned to handle ropes and arrows. Work? Yes, there is plenty of it of the more private sort which I do not give to this scribe or to that who might betray my secrets. For know," he went on in a stern voice, "there is one thing which I never pardon, and it is betrayal. Remember that, nephew Hubert, even in the arms of your loves, if you should be fool enough to seek them, or in your cups."
So he talked on, and while he did so went to an iron chest that he unlocked, and thence drew out a parchment roll which he bade me take to my workroom and copy there. I did so, and found that it was an inventory of his goods and estates, and oh! before I had done I wished that there were fewer of them. All the long day I laboured, only stopping for a bite at noon, till my head swam and my fingers ached. Yet as I did so I felt proud, for I guessed that my uncle had set me this task for two reasons: first, to show his trust in me, and, secondly, to acquaint me with the state of his possessions, but as it were in the way of business. By nightfall I had finished and checked the copy which with the original I hid in my robe when the green-robed waiting maid summoned me to eat.
At our meal my uncle asked me what I had seen that day and I replied—naught but figures and crabbed writing—and handed him the parchments which he compared item by item.
"I am pleased with you," he said at last, "for heresofar I find but a single error and that is my fault, not yours; also you have done two days' work in one. Still, it is not fit that you who are accustomed to the open air should bend continually over deeds and inventories. Therefore, to-morrow I shall have another task for you, for like yourself your horse needs exercise."
And so he had, for with two stout servants riding with me and guiding me, he sent me out of London to view a fair estate of his upon the borders of the Thames and to visit his tenants there and make report of their husbandry, also of certain woods where he proposed to fell oak for shipbuilding. This I did, for the servants made me known to the tenants, and got back at night-fall, able to tell him all which he was glad to learn, since it seemed that he had not seen this estate for five long years.
On another day he sent me to visit ships in which goods of his were being laden at the wharf, and on another took me with him to a sale of furs that came from the far north where I was told the snow never melts and there is always ice in the sea.
Also he made me known to merchants with whom he traded, and to his agents who were many, though for the most part secret, together with other goldsmiths who held moneys of his, and in a sense were partners, forming a kind of company so that they could find great sums in sudden need. Lastly, his clerks and dependents were made to understand that if I gave an order it must be obeyed, though this did not happen until I had been with him for some time.
Thus it came about that within a year I knew all the threads of John Grimmer's great business, and within two it drifted more and more into my hands. The last part of it with which he made me acquainted was that of lending money to those in high places, and even to the State itself, but at length I was taught this also and came to know sundry of these men, who in private were humble borrowers, but if they met us in the street passed us with the nod that the great give to their inferiors. Then my uncle would bow low, keeping his eyes fixed upon the ground and bid me do the same. But when they were out of hearing he would chuckle and say,
"Fish in my net, goldfish in my net! See how they shine who presently must wriggle on the shore. Vanity of vanities! All is vanity, and doubtless Solomon knew such in his day."
Hard I worked, and ever harder, toiling at the mill of all these large affairs and keeping myself in health during such time as I could spare by shooting at the butts with my big bow where I found that none could beat me, or practising sword play in a school of arms that was kept by a master of the craft from Italy. Also on holidays and on Sundays after mass I rode out of London to visit my uncle's estates where sometimes I slept a night, and once or twice sailed to Holland or to Calais with his cargoes.
One day, it was when I had been with him about eighteen months, he said to me suddenly.
"You plough the field, Hubert, and do not tithe the crop, but live upon the bounty of the husbandman. Henceforward take as much of it as you will. I ask no account."
So I found myself rich, though in truth I spent but little, both because my tastes were simple and it was part of my uncle's policy to make no show which he said would bring envy on us. From this time forward he began to withdraw himself from business, the truth being that age took hold of him and he grew feeble. The highest of the affairs he left to me, only inquiring of them and giving his counsel from time to time. Still, because he must do something, he busied himself in the shop which, as he said, he kept as a trap for the birds, chaffering in ornaments and furs as though his bread depended upon his earning a gold piece, and directing the manufacture of beautiful jewels and cups which he, who was an artist, designed to be made by his skilled and highly paid workmen, some of whom were foreigners.
"We end where we began," he would say. "A smith was I from my childhood and a smith I shall die. What a fate for one of the blood of Thorgrimmer! Yet I am selling you into the same bondage, or so it would seem. But who knows? Who knows? We design, but God decrees."
It is to be noted that when old men cease from the occupation of their lives, often enough within a very little time they also cease from life itself. So it was with my uncle. Day by day he faded till at last at the beginning of the third winter after I came to him he took to his bed where he lay growing ever weaker till at length he died in the hour of the birth of the new year.
To the last his mind remained clear and strong, and never more so than on the night of his death. That evening after I had eaten I went to his room as usual and found him reading a beautiful manuscript of the book of the Wisdom of Solomon that is called Ecclesiastes, a work which he preferred to all others, since its thoughts were his. "I gathered me also silver and gold and the peculiar treasures of kings," he read aloud, whether to himself or to me I knew not, and went on, "So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me. . . . Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do; and behold all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun."
He closed the book, saying,
"So shall you find, Nephew, you, and every man in the evil days of age when you shall say, 'I have no pleasure in them.' Hubert, I am going to my long home, nor do I grieve. In youth I met with sorrow, for though I have never told you, I was married then and had one son, a bright boy, and oh! I loved him and his mother. Then came the plague and took them both. So having naught left and being by nature one of those who could wean himself from women, which I fear that you are not, Hubert, noting all the misery there is in the world and how those who are called noble whom I hate, grind down the humble and the poor, I turned myself to good works. Half of all my gains I have given and still give to those who minister to poverty and sickness; you will find a list of them when I am gone should you wish to continue the bounty, as to which I do not desire to bind you in any way. For know, Hubert, that I have left you all that is mine; the gold and the ships with the movables and chattels to be your own, but the lands which are the main wealth, for life and afterwards to be your children's, or if you should die childless, then to go to certain hospitals where the sick are tended."
Now I would have thanked him, but he waved my words aside and went on:
"You will be a very rich man, Hubert, one of the richest in all London; yet set not your heart on wealth, and above all do not ape nobility or strive to climb from the honest class of which you come into the ranks of those idle and dissolute cut-throats and pick-brains who are called the great. Lighten their pockets if you will, but do not seek to wear their silken, scented garments. That is my counsel to you."
He paused a while, picking at the bedclothes as the dying do, and continued,
"You told me that your mother thought you would be a wanderer, and it is strange that now my mind should be as hers was in this matter. For I seem to see you far away amidst war and love and splendour, holding Wave-Flame aloft as did that Thorgrimmer who begat us. Well, go where you are called or as occasion drives, though you have much to keep you at home. I would that you were wed, since marriage is an anchor that few ships can drag. Yet I am not sure, for how know I whom you should wed, and once that anchor is down no windlass will wind it up and death alone can cut its chain. One word more. Though you are so young and strong remember that as I am, so shall you be. To-day for me, to-morrow for thee, said the wise old man, and thus it ever was and is.
"Hubert, I do not know why we are born to struggle and to suffer and at last be noosed with the rope of Doom. Yet I hope the priests are right and that we live again, though Solomon thought not so; that is, if we live where there is neither sin nor sorrow nor fear of death. If so, be sure that in some new land we shall meet afresh, and there I shall ask account of you of the wealth I entrusted to your keeping. Think of me kindly at times, for I have learned to love you who are of my blood, and while we live on in the hearts of those we love, we are not truly dead. Come hither that I may bless you in your coming in and going out while you still look upon the sun."
So he blessed me in beautiful and tender words, and kissed me on the brow, after which he bade me leave him and send the woman to watch him, because he desired to sleep.
When she looked at him at midnight just as the bells rang in the new year, he was dead.
According to his wish John Grimmer, the last of that name, was buried by the bones of his forgotten wife and child, who had left the world over fifty years before, in the chancel of that church in the Cheap which was within a stone's throw of his dwelling house. By his desire also the funeral was without pomp, yet many came to it, some of them of high distinction, although the day was cold and snowy. I noted, moreover, the deference they showed to me who by now was known to be his heir, even if they had never spoken with me before, as was the case with certain of them, taking occasion to draw me aside and say that they trusted that their ancient friendship with my honoured uncle would be continued by myself.
Afterwards I looked up their names in his private book and found that one and all of those who had spoken thus owed moneys to his estate.
When the will was sworn and I found myself the master of many legions, or rather of more money, land, and other wealth than I had ever dreamed of, at first I was minded to be rid of trade and to take up my abode upon one or other of my manors, where I might live in plenty for the rest of my days. In the end, however, I did not do so, partly because I shrank from new faces and surroundings, and partly because I was sure that such would not have been my uncle's wish.
Instead I set myself to play and outpass his game. He had died very rich; I determined that I would die five or ten times richer; the richest man in England if I could, not because I cared for money, of which indeed I spent but little upon myself, but because the getting of it and the power that it brought, seemed to me the highest kind of sport. So bending my mind to the matter I doubled and trebled his enterprises on this line and on that, and won and won again, for even where skill and foresight failed, Fortune stood my friend with a such strange persistence that at length I became superstitious and grew frightened of her gifts. Also I took pains to hide my great riches from the public eye, placing much of them in the names of others whom I could trust, and living most modestly in the same old house, lest I should become a man envied by the hungry and marked for plunder by the spendthrift great.
It was during the summer following my uncle's death that I went to the wharves to see to the unloading of a ship that came in from Venice, bearing many goods from the East on my account, such as ivory, silks, spices, glass, carpets, and I know not what. Having finished my business and seen these precious things warehoused, I handed over the checking of a list of them to another and turned to seek my horse.
Then it was that I saw a number of half-grown lads and other idlers mobbing a man who stood among them wrapped in a robe of what looked like tattered sheepskin, yet was not because the wool on it was of a reddish hue and very long and soft, which robe was thrown over his head hiding his face. At this man—a tall figure who stood there patiently like a martyr at the stake—these lewd fellows were hurling offal, such as fishes' heads and rotted fruits that lay in plenty on the quay, together with coarse words. "Blackamoor" was one I caught.
Such sights were common enough, but there was a quiet dignity of bearing about this victim which moved me, so that I went to the rabble commanding them to desist. One of them, a rough bumpkin, not knowing who I was, pushed me aside, bidding me mind my own business, whereupon, being very strong, I dealt him such a blow between the eyes that he went down like a felled ox and lay there half stunned. His companions beginning to threaten me, I blew upon my whistle, whereon two of my serving-men, without whom I seldom rode in those troublous times, ran up from behind a shed, laying hands upon their short swords, on seeing which the idlers took to their heels.
When they had gone I turned to look at the stranger, whose hood had fallen back in the hustling, and saw that he was about thirty years of age, and of a dark and noble countenance, beardless, but with straight black hair, black flashing eyes, and an aquiline nose. Another thing I noted about him was that the lobe of his ear was pierced and in a strange fashion, since the gristle was stretched to such a size that a small apple could have been placed within its ring. For the rest the man's limbs were so thin as though from hunger, that everywhere his bones showed, while his skin was scarred with cuts and scratches, and on his forehead was a large bruise. He seemed bewildered also and very weak, yet I think he understood that I was playing a friend's part to him, for he bowed towards me in a stately, courteous way and kissed the air thrice, but what this meant at the time I did not know.
I spoke to him in English, but he shook his head gently to show that he did not understand. Then, as though by an afterthought, he touched his breast several times, and after each touch, said in a voice of strange softness, "Kari," which I took it he meant was his name. At any rate, from that time forward I called him Kari.
Now the question was how to deal with him. Leave him there to be mocked or to perish I could not, nor was there anywhere whither I could send him. Therefore it seemed the only thing to do was to take him home with me. So grasping his arm gently I led him off the quay where our horses were and motioned to him to mount one that had been ridden by a servant whom I bade to walk. At the sight of these horses, however, a great terror took hold of him for he trembled all over, a sweat bursting out upon his face, and clung to me as though for protection, making it evident that he had never seen such an animal before. Indeed, nothing would persuade him to go near them, for he shook his head and pointed to his feet, thus showing me that he preferred to walk, however weak his state.
The end of it was that walk he did and I with him from Thames side to the Cheap, since I dared not leave him alone for fear lest he should run away. A strange sight we presented, I leading this dusky wanderer through the streets, and glad was I that night was falling so that few saw us and those who did thought, I believe, that I was bringing some foreign thief to jail.
At length we reached the Boat House as my dwelling was called, from the image of the old Viking vessel that my uncle had carved and set above the door, and I led him in staring about him with all his eyes, which in his thin face looked large as those of an owl, taking him up the stairs, which seemed to puzzle him much, for at every step he lifted his leg high into the air, to an empty guest room.
Here besides the bed and other furniture was a silver basin with its jug, one of the beautiful things that John Grimmer had brought I know not whence. On these Kari fixed his eyes at once, staring at them in the light of the candles that I had lit, as though they were familiar to him. Indeed, after glancing at me as though for permission, he went to the jug that was kept full of water in case of visitors of whom I had many on business, lifted it, and after pouring a few drops of the water on to the floor as though he made some offering, drank deeply, thus showing that he was parched with thirst.
Then without more ado he filled the basin and throwing off his tattered robe began to wash himself to the waist, round which he wore another garment, of dirty cotton I thought, which looked like a woman's petticoat. Watching him I noted two things, that his poor body was as scratched and scarred as though by old thorn wounds, as were his face and hands, also marked with great bruises as though from kicks and blows, and secondly that hung about his neck was a wondrous golden image about four inches in length. It was of rude workmanship with knees bent up under the chin, but the face, in which little emeralds were set for eyes, was of a great and solemn dignity.
This image Kari washed before he touched himself with water, bowing to it the while, and when he saw me observing him, looked upwards to the sky and said a word that sounded like Pachacamac, from which I took it to be some idol that the poor man worshipped. Lastly, tied about his middle was a hide bag filled with I knew not what.
Now I found a washball made of oil of olives mixed with beech ash and showed him the use of it. At first he shrank from this strange thing, but coming to understand its office, served himself of it readily, smiling when he saw how well it cleansed his flesh. Further, I fetched a shirt of silk with a pair of easy shoes and a fur-lined robe that had belonged to my uncle, also hosen, and showed him how to put them on, which he learned quickly enough. A comb and a brush that were on the table he seemed to understand already, for with them he dressed his tangled hair.
When all was finished in a fashion, I led him down the stairs again to the eating-room where supper was waiting, and offered him food, at the sight of which his eyes glistened, for clearly he was well-nigh starving. The chair I gave him he would not sit on, whether from respect for me or because it was strange to him, I do not know, but seeing a low stool of tapestry which my uncle had used to rest his feet, he crouched upon this, and thus ate of whatever I gave him, very delicately though he was so hungry. Then I poured wine from Portugal into a goblet and drank some myself to show him that it was harmless, which, after tasting it, he swallowed to the last drop.
The meal being finished which I thought it was well to shorten lest he should eat too much who was so weak, again he lifted up his eyes as though in gratitude, and as a sign of thankfulness, or so I suppose, knelt before me, took my hand, and pressed it against his forehead, thereby, although I did not know it at the time, vowing himself to my service. Then seeing how weary he was I conducted him back to the chamber and pointed out the bed to him, shutting my eyes to show that he should sleep there. But this he would not do until he had dragged the bedding on to the floor, from which I gathered that his people, whoever they might be, had the habit of sleeping on the ground.
Greatly did I wonder who this man was and from what race he sprang, since never had I seen any human being who resembled him at all. Of one thing only was I certain, namely, that his rank was high, since no noble of the countries that I knew had a bearing so gentle or manners so fine. Of black men I had seen several, who were called negroes, and others of a higher sort called Moors; gross, vulgar fellows for the most part and cut-throats if in an ill-humour, but never a one of them like this Kari.
It was long before my curiosity was satisfied, and even then I did not gather much. By slow degrees Kari learned English, or something of it, though never enough to talk fluently in that tongue into which he always seemed to translate in his mind from another full of strange figures of thought and speech. When after many months he had mastered sufficient of our language, I asked him to tell me his story which he tried to do. All I could make of it, however, came to this.
He was, he said, the son of a king who ruled over a mighty empire far far away, across thousands of miles of sea towards that part of the sky where the sun sank. He declared that he was the eldest lawful son, born of the King's sister, which seemed dreadful to my ideas though perhaps he meant cousin or relative, but that there were scores of other children of his father, which, if true, showed that this king must be a very loose-living man who resembled in his domesticities the wise Solomon of whom my uncle was so fond.
It appeared, further, according to the tale, that this king, his father, had another son born of a different mother, and that of this son he was fonder than of my guest, Kari. His name was Urco, and he was jealous of and hated Kari the lawful heir. Moreover, as is common, a woman came into the business, since Kari had a wife, the loveliest lady in all the land, though as I understood, not of the same tribe or blood as himself, and with this wife of his Urco fell in love. So greatly did he desire her, although he had plenty of wives of his own, that being the general of the King's troops, he sent Kari, with the consent of their father, to command an army that was to fight a distant savage nation, hoping that he would be killed, much as David did in the matter of Uriah and Bathsheba, of whom the Bible tells the story. But as it happened, instead of being killed like Uriah, Kari conquered the distant nation, and after two years returned to the King's court, where he found that his brother Urco had led astray his wife whom he had taken into his household. Being very angry, Kari recovered his wife by command of the King, and put her to death because of her faithlessness.
Thereon the King, his father, a stern man, ordered him into banishment because he had broken the laws of the land, which did not permit of private vengeance over a matter of a woman who was not even of the royal blood, however fair she might be. Before he went, however, Urco, who was mad at the loss of his love, caused some kind of poison to be given to Kari, which although it does not kill, for he dared not kill him because of his station, deprives him who takes it of his reason, sometimes for ever and sometimes for a year or more. After this, said Kari, he remembered little or nothing, save long travellings in boats and through forests, and then again upon a raft or boat on which he was driven alone, for many, many days, drinking a jar of water which he had with him, and eating some dried flesh and with it a marvellous drug of his people, some of which remained to him in the leathern bag that has power to keep the life in a man for weeks, even if he is labouring hard.
At last, he declared, he was picked up by a great ship such as he had never seen before, though of this ship he recalled little. Indeed he remembered nothing more until he found himself upon the quay where I discovered him, and of a sudden his mind seemed to return but he said he believed that he had come ashore in a boat in which were fishermen, having been thrown into it by the people on the ship which went on elsewhere, and that he had walked up the shores of a river. This story the bruises on his forehead and body seemed to bear out, but it was far from clear, and by the time I learned it months afterwards of course no traces of the fishermen or their boat could be found. I asked him the name of the country from which he came. He answered that it was called Tavantinsuyu. He added that it was a wonderful country in which were cities and churches and great snow-clad mountains and fertile valleys and high plains and hot forests through which ran wide rivers.
From all the learned men whom I could meet, especially those who had travelled far, I made inquiries concerning this country called Tavantinsuyu, but none of them had so much as heard its name. Indeed, they declared that my brown man must have come from Africa, and that his mind being disordered, he had invented this wondrous land which he said lay far away to the west where the sun sank.
So there I must leave this matter, though for my part I was sure that Kari was not mad, whatever he might have been in the past. A great dreamer he was, it is true, who declared that the poison which his brother had given him had "eaten a hole in his mind" through which he could see and hear things which others could not. Thus he was able to read the secret motives of men and women with wonderful clearness, so much so that sometimes I asked him, laughing, if he could not give me some of that poison that I might see into the hearts of those with whom I dealt. Of another thing, too, he was always certain, namely, that he would return to his country Tavantinsuyu of which he thought day and night, and that I should accompany him. At this I laughed again and said that if so it would be after we were both dead.
By degrees he learned English quite well and even how to read and write it, teaching me in return much of his own language which he called Quichua, a soft and beautiful tongue, though he said that there were also many others in his country, including one that was secret to the King and his family, which he was not allowed to reveal although he knew it. In time I mastered enough of this Quichua to be able to talk to Kari in brief sentences of it when I did not wish others to understand what I said.
To tell the truth, while I studied thus and listened to his marvellous tales, a great desire arose in me to see this land of his and to open up a trade with it, since there he declared gold was as plentiful as was iron with us. I thought even of making a voyage of discovery to the west, but when I spoke of it to certain sea-captains, even the most venturesome mocked at me and said that they would wait for that journey till they "went west" themselves, by which in their sea parlance that they had learned in the Mediterranean, they meant until they died.[*] When I told Kari this he smiled in his mysterious way and answered that all the same, I and he should make that journey together and this before we died, a thing that came about, indeed, though, not by my own will or his.
[*] Of late there has been much dispute as to the origin of the phrase "to go west," or in other words, to die. Surely it arises from the custom of the Ancient Egyptians who, after death, were ferried across the Nile and entombed upon the western shore.—Ed.
For the rest when Kari saw my workmen fashioning gold and setting jewels in it for sale to the nobles and ladies of the Court, he was much interested and asked if he might be allowed to follow this craft, of which he said he understood something, and thus earn the bread he ate. I answered, yes, for I knew that it irked his proud nature to be dependent on me, and gave him gold and silver with a little room having a furnace in it where he could labour. The first thing he made was an object about two inches across, round and with a groove at the back of it, on the front of which he fashioned an image of the sun having a human face and rays of light projecting all about. I asked him what was its purpose, whereon he took the piece and thrust it into the lobe of his ear where the gristle had been stretched in the fashion that I have described, which it fitted exactly. Then he told me that in his country all the nobles wore such ornaments and that those who did so were called "ear-men" to distinguish them from the common people. Also he told me many other things too long to set out, which made me desire more than ever to see this empire with my eyes, for an empire and no less he declared it to be.
Afterwards Kari made many such ornaments which I sold for brooches with a pin set at the back of them. Also he shaped other things, for his skill as a goldsmith was wonderful, such as cups and platters of strange design and rich ornamentation which commanded a great price. But on every one of them, in the centre or some other part of the embossment, appeared this image of the sun. I asked him why. He answered because the sun was his god and his people were Sun-worshippers. I reminded him that he had said that a certain Pachacamac whose image he wore about his neck was his god. To this he replied:
"Yes, Pachacamac is the god above gods, the Creator, the Spirit of the World, but the Sun is his visible house and raiment that all may see and worship," a saying that I thought had truth in it, seeing that all Nature is the raiment of God.
I tried to instruct him in our faith, but although he listened patiently and I think understood, he would not become a Christian, making it very plain to me that he thought that a man should live and die in the religion in which he was born and that from what he saw in London he did not hold that Christians were any better than those who worshipped the sun and the great spirit, Pachacamac. So I abandoned this attempt, although there was danger to him while he remained a heathen. Indeed twice or thrice the priests made inquiry concerning his faith, being curious as to all that had to do with him. However, I silenced them by pretending that I was instructing him as well as I was able and that as yet he did not know enough English to hearken to their holy expositions. Also when they became persistent I made gifts to the monasteries to which they belonged, or if they were parish priests, then to their cures or churches.
Still I was troubled about this matter, for some of these priests were very fierce and intolerant, and I was sure that in time they would push the business further.
One more thing I noticed about Kari, namely, that he shrank from women and indeed seemed to hate them. The maids who had remained with me since my uncle's death noticed this, by nature as it were, and in revenge would not serve him. The end of it was that, fearing lest they should do him some evil turn with the priests or otherwise, I sent them away and hired men to take their place. This distaste of Kari for women I set down to all that he had suffered at the hands of his false and beautiful wife not wrongly as I think.
THE COMING OF BLANCHE
One day, it was the last of the year, the anniversary of the death of my uncle whose goodness and wisdom I pondered on more and more as time went by, having a little time to spare from larger affairs, I chanced to be in the shop in the front of the house, which, as John Grimmer had said, he kept as a trap to "snare the ladybirds," and I continued, because I knew that he would not wish that anything should be changed. Here I was pleasing myself by looking over such pieces as we had to sell which the head craftsman was showing to me, since myself I knew little of them, except as a matter of account.
Whilst I was thus engaged there entered the shop a very fine lady accompanied by a still finer lordling arrayed so similarly that, at first sight, in their hooded ermine cloaks it was difficult to know which was man and which was woman. When they threw these aside, however, for the shop was warm after the open air, I knew more than that, since with a sudden stoppage of the heart I saw before me none other than the lady Blanche Aleys and her relative, the lord Deleroy.
She, who in the old days of the Hastings burnings had been but a lily bud, was now an open flower and beautiful exceedingly; indeed in her own fashion the most beautiful woman that ever I beheld. Tall she was and stately as a lily bloom, white as a lily also, save for those wondrous blue eyes over which curled the dark lashes. In shape, too, she was perfect, full-breasted, yet not too full, small-waisted, and with delicate limbs, a very Venus, such an one as I had seen in ancient marble brought in a ship from Italy and given, as I believe, to the King, who loved such things, to be set up in his palace.
My lord also was yet handsomer than he had been, more set and manly, though still he affected his coxcomb party-coloured dress with the turned-up shoes of which the points were fastened by little golden chains beneath the knee. Still he was a fine man with his roving black eyes, his loose mouth and little pointed beard from which, as from his hair, came an odour of scents. Seeing me in my merchant's gown, for I remained mindful of my uncle's advice as regards attire, he spoke to me as great men do to shop-keepers.
"Well met, Goldsmith," he said in his round, well-trained voice, "I would make a new-year gift to the lady here, and I am told that you have plate-wares of the best; gold cups and jewels of rich and rare design, stamped all of them with the image of the sun which one would wish to remember on such a day as this. But hearken, let John Grimmer himself come to serve me for I would treat with no underlings, or take me to him where he is."
Now I bowed before him, rubbing my hands, and answered, for so the humour led me: "Then I fear that I must take my lord farther than my lord would wish to travel just at present, though who knows? Perchance, like the rest of us, he may take that journey sooner than he thinks."
Now at the sound of my voice I saw the lady Blanche stare at me, trying to catch sight of my face beneath the hood which I wore on this cold day, while Deleroy started and said briefly:
"It is plain, my lord. John Grimmer is dead and I know not where he dwells at present since he took that secret with him. But I, who unworthily carry on his trade, am at your lordship's service."
Then I turned and bade the shopman command Kari to come hither and bring with him the choicest of our cups and jewels.
He went and I busied myself in setting stools for these noble customers to rest on before the fire. As I did so by chance my hand touched that of the lady Blanche, whereat once more she strove to peer beneath my hood. It was as though the nature in her knew that touch again, as by some instinct every woman does, if once the toucher's lips have been near her own, though it be long ago. But I only turned my head away and drew that hood the closer.
Now Kari came and with him the shopman, bearing the precious wares. Kari wore a wool-lined robe, very plain, which yet became him so well that with his fine-cut face and flashing eyes he looked like an Eastern prince disguised. At him this fine pair stared, for never had they seen such a man, but taking no note, with many bows he showed the jewels one by one. Among these was a gem of great value, a large, heart-shaped ruby that Kari had set in a surround of twisted golden serpents with heads raised to strike and little eyes of diamonds. Upon this brooch the lady Blanche fixed her gaze and discarding all others, began to play with it, till at length the lord Deleroy asked the price. I consulted with Kari, explaining that myself I did not handle this branch of my business, then named it carelessly; it was a great sum.
"God's truth! Blanche," said Deleroy, "this merchant thinks I am made of gold. You must choose a cheaper ornament for your new year's gift, or he will have to wait for payment."
"Which mayhap I should be willing to do from one of your quality, my lord," I interrupted, bowing.
He looked at me and said:
"Can I have a word apart with you, merchant?"
Again I bowed and led him to the eating-room where he gazed about him, amazed at the richness of the furnishings. He sat him down upon a carven chair while I stood before him humbly and waited.
"I am told," he said at length, "that John Grimmer did other business besides that of selling jewels."
"Yes, my lord, some foreign trade."
"And some home trade also. I mean that he lent money."
"At times, my lord, and on good security, if he chanced to have any at command, and at a certain interest. Perhaps my lord will come to his point."
"It is short and clear. Those of us who are at Court always want money where it is needful if we would have advancement and earn the royal favour of one who does not pay, at least in gold."
"Be pleased to state the amount and the security offered, my lord."
He did so. The sum was high and the security was bad.
"Are there any who would stand surety for my lord?"
"Yes, one of great estate, Sir Robert Aleys, who has wide lands in Sussex."
"I have heard the name, and if my lord will bid his lawyers put the matter in writing, I will cause the lands to be valued and give an answer as quickly as may be."
"For a young man you are careful, merchant."
"Alas! such as I need to be who must guard our small earnings in these troublous times of war and tumult. Such a sum as you speak of would take all that John Grimmer and I have laid by after years of toil."
Again he looked at the furnishings of the room and shrugged his shoulders, then said:
"Good, it shall be done for the need is urgent. To whom is the letter to be sent?"
"To John Grimmer, at the Boat House, Cheapside."
"But you told me that John Grimmer was dead."
"And so he is, my lord, but his name remains."
Then we returned to the sop and as we went I said,
"If your lordship's lady should set her heart upon the ruby the cost of it can stand over a while, since I know that it is hard for a husband to disappoint a wife of what she desires."
"Man, she is my distant cousin, not my wife. I would she were, but how can two high-placed paupers wed?"
"Perhaps it is for this reason that my lord wishes to borrow money."
Again he shrugged his shoulders, and as we entered the shop I threw back the hood from off my head upon which I wore a merchant's cap of velvet. The lady Blanche caught sight of me and started.
"Surely, surely," she began, "you are he who shot the three arrows at the cave's mouth at Hastings."
"Yes, my lady, and did your hawk escape the dogs upon the London road?"
"Nay, it was crippled and died, which was the first of many troubles, for I think my luck rode away with you that day, Master Hubert of Hastings," she added with a sigh.
"There are other hawks and luck returns," I replied, bowing. "Perhaps this trinket will bring it back to you, my lady," and taking the snake-surrounded ruby heart, I proffered it to her with another bow.
"Oh!" she said, her blue eyes shining with pleasure, "oh! it is beautiful, but whence is the price to come for so costly a thing?"
"I think the matter is one that can wait."
At that moment the lord Deleroy broke in, saying,
"So you are the man who slew the French knight with an ancient sword, and afterwards shot three other Frenchmen with three shafts, sending one of them through shield and mail and body, a tale that was spoken of afterwards, even in London. God's truth! you should be serving the King in the wars, not yourself behind the counter."
"There are many ways of serving, my lord," I answered, "by pen and merchandise as well as by steel and shafts. Now with me it is the turn of the former, though perhaps the ancient sword and the great black bow wait till their time comes again."
He stared at me and muttered, half to himself:
"A strange merchant and a grim, as those dead Frenchmen may have thought. I tell you, Sir Trader, that your talk and the eyes of that tall Moor of yours turn my back cold; it is as though someone walked over my grave. Come, Blanche, let us begone ere our horses be chilled as I am. Master Grimmer, or Hastings, you shall hear from me, unless I can do my business otherwise, and for the trinket send me a note at your leisure."
Then they went, but as the lady Blanche left the shop she caught her robe and turned to free it, while she did so flashing at me one of her sweet looks such as I remembered well.
Kari followed to the door and watched them mount their horses at the gate, then he searched the ground with his eyes.
"What was it hooked her cloak?" I asked.
"A dream, or the air, Master, for there is nothing else to which it could have hung. Those who would throw spears behind them must first turn round."
"What think you of those two, Kari?"
"I think that they will not pay for your jewel, but perhaps this was but a bait upon the hook."
"And what more, Kari?"
"I think that the lady is very fair and false, and that the great lord's heart is as black as are his eyes. Also I think that they are dear to each other and well matched. But it seems that you have met them both before, Master, so you will know better about them than your slave."
"Yes, I have met them," I answered sharply, for his words about Blanche angered me, adding, "I have noted, Kari, that you have never a good word for any one whom I favour. You are jealous-natured, Kari, especially of women."
"You ask, I answer," he replied, falling into broken English, as was his fashion when moved, "and it is true that those who have much love, are much jealous. That is a fault in my people. Also I love not women. Now I go make another piece for that which Master give the lady. Only this time it all snake and no heart."
He went, taking the tray of jewels with him, and I, too, went to the eating-room to think.
How strange was this meeting. I had never forgotten the lady Blanche, but in a sense I had lived her memory down and mindful of my uncle's counsel, had not sought to look upon her again, for which reason I kept away from Hastings where I thought that I should find her. And now here she was in London and in my house, brought thither by fate. Nor was that all, since those blue eyes of hers had re-lighted the dead fires in my heart and, seated there alone, I knew that I loved her; indeed had never ceased to love her. She was more to me than all my wealth, more than anything, and alas! between us there was still a great gulf fixed.
She was not wed, it was true, but she was a highly placed lady, and I but a merchant who could not even call myself a squire, or by law wear garments made of certain stuffs which I handled daily in my trade. How might that gulf be crossed?
Then as I mused there rose in my mind a memory of certain sayings of my wise old uncle, and with it an answer to the question. Gold would bridge the widest streams of human difference. These fine folk for all their flauntings were poor. They came to me to borrow money wherewith to gild their coronets and satisfy the importunate creditors at their door, lest they should be pulled from their high place and forced back into the number of the common herd as those who could no longer either give or pay.
And after all, was this difference between them and me so wide? The grandsire of Sir Robert Aleys, I had been told, gathered his wealth by trade and usury in the old wars; indeed, it was said that he was one who dealt in cattle, while Lord Deleroy was reported to be a bastard, if of the bluest blood, so blue that it ran nigh to the royal purple. Well, what was mine? On the father's side, Saxon descended from that of Thanes who went down before the Normans and thereafter became humble landed folk of the lesser sort. On the mother's, of the race of the old sea-kings who slew and conquered through all the world they knew. Was I then so far beneath these others? Nay, but like my father and my uncle I was one who bought and sold and the hand of the dyer was stained to the colour of his vat.
Thus stood the business. I, a stubborn man, not ill-favoured, to whom Fortune had given wealth, was determined to win this woman who, it seemed to me, looked upon me with no unkind eye since I had saved her from certain perils. To myself then and there I swore I would win her. The question was—how could it be done? I might enter the service of the King and fight his battles and doubtless win myself a knighthood, or more, which would open the closed gate.
Nay, it would take too long, and something warned me that time pressed. That strange foreign man, Kari, said that Blanche was enamoured of this Deleroy, and although I was wrath with him, setting his words down to jealousy of any on whom I looked with kindness, I knew well that Kari saw far. If I tarried, this rare white bird would slip from my hand into another's cage. I must stir at once or let the matter be. Well, I had wealth, so let wealth be my friend. Time enough to try war when it failed me.
On the third day of the new year, which at this time of Court revelry showed that the matter must indeed be pressing, I received those particulars for which I had asked, together with a list of the lands and tenements that Sir Robert Aleys was ready to put in pawn on behalf of his friend and relative, the lord Deleroy. Why should he do this, I wondered? There could only be one answer: because he and not Deleroy was to receive the money, or most of it.
Nay, another came into my mind as probable. Because he looked upon Deleroy as his heir, which, should he marry the lady Blanche, he would become. If this were so I must act, and quickly, that is, if I would ever see more of the lady Blanche, as perchance I might do by treading this gold-paved road, but not otherwise. I studied the list of lands. As it chanced I knew most of them, for they lay about Pevensey and Hastings, and saw that they were scarcely worth the moneys which were asked of me. Well, what of it? This matter was not one of trade and large as the sum might be, I would risk it for the chance of winning Blanche.
The end of it was that waiting for no valuings I wrote that on proof of title clean and unencumbered and completion of all deeds, I would pay over the gold to whoever might be appointed to receive it.
This letter of mine proved to be but the beginning of a long business whereof the details may be left untold. On the very next day indeed I was summoned to the house of Sir Robert Aleys which was near to the palace and abbey of Westminster. Here I found the gruff old knight grown greyer and having, as it seemed to me, a hunted air, and with him the lord Deleroy and two foxy lawyers of whom I did not like the look. Indeed, for the first, I suspected that I was being tricked and had it not been for the lady Blanche, would have broken off the loan. Because of her, however, this I did not do, but having stated my terms anew, and the rate and dates of interest, sat for a long while saying as little as possible, while the others unfolded parchments and talked and talked, telling tales that often contradicted each other, till at length the lord Deleroy, who seemed ill at ease, grew weary and left the chamber. At last all was done that could be done at that sitting and it being past the hour of dinner, I was taken in to eat, consenting, because I hoped that I should see the lady Blanche.
A butler, or chamber-groom, led me to the dining-hall and sat me with the lawyers at a table beneath the dais. Presently on this dais appeared Sir Robert Aleys, his daughter Blanche, the lord Deleroy, and perhaps eight or ten other fine folk whom I had never seen. She, looking about her, saw me seated at the lower table, and spoke to her father and Deleroy, reasoning with the latter, as it would appear. Indeed, in a sudden hush I caught some of her words. They were, "If you are not ashamed to take his money, you should not be ashamed to sit at meat with him."
Deleroy stamped his foot, but the end of it was that I was summoned to the high table where the lady Blanche made place for me beside her, while Deleroy sat himself down between two splendid dames at the other end of the board.
Here, then, I stayed by Blanche who, I noted, wore the ruby heart encircled by serpents. Indeed, this was the first thing of which she spoke to me, saying,
"It looks well upon my robe, does it not, and I thank you for it, Master Hubert, who know surely that it is not my cousin Deleroy's gift, but yours, since for it you will never see your money."
By way of answer I looked at the sumptuous plate and furnishings, the profusion of the viands, and the number of the serving-men. Reading my thought, she replied,
"Aye, but pledged, all of it. I tell you, Master Hubert, that we are starved hounds, though we live in a kennel with golden bars. And now they would pawn you that kennel also."
Then, while I wondered what to say, she began to talk of our great adventure in bygone years, recalling every tiny thing that had happened and every word that had been spoken between us, some of which I had forgotten. Of one thing only she said nothing—the kisses with which we parted. Amongst much else, she spoke of how the ancient sword had shorn through the armour of the French knight, and I told her that the sword was named Wave-Flame and that it had come down to me from my ancestor, Thorgrimmer the Viking, and of what was written on its blade, to all of which she listened greedily.
"And they thought you not fit to sit at meat with them, you whose race is so old and who are so great a warrior, as you showed that day. And it is to you that I owe my life and more than life, to you and not to them."
So saying she shot a glance at me that pierced me through and through, as my arrows had pierced the Frenchmen, and what is more beneath the cover of the board for a moment let her slim hand rest upon my own.
After this for a while we were silent, for indeed I could not speak. Then we talked on as we could do well enough, since there was no one on my left where the board ended, and on Blanche's right was a fat old lord who seemed to be deaf and occupied himself in drinking more than he should have done. I told her much about myself, also what my mother had said to me on the day of the Burning, and of how she had prophesied that I should be a wanderer, words at which Blanche sighed and answered:
"Yet you seem to be well planted in London and in rich soil, Master Hubert."
"Aye, Lady, but it is not my native soil and for the rest we go where Fate leads us."
"Fate! What does that word bring to my mind? I have it; yonder Moor of yours who makes those jewels. He has the very eyes of Fate and I fear him."
"That is strange, Lady, and yet not so strange, for about this man there is something fateful. Ever he swears to me that I shall accompany him to some dim land where he was born, of which land he is a prince."
Then I told her all the story of Kari, to which she listened open-eyed and wondering, saying when I had finished,
"So you saved this poor wanderer also, and doubtless he loves you well."
"Yes, Lady, almost too well, seeing that at times he is jealous of me, though God knows I did little for him save pick him from a crowd upon the quay."
"Ah! I guess it, who saw him watching you the other day. Yet it is strange, for I thought that only women could be jealous of men, and men of women. Hush! they are mocking us because we talk so friendly."
I looked up, following her glance, and saw that Deleroy and the two fine ladies between whom he sat, all of whom appeared to have had enough of wine, were pointing at us. Indeed, in a silence, such as now and again happens at feasts, I heard one of them say,
"You had best beware lest that fair white dove of yours does not slip your hand and begin to coo in another's ear, my Lord Deleroy," and heard his answer,
"Nay, I have her too fast, and who cares for a pining dove whereof the feathers adorn another's cap?"
Whilst I was wondering what this dark talk might mean the company broke up, the lady Blanche gliding away through a door at the back of the dais, followed, as I noted, by Deleroy who seemed flushed and angry.
Many times I visited that prodigal house which seemed to me to be the haunt of folk who, however highly placed and greatly favoured at Court, were as loose in their lives as they were in their talk. Indeed, although I was no saint, I liked them not at all, especially the men with their scented hair, turned-up shoes, and party-coloured clothes. Nor as I thought, did Sir Robert Aleys like them, who, whatever his faults, was a bluff knight of the older sort, who had fought with credit in the French wars. Yet I noted that he seemed to be helpless in their hands, or rather in those of Deleroy, the King's favourite, who was the chief of all the gang. It was as though that gay and handsome young man had some hold over the old soldier, yes, and over his daughter also, though what this might be I could not guess.
Now I will move on with the tale. In due course the parchments were signed and delivered, and the money in good gold was paid over on my behalf, after which the great household at Westminster became more prodigal than before. But when the time came for the discharge of the interest due not a groat was forthcoming. Then afterwards there was talk of my taking over certain of the pledged lands in lieu of this interest. Sir Robert suggested this and I assented, because Blanche had told me that it would help her father. Only when the matter was set on foot by my lawyers was it found that these lands were not his to transfer, inasmuch as they had been already mortgaged to their value.
Then there was a fierce quarrel between Sir Robert Aleys and the lord Deleroy, at which I was present. Sir Robert with many oaths accused his cousin of having forged his name when he was absent in France, while Deleroy declared that what he did was done with due authority. Almost they drew swords on each other, till at length Deleroy took Aleys aside and with a fierce grin whispered something into his ear which caused the old knight to sink down on a stool and call out,
"Get you gone, you false rogue! Get out of this house, aye, and out of England. If I meet you again, by God's Blood I swear that King's favourite or no King's favourite, I'll throat you like a hog!"
To which Deleroy mocked in answer:
"Good! I'll go, my gentle cousin, which it suits me well to do who have certain business of the King's awaiting me in France. Aye, I'll go and leave you to settle with this worthy trader who may hold that you have duped him. Do it as you will, except in one fashion, of which you know. Now a word with my cousin Blanche and another at the Palace and I ride for Dover. Farewell, Cousin Aleys. Farewell, worthy merchant for whose loss I should grieve, did I not know that soon you will recoup yourself out of gentle pockets. Mourn not over me over much, either of you, since doubtless ere so very long I shall return."
Now my blood flamed up and I answered:
"I pray you do not hurry, my lord, lest you should find me waiting for you with a shield and a sword in place of a warrant and a pen."
He heard and called out, "Fore God, this chapman thinks himself a knight!"
Then with a mocking laugh he went.
Sir Robert and I stood facing each other speechless with rage, both of us. At length he said in a hoarse voice:
"Your pardon, Master Hastings, for the affronts that this bastard lordling has put upon you, an honest man. I tell you that he is a loose-living knave, as you would agree if you knew all his story, a cockatrice that for my sins I have nurtured in my bosom. 'Tis he that has wasted all my substance; 'tis he that has made free of my name, so that I fear me you are defrauded. 'Tis he that uses my house as though it were his own, bringing into it vile women of the Court, and men that are viler still, however high their names and gaudy their attire," and he choked with his wrath and stopped.
"Why do you suffer these things, sir?" I asked.
"Forsooth because I must," he answered sullenly, "for he has me and mine by the throat. This Deleroy is very powerful, Master Hastings. At a word from him whispered in the King's ear, I, or you, or any man might find ourselves in the Tower accused of treason, whence we should appear no more."
Then, as though he wished to get away from the subject of Deleroy and his hold upon him, he went on:
"I fear me that your money, or much of it, is in danger for Deleroy's bond is worthless, and since the land is already pledged without my knowledge, I have nowhere to turn for gold. I tell you that I am an honest man if one who has fallen into ill company, and this wickedness cuts me deep, for I know not how you will be repaid."
Now a thought came to me, and as was my bold fashion in all business, I acted on it instantly.
"Sir Robert Aleys," I said, "should it be pleasing to you and another, I can see a way in which this debt may be cancelled without shame to you and yet to my profit."
"Then in God's name speak it! For I see none."
"Sir, in bygone time, as it chanced I was able yonder at Hastings to do some service to your daughter and in that hour she took my heart."
He started but motioned to me to continue.
"Sir, I love her truly and desire more than anything to make her my wife. I know she is far above me in station, still although but a merchant, I am of good descent as I can prove to you. Moreover, I am rich, for this money that I have advanced to you, or to the lord Deleroy, is but a small part of my wealth which grows day by day through honest trade. Sir, if my suit were accepted I should be ready, not only to help you further on certain terms, but by deed and will to settle most of it upon the lady Blanche and upon our children. Sir, what say you?"
Sir Robert tugged at his red beard and stared down at the floor. Presently he lifted his head and I saw that his face was troubled, the face of a man, indeed, who is struggling with himself, or, as I thought, with his pride.
"A fair offer fairly put," he said, "but the question is, not what I say, but what says Blanche."
"Sir, I do not know who have never asked her. Yet at times I have thought that her mind towards me is not unkind."
"Is it so? Well, perhaps now that he—well, let that lie. Master Hastings, you have my leave to try your fortune and I tell you straight that I hope it will be good. With your wealth your rank may be soon mended and you are an honest man whom I should be glad to welcome as a son, for I have had enough of these Court knaves and painted Jezebels. But if such is your fancy towards Blanche, my counsel to you is that you put it quickly to the proof—aye, man, at once. Mark my words, for such a swan as she is many snares are set beneath the dirty waters of this Court."
"The sooner the better, sir."
"Good. I'll send her to you and, one word more—be not over shy, or ready to take the first 'no' for an answer, or to listen to the tale of bygone fancies, such as all women have."
Then suddenly he went, leaving me there wondering at his words and manner, which I did not understand. This I understood, however, that he desired that I should marry Blanche, which considering all things I held somewhat strange, although I had the wealth she lacked. Doubtless, I thought, it must be because his honour had been touched on the matter of the trick that had been played upon him without his knowledge. Then I ceased from these wonderings and gave my thought to what I should say to Blanche.
I waited a long while and still she did not come, till at last I believed that she was away from the house, or guessing my business, had refused to see me. At length, however, she entered the room, so silently that I who was staring at the great abbey through a window-place never heard the door open or close. I think that some sense of her presence must have drawn me, since suddenly I turned to see her standing before me. She was clad all in white, having a round cap or coronet upon her head beneath which her shining fair hair was looped in braids. Her little coat, trimmed with ermine, was fastened with a single jewel, that ruby heart embraced by serpents which I had given her. She wore no other ornament. Thus seen she looked most lovely and most sweet and all my heart went out in yearning for her.
"My father tells me that you wish to speak with me, so I have come," she said in her low clear voice, searching my face curiously with her large eyes.
I bowed my head and paused, not knowing how to begin.
"How can I serve you, who, I fear, have been ill served?" she went on with a little smile as though she found amusement in my confusion.
"In one way only," I exclaimed, "by giving yourself in marriage to me. For that I seek, no less."
Now her fair face that had been pale became stained with red and she let her eyes fall as though she were searching for something among the rushes that strewed the floor.
"Hearken before you answer," I continued. "When first I spoke with you on that bloody day at Hastings and you had but just come to womanhood, I loved you and swore to myself that I would die to save you. I saved you and we kissed and were parted. Afterwards I tried to put you out of my heart, knowing that you were set far above me and no meat for such as I, though still for your sake I wooed no other woman in marriage. The years went by and fortune brought us together again, and lo! the old love was stronger than before. I know that I am not worthy of you who are so high and good and pure. Still——" and I stopped, lacking words.
She moved uneasily and the red colour left her cheeks as though she had been suddenly pained.
"Bethink you," she said with a touch of hardness in her voice, "can one who lives the life I live and keeps my company, remain as holy and unstained as you believe? If you would gather such a lily, surely you should seek it in a country garden, not in the reek of London."
"I neither know nor care," I answered, whose blood was all afire. "I know only that wherever you grow and from whatever soil, you are the flower I would pluck."
"Bethink you again; an ugly slug might have smeared my whiteness."
"If so the honest sun and rain will recover and wash it and I am a gardener who scatters lime to shrivel slugs."
"If to this one you will not listen, then hear another argument. Perchance I do not love you. Would you win a loveless bride?"
"Perchance you can learn of love, or if not, I have enough to serve for two."
"By my faith! it should not be difficult with a man so honest and so well favoured. And yet—a further plea. My cousin Deleroy has cheated you" (here her face hardened), "and I think I am offered to you by my father in satisfaction of his honour, as men who have no gold offer a house or a horse to close a debt."
"It is not so. I prayed you of your father. The loss, if loss there be, is but a chance of trade, such as I face every day. Still, I will be plain and tell you that I risked it with open eyes, expecting nothing less, that I might come near to you."
Now she sat herself down in a chair, covering her face with her hands, and I saw from the trembling of her body that she was sobbing. While I wondered what to do, for the sight wrung me, she let fall her hands and there were tears upon her face.
"Shall I tell you all my story, you good, simple gentleman?" she asked.
"Nay, only two things. Are you the wife of some other man?"
"Not so, though perhaps—once I went near to it. What is the other question?"
"Do you love some other man so that your heart tells you it is not possible that you should ever love me?"
"No, I do not," she answered almost fiercely, "but by the Rood! I hate one."
"Which is no affair of mine," I said, laughing. "For the rest, let it sleep. Few are they that know life's wars who have no scar to hide, and I am not one of them, though in truth your lips made the deepest yonder by the cave at Hastings."
When she heard this she coloured to her brow and forgetting her tears, laughed outright, while I went on:
"Therefore let the past be and if it is your will, let us set our eyes upon the future. Only one promise would I ask of you, that never again will you be alone with the lord Deleroy, since one so light-fingered with a pen would, I think, steal other things."
"By my soul! the last thing I desire is to be alone with my cousin Deleroy."
Now she rose from the chair and for a little while we stood facing each other. Then she very slightly opened her arms and lifted her face towards me.
Thus did Blanche Aleys and I become affianced, though afterwards, when I thought the business over, I remembered that never once did she say that she would marry me. This, however, troubled me little, since in such matters it is what women do that weighs, not what they say. For the rest I was mad with love of her, also both then and as the days went by, more and more did she seem to be travelling on this same road of Love. If not, indeed she acted well.
Within a month we were wed on a certain October day in the church of St. Margaret's at Westminster. Once it was agreed all desired to push on this marriage, and not least Blanche herself. Sir Robert Aleys said that he wished to be gone from London to his estates in Sussex, having had enough of the Court and its ways, desiring there to live quietly till the end; I, being so much in love, was on fire for my bride, and Blanche herself vowed that she was eager to become my wife, saying that our courtship, which began on Hastings Hill, had lasted long enough. For the rest, there was nothing to cause delay. I cancelled Sir Robert's debt to me and signed a deed in favour of his daughter and her offspring, whereof I gave a copy to his lawyer and there was nought else to be done except to prepare my house for her which, with money at command, was easy.
No great business was made of this marriage, since neither his kin nor Sir Robert himself wished to noise it about that his only child, the last of his House, was taking a merchant for her husband to save her and him from wreck. Nor did I, the merchant, wish to provoke talk amongst those of my own station, especially as it was known that I had advanced moneys to these fine folks of the Court. So it came about that few were asked to the ceremony that was fixed for an early hour, and of these not many came, because on that day, although it was but October, a great gale with storms of rain began to blow, the greatest indeed that I had known in my life.
Thus it chanced that we were wed in an almost empty church while the fierce wind, thundering against the windows, overcame the feeble voice of the old priest, so that he looked like one acting in a show without words. The darkness caused by the thick rain was so deep, also, that scarce could I see my bride's lovely face or find the finger upon which I must set the ring.
At length it was done and we went down the aisle to find our horses whereon we must ride to my house in Cheapside, where there was to be a feast for my dependents and such of my few friends as cared to come, among whom were not numbered any grand folk from Westminster. As we drew near the church door I noted among those who were present those two gaudy ladies between whom Deleroy had sat at that meal after the business of the loan was settled. Moreover, I heard one of them say:
"What will Deleroy do when he comes back to find his darling gone?" and the other answer with a high laugh:
"Seek another, doubtless, or borrow more money from the merchant, and——" Here I lost their talk in the rush of the wind through the opened door.
In the porch was old Sir Robert Aleys.
"Mother of God!" he shouted, "may the rest of the lives of you two be smoother than your nuptials. No Cheapside feast for me, I'm for home in such fiend's weather. Farewell, son Hubert, and all joy to you. Farewell, Blanche. Learn to be obedient as a wife and keep your eyes for your husband's face, that is my counsel to you. Till we meet again at Christmastide in Sussex, whither I ride to-morrow, farewell to both of you."
Farewell, it was indeed, for never did either of us look on him again.
Wrapped close in our cloaks we battled through the storm and at length, somewhat breathless, reached my house in the Cheap where the garlands of autumn flowers and greenery that I had caused to be wreathed from posts before the door were all torn away by the gale. Here I welcomed my wife as best I could, kissing her as she crossed the threshold and saying certain sweet words that I had prepared, to which she smiled an answer. Then the women took her to her chamber to make herself ready and afterwards came the feast, which was sumptuous of its sort, though the evil weather kept some of the guests away.
Scarcely had it begun when Kari, who of late had been sad-faced and brooding, and who did not eat with us, entered and whispered to me that my Master of Lading from the docks prayed to see me at once on a matter which would brook no delay. Making excuse to Blanche and the company, I went out to see him in the shop and found the man much disturbed. It seemed that a certain vessel of mine that I had rechristened Blanche in honour of my wife, which lay in the stream ready to sail, was in great danger because of the tempest. Indeed, she was dragging at her anchor, and it was feared that unless more anchors could be let down she would come ashore and be wrecked against the jetty-heads or otherwise. The reason why this had not been done, was that only the master and one sailor were on board the vessel; the rest were feasting ashore in honour of my marriage, and refused to row out to her, saying that the boat would be swamped in the gale.
Now this ship, although not very large, was the best and staunchest that I owned, being almost new; moreover, the cargo on board of her, laden for the Mediterranean, was of great value, so great indeed that its loss would have been very grievous to me. Therefore, it was plain that I must see to the matter without delay, since from my servant's account there was no hope that these rebellious sailors would listen to any lesser man than myself. So, if I would save the ship and her cargo, I must ride for the docks at once.
Going back to the eating-chamber, in a few words I told my wife and the guests how the matter stood, praying the oldest man among the latter to take my place by the bride, which he did unwillingly, muttering that this was an unlucky marriage feast.
Then it was that Blanche rose, beseeching me earnestly and almost with tears that I would take her with me to the docks. I laughed at her, as did the company, but still she besought with much persistence, till I began to believe that she must be afraid of something, though the others cried that it was but love and fear lest I should come to harm.
In the end I made her drink a cup of wine with me, but her hand shook so much that she spilled the cup and the rich red wine ran down her breast, staining the whiteness of her robe, whereat some women among the company murmured, thinking it a bad omen. At length with a kiss I tore myself away, for I could bide no longer and the horses were waiting presently. So I was riding for the docks as fast as the storm would suffer, with tiles from the roofs, and when we were clear of these the torn-off limbs of trees hurtling round me. Kari, I should say, would have accompanied me, but I took a serving-man, bidding Kari bide where he was in the house in case he might be of service.
At last we came safely to the docks where I found all as my cargo-master had described. The ship Blanche was in great peril and dragging every minute towards a pierhead which, if she struck, would stave her in and make an end of her. The men, too, were still feasting in the inn with their wharfside trollops, and some of them half drunk. I spoke to them, showing them their shame, and saying that if they would not come, I and my man would take a boat and get aboard alone and this upon my wedding day. Then they hung their heads and came.
We won to the ship safely though with much toil and danger, and there found the master almost crazed with fear and doubt of the issue, and the man with him injured by a falling block. Indeed, this poor captain clung to the rail, watching the cable as it dragged the anchor and fearing every moment lest it should part.
The rest is soon told. We got out two more anchors and did other things such as sailors know, to help in such a case. When all was as safe as it could be made, I and my man and four sailors started for the quay, telling the master that I would return upon the morrow. The wind and current aiding us, we landed safe and sound and at once I rode back to Cheapside.
Now, though it is short to tell, all this had taken a long while, also the way was far to ride in such a storm. Thus it came about that it was nigh to ten o'clock at night when, thanking God, I dismounted at the gate of my house and bade the servant take the horses to the stable. As I drew near the door, it opened, which astonished me and, as the light within showed, there stood Kari. What astonished me still more, he had the great sword, Wave-Flame, in his hand, though not drawn, which sword he must have fetched from where it was kept with the French knight's armour and the shield that bore three arrows as a cognizance.
Laying his finger on his lips he shut the door softly, then said in a low voice:
"Master, there is a man up yonder with the lady."
"What man?" I asked.
"That same lord, Master, who came here with her once before to buy jewels and borrow gold. Hearken. The feast being finished the guests went away at fall of night, but the wife-lady withdrew herself into the chamber that is called sun-room (the solar), that up the stairs, which looks out on the street. About one hour gone there came a knock at the door. I who was watching, opened, thinking it was you returned, and there stood that lord. He spoke to me, saying:
"'Moor-man, I know that your master is from home, but that the lady is here. I would speak with her.'
"Now I would have turned him away, but at that moment the lady herself, who it seemed was watching, came down the stairs, looking very white, and said:
"'Kari, let the lord come in. I have matters of your master's business about which I must talk with him.' So, Master, knowing that you had lent money to this lord, I obeyed, though I liked it not, and having fetched the sword which I thought perchance might be needed, I waited."
This was the substance of what he said, though his talk was more broken since he never learned to speak English well and helped it out with words of his own tongue, of which, as I have told, he had taught me something.
"I do not understand," I exclaimed, when he had finished. "Doubtless it is little or nothing. Yet give me the sword, for who knows? and come with me."
Kari obeyed, and as I went up the stairs I buckled Wave-Flame about me. Also Kari brought two candles of Italian wax lighted upon their stands. Coming to the door of the solar I tried to open it, but it was bolted.
"God's truth!" I said, "this is strange," and hammered on the panel with my fist.
Presently it opened, but before entering it, for I feared some trick, I stood without and looked in. The room was lit by a hanging lamp and a fire burned brightly on the hearth, for the night was cold. In an oak chair by the fire and staring into it sat Blanche still as any statue. She glanced round and saw me in the light of the candles that Kari held, and again stared into the fire. Half-way between her and the door stood Deleroy, dressed as ever in fine clothes, though I noted that his cape was off and hung over a stool near the fire as though to dry. I noted also that he wore a sword and a dagger. I entered the room, followed by Kari, shut the door behind me and shot the bolt. Then I spoke, asking:
"Why are you here with my wife, Lord Deleroy?"
"It is strange, Master merchant," he answered, "but I was about to put much the same question to you: namely, why is my wife in your house?"
Now, while I reeled beneath these words, without turning her head, Blanche by the fire said:
"He lies, Hubert. I am not his wife."
"Why are you here, my Lord Deleroy?" I repeated.
"Well, if you would know, Master merchant, I bring a paper for you, or rather a copy of it, for the writ itself will be served on you to-morrow by the King's officers. It commits you to the Tower under the royal seal for trading with the King's enemies, a treason that can be proved against you, of which as you know, or will shortly learn, the punishment is death," and as he spoke he threw a writing down upon a side table.
"I see the plot," I answered coldly. "The King's unworthy favourite, forger and thief, uses the King's authority to try to bring the King's honest subject to bonds and death by a false accusation. It is a common trick in these days. But let that be. For the third time I ask you—why are you here with my new-wed wife and at this hour of the night?"
"So courteous a question demands a courteous answer, Master merchant, but to give it I must trouble you to listen to a tale."
"Then let it be like my patience, brief," I replied.
"It shall," he said with a mocking bow.
Then very clearly and quietly he set out a dreadful story, giving dates and circumstances. Let that story be. The substance of it was that he had married Blanche soon after she reached womanhood and that she had borne him a child which died.
"Blanche," I said when he had done, "you have heard. Is this true?"
"Much of it is true," she answered in that strange, cold voice, still staring at the fire. "Only the marriage was a false one by which I was deceived. He who celebrated it was a companion of the Lord Deleroy tricked out as a priest."
"Do not let us wrangle of this matter," said Deleroy. "A man who mixes with the world like yourself, Master merchant, will know that women in a trap rarely lack excuses. Still if it be admitted that this marriage did not fulfil all formalities, then so much the better for Blanche and myself. If she be your lawful wife and not mine, you, I learn, have signed a writing in her favour under which she will inherit your great wealth. That indenture I think you can find no opportunity to dispute, and if you do I have a promise that the property of a certain traitor shall pass to me, the revealer of his treachery. Let it console you in your last moments, Master merchant, to remember that the lady whom you have honoured with your fancy will pass her days in wealth and comfort in the company of him whom she has honoured with her love."