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- The Herd Boy and His Hermit - 6/27 -
'What would you have done, reverend Mother, if she had crossed the Border?' asked Bertram.
'Ridden after her. No Scot would touch a Lady Prioress on the chase,' responded Mother Agnes, looking not at all like a reverend Mother. 'Now, poor Anne, thou must be hungered. Thou shalt eat with Master Bertram and me in the refectory anon. Take her, Sister Joan, and make her ready to break her fast with us.'
Anne quickly went to her chamber. It was not quite a cell, the bare stone walls being hung with faded woollen tapestry, the floor covered with a deerskin, the small window filled with dark green glass, a chest serving the double purpose of seat and wardrobe, and further, a bed hung with thick curtains, in which she slept with the lay Sister, Joan, who further fetched a wooden bowl of water from the fountain in the court that she might wash her face and hands. She changed her soiled riding-dress for a tight-fitting serge garment of dark green with long hanging sleeves, assisted by Joan, who also arranged her dark hair in two plaits, and put over it a white veil, fastened over a framework to keep it from hanging too closely.
All the time Joan talked, telling of the fright the Mother had been in when the loss of the Lady Anne had been discovered, and how it was feared that she had been seized by Scottish reivers, or lost in the snow on the hills, or captured by the Lancastrians.
'For there be many of the Red Rose rogues about on the mosses-- comrades, 'tis said, of that noted thief Robin of Redesdale.'
'I was with good folk, in a shepherd's sheiling,' replied Anne.
'Ay, ay. Out on the north hill, methinks.'
'Nay. Beyond Deadman's Pool,' said Anne. 'By Blackreed Moss. That was where the pony fell.'
'Blackreed Moss! That moor belongs to the De Vescis, the blackest Lancaster fellow of all! His daughter is the widow of the red-handed Clifford, who slew young Earl Edmund on Wakefield Bridge. They say her young son is in hiding in some moss in his lands, for the King holds him in deadly feud for his brother's death.'
'He was a babe, and had nought to do with it,' said Anne.
'He is of his father's blood,' returned Sister Joan, who in her convent was still a true north country woman. 'Ay, Lady Anne, you from your shires know nought of how deep goes the blood feud in us of the Borderland! Ay, lady, was not mine own grandfather slain by the Musgrave of Leit Hill, and did not my father have his revenge on his son by Solway Firth? Yea, and now not a Graeme can meet a Musgrave but they come to blows.'
'Nay, but that is not what the good Fathers teach,' Anne interposed.
'The Fathers have neither chick nor child to take up their quarrel. They know nought about blood crying for blood! If King Edward caught that brat of Clifford he would make him know what 'tis to be born of a bloody house.'
Anne tried to say something, but the lay Sister pushed her along. 'There, there, go you down--you know nothing about what honour requires of you! You are but a south country maid, and have no notion of what is due to them one came from.'
Joan Graeme was only a lay Sister, her father a small farmer when not a moss trooper; but all the Border, on both sides, had the strongest ideas of persistent vendetta, such as happily had never been held in the midland and southern counties, where there was less infusion of Celtic blood. Anne was a good deal shocked at the doctrine propounded by the attendant Sister, a mild, good-natured woman in daily life, but the conversation confirmed her suspicions, and put her on her guard as she remembered Hob's warning. She had liked the shepherd lad far too much, and was far too grateful to him, to utter a word that might give him up to the revengers of blood.
At the foot of the stone stairs that led into the quadrangle she met the black-robed, heavily hooded Sister Scholastica on her way to the chapel. The old nun held out her arms. 'Safely returned, my child! God be thanked! Art thou come to join thy thanksgiving with ours at this hour of nones?'
'Nay, I am bound to break my fast with the Mother and Master Bertram.'
'Ah! thou must needs be hungered! It is well! But do but utter thy thanks to Him Who kept thee safe from the storm and from foul doers.'
Anne did not break away from the good Sister, but went as far as the chapel porch, was touched with holy water, and bending her knee, uttered in a low voice her 'Gratias ago,' then hastened across the court to the refectory, where the Prioress received her with a laugh and, 'So Sister Scholastica laid hands on thee; I thought I should have to come and rescue thee ere the grouse grew cold.'
Bertram, as a courteous squire of dames, came forward bowing low, and the party were soon seated at the board--literally a board, supported upon trestles, only large enough to receive the Prioress, the squire and the recovered girl, but daintily veiled in delicate white napery.
It was screened off from the rest of the refectory, where the few Sisters had already had their morning's meal after Holy Communion; and from it there was a slight barrier, on the other side of which Bertram Selby ought to have been, but rules sat very lightly on the Prioress Selby. Bertram was of kin to her, and she had no demur as to admitting him to her private table. He was, in fact, a squire of the household of the Marquess of Montagu, brother of the Kingmaker and had been despatched with letters to the south. He had made a halt at his cousin's priory, had been persuaded to join in flying the new hawks, and then had first been detained by the snow-storm, and then joined in the quest for the lost Lady Anne St. John.
No doubt had then arisen that the Nevils were firm in their attachment to Edward IV., and, as a consequence, in enmity to the House of Clifford, and both these scions of Selby had been excited at a rumour that the widow of the Baron who had slain young Edmund of York had married Sir Lancelot Threlkeld of Threlkeld, and that her eldest son, the heir of the line, might be hidden somewhere on the De Vesci estates.
Bertram had already told the Prioress that his men had spied a lad accompanying the shepherd who escorted the lady, and who, he thought, had a certain twang of south country speech; and no sooner had he carved for the ladies, according to the courtly duty of an esquire, than the inquiry began as to who had found the maiden and where she had been lodged. Prioress Agnes, who had already broken her fast, sat meantime with the favourite hawk on her wrist and a large dog beside her, feeding them alternately with the bones of the grouse.
'Come, tell us all, sweet Nan! Where wast thou in that untimely snow-storm? In a cave, starved with cold, eh?'
'I was safe in a cabin with a kind old gammer.'
'Eh! And how cam'st thou there? Wandering thither?'
'Nay, the shepherd heard me call.'
'The shepherd! What, the churl that came with thee?'
'He carried me to the hut.'
Anne was on her guard, though Bertram probed her well. Was there only one shepherd? Was there not a boy with her on the hill-side where Bertram met her? The shepherd lad in sooth! What became of him? The shepherd sent him back, he had been too long away from his flock. What was his name? What was the shepherd's name? Who was his master? Anne did not know--she had heard no names save Hob and Hal, she had seen no arms, she had heard nothing southland. The lad was a mere herd-boy, ordered out to milk ewes and tend the sheep. She answered briefly, and with a certain sullenness, and young Selby at last turned on her. 'Look thee here, fair lady, there's a saying abroad that the heir of the red-handed House of Clifford is lurking here, on the look-out to favour Queen Margaret and her son. Couldst thou put us on the scent, King Edward would favour thee and make thee a great dame, and have thee to his Court--nay, maybe give thee what is left of the barony of Clifford.'
'I know nothing of young lords,' sulkily growled Anne, who had been hitherto busy with her pets, striking her hand on the table.
'And I tell thee, Bertram Selby,' exclaimed the Prioress, 'that if thou art ware of a poor fatherless lad lurking in hiding in these parts, it is not the part of an honest man to seek him out for his destruction, and still less to try to make the maid he rescued betray him. Well done, little Anne, thou knowest how to hold thy tongue.'
'Reverend Mother,' expostulated Bertram, 'if you knew what some would give to be on the scent of the wolf-cub!'
'I know not, nor do I wish to know, for what price a Selby would sell his honour and his bowels of mercy,' said Mother Agnes. 'Come away, Nan; thou hast done well.'
Bertram muttered something about having thought her a better Yorkist, women not understanding, and mischief that might be brewing; but the Prioress, taking Anne by the hand, went her way, leaving Bertram standing confused.
'Oh, mother,' sighed Anne, 'do you think he will go after him? He will think I was treacherous!'
'I doubt me whether he will dare,' said the Prioress. 'Moreover, it is too late in the day for a search, and another snow-shower seems coming up again. I cannot turn the youth, my kinsman, from my door, and he is safer here than on his quest, but he shall see no more of thee or me to-night. I may hold that Edward of March has the right, but that does not mean hunting down an orphan child.'
'Mother, mother, you are good indeed!' cried Anne, almost weeping for joy.
Bertram, though hurt and offended, was obliged by advance of evening to remain all night in the hospitium, with only the chaplain to bear him company, and it was reported that though he rode past Blackpool, no trace of shepherd or hovel was found.
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