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- Via Crucis - 1/55 -


[Illustration: "SO GILBERT FIRST MET THE QUEEN"]

VIA CRUCIS

A Romance of the Second Crusade

BY

F. MARION CRAWFORD

LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

"So Gilbert first met the Queen"

"Perhaps that is one reason why I like you"

"Crosses! Give us Crosses!"

Beatrix and Gilbert

"He ... held, while earth and sky whirled with him"

The Knighting of Gilbert

"For a space Gilbert answered nothing"

The Way of the Cross

CHAPTER I

The sun was setting on the fifth day of May, in the year of our Lord's grace eleven hundred and forty-five. In the little garden between the outer wall of the manor and the moat of Stoke Regis Manor, a lady slowly walked along the narrow path between high rose bushes trained upon the masonry, and a low flower-bed, divided into many little squares, planted alternately with flowers and sweet herbs on one side, and bordered with budding violets on the other. From the line where the flowers ended, spiked rushes grew in sharp disorder to the edge of the deep green water in the moat. Beyond the water stretched the close- cropped sward; then came great oak trees, shadowy still in their spring foliage; and then, corn-land and meadow-land, in long, green waves of rising tilth and pasture, as far as a man could see.

The sun was setting, and the level rays reddened the lady's golden hair, and fired the softness of her clear blue eyes. She walked with a certain easy undulation, in which there were both strength and grace; and though she could barely have been called young, none would have dared to say that she was past maturity. Features which had been coldly perfect and hard in early youth, and which might grow sharp in old age, were smoothed and rounded in the full fruit-time of life's summer. As the gold deepened in the mellow air, and tinged the lady's hair and eyes, it wrought in her face changes of which she knew nothing. The beauty of a white marble statue suddenly changed to burnished gold might be beauty still, but of different expression and meaning. There is always something devilish in the too great profusion of precious metal--something that suggests greed, spoil, gain, and all that he lives for who strives for wealth; and sometimes, by the mere absence of gold or silver, there is dignity, simplicity, even solemnity.

Above the setting sun, tens of thousands of little clouds, as light and fleecy as swan's-down, some dazzling bright, some rosy-coloured, some, far to eastward, already purple, streamed across the pale sky in the mystic figure of a vast wing, as if some great archangel hovered below the horizon, pointing one jewelled pinion to the firmament, the other down and unseen in his low flight. Just above the feathery oak trees, behind which the sun had dipped, long streamers of red and yellow and more imperial purple shot out to right and left. Above the moat's broad water, the quick dark May-flies chased one another, in dashes of straight lines, through the rosy haze, and as the sinking sun shot a last farewell glance between the oak trees on the knoll, the lady stood still and turned her smooth features to the light. There was curiosity in her look, expectation, and some anxiety, but there was no longing. A month, had passed since Raymond Warde had ridden away with his half- dozen squires and servants to do homage to the Empress Maud. Her court was, indeed, little more than a show, and Stephen ruled in wrongful possession of the land; but here and there a sturdy and honest knight was still to be found, who might, perhaps, be brought to do homage for his lands to King Stephen, but who would have felt that he was a traitor, and no true man, had he not rendered the homage of fealty to the unhappy lady who was his rightful sovereign. And one of these was Raymond Warde, whose great-grandfather had ridden with Robert the Devil to Jerusalem, and had been with him when he died in Nicaea; and his grandsire had been in the thick of the press at Hastings, with William of Normandy, wherefore he had received the lands and lordship of Stoke Regis in Hertfordshire; and his name is on Battle Abbey Roll to this day.

During ten years Stephen of Blois had reigned over England with varying fortune, alternately victor and vanquished, now holding his great enemy, Robert of Gloucester, a prisoner and hostage, now himself in the Empress's power, loaded with chains and languishing in the keep of Bristol Castle. Yet of late the tide had turned in his favour; and though Gloucester still kept up the show of warfare for his half- sister's sake,--as indeed he fought for her so long as he had breath,-- the worst of the civil war was over; the partisans of the Empress had lost faith in her sovereignty, and her cause was but lingering in the shadow of death. The nobles of England had judged Stephen's character from the hour in which King Henry died, and they knew him to be a brave soldier, a desperate fighter, an indulgent man, and a weak ruler.

Finding themselves confronted by a usurper who had no great talent to recommend him, nor much political strength behind his brilliant personal courage, their first instinct was to refuse submission to his authority, and to drive him out as an impostor. It was not until they had been chilled and disappointed by the scornful coldness of the Empress Queen's imperious bearing that they saw how much pleasanter it would be to rule Stephen than to serve Maud. Yet Gloucester was powerful, and with his feudal retainers and devoted followers and a handful of loyal independent knights, he was still able to hold Oxford, Gloucester, and the northernmost part of Berkshire for his sister.

Now, in the early spring of this present year, the great earl had gone forth, with his followers and a host of masons and labouring men, to build a new castle on the height by Faringdon, where good King Alfred had carved the great white horse by tearing the turf from the gravel hill, for an everlasting record of victory. Broadly and boldly Gloucester had traced the outer wall and bastions, the second wall within that, and the vast fortress which was to be thus trebly protected. The building was to be the work of weeks, not months, and, if it were possible, of days rather than of weeks. The whole was to be a strong outpost for a fresh advance, and neither gold nor labour was to be spared in the execution of the plan. Gloucester pitched his sister's camp and his own tent upon the grassy eminence that faced the castle. Thence he himself directed and commanded, and thence the Empress Maud, sitting beneath the lifted awning of her imperial tent, could see the grey stones rising, course upon course, string upon string, block upon block, at a rate that reminded her of that Eastern trick which she had seen at the Emperor's court, performed by a turbaned juggler from the East, who made a tree grow from the seed to the leafy branch and full ripe fruit while the dazed courtiers who looked on could count fivescore.

Thither, as to a general trysting-place, the few loyal knights and barons went up to do homage to their sovereign lady, and to grasp the hand of the bravest and gentlest man who trod English ground; and thither, with the rest, Raymond Warde was gone, with his only son, Gilbert, then but eighteen years of age, whom this chronicle chiefly concerns; and Raymond's wife, the Lady Goda, was left in the manor house of Stoke Regis under the guard of a dozen men-at-arms, mostly stiff-jointed veterans of King Henry's wars, and under the more effectual protection of several hundred sturdy bondsmen and yeomen, devoted, body and soul, to their master and ready to die for his blood or kin. For throughout Hertfordshire and Essex and Kent there dwelt no Norman baron nor any earl who was beloved of his Saxon people as was the Lord of Stoke; wherefore his lady felt herself safe in his absence, though she knew well enough that only a small part of that devotion was for herself.

There are people who seem able to go through life, with profit to themselves, if not to others, by a sort of vicarious grace arising out of the devotion wasted on them by their nearest and dearest, and dependent upon the success, the honour, and the reputation of those who cherish them. The Lady Goda set down to her own full credit the faithful attachment which her husband's Saxon swains not only felt for him, but owed him in return for his unchanging kindness and impartial justice; and she took the desert to herself, as such people will, with a whole-souled determination to believe that it was all her due though she knew that she deserved none of it.

She had married Raymond Warde without loving him, being ambitious of his name and honours, when his future had seemed brilliant in the days of good King Henry. She had borne him an only son, who worshipped her with a chivalric devotion that was almost childlike in its blindness; but the most that she could feel, in return, was a sort of motherly vanity in his outward being; and this he accepted as love, though it was as far from that as devotion to self is from devotion to another-- as greed is far from generosity. She had not been more than sixteen years of age when she had married, being the youngest of many sisters, left almost dowerless when their father had departed on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, from which he had never returned. Raymond Warde had loved her for her beauty, which was real, and for her character, which was entirely the creation of his own imagination; and with the calm, unconscious fatuity which so often underlies the characters of honest and simple men, he had continued throughout his married life to believe that his wife's affection, if neither very deep nor very high, was centred upon himself and upon Gilbert. Any man a whit less true and straightforward would have found out the utter emptiness of such belief within a year. Goda had been bitterly disappointed by the result of her marriage, so far as her real tastes and ambitions were concerned. She had dreamt of a court; she was condemned to the country. She loved gayety; she was relegated to dulness. Moreover the Lord of Stoke was strong rather than attractive, imposing rather than seductive, and he had never dreamed of that small coin of flattery which greedy and dissatisfied natures require at all costs when their real longings are unfed. It is their nature to give little; it is their nature and their delight to ask much, and to take all that is within their reach. So it came to pass that Goda took her husband's loving generosity and her son's devotion as matters foregone and of course, which were her due, and which might stay hunger, though they could not satisfy her vanity's large appetite; and she took, besides, such other things, both good and


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