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- Via Crucis - 4/55 -


last strains of the dirge came echoing under the deep archway. At that instant another sound startled the air--the deep bell-note of the great bloodhounds, chained in the courtyard from sunrise to sunset; and it sank to a wail, and the wail broke to a howl, dismal, ear-rending, wild. Before it had died away, one of the Saxon bondwomen shrieked aloud, and the next took up the cry, and then another, as a likewake dirge, till every stone in the shadowy manor seemed to have a voice, and every voice was weeping for the dead lord. And many of the women fell upon their knees, and some of the men, too, while others drew up their hoods, and stood with bent heads and folded hands against the rough walls.

Slowly and solemnly they bore him in and set the bier down under the mid-arch. Then Gilbert Warde looked up and faced his mother; but he stood aside, that she might see her husband; and the monks and song- boys stood back also, with their wax torches, which cast a dancing glare through the dim twilight. Gilbert's face was white and stern; but the Lady Goda was pale, too, and her heart fluttered, for she had to play the last act of her married life before many who would watch her narrowly. For one moment she hesitated whether to scream or to faint in honour of her dead husband. Then, with the instinct of the born and perfect actress, she looked wildly from her son's face to the straight, still length that lay beneath the pall. She raised one hand to her forehead, pressing back her golden hair with a gesture half mad, half dazed, then seemed to stagger forward two steps, and fell upon the body, in a storm of tears.

Gilbert went to the bier, and lifted one of his mother's gloved hands from the covered face, and it dropped from his fingers as if lifeless. He lifted the black cloth pall, and turned it back as far as he could without disturbing the woman's prostrate figure; and there lay the Lord of Stoke, in his mail, as he had fallen in fight, in his peaked steel helmet, the straight, fine, ring-mail close-drawn round his face and chin, the silky brown hair looking terribly alive against the dead face. But across the eyes and the forehead below the helmet there was laid a straight black band, and upon his breast the great mailed hands clasped the cross-hilted sword that lay lengthwise with his body. Gilbert, bareheaded and unarmed, gazed down into his father's face for a while, then suddenly looked up and spoke to all the people who thronged the gateway.

"Men of Stoke," he said, "here lies the body of Sir Raymond Warde, your liege lord, my father. He fell in the fight before Faringdon Castle, and this is the third day since he was slain; for the way was long, and we were not suffered to pass unmolested. The castle was but half built, and we were encamped about it with the Earl of Gloucester, when the king came suddenly from Oxford with a great host; and they fell upon us unawares at early morning, when we had but just heard the mass and most of us were but half armed, or not at all. So we fought as we could, and many fell, and not a few we killed with our hands. And I, with a helmet on my head and a gambison but half buckled upon my body, and my hands bare, was fighting with a full-armed Frenchman and was hard pressed. But I smote him in the neck, so that he fell upon one knee and reeled. And even in that moment I saw this sight. A score of paces from me, my father and Sir Arnold de Curboil met face to face, suddenly and without warning, their swords lifted in the act to strike; but when my father saw his friend before him, he dropped his sword-arm and smiled, and would have turned away to fight another; but Sir Arnold smiled also, and lowered not his hand, but smote my father by the point, unguarded, and thrust his sword through head and hood of mail at one stroke, treacherously. And so my father, your liege lord, fell dead unshriven, by his friend's hand; and may the curse of man and the damnation of Almighty God be upon his murderer's head, now and after I shall have killed him. For, as I would have sprung forward, the Frenchman, who was but stunned, sprang to his feet and grappled with me; and by the time he had no breath left, and the light broke in his eyes, Sir Arnold was gone, and our fight was lost. So we made a truce to bury our dead, and brought them away, each his own."

When he had spoken there was silence for many moments, broken only by the Lady Goda's unceasing sobs. In the court within, and on the bridge without, the air grew purple, and dark, and misty; for the sun had long gone down, and the light from the wax torches, leaping, flaming and flickering in the evening breeze, grew stronger and yellower under the gateway than the twilight without. The dark-robed monks looked gravely on, waiting till they should be told to pass into the chapel--men of all ages and looks, red and pale, thin and stout, dark and fair, but all having that something in their faces that marks the churchman from century to century. Between them and the dead knight, Gilbert stood still with bent head and downcast eyes, with pale face and set lips, looking at his mother's bright hair, and at her clutching hands, and listening to the painfully drawn breath, broken continually by her agonized weeping. Suddenly the bloodhounds' bay broke out again, fierce and deep; and on the instant a high young voice rang from the court through the deep arch.

"Burn the murderer! To Stortford, and burn him out!"

Gilbert looked up quickly, peering into the gloom whence the voice had spoken. He did not see how, at the words, his mother started back from the corpse, steadied herself with one hand, and fixed her eyes in the same direction; but before he could answer, the cry was taken up by a hundred throats.

"Burn the traitor! burn the murderer! To Stortford! Fagots! Fagots and pitch!"

High, low, hoarse, clear, the words followed one another in savage yells; and here and there among the rough men there were eyes that gleamed in the dark like a dog's.

Then through the din came a rattling of bolts and a creaking of hinges, as the grooms tore open the stable doors to bring out the horses and saddle them for the raid; and one called for a light and another warned men from his horse's heels. The Lady Goda was on her feet, her hands stretched out imploringly to her son, turning to him instinctively and for the first time, as to the head of the house. She spoke to him, too; but he neither heard nor saw, for in his own heart a new horror had possession, beside which what had gone before was as nothing. He thought of Beatrix.

"Hold!" he cried. "Let no man stir, for no man shall pass out who would burn Stortford. Sir Arnold de Curboil is the king's man, and the king has the power in England; so that if we should burn down Stortford Castle to-night, he would burn Stoke Manor to-morrow over my mother's head. Between Arnold de Curboil and me there is death. To-morrow I shall ride out to find him, and kill him in fair fight. But let there be no raiding, no harrying, and no burning, as if we were Stephen's French robbers, or King David's red-haired Scots. Take up the bier; and you," he said, turning to the monks and song-men, "take up your chant, that we may lay him in the chapel and say prayers for his unshriven soul."

The Lady Goda's left hand had been pressed to her heart as though she were in fear and pain; but as her son spoke, it fell by her side, and her face grew calm before she remembered that it should grow sad. Until to-day her son had been in her eyes but a child, subject to his father, subject to herself, subject to the old manor-priest who had taught him the little he knew. Now, on a sudden, he was full-grown and strong; more than that, he was master in his father's place, and at a word from him, men-at-arms and bondsmen would have gone forth on the instant to slay the man she loved, and to burn and to harry all that was his. She was grateful to him for not having spoken that word; and since Gilbert meant to meet Curboil in a single combat, she felt no fear for her lover, the most skilled man at fence in all Essex and Hertfordshire, and she felt sure, likewise, that for his reputation as a knight he would not kill a youth but half his age.

While she was thinking of these things, the monks had begun to chant again; the confusion was ended in the courtyard; the squires took up the bier, and the procession moved slowly across the broad paved space to the chapel opposite the main gate.

An hour later Sir Raymond's dead body lay before the altar, whereon burned many waxen tapers. Alone, upon the lowest step, Gilbert was kneeling, with joined hands and uplifted eyes, motionless as a statue. He had taken the long sword from the dead man's breast, and had set it up against the altar, straight and bare. It was hacked at the edges, and there were dark stains upon it from its master's last day's work. In the simple faith of a bloody age, Gilbert Warde was vowing, by all that he and his held sacred, before God's altar, upon God's Sacred Body, upon his father's unburied corpse, that before the blade should be polished again, it should be black with the blood of his father's murderer.

And as he knelt there, his lady mother, now clad all in black, entered the chapel and moved slowly towards the altar-steps. She meant to kneel beside her son; but when she was yet three paces from him, a great terror at her own falseness descended into her heart, and she sank upon her knees in the aisle.

CHAPTER III

Very early in the morning, Gilbert Warde was riding along the straight road between Sheering Abbey and Stortford Castle. He rode in his tunic and hose and russet boots, with his father's sword by his side; for he meant not to do murder, but to fight his enemy to death, in all the honour of even chance. He judged that Sir Arnold must have returned from Faringdon; and if Gilbert met him now, riding over his own lands in the May morning, he would be unmailed and unsuspecting of attack. And should they not meet, Gilbert meant to ride up to the castle gate, and ask for the baron, and courteously propose to him that they should ride together into the wood. And, indeed, Gilbert hoped that it might turn out so; for, once under the gateway, he might hope to see Beatrix for a moment; and two weeks had passed, and terrible things had happened, since he had last set eyes upon her face.

He met no one in the road; but in the meadow before the castle half a dozen Saxon grooms, in loose hose and short homespun tunics, were exercising some of Curboil's great Normandy horses. The baron himself was not in sight, and the grooms told Gilbert that he was within. The drawbridge was down, and Gilbert halted just before entering the gate, calling loudly for the porter. But instead of the latter, Sir Arnold himself appeared at that moment within the courtyard, feeding a brace of huge mastiffs with gobbets of red raw meat from a wooden bowl, carried by a bare-legged stable-boy with a shock of almost colourless flaxen hair, and a round, red face, pierced by two little round blue eyes. Gilbert called again, and the knight instantly turned and came towards him, beating down with his hands the huge dogs that sprang up at him in play and seemed trying to drive him back. Sir Arnold was smooth, spotless and carefully dressed as ever, and came forward with a well-composed smile in which hospitality was skilfully blended with sympathy and concern. Gilbert, who was as thorough a Norman in every instinct and thought as any whose fathers had held lands from the Conqueror, did his best to be suave and courteous on his side. Dismounting, he said quietly that he desired to speak with Sir Arnold


Via Crucis - 4/55

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