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- Via Crucis - 5/55 -


alone upon a matter of weight, and as the day was fair, he proposed that they should ride together for a little way into the greenwood. Sir Arnold barely showed a slight surprise, and readily assented. Gilbert, intent upon his purpose, noticed that the knight had no weapon.

"It were as well that you took your sword with you, Sir Arnold," he said, somewhat emphatically. "No one is safe from highwaymen in these times."

The knight met Gilbert's eyes, and the two looked at each other steadily for a moment; then Curboil sent the stable-boy to fetch his sword from the hall, and himself went out upon the drawbridge and called to one of the grooms to bring in a horse. In less than half an hour from the time when Gilbert had reached the castle, he and his enemy were riding quietly side by side in a little glade in Stortford wood. Gilbert drew rein and walked his horse, and Sir Arnold instantly did the same. Then Gilbert spoke.

"Sir Arnold de Curboil, it is now full three days since I saw you treacherously kill my father."

Sir Arnold started and turned half round in the saddle, his olive skin suddenly white with anger; but the soft fresh colour in Gilbert's cheek never changed.

"Treacherously!" cried the knight, with indignation and with a questioning tone.

"Foully," answered Gilbert, with perfect calm. "I was not twenty paces from you when you met, and had I not been hampered by a Frenchman of your side, who was unreasonably slow in dying, I should have either saved my father's life or ended yours, as I mean to now."

Thereupon Gilbert brought his horse to a stand and prepared to dismount, for the sward was smooth and hard and there was room enough to fight. Sir Arnold laughed aloud as he sat still in the saddle, watching the younger man.

"So you have brought me here to kill me!" he said as his mirth subsided.

Gilbert's foot was already on the ground, but he paused in the act of dismounting.

"If you do not like the spot," he answered coolly, "we can ride farther."

"No, I am satisfied," answered the knight; but before he had spoken the last word he broke into a laugh again.

They tied up their horses to trees at a little distance, out of reach of one another, and Gilbert was the first to return to the ring of open ground. As he walked, he drew his father's sword from its sheath, slipped the scabbard from the belt, and threw it to the edge of the grass. Sir Arnold was before him a moment later; but his left hand only rested on the pommel of his sheathed weapon, and he was still smiling as he stopped before his young adversary.

"I should by no means object to fighting you," he said, "if I had killed your father in treachery. But I did not. I saw you as well as you saw me. Your Frenchman, as you call him, hindered your sight. Your father was either beside himself with rage, or did not know me in my mail. He dropped his point one instant, and then flew at me like a bloodhound, so that I barely saved myself by slaying him against my will. I will not fight you unless you force me to it; and you had better not, for if you do, I shall lay you by the heels in two passes."

"Bragging and lying are well coupled," answered Gilbert, falling into guard. "Draw before I shall have counted three, or I will skewer you like a trussed fowl. One--two--"

Before the next word could pass his lips, Sir Arnold's sword was out, keen and bright as if it had just left the armourer's hands, clashing upon Gilbert's hacked and blood-rusted blade.

Sir Arnold was a brave man, but he was also cautious. He expected to find in Gilbert a beginner of small skill and reckless bravery, who would expose himself for the sake of bringing in a sweeping blow in carte, or attempting a desperate thrust. Consequently he did not attempt to put his bragging threat into practice, for Gilbert was taller than he, stronger, and more than twenty years younger. Unmailed, as he stood in his tunic and hose, one vigorous sword-stroke of the furious boy might break down his guard and cut him half in two. But in one respect Curboil was mistaken. Gilbert, though young, was one of those naturally gifted fencers in whom the movements of wrist and arm are absolutely simultaneous with the perception of the eye, and not divided by any act of reasoning or thought. In less than half a minute Sir Arnold knew that he was fighting for his life; the full minute had not passed before he felt Gilbert's jagged blade deep in the big muscles of his sword arm, and his own weapon, running past his adversary, fell from his powerless hand.

In those days it was no shame to strike a disarmed foe, in a duel to the death. As Sir Arnold felt the rough steel wrenched from the flesh- wound, he knew that the next stroke would kill him. Quick as light, his left hand snatched the long dagger from its sheath at his left side, and Gilbert, raising his blade to strike, felt as if an icicle had pierced his breast; his arm trembled in the air, and lost its hold upon the hilt; a scarlet veil descended before his eyes, and the bright blood gushed from his mouth as he fell straight backward upon the green turf.

Sir Arnold stepped back and stood looking at the fallen figure curiously, drawing his lids down, as some short-sighted men do. Then, as the sobbing breast ceased to heave and the white hands lay quite still upon the sward, he shrugged his shoulders, and began to take care of his own wound by twisting a leathern thong from Gilbert's saddle very tight upon his upper arm, using a stout oak twig for a lever. Then he plucked a handful of grass with his left hand and tried to hold his dagger in his right in order to clean the reddened steel. But his right hand was useless; so he knelt on one knee beside the body, and ran the poniard two or three times through the skirt of Gilbert's dark tunic, and returned it to its sheath. He picked up his sword, too, and succeeded in sheathing it. He mounted his horse, leaving Gilbert's tethered to the tree, cast one more glance at the motionless figure on the grass, and rode away towards Stortford Castle.

CHAPTER IV

Two months after Sir Arnold de Curboil had left Gilbert Warde in the forest, believing him to be dead, the ghostly figure of a tall, wafer- thin youth, leaning on the shoulders of two grey brothers, was led out into the warm shadows of the cloister in Sheering Abbey. One of the friars carried a brown leathern cushion, the other a piece of stiff parchment for a fan, and when they reached the first stone seat, they installed the sick man as comfortably as they could.

Three travelling monks, tramping homeward by the short forest path from Harlow to Sheering, had found Gilbert lying in his blood, not ten minutes after the knight had ridden away. Not knowing who he was, they had brought him to the abbey, where he was at once recognized by the monks who had formed the funeral procession on the previous evening, and by others who had seen him. The brother whose duty it was to tend the sick, an old soldier with the scars of a dozen deep wounds in him, and by no means a despicable surgeon, pronounced Gilbert's condition almost hopeless, and assured the abbot that it would be certain death to the young Lord of Stoke to send him back to his home. He was therefore laid upon a new bed in an upper chamber that had fair arched windows to the west, and there the brothers expected that Gilbert Warde would before long breathe his last and end his race and name. The abbot sent a messenger to Stoke Regis to inform the Lady Goda of her son's condition, and on the following day she came to see him, but he did not know her, for he was in a fever; and three days passed, and she came again, but he was asleep, and the nursing brother would not disturb him. After that she sent messengers to inquire about his state, but she herself did not come again, whereat the abbot and many of the monks marvelled for a while, but afterwards they understood.

Gilbert lived, and the desperate wound slowly healed, for he was strong and young, and his blood was untainted; but when at last he was allowed to stand upon his feet, he seemed to be little more than a fine-drawn shadow. They dressed him first in a novice's frock, because it was easier for him to wear, and at last he was well enough to be carried down from his room, and to sit for an hour upon the stone bench in the cloister. One of the brothers sat down beside him and slowly fanned his face with a stiff sheet of yellow parchment, such as the monks used for binding their books; the other went away to his work. Gilbert leaned back and closed his eyes, drinking in the sun-sweetened air and the scent of the flowers that grew in the cloister garden; and the indescribable sense of peace descended upon his body and soul which comes to men wrested from death, when danger is passed and their strength is slowly growing again within them.

It is impossible for any young man of sensitive and believing mind to spend two months in a great religious institution of his own faith without feeling himself drawn to the religious life. Lying in his room, alone for many hours of the day, alone in waking watches of the night, though a brother was always within call, Gilbert had followed with a sick man's second sight the lives of the two hundred monks who dwelt in Sheering Abbey. By asking questions, he knew how they rose at dawn, and trooped into the dim abbey church to early mass, and went to their daily work, the lay-brethren and novices in the field, the learned fathers in the library and the writing-room. He could follow their daily round of prayer and work, and his heart was with them in both. Bloodless and emaciated as he lay there, the life of love and war which had once seemed to him the only one worth living, faded away into the dimness of an undesired impossibility. He had failed, too, in his first great deed of arms; his father's murderer was alive, and he himself had most narrowly escaped death. It seemed to him that his thin white hands, which could hardly pull the blanket to his chin when he felt cold, could never again have strength to grasp sword-hilt or hold bridle, and in the blank collapse of his physical existence the image of himself as a monk, young, ascetic and holy in his life, presented itself with a marvellous and luring attraction. He made the nursing brother teach him prayers from the offices of the night and day, and he repeated them at the right hours, feeling that he was taking a real part in the monastic existence. Gradually, too, as he caught the spirit of the place, the gospel of forgiveness, ever the stumbling-block of fighting men, appeared to him as something that could be practised without dishonour, and the determination to kill Sir Arnold gave way to a sort of attempt at repentance for having even wished to be revenged upon him.

One thing troubled him constantly and was altogether beyond his comprehension. His mother seemed to have forgotten his very existence, and he had not consciously seen her since he had been wounded. He asked


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