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- Via Crucis - 6/55 -

questions every day, and begged the abbot himself to send word to the Lady Goda asking her to ride over to the abbey. The abbot smiled, nodded, and seemed to promise; but if the message was ever sent, it elicited no answer, and after a time, as Gilbert grew steadily better, not even a messenger came from Stoke Regis to ask about him. Now Gilbert had worshipped his mother as a sort of superior being, and, like his father, had deceived himself with the belief that she was devoted to him; so that, as time went on, and he was utterly neglected by her, the conviction was forced upon him that something terrible and unforeseen had happened. Yet the abbot would tell him nothing, nor the brothers who tended him; to the best of their knowledge, they said, the Lady of Stoke was well.

"Before long," Gilbert would answer, "I shall be able to go home and see for myself."

And at this the abbot smiled and nodded, and began to talk of the weather, which was hot.

But to-day, since he had been allowed to leave his room, Gilbert was determined to force an explanation. It lacked yet an hour of midday and dinner-time when the abbot came sauntering along the cloister, followed at a respectful distance by a couple of monks, who walked side by side with downcast eyes and hands hidden in their sleeves, their cord girdles bobbing and swinging rhythmically as they walked. As he came up to Gilbert, the nursing brother rose and hid his hands in his grey woollen sleeves.

Gilbert opened his eyes at the sound of the abbot's footsteps, and made a movement as though he would have risen to greet the lordly churchman, who had so often visited him in his room, and for whom he felt a natural sympathy, as for a man of his own race and breeding; for Lambert, Abbot of Sheering, came of the great Norman house of Clare, which had taken Stephen's side in the Civil War, a fact which did not prevent the aristocratic abbot from talking with gentle satire and occasional bitter sarcasm about the emptiness of Stephen's claims.

He laid his hand on Gilbert's sleeve to make him keep his seat, and sat down beside him on the bench. He waved the monks away, and they retired to the other end of the cloister, where they all three sat down together in silence. The abbot, a delicately made man, with high Norman features, a colourless beard, once fair, and very bright blue eyes, laid one of his beautiful hands kindly upon Gilbert's.

"You are saved," he said cheerfully. "We have done our part; youth and sunshine will do the rest; you will grow strong very quickly, now, and in a week you will be asking for your horse. They found him beside you, and he has been well cared for."

"Next week, then," said Gilbert, "I will ride over to Stoke and see my mother. But I think I shall come back and stay with you again--if you will have me."

Gilbert smiled as he spoke the last words; but the abbot's face was grave and his brows were drawn together, as though he were in some trouble.

"Better stay with us altogether," he said, shaking his head and looking away.

Gilbert sat motionless for a few seconds, as if the remark had made no impression upon him; then, realizing that the words contained some special meaning, he started slightly and turned his hollow eyes to the speaker's face.

"And not go to see my mother?" His voice expressed the utmost surprise.

"Not--not at present," answered the abbot, taken off his guard by the directness of the question.

Weak as he was, Gilbert half rose from his seat, and his thin fingers nervously grasped his companion's arm. He would have spoken, but a sort of confusion came over him, as if he could not decide which of many questions to ask first, and before words could form themselves, the abbot was speaking to him with gentle authority.

"Listen to me," he said; "sit quietly beside me and hear what I have to say, for you are a man, now, and it is better that you should know it all at once, and from me, than get it distorted, in miserable morsels, from the gossip of the brothers within the next day or two."

He paused a moment, holding the young man's hand soothingly while keeping him in his seat and making him feel that he must stay there.

"What is it?" asked Gilbert, nervously, with half closed eyes. "Tell me quickly."

"An evil thing," answered the churchman, "--a sad thing, and one of those that change men's lives."

Again Gilbert started in his seat, more violently this time than before, and there was the broken ring of genuine fear in his voice.

"My mother is dead!" he cried.

"No, not that. She is in no danger. She is well. She is more than well; she is happy."

Gilbert was staring almost stupidly at his companion, not in the least understanding that there could be any evil news about his mother if all these things were true.

And yet it seemed strange that the abbot should lay stress upon the Lady Goda's happiness, when Gilbert had been at death's door for many weeks, and when, as he well knew, she was without news of him.

"Happy!" he echoed, half dazed.

"Too happy," answered the prelate. "Your mother was married when you had been scarcely a month here with us."

Gilbert stared into the older man's face for one moment after he had ceased speaking, and then sank back against the wall behind him with something between a groan and a sigh. One word had struck the ground from under his feet; the next was to pierce his soul.

"Who is her husband?" he asked under his breath.

Before the abbot answered, his grasp tightened upon Gilbert's hands with a friendly grip that was meant to inspire courage.

"Your mother has married Sir Arnold de Curboil."

Gilbert sprang to his feet, as though he had been struck in the face by an enemy. A moment earlier he could not have risen without help; a moment later he fell backward into the abbot's arms.

Nothing that he had felt in his whole short life--not all the joys and fears of childhood, which, after all, contains the greatest joys and fears in life, compounded with the clash of his first fighting day and the shock of seeing his father killed before his eyes--not all these together could be compared with what he felt at that plain statement of the dishonour done upon his house and upon his father's memory. Yet he was not unconscious.

"Now, by the Sacred Blood--"

Before he could pronounce the solemn vow of revenge that was on his lips, the abbot's delicate hand was almost crushing his mouth with open palm to stop the words.

"Arnold de Curboil, perjured to God, false to his king, the murderer of his friend, the seducer of his friend's wife, is fit for my prayers," said the abbot, "not for your steel. Swear no great oaths that you will kill him; still less swear that you will be avenged upon your mother; but if you must needs swear something, vow rather that you will leave them to their fate and never willingly cross their path again. And indeed, whether you promise that or not, you must needs keep away from them until you can claim your own with the chance of getting it back."

"My own!" exclaimed Gilbert. "Is Stoke not mine? Am I not my father's son?"

"Curboil has got Stoke Regis by treachery, as he got your mother. As soon as he had married her he took her with him to London, and they two did homage to King Stephen, and the Lady Goda made apology before the king's court because her former husband had been faithful to the Empress Maud; and she besought the king to bestow the lordship of Stoke Regis, with the manor house and all things thereto appertaining, upon their present lord, Sir Arnold de Curboil, disinheriting you, her son, both because you are true to the Empress, and because, as she did swear, you tried to slay Sir Arnold by stealth in Stortford woods. So you have neither kith nor kin, nor lands nor goods, beyond your horse and your sword; wherefore I say, it were as well for you to stay with us altogether."

Gilbert was silent for some time after the abbot had ceased speaking. He seemed to be utterly overcome by the news that he was disinherited, and his hands lay upon his knees, loosely weak and expressive of utter hopelessness. Very slowly he raised his face at last and turned his eyes upon the only friend that seemed left to him in his destitution.

"So I am an outcast," he said, "an exile, a beggar--"

"Or a monk," suggested the churchman, with a smile.

"Or an adventurer," said Gilbert, smiling also, but more bitterly.

"Most of our ancestors were that," retorted the abbot, "and they have picked up a fair living by it," he added. "Let me see: Normandy, Maine, Aquitaine, Gascony--and England. Not a bad inheritance for a handful of pirates matched against the world."

"Yes, but the handful of pirates were Normans," said Gilbert, as if that statement alone should have explained the conquest of the universe. "But the world is half won," he concluded, with a rather hopeless sigh.

"There is enough to fight for yet," answered the abbot, gravely. "The Holy Land is not half conquered, and until all Palestine and Syria shall be one Christian kingdom under one Christian king, there is earth for Norman feet to tread, and flesh for Norman swords to hack."

Gilbert's expression changed a little, and a light came into his eyes.

"The Holy Land--Jerusalem!" The words came slowly, each with its dream. "But the times are too old. Who should preach another crusade in our day?"

"The man whose word is a lash, a sword, and a crown--the man who rules

Via Crucis - 6/55

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