The Forest Lovers
Part 2 out of 6
THE SALLY AT DAWN
On the morning after his strange wedding Prosper rose up early, quite
himself. He left Isoult asleep in the bed, but could see neither old
man, old woman, nor friar; so far as he could tell, he and his wife
were alone in the cottage. Now he must think what to do. He admitted
freely enough to himself that he had not been in a condition for this
overnight; the girl's mood had exalted him; he had acted, and rightly
acted (he was clear about this); now he must think what to do. The
first duty was plain: he went out into the air and bathed in a pool;
he took a quick run and set his blood galloping; then he groomed and
fed his horse; put on his armour, and said his prayers. In the course
of this last exercise he again remembered his wife, on whose account
he had determined to make up his mind. He rose from his knees at once
and walked about the heath, thinking it out.
"It is clear enough," he said to himself, "that neither my wife nor I
desired marriage. We are not of the same condition; we have not--I
speak for myself and by implication for her also--we have not those
desires which draw men and women towards each other. Love, no doubt,
is a strange and terrible thing: it may lead a man to the writing of
verses and a most fatiguing search for words, but it will not allow
him to be happy in anything except its own satisfaction; and in that
it seems absurd to be happy. Marriage is in the same plight: it may be
a good or a bad thing; without love it is a ridiculous thing.
Nevertheless my wife and I are of agreement in this, that we think
marriage better than being hanged. I do not understand the
alternatives, but I accept them, and am married. My wife will not be
hanged. For the rest, I shall take her to Gracedieu. The devout ladies
there will no doubt make a nun of her; she will be out of harm's way,
and all will be well."
He said another prayer, and rose up much comforted. And then as he got
up Isoult came out of the cottage.
She ran towards him quickly, knelt down before he could prevent her,
took his hand and kissed it. She was very shy of him, and when he
raised her up and kissed her forehead, suffered the caress with
lowered eyes and a face all rosy. Prosper found her very different
from the tattered bride of over-night. She had changed her rags for a
cotton gown of dark blue, her clouds of hair were now drawn back over
her ears into a knot and covered with a silk hood of Indian work. On
her feet, then bare, he now saw sandals, round her waist a leather
belt with a thin dagger attached to it in a silver sheath. She looked
very timidly, even humbly up at him whenever he spoke to her--with the
long faithfulness of a dog shining in her big eyes: but she looked
like a girl who was to be respected, and even Prosper could not but
perceive what a dark beauty she was. Pale she was, no doubt, except
when she blushed; but this she did as freely as hill-side clouds in
"Where is your wedding-ring, my child?" he asked her, when he had
noticed that it was not where he had put it.
"Lord, it is here," said she, blushing again. She drew from her neck a
fine gold chain whereon were the ring and another trinket which beamed
Is that where you would have it, Isoult?"
"Yes, lord," she answered. "For this present it must be there."
"As you will," said Prosper. "Let us break our fast and make ready,
for we must be on our journey before we see the sun." Isoult went into
the cottage as Brother Bonaccord came out with good-morning all over
his puckered face.
Isoult brought bread and goats'-milk cheese, and they broke their fast
sitting on the threshold, while the sun slowly rose behind the house
and lit up the ground before them--a broken moorland with heather-
clumps islanded in pools of black water. The white forest mist hid
every distance and the air was shrewdly cold; but Prosper and the
friar gossiped cheerfully as they munched.
"We friars," said Brother Bonaccord, "have been accused of a foible
for wedding-rings. I grant you I had rather marry a healthy couple
than leave them aching, and that the sooner there's a christening the
better I am pleased. Another soul for Christ to save; another point
against the devil, thinks I! I have heard priests say otherwise: they
will christen if they must, and marry if it is not too late; but they
would sooner bury you any day. Go to! They live in the world (which I
vow is an excellent place), and eat and drink of it; yet they shut
their eyes, pretending all the time that they are not there, but
rather in skyey mansions. If this is not a fit and proper place for us
men, why did God Almighty take six days a-thinking before He bid it
out of the cooking pot? For a gift to the devil? Not He! 'Stop
bubbling, you rogue,' says He; 'out of the pot with you and on to the
platter, that these gentlemen and ladies of mine may cease sucking
their fingers and dip in the dish!' Pooh! Look at your mother Mary and
your little brother Gesulino. There was a wedding for you, there was a
sacring! Beloved sons are ye all, young men; full of grace are ye,
young women! God be good, who told me to couple ye and keep the game
a-going! Take my blessing, brother, and the sleek and tidy maid you
have gotten to wife; I must be on the road. I am for Hauterive out of
the hanging Abbot's country. He'll be itching about that new gallows
of his, thinking how I should look up there."
He kissed them both very heartily and trudged out into the mist,
waving his hand.
"There goes a good soul," said Prosper. "Give me something to drink,
child, I beseech you."
Isoult brought a great bowl of milk and gave it into his hands,
afterwards (though he never saw her) she drank of it from the place
where he had put his lips. Then it was time for them also to take the
road. Isoult went away again, and returned leading Prosper's horse and
shield; she brought an ass for herself to ride on. Curtseying to him
"Is my lord ready?"
"Ready for anything in life, my child," said he as he took her up and
put her on the ass. Then he mounted his horse. They set off at once
over the heath, striking north. None watched them go.
The sky was now without cloud. White all about, it swam into clear
blue overhead. A light breeze, brisk and fresh, blew the land clear,
only little patches of the morning mist hung torn and ragged about the
furze-bushes. The forest was still densely veiled, but the sun was up,
the larks afloat; the rains of over-night crisped and sparkled on the
grass: there was promise of great weather. Presently with its slant
roofs shining, its gilded spires and cross, Prosper saw on his left
the great Abbey of Holy Thorn. He saw the river with a boat's sail,
the village of Malbank Saint Thorn on the further bank and the cloud
of thin blue smoke over it; far across the heath came the roar of the
weirs. Behind it and on all sides began to rise before him the dark
rampart of trees--Morgraunt.
Prosper's heart grew merry within him at the sight of all this
freshness, the splendour of the morning. He was disposed to be well
contented with everything, even with Isoult, upon whom he looked down
once or twice, to see her pacing gently beside him, a guarded and
graceful possession. "Well, friend," he said to himself, "you have a
proper-seeming wife, it appears, of whom it would be well to know
He began to question her, and this time she told him everything he
asked her, except why she was called Isoult la Desirous. As to this,
she persisted that she could not tell him. He took it good-temperedly,
with a shrug.
"I see something mysterious in all this, child," said he, "and am not
fond of mysteries. But I married thee to draw thee from the hangman
and not thy secrets from thee. Keep thy counsel therefore."
She hung her head.
To all other questions she was as open as he could wish. From her
earliest childhood, he learned, she had known servitude, and been
familiar with scorn and reproach. She had been swineherd, goose-girl,
scare-crow, laundress, scullery-wench, and what not, as her mother
could win for her. She could never better herself, because of the
taint of witchcraft and all the unholiness it brought upon her. As
laundress and scullery-maid she bad been at the Abbey; that had been
her happiest time but for one circumstance, of which she told him
later. Of her father she spoke little, save that he had often beaten
her; of her mother more tenderly--it seemed they loved each other--but
with an air of constraint. Her parents were undoubtedly in ill-savour
throughout the tithing; her father, a rogue who would cut a throat as
easily as a purse, her mother, a wise woman patently in league with
the devil. But she said that, although she could not tell the reason
of it, the Abbot had protected them from judgment many a time--whether
it was her father for breaking the forest-law, deer-stealing, wood-
cutting, or keeping running dogs; or her mother from the hatred and
suspicion of the Malbank people, on account of her sorceries and
enchantments. More especially did the Abbot take notice of her, and,
while he never hesitated to expose her to every infamous reproach or
report, and (apparently) to take a delight in them, yet guarded her
from the direct consequences as if she had been sacred. This her
parents knew very well, and never scrupled to turn to their advantage.
For when hard put to it they would bring her forward between them, set
her before the Abbot, and say, "For the sake of the child, my lord,
let us go." Which the Abbot always did.
Cried Prosper here, "What did he want, this fatherly Abbot?"
"My lord," said Isoult, "he sought to have me put away."
"Well, child," Prosper chuckled, "he has got his wish."
"He wished it long ago, lord," she said; "before I was marriageable."
"And it was not to thy taste?"
"It was not of that then that thou wert La Desirous?"
"No, lord," said Isoult in a low voice.
"So I thought," was Prosper's comment to himself. "The friar was out."
She went on to tell him of her service with the Abbey as laundry-maid,
then as scullery-girl; then she spoke of Galors. She told him how this
monk had seen her by chance in the Abbey kitchen; how he sought to get
too well acquainted with her; how she had fled the service and refused
to go back. Nevertheless, and in spite of that, she had had no peace
because of him. He chanced upon her again when she was among the crowd
at the Alms Gate waiting for the dole, had kept her to the end, and
spoken with her then and there, telling her all his desire, opening
all his wicked heart. She fled from him again for the time; but every
day she must needs go up for the dole, so every day she saw him and
endured his importunities. This had lasted up to the very day she saw
Prosper: at that time he had nearly prevailed upon her by his own
frenzy and her terror of the Abbot's, threat. She never doubted the
truth of what he told her, for the Abbot's privy mind had been
declared to much the same purpose to Mald her mother.
"But this privy mind of his," said Prosper, "must have swung wide from
its first leaning, which seems to have been to preserve thee. Could he
not have ruined thee without a charter? An Abbot and a cook-maid!
Could he not have ruined thee without a rope?"
"My lord," she replied, "I think he was merciful. I was to be hanged
by his desire; but there was worse with Galors."
"Ah, I had forgotten him," Prosper said.
She had spoken all this in a low voice through which ran a trembling,
as when a great string on a harp is touched and thrills all the music.
Prosper thought she would have said more if she dared. Although she
spoke great scorn of herself and hid nothing, yet he knew without
asking that she had been truthful when she told him she was pure. He
looked at her again and made assurance double; yet he wondered how it
"Tell me, Isoult," he said presently, "when thou sawest me come into
the quarry, didst thou know that I should take thee away?"
"Yes, lord," said she, "when I saw your face I knew it."
"What of my face, child? Hadst thou seen me before that day?"
She did not answer this.
"It is likely enough," he went on. "For in my father's day we often
rode, I and my brothers, with him in the Abbey fees, hawking or
hunting the deer. And if thou wert gooseherd or shepherdess thou
mightest easily have seen us."
Isoult said, "My lord, if I had seen thee twenty times before or none,
I had trusted thee when I saw thy face."
"How so, child?" asked he.
For answer to this she looked quickly up at him for a moment, and then
hung her head, blushing. He had had time to see that dog's look of
trust again in her eyes.
"My wife takes kindly to me!" he thought. "Let us hope she will find
Gracedieu even more to her mind."
They rode on, being now very near the actual forest. Prosper began
again with his questions.
"What enmity," he said, "the Abbot had for thee, Isoult, or what
lurking pity, or what grain of doubt, I cannot understand. It seems
that he wished thy ruin most devoutly, but that being a Christian and
a man of honour he sought to compass it in a Christian and gentlemanly
way. Might not marriage have appeared to him the appointed means? And
should I not tell him that thou art ruined according to his
"Lord," said she, "he will know it."
"Saints and angels!" Prosper cried, "who will tell him? Not Brother
Bonaccord, who loves no monks."
"Nay, lord, but my mother will tell him for the ruin of Galors, who
hates her and is hated again. Moreover, there are many in Malbank who
will find it out soon enough."
"How is that, child?"
"Lord, many of them sought to have me."
"I can well believe it," said Prosper; and after a pause he said
again--"I would like to meet this Galors of thine out of his frock. He
looked a long-armed, burly rogue; it seemed that there might be some
fighting in him. Further, some chastisement of him, if it could
conveniently be done, would seem to be my duty, since he has touched
at thy honour, which is now mine. I should certainly like to meet him
"Lord,"' answered the girl, "that will come soon enough. I pray that
thine arm be strong, for he is very fierce, and a terrible man in
Malbank, more often armed than in his robe."
"He must be an indifferent monk," Prosper said; "God seems not well
served in such a man's life. Holy Church would be holier without him."
"He is a great hunter, my lord," said Isoult.
"It would certainly seem so," said Prosper grimly. "Where should I
find him likeliest?"
"Lord, look for him in Martle Brush."
"Ah! And where is that?"
"Lord, it is here by," said Isoult.
Prosper looked about him sharply. He found that they had left the
heath, and were riding down a smooth grassy place into a deep valley.
The decline was dotted with young oak-trees, sparse at the top but
thickening in clusters and ranks lower down. Between the stems, but at
some distance, he could see a herd of deer feeding on the rank grass
by a brook at the bottom. Beyond the brook again the wood grew still
thicker with holly trees and yews interspersed with the oaks: the land
he could see rose more abruptly on that side, and was densely wooded
to the top of another ridge as high as that which he and Isoult
descended. The ridge itself was impenetrably dark with a forest gloom
which never left it at this season of the year. As he studied the
place, Martle Brush as he supposed it to be, he saw a hart in the herd
stop feeding and lift his head to snuff the air, then with his antlers
thrown back, trot off along the brook, and all the herd behind him.
This set him thinking; he knew the deer had not winded him. The breeze
set from them rather, over the valley, from the north-east. He said
nothing to his companion, but kept his eyes open as they began to
descend deeper into the gorge. Presently he saw three or four crows
which had been wheeling over the tops of the trees come and settle on
a dead oak by the brook-side. Still there was no sign of a man. Again
he glanced down at Isoult; this time she too was alert, with a little
flush in her cheeks, but no words on her lips to break the silence
they kept. So they descended the steep place, picking their way as
best they could among the loose rocks and boulders, with eyes
painfully at gaze, yet with no reward, until they reached a place
where the track went narrowly between great rooted rocks with holly
trees thick on either side. Immediately before them was the brook,
shallow and fordable, with muddy banks; the track ran on across it and
steeply up the opposite ridge. Midway of this Prosper now saw a knight
fully armed in black (but with a white plume to his helmet), sitting a
great black horse, his spear erect and his shield before him. He could
even make out the cognizance upon it--three white wicket-gates argent
on a field sable--but not the motto. The shield set him thinking where
he could have seen it before, for he knew it perfectly well. Then
suddenly Isoult said, "Lord, this is Galors the Monk."
"Ho, ho!" said Prosper, "is this Galors? I like him better than I
"Lord," she asked in a tremble, "what wilt thou do?"
"Do!" he cried; "are there so many things to do? You are not afraid,
"No, lord, I am not afraid," she replied, and looked down at her belt.
"Now, Isoult," said Prosper, "you are to stay here on your beast while
I go down and clear the road."
She obeyed him at once, and sat very still looking at Galors and at
Prosper, who rode forward to the level ground by the ford. There he
stopped to see what the other man would be at. Galors played the
impenetrable part which had served him so well with the Abbot Richard,
in other words, did nothing but sit where he was with his spear erect,
like a bronze figure on a bridge. Impassivity had always been the
strength of Galors; women had bruised themselves against it: but
Prosper had little to do with women's ways.
"Sir, why do you bar my passage?" he sang out, irrepressibly cheerful
at present. Galors never answered him a word. Prosper divined him at
this; he was to climb the hill, and so be at the double disadvantage
of having no spear and of being below him that had one. "The pale
rascal means to make this a game of skittles," he thought to himself.
"We shall see, my man. In the mean time I wish I knew your shield." So
saying he forded the brook, stayed, called out again, "Whose shield is
that, Galors?" and again got no reply. "Black dog!" cried he in a
rage, "take your vantage and expect no more." Whereupon he set his
horse at the hill and rode up with his shield before him.
The black knight feutred his spear, clapped spurs to his horse's
flanks, and bore down the hill. He rode magnificently: horse and man
had the impetus of a charging bull, and it looked ill for the man
below. But Prosper had learned a trick from his father, which he in
turn had had at Acre from the Moslems in one of the intervals of the
business there. In those days men fought like heroes, but between
whiles remembered that they were gentlemen and good fellows pitted
against others equally happy in these respects.
The consequence was that many a throat was cut by many a hand which
the day before had poured out wine for its delight, and nobody was any
the worse. The infidels loved Mahomet, but they loved a horse too, and
Baron Jocelyn was not the man to forget a lesson in riding. So soon,
therefore, as Galors was upon him, Prosper slid his left foot from the
stirrup and slipt round his horse almost to the belly, clinging with
his shield arm to the bow of the saddle. The spear struck his shield
at a tangent and glanced off. It was a bad miss for Galors, since
horse and man drove down the incline and were floundering in the brook
before they could stay. Prosper whipped round to see Galors mired, was
close on his quarter and had cut through the shank of the spear, close
to the guard, in a trice.
"Fight equal, my friend, and you will fight more at ease in the long
run," was all he said. Galors let fly an oath at him, furious. He drew
his great sword and cut at him with all his force; Prosper parried and
let out at his shoulder. He got in between the armour plates; first
blow went to him. This did not improve Galors' temper or mend his
fighting. There was a sharp rally in the brook, some shrewd knocks
passed. The lighter man and horse had all the advantage; Galors never
reached his enemy fairly. He set himself to draw Prosper out of the
slush of mud and water, and once on firmer ground went more warily to
work. Then a chance blow from Prosper struck his horse on the crest
and went deep. The beast stumbled and fell with his rider upon him
both lay still.
"A broken neck," thought Prosper, cursing his luck. Galors never
moved. "What an impassive rogue it is!" Prosper cried, with all his
anger clean gone from him. He dismounted and went to where his man
lay, threw his sword on the grass beside him, and proceeded to unlace
Galors's hauberk. Galors sprang up and sent Prosper flying; he set his
heel on the sword blade and broke it short. Then he turned his own
upon the unarmed man. "By God, the man is for a murder!" Prosper grew
white with a cold rage: he was on his feet, the flame of his anger
licked up his poverty: Galors had little chance. Prosper made a quick
rush and drove at the monk with his shield arm, using the shield like
an axe; he broke down his guard, got at close quarters, dropt his
shield and caught Galors under the arms. They swayed and rocked
together like storm-driven trees, Prosper transported with his new-
lighted rage, Galors struggling to justify his treachery by its only
excuse. Below his armpits he felt Prosper's grip upon him; he was
encumbered with shield and sword, both useless--the sword, in fact,
sawing the air. Then they fell together, Prosper above; and that was
the end of the bout. Prosper slipped out his poniard and drove it in
between the joints of the gorget. Then he got up, breathing hard, and
looked at his enemy as he lay jerking on the grass, and at the bright
stream coming from his neck.
"The price of treachery is heavy," said he. "I ought to kill him. And
there are villainies behind that to be reckoned with, to say nothing
of all the villainies to do when that hole shall be stuffed. The
shield--ah, the shield! No, monk, on second thoughts, I will not kill
you yet. It would be dealing as you dealt, it would prevent our
meeting again; it would cut me off all chance of learning the history
of your arms. White wicket-gates! Where, under heaven's eye, have I
been brought up against three white wicket-gates? Ha! there is a motto
too." _Entra per me_, he read, and was no wiser. "This man and I
will meet again," he said. "Meantime I will remember _Entra per
me_." He raised his voice to call to Isoult--"Come, child; the way
is clear enough."
She came over the brook at once, alighted on the further side, and
came creeping up to her husband to kneel before him as once before
that morning; but he put his hand on her shoulder to stay her. "Come,"
he said, smiling, "no more ceremony between you and me, my dear.
Rather let us get forward out of the reach of hue-and-cry. For when
the foresters find him that will be the next move in the game." To
Galors he turned with a "By your leave, my friend," and took his
sword; then having put Isoult upon her donkey and mounted his own
beast, he led the way up the ridge wondering where they had best turn
to avoid hue-and-cry. Isoult, who guessed his thoughts, told him of
the minster at Gracedieu.
Sanctuary attached to the Church, she said, as all the woodlanders
"Excellent indeed," Prosper cried; "that jumps with what I had
determined on before. Moreover, I suppose that Gracedieu is outside
the Malbank fee?"
"Yes, lord, it is far beyond that."
"And how far is it to Gracedieu?"
"It is the journey of two days and nights, my lord."
"Well," said he, "then those nights we must sleep in the forest. How
will that suit you, child?"
"Ah, my lord," breathed the girl, "I have very often slept there."
"And what shall we do for food, Isoult?"
"I will provide for that, my lord."
THE BLOOD-CHASE AND THE LOVE-CHASE
It was by this time high noon, hot and still. Having climbed the
ridge, they found themselves at the edge of a dense beech-wood, to
which there appeared no end. From their vantage-ground they could see
that the land sloped very gradually away into the distance; upon it
the giant trees stood like pillars of a church, whose floor was brown
with the waste and litter of a hundred years. Long alleys of shade
stretched out on all sides of them into the dark unknown of Mid-
Morgraunt; there seemed either no way or countless ways before them,
and one as good as the other. They rested themselves in sheer
bewilderment, ate of the bread and apples which Isoult had brought
with her; then Prosper found out how tired he was.
"Wife," said he, "if all the devils in Christendom were after me it
would not keep me awake. I must sleep for half-an-hour."
"Sleep, sleep, my lord; I will take the watch," said Isoult, longing
to serve him.
He unlaced his helm and body-armour without more ado, and laid his
head in the girl's lap. She had very cool and soft hands, and now she
put one of them upon his forehead for a solace, peering down nervously
to see how he would take such daring from his servant. What she saw
comforted her not a little, indeed she thought herself like to die of
joy. He wondered again that such delicate little hands should have
been reared on Spurnt Heath, and endured the service of the lowest; it
was a half-comical content that made him send her a smiling
acknowledgment; but she took it for a friendly message between them,
and though the laughter in his eyes brought a mist over hers she was
content. Prosper dropped asleep. Through the soft veil of her
happiness she watched him patiently and still as a mouse. She was
serving him at last; she could dare look tenderly at him when he was
asleep--and she did. Something of the mother, something of the
manumitted slave, something of the dumb creature brought up against a
crisis which only speech can make tolerable,--something of these three
lay in her wet eyes; she wanted ineffably more, but she was happy (she
thought). She was not apt to look further than this, that she was in
love, and suffered to serve her master. The dull torment of her life
past, the doubts or despair which might beset and perplex her life to
come, were all blurred and stilled by this boon of service, as a rosy
mist makes beautiful the space of time between a day of storms and a
dripping night. When the roaring of the wind dies down and the sun
rays out in a clear pool of heaven, men have ease and forget their
buffetings; they walk abroad to bathe their vexed souls in the evening
calms. So now Isoult la Desirous, with no soul to speak of, bathed her
quickened instincts. She felt at peace with a world which had used her
but ill so long as she was in touch with all that was noble in it.
This glorious youth, this almost god, suffered her to touch his brow,
to look at him, to throne his head, to adore him. Oh, wonderful! And
as tears are never far from a girl's eyes, and never slow to answer
the messages of her heart, so hers flowed freely and quietly as from a
brimming well; nor did she check them or wish them away, but let them
fall where they would until they encroached upon the privileged hand.
_Lese majeste!_ She threw her head back and shook them from her;
she was more guarded how she did after that.
Then she heard something over the valley below which gave her heart-
beats a new tune. A great ado down there, horses, dogs, voices of men
shouting for more. She guessed in a moment that the foresters had come
upon the body of Galors, knew that hue-and-cry was now only a question
of hours, and all her joys at an end. She took her hand from Prosper's
forehead, and he awoke then and there, and smiled up at her.
"Lord," said she, "it is time for us to be going, for they have found
Dom Galors; and at the Abbey they have many slot-hounds."
"Good, my child," he answered. "I am ready for anything in the world.
Let us go."
He got up instantly and armed himself; they mounted their animals and
plunged into the great shade of the beeches. All the steering they
could do now was by such hints of the sun as they could glean here and
there. Prosper by himself would have been fogged in a mile, but Isoult
had not lived her fifteen years of wild life for nothing: she had the
fox's instinct for an earth, and the hare's for doubling on a trail.
The woods spoke to her as they spoke to each other, as they spoke to
the beasts, or the beasts among themselves. What indeed was this poor
little doubtful wretch but one of those, with a stray itching to be
more? Soul or none, she had an instinct which Prosper discovered and
learned to trust. For the rest of the day she tacitly led the knight-
at-arms in the way he should go.
But with all her help they made a slow pace. The forest grew more and
more dense; there seemed no opening, no prospect of an opening. She
knew what must be in store for them if the Abbot had uncoupled his
bloodhounds, so she strained every nerve in her young body, listened
to every murmur or swish of the trees, every one of the innumerable,
inexplicable noises a great wood gives forth. She suffered, indeed,
intensely; yet Prosper never knew it. He played upon her, quite
unconsciously, by wondering over the difficulties of the road, the
slowness of their going, the probable speed of the Abbot's dogs and
foresters, and so on. Her meekness and cheerful diligence delighted
him. The nuns of Gracedieu, he promised himself, should know what a
likely novice he was bringing them. He should miss her,
_pardieu_! after two or three days' companionship. So they
Towards the time of dusk, which was very soon in that gloomy solitude,
Isoult heard in the far distance the baying of the dogs, and began to
tremble, knowing too well what all that meant. Yet she said nothing.
Prosper rode on, singing softly to himself as his custom was, his head
carried high, his light and alert look taking in every dark ambush as
a thing to be conquered--very lordly to look upon. The girl, who had
never seen his like, adored him, thought him a god; the fact was, she
had no other. Therefore, as one does not lightly warn the blessed
gods, she rode silent but quaking by his side, with her ears still on
the strain for the coming danger, and all her mind set on the fear
that Prosper would find out. Above all she heard a sound which shocked
her more, her own heart knocking at her side.
Then at last Prosper reined up, listening too. "Hush!" he said, "what
This was a new sound, more hasty and murmurous than any girl's heart,
and much more dreadful than the music of the still distant hounds; it
was very near, a rushing and pattering sound, as of countless beasts
running. Isoult knew it.
"Wolves!" she said; "let be, there is no harm from them save in the
As she spoke a grey bitch-wolf came trotting through the trees,
swiftly but in pain, and breathing very short. She was covered with
slaver and red foam, her tongue lolled out at the side of her mouth
long and loose, she let blood freely from a wound in the throat, and
one of her ears was torn and bleeding. She looked neither to right nor
left, did not stay to smell at the scent of the horse; all her pains
were spent to keep running. She broke now and again into a rickety
canter, but for the most part trotted straight forward, with many a
stumble and missed step, all picked up with indescribable feverish
diligence; and as she went her blood flowed, and her panting kept pace
with her padding feet. So she came and so went, hunted by what
followed close upon her; the murmur of the host, the host itself--dogs
and bitches in a pack, making great pace. They came on at a gallop, a
sea of wolves that surged restlessly, yet were one rolling tide. Here
and there a grinning head cast up suddenly out of the press seemed
like the broken crest of some hastier wave impatient with his fellows;
so they snarled, jostled, and snapped at each other. Then one, playing
choragus, would break into a howl, and there would be a long anthem of
howls until the forest rang with the terror; but the haste, the
panting and the padding of feet were the most dreadful, because
incessant; the thrust head would be whelmed, the sharp voice drowned
in howls; the grey tide and the lapping of it never stopped.
The fugitives watched this chase, in which they might have read a
parable of their own affair, sweep past them like a bad dream. In the
dead hush that followed they heard what was a good deal more
significant for them, the baying of the dogs.
"What now?" said Prosper to himself, "there are the dogs. If I make
haste they can make it better; if I stay, how on earth shall I keep my
convoy out of their teeth?"
It was too late to wonder; even at that moment Isoult gasped and
caught at his arm, leaning from her saddle to cling to him as she had
done once before. But this was a danger not to be shamed away by a man
armed. He followed her look, and saw the first dog come on with his
nose to the ground. A thought struck him. "Wait," he said.
Sure enough, the great dog hit on the line of the wolves and got the
blood in his nostrils. He was puzzled, his tail went like a flag in a
gale as he nosed it out.
Prosper watched him keenly, it was touch-and-go, but never troubled
his breath. "Take your choice, friend," he said. The dog beat to and
fro for some long minutes. He could not deny himself--he followed the
"That love-chase is like to be our salvation," said Prosper. "Wait
now. Here are some more of the Abbot's friends." It was as good as a
play to him--a hunter; but to Isoult, the wild little outcast, it was
deadly work. Like all her class, she held dogs in more fear than their
masters. You may cajole a man; to a dog the very attempt at it is a
damning proof against you.
As Prosper had predicted, the dogs, coming on by twos and threes, got
entangled in the cross-trail. They hesitated over it, circled about it
as the first had done, and like him they followed the hotter and
fresher scent. One, however, in a mighty hurry, ran clean through it,
and singled out his own again. They saw him coming; in his time he saw
them. He stopped, threw up his head, and bayed a succession of deep
bell-notes at them, enough to wake the dead.
"I must deal with this beast," Prosper said. "Leave me to manage him,
and stay you here." He dismounted, ungirt his sword, which he gave to
Isoult to hold, then began to run through the wood as if he was
afraid. This brought the dog on furiously; in fifty yards he was up
with his quarry. Prosper went on running; the dog chose his time, and
sprang for his throat. Prosper, who had been waiting for this, ducked
at the same minute; his dagger was in his hand. He struck upwards at
the dog as he rose, and ripped his belly open. "That was your last
jump, my friend," quoth he, "but I hope there are no more of you. It
is a game that not always answers."
It was while he was away upon this errand that Isoult thought she saw
a tall woman in a black cloak half-hidden behind a tree. The woman,
she could have sworn, stood there in the dusk looking fixedly at her;
it was too dark to distinguish anything but the white disk of a face
and the black mass she made in her cloak, yet there was that about
her, some rigid aspect of attention, which frightened the girl. She
turned her head for a moment to see Prosper homing, and when she
looked again into the trees there was certainly no woman. She thought
she must have fancied it all, and dismissed the thought without saying
anything to Prosper.
They took up their journey again, safe from dogs for the time. The
music had died away in the distance; they knew that if the wolf-pack
were caught there would be work enough for more hounds than the Abbey
could furnish. Then it grew dark, and Isoult weary and heavy with
sleep. She swayed in her saddle.
"Ah," said Prosper, "we will stay here. You shall sleep while I keep
"It is very still, my lord. Wilt thou not let me watch for a little?"
Prosper laughed. "There are many things a man's wife can do for him,
my dear," he said, "but she cannot fight dogs or men. And she cannot
sleep with one eye open Eat what you have, and then shut your pair of
eyes. You are not afraid for me?"
Isoult looked at him quickly. Then she said--"My lord is--," and
"What is thy lord, my girl?" asked he.
"He is good to his servant," she whispered in her low thrilled voice.
They ate what bread was left, and drank a little water. Before all was
finished Isoult was nodding. Prosper bestirred himself to do the best
he could for her; he collected a heap of dried leaves, laid his cloak
upon them, and picked up Isoult to lay her upon the cloak. His arms
about her woke her up. Scarce knowing what she did, dreaming possibly
of her mother, she put up her face towards his; but if Prosper noticed
it, no errant mercy from him sent her to bed comforted. He put her
down, covered her about with the cloak, and patted her shoulder with
an easy--"Good-night, my lass." This was cold cheer to the poor girl,
who had to be content with his ministry of the cloak. It was too dark
to tell if he was looking at her as he stooped; and ah, heavens! why
should he look at her? The dark closed round his form, stiffly erect,
sitting on the root of the great tree which made a tent for them both,
and then it claimed her soul. She lost her trouble in sleep; he kept
the watch all night.
Towards the grey of the morning, seeing that the whole forest was at
peace, with no sign of dogs or men all that night, and now even a rest
from the far howling of the wolves, Prosper's head dropt to his
breast. In a few seconds he slept profoundly. Isoult awoke and saw
that he slept: she lay watching him, longing but not daring. When she
saw that he looked blue and pinched about the cheekbones, that his
cheeks were yellow where they should be red, and grey where they had
been white, she knew he was cold; and her humbleness was not proof
against this justification of her desires. She crept out of her snug
nest, crawled towards her lord and felt his hands; they were ice.
"Asleep he is mine," she thought. She picked up the cloak, then crept
again towards him, seated herself behind and a little above him, threw
the cloak over both and snuggled it well in. She put her arms about
him and drew him close to her bosom. His head fell back at her gentle
constraint; so he lay like a child at the breast. The mother in her
was wild and throbbing. Stooped over him she pored into his face. A
divine pity, a divine sense of the power of life over death, of waking
over sleep, drew her lower and nearer. She kissed his face--the lids
of his eyes, his forehead and cheeks. Like an unwatched bird she
foraged at will, like a hardy sailor touched at every port but one.
His mouth was too much his own, too firm; it kept too much of his
sovereignty absolute. Otherwise she was free to roam; and she roamed,
very much to his material advantage, since the love that made her rosy
to the finger-tips, in time warmed him also. He slept long in her
She began to be very hungry.
"He too will be hungry when he wakes," she thought; "what shall I do?
We have nothing to eat." She looked down wistfully at his head where
it lay pillowed. "What would I not give him of mine?" The thought
flooded her. But what could she do?
She heard the pattering of dry leaves, the crackle of dry twigs snapt,
and looking up, saw a herd of deer feeding in a glade not very far
Idly as she watched them, it came home to her that there were hinds
among them with calves. One she noticed in particular feed a little
apart, having two calves near her which had just begun to nibble a
little grass. Vaguely wondering still over her plight, she pictured
her days of shepherding in the downs where food had often failed her,
and the ewes perforce mothered another lamb. That hind's udder was
full of milk: a sudden thought ran like wine through her blood. She
slid from Prosper, got up very softly, took her cup, and went towards
the browsing deer. The hind looked up (like all the herd) but did not
start nor run. A brief gaze satisfied it that here was no enemy,
neither a stranger to the forest walks; it fell-to again, and suffered
Isoult to come quite close, even to lay her hand upon its neck. Then
she stood for a while stroking the red hind, while all the herd
watched her. She knelt before the beast, clasping both arms about its
neck; she fondled it with her face, as if asking the boon she would
have. Some message passed between them, some assurance, for she let go
of the hind's neck and crawled on hands and knees towards the udder.
The deer never moved, though it turned its head to watch her. She took
the teat in her mouth, sucked and drew milk. The herd stood all about
her motionless; the hind nuzzled her as if she had been one of its own
calves; so she was filled.
Next she had to fill her cup. This was much more difficult. The hind
must be soothed and fondled again, there must be no shock on either
side. She started the flow with her mouth; then she knelt against the
animal with her head pressed to its side, took the teat in her hand
and succeeded. She filled the cup with Prosper's breakfast. She got
up, kissed the hind between the eyes, stroked its neck many times, and
went tiptoe back to her lord and master. She found him still sound
asleep, so sat quietly watching him till he should wake, with the cup
held against her heart to keep it warm.
Broad daylight and a chance beam of sun through the trees woke him at
last. It would be about seven o'clock. He stretched portentously, and
sat up to look about him; so he encountered her tender eyes before she
had been able to subdue their light.
"Good-morning, Isoult," said he. "Have I been long asleep?"
"A few hours only, lord."
"I am hungry. I must eat something."
"Lord, I have milk for thee."
He took the cup she tendered, looking at her.
"Drink first, my child," he said.
"Lord, I have drunk already."
He drained the cup without further ado.
"Good milk," he said when he had done. He took these things, you see,
very much as they came.
His next act was to kneel face to the sun and begin his prayers.
Something made him stop; he turned him to his wife.
"Hast thou said thy prayers, Isoult?"
"No, lord," said she, reddening.
"Come then and pray with me. It is a good custom."
She obeyed him so far as to kneel down by his side. He began again.
She had nothing to say, so he stopped again.
"Dost thou forget thy prayers since thou art a wife, Isoult?"
"Lord, I know none," said she with a shameful face.
"Thou art not a Christian then?"
"If a Christian prays, my lord, I am not a Christian."
"But thou hast been baptized?"
"How knowest thou?"
"The Lord Abbot once reproached me before my parents that I had
disgraced Holy Baptism; and my father beat me soundly for it, saying
that of all his afflictions that was the hardest to bear. This he did
in the presence of the Lord Abbot himself. Therefore I know that I
have been beaten for the sake of my baptism."
Prosper was satisfied.
"It is enough, Isoult. Thou art certainly a Christian. Nevertheless,
such an one should pray (and women as well as men), even though it may
very well be that he knows not what he is saying. Prayer is a great
mystery, look you. Yet this I know, that it is also a great comfort.
For remember that if a Christian prays--knowing or not knowing the
meaning of the act and the upshot of it--he is very sure it is
acceptable to Saint Mary, and through her to God Almighty Himself. So
much so, indeed, that he is emboldened thereafter to add certain
impertinences and urgent desires of his own, which Saint Mary is good
enough to hear, and by her intercession as often as not to win to be
accepted. Some add a word or two to their saint or guardian, others
invoke all the saints in a body; but it is idle to do one or any of
these things without you have prayed first. So you must by all means
learn to pray. Sit down by me here and I will teach you."
She sat as close to him as she dared on the trunk of the beech, while
he taught her to say after him, _"Pater noster qui es in
coelis"_, and _"Ave Maria gratia plena."_ In this way they
spent a full hour or more, going over and over the Latin words till
she was as perfect as he. In the stress of the task, which interested
Prosper vastly, their hands met more than once; finally Prosper's
settled down over hers and held it. In time he caught the other.
Isoult's heart beat wildly; she had never been so happy. When she had
all the words pat they knelt down and prayed together, with the best
"Now, child," said Prosper, "you may add what you choose of your own
accord; and be sure that our Lady will hear you. It is a great merit
to be sure of this. The greater the Christian the surer he is. I also
will make my petition. You have no patron?"
"No, lord, I have never heard of such an one."
"I recommend you to Saint Isidore. His name is the nearest to yours
that I can remember. For the rest, he is very strong. Ask, then, what
you will now, my child, and doubt nothing."
Isoult bent her head and shut her eyes for the great essay. What could
she say? What did she want? She was kneeling by Prosper's side, his
hand held hers a happy prisoner.
"Mary, let him take me! Saint Isidore, let him take me--all, all,
all!" This was what she panted to Heaven.
Prosper prayed, "My Lady, I beseech thee a good ending to this
adventure which I have undertaken lightly, it may be, but with an
honest heart. Grant also a good and honourable end to myself, and to
this my wife, who is a Christian without knowing it, and by the help
of thy servants at Gracedieu shall be a better. _Per Christum
Then he crossed himself, and taught Isoult to do the same, and the
great value of the exercise.
"Now, child," he said, "I have done thee a better turn in teaching
thee to pray and sign thyself meekly and devoutly than ever I did by
wedding thee in the cottage. Thy soul, my dear, thy soul is worth a
hundred times thy pretty person. Saint Bernard, I understand, says,
'My son, think of the worms when thou art disposed to cherish thyself
in a looking-glass.' It is to go far. Saint Bernard was a monk, and
it is a monk's way to think of nastiness; but he was right in the
main. Your soul is the chief part of you. Now to finish: when we are
at Gracedieu thou shalt confess and go to Mass. Then thou wilt be as
good a Christian as I am."
"Lord, is that all I must do?" she asked meekly.
Prosper grew grave. He put his hand on the girl's shoulder, as he
"Deal justly, live cleanly, breathe sweet breath. Praise God in thy
heart when He is kind, bow thy head and knees when He is angry; look
for Him to be near thee at all times. Do this, and beyond it trust thy
"Lord, I will do it."
"Thou art a good child, Isoult. I am pleased with thee," he said, and
kissed her. She turned her face lest he should see that she was
crying. Soon afterwards they set off towards Gracedieu.
The day, the night, the next morning found them on the journey. They
had to travel slowly, could indeed have made better pace on foot; for
Mid-Morgraunt is a tangle of brush and undergrowth, and the swamps
(which are many and of unknown depth) have all to be circled.
There seemed, however, to be no further pursuit; they could go at
their ease, for they met nobody. On the other hand, they met with no
food more solid than milk. There were deer in plenty. Isoult was able
to feed herself and her husband, and keep both from exhaustion,
without suspicion from him or much cost to herself. The second time of
doing it, it is true, she went tremblingly to work, and was like to
bungle it. What one may do on the flood one may easily miss on the
ebb; moreover, it was night-time, she was tired, and not sure of
herself. Nevertheless, she was fed, and Prosper was fed. Next morning
she was as cool as you choose, singled out her hind as she walked into
the herd, went on all fours and sucked like a calf. She grew nice,
indeed. The beast she tried first had rough milk; this would do for
her well enough, but my lord must have of the best. She chose another
with great care, played milk-maid to her, and drew Prosper full
He, her sovereign, took every event with equal mind, and placidly,
whether it was a wedding, a fight, or a miraculous fountain of milk.
If she had drawn his food from herself he would not have questioned
her; if it had been her last ounce of life he would not have thanked
her the more. You cannot blame him for this. To begin with, he knew
nothing of her or her doings when he was asleep or on the watch. And a
young man is a prodigal always, of another's goods besides his own,
while a young woman is his banker, never so rich as when he overdraws.
Deprived of him by her own act, his wife in name, she was his servant
in reality. His servant and, just now, his sumpter-beast. Very
wistfully she served him, but very diligently, only asking that he
should neither thank nor blame her. It very seldom occurred to him to
do either; but so sure as he threw a "good child" at her, she had a
lump in her throat and smarting eyes. True, she had her little
rewards, to be enjoyed when he could not guess that her heart
was all in a flutter, or see that her cheeks were wet. Night and
morning they said their _Pater Noster_ and _Ave Maria_, out of
which (although she understood them as little as he did) she did not fail
to suck the comfort he had promised her. She learned also to speak
familiarly to Saint Isidore and Madonna. This served her in good stead
later in her career. Meantime, night and morning they knelt side by
side, their arms touched, sometimes their hands strayed and joined
company. Then hers ended by resting where they were, as in a warm
nest. Pray what more could a girl ask of the Christian faith?
By sunset of the second day passed in this fashion they were before
the great west front of Gracedieu Minster, knocking at the Mercy Door.
It opened. They were safe for the present, and Prosper felt his
After Vespers that day Prosper demanded an audience of the Lady
Abbess, and had it. He found her a handsome, venerable old lady, at
peace with all the world and, so far as that comported with her
religion, a woman of it. She had held high rank in it by right of
birth; she knew what it could do, and what not do, of good and evil.
Now that she was old enough to call its denizens her children, she
folded her hands and played grandmother. Naturally, therefore, she
knew Prosper by name; for that, as much as his frank looks, she made
him welcome. She did not ask it, but he could see that she expected to
be enlightened upon the subject of Isoult--doubtful company for a
knight; so having made up his mind how much he could afford to tell
her, he did not waste time in preliminaries.
"Madam," said he, after the first greetings of good company, "a knight
adventuring in this forest cannot see very far before his face, and
may make error worse by what he does to solve error. If by mischance
such a thing should befall him, he must not faint, but persist until
he has loosed not only the knot he has tied himself, but that as well
which he has made more inexorable."
The Lady Abbess bowed very graciously, waiting for him to be done with
phrases. Prosper went on--
"I found this damsel in the hands of a knave, who offered her a choice
of death or dishonour. I took her into my own, and so far have spared
her either. The rascal who had her now lies with a split gullet many
leagues from here, in such a condition that he will trouble her no
more I hope. Add to this, that I have questioned her, and find her
honest, meek, and a Christian. She is, as you, will see for yourself,
very good-looking: it was near to be her undoing. I cannot tell you,
nor will you ask me, first, her name (for I am not certain of it),
second, the name of her enemy (for that would involve a great company
whereof he is a most unworthy member), nor third, what means I
employed to insure immunity for her body, and honour for my own as
well as hers; for this would involve us all. In time I shall certainly
achieve the adventure thus thrust upon me, but for the present my
intention is for High March Castle, and the Countess of Hauterive, who
was a friend of my father's, and is, as I know, one of yours. If you
will permit it I will leave Isoult with you. She will serve you well
and faithfully in a hundred ways; she is very handy and quick, a good
girl, anxious to be a better. If you can make a nun of her, well and
good: by that means the adventure will achieve itself. I leave you to
judge, however; but if you cannot help me there, let her stay with you
for a year. After that I will fetch her and achieve the adventure
The Abbess smiled at the young man's judicial airs, which very ill
concealed the elevation of his mind. She only said that she would
gladly help him in the honourable task he had set himself, and doubted
not but that the girl would prove a good and useful servant to the
convent. But she added--
"It is easy to see, sir, that as a Christian your part is of the
Church militant. I would remind you that a nun is not made in a year."
"I mentioned a year because it was a long time, and for the sake of an
example of what I had designed," said Prosper calmly. "However, if it
takes longer, and you think well of it, I shall not complain."
"And what does the girl say?" the Abbess inquired. "For some sort of
vocation is necessary for the religious life, you must understand."
"I have not yet spoken to Isoult about it," he replied. "She will do
what I tell her. She is a very good girl."
"I think I should speak to her myself," said the Abbess, not without
"So you shall," Prosper agreed; "but it will be better that I prepare
her. If you will allow me I will do so at once, as I should leave
"There goes a young man who should climb high," said the Lady Abbess,
as her guest paid his respects.
Prosper went into the cloister, and found Isoult sitting with the
mistress of the novices and her girls who were at work there. She
looked tired and constrained, but lit up when he came in, firing a
girl's signals in her cheeks. As for her eyes, the moment Prosper
appeared they never wavered from him.
He excused himself to the nun, saying that he had business with
Isoult, which by leave of the Abbess he might transact in the guest
chamber. One of the novices conducted him; Isoult followed meekly.
Once alone with her, Prosper sat down by the fire and told Isoult to
fetch a stool and sit by him. She did as she was bid, sat at his knee,
folded her hands in her lap, and waited for him to begin, looking
thoughtfully into the fire. Prosper laid a hand upon her shoulder.
"Isoult," he said, "We have got our sanctuary, as you see, and for all
that appears need neither have sought nor claimed it. We have had no
pursuit worthy the name. It is evident to me that they have calculated
the deserts of Master Galors at Malbank, and put it at our figure.
Nevertheless, I am glad to be at Gracedieu, for I had decided upon it
before ever we met and drubbed that monk. When I saved you from being
hanged I saved your body; now I shall think of your soul's health,
which (the Church tells us) is far more precious. For it would seem
that a man can do without a body, but by no means without a soul. Now,
I have married you, Isoult, and by that act saved your body; but I
have not as yet done any more, for though I have heard many things of
marriage, I never heard that it was good for the soul. Moreover, for
marriage to be tolerable, I suppose love is necessary,"--Isoult
started,--"and that we certainly know nothing about it." Isoult
shivered very slightly, so slightly that Prosper did not notice it. "I
have thought a great deal about you, my child," he continued, "since I
married you, and something also of myself, my destinies, and duties as
a knight and good Christian. I have decided to go at once to High
March, where I shall find the Countess Isabel. She, being an old
friend of my family's, will no doubt take me into her service. I shall
fight for her of course, I shall win honour and renown, very likely a
fief. With that behind me I shall go to Starning and trounce my
brother Malise, baron or no baron. I shall bring him to his knees in a
cold sweat, and then I shall say--`Get up, you ass, and learn not to
meddle again with a gentleman, and son of a gentleman.'
"In addition to that business I have a certain matter to inquire into
concerning a lady whom I met in the purlieus of this forest, and a
dead man she had with her. I do not like the looks of that case.
Certainly I must inquire into it, and do what pertains. There may be
other things needing my direction, but if there are I have forgotten
them for the moment.
"You will think that in all this I have also forgotten you, child. Far
from it. Listen now. You cannot of course go to High March. You would
not be happy there, nor am I in a position to make you happy. No, no;
you shall stay here with the good nuns, and be useful to them, and
happy with them. You shall learn to serve God, so that in time you may
become a nun yourself. You know my thoughts about monks, that I do not
like them. But nuns are quite otherwise. Our Lord Jesus was served by
two women, of whom Mary was assuredly a nun, and Martha a religious
woman equally, probably of the begging order--a sister of Saint Clare,
or of the order of Mount Carmel. The point is, I believe, still in
doubt. So you see that you have excellent examples before you to
persevere. When I have put my affairs in train at High March I will
come and see you; and as you are my wife, if any trouble should come
about you, any sickness, or threatening from without, or any private
grief, send me word, and I will never fail you. Moreover, have no
doubts of my fidelity: I am a gentleman, Isoult, as you know. And
indeed such pranks are not to my taste."
He stopped talking, but not patting the girl's shoulder. It was almost
more than she could endure. At first her blank and sheer dismay had
been almost comical; she had looked at him as if he was mad, or
talking gibberish. The even flow of his reasoning went on, and with it
a high satisfaction in all his plans patent even to her cloudy
intellect; gradually thus the truth dawned upon her, and as he
continued she lost the sense of his spoken thoughts in the mad cross-
tides of her own unuttered. Now her crying instinct was for rescue at
all costs, at any hazard. Prayers, entreaties, cravings for reprieve
thronged unvoiced and not to be voiced through every fibre of her
body. Could he not spare her? Could he not? If she could turn suddenly
upon him, clasp his knees, worm herself between his arms, put her
face--wet, shaking, tremulous, but ah, Lord! how full of love--near to
his! If she could! She could not; shame froze her, choked not speech
only but act; she was dumb through and through--a dumb animal.
"Well, Isoult, what do you say?" he asked in his cheerful voice. He
could hardly hear her answer, it came so low.
"I will do thy pleasure, lord," she murmured.
He stooped and kissed her forehead, not noticing how she shook.
"Good child," he said, "good child! I am more than satisfied with you,
and hope that I may have proved as pleasant a traveller as I have
found you to be. My salute must be for good-night and farewell,
Isoult, for to-morrow morning I shall be gone before you have turned
your side in bed. That is where you should be now, my dear. Your head
is very hot--a sign that you are tired. Forget not what I have said to
you in anything; forget not to trust me. They will show you your bed.
She muttered something inaudible with her lips, and went out without
looking at him again. Every bone in her body ached so cruelly that she
could hardly drag herself along. She could neither think nor cry out;
what strength she had went towards carrying this new load, which,
while it paralyzed, for the present numbed her as well. The mistress
of the novices was shocked to see her white drawn face, heavily-
blacked eyes, and to hear a dead voice come dully from such pretty
"My dear heart," said the good woman, "you are tired to death. Come
with me to the still-room; I will give you a cordial." The liquor at
least sent some blood to her face and lips, with whose help she was
able to find her bed. For that night she had for bedfellow a fat nun,
who snored and moaned in her sleep, was fretful at the least stir, and
effectually prevented her companion from snoring, in turn, if she had
been afflicted with that disease. Isoult stirred little enough: being
worn out with grief entirely new to her, to say nothing of her fatigue
of travel, she lay like a log and (what she had never done before)
dreamed horribly. Very early, before light, she was awake and face to
face with her anguish again. She lay in a waking stupor, fatally
sensible, but incapable of responsible action. She had to hear
Prosper's voice in the courtyard sharply inquiring of the way, his
words to his horse, all his clinking preparations; she heard his high-
sung "Heaven be with you; pray for me," and the diminishing chorus of
Saracen's hoofs on the road. She trembled so much during this torment
that she feared to shake the bed. Very weakness at last took pity on
her; she swooned asleep again, this time dreamless. The fat nun
getting up for Prime, also took enough pity upon her to let her he. So
it was that Prosper left Gracedieu.
Through the days of rain and falling leaves, when all the forest was
sodden with mist; through the dark days of winter, hushed with snow,
she stayed with the nuns, serving them meekly in whatever tasks they
set her. She was once more milk-maid and cowherd, laundress again,
still-room maid for a season, and in time (being risen so high) tire-
woman to the Lady Abbess herself. Short of profession you can get no
nearer the choir than that. It was not by her tongue that she won so
much favour--indeed she hardly spoke at all; as for pleasantness she
never showed more than the ghost of a smile. "I am in bondage," she
said to herself, "in a strange house, and no one knows what treasure I
hide in my bosom." There she kept her wedding-ring. But if she was
subdued, she was undeniably useful, and there are worse things in a
servant than to go staidly about her work with collected looks and
sober feet, to have no adventurous traffic with the men-servants about
the granges or farms, never to see nor hear what it would be
inconvenient to know--in a word, to mind her business. In time
therefore--and that not a long one as times go--her featness and
patience, added to her beauty (for it was not long before the gentler
life or the richer possession made her very handsome), won her the
regard of everybody in the house.
The Abbess, as I have told you already, took her into high favour
before Christmas was over--actually by Epiphany she could suffer no
other to dress her or be about her person.
She loved pretty maids, she said, when they were good. Isoult was
both, so the Abbess loved her. The two got to know each other, to take
each other's measure--to their reciprocal advantage. Isoult was very
guarded how she did; what she said was always impersonal, what she
heard never went further. The Abbess was pleased. She would often
commend her, take her by the chin, turn up her face and kiss her. A
frequent strain of her talk was openly against Prosper's ideas: the
Abbess thought Prosper a ridiculous youth.
"Child," she would say--and Isoult thrilled at the familiar word
(Prosper's!)--"Child, you are too good-looking to be a nun. In due
season we must find you a husband. Your knight seemed aghast at the
thought that salvation could be that way. Some fine morning the young
gentleman will sing a very different note. Meantime he is wide of the
mark. For our blessed Lord loveth not as men love (who love as they
are made), nor would He have them who are on the earth and of it do
otherwise than seek the fairest that it hath to give them. Far from
that, but He will draw eye to eye and lip to lip, so both be pure,
saying, 'Be fruitful, and plenish the earth.' But to those not so
favoured as you are He saith, 'Come, thou shalt be bride of Heaven,
and lie down in the rose-garden of the Lamb.' So each loves in her
degree, and according to the measure of her being; and it is very well
that this should be so, in order that the garners of Paradise may one
day be full."
This sort of talk, by no means strange on the old lady's part,
sometimes tempted Isoult to tell her story--that she was a wife
already. No doubt she would have done it had not a thought forborne
her. Prosper did not love her; their relations were not marital--so
much she knew as well as anybody. She would never confess her love for
him, even to Prosper himself; she could not bring herself to own that
she loved and was unloved. She thought that was a disgrace, one that
would flood her with shame and Prosper with her, as her husband though
only in name. She thought that she would rather die than utter this
secret of hers; she believed indeed that she soon would die. That was
why she never told the Abbess, and again why she made no effort nor
had any temptation to run away and find him out. It seemed to her that
her mere appearance before him would be a confession of deep shame.
But she never ceased for an hour to think of him, poor miserable. In
bed she would lie for whole watches awake, calling his name over and
over again in a whisper. Her ring grew to be a familiar, Prosper's
genius. She would take it from her bosom and hold it to her lips,
whisper broken words to it, as if she were in her husband's arms. With
the same fancy she would try to make it understand how she loved him.
That is a thing very few girls so much as know, and still fewer can
utter even to their own hearts; and so it proved with her. She was as
mute and shamefaced before the ring as before the master of the ring.
So she would sigh, put it back in its nest, and hide her face in the
pillow to cool her cheeks. At last in tears she would fall asleep. So
the days dragged.
In February, when the light drew out, when there was a smell of wet
woods in the air, when birds sang again in the brakes, and here and
there the bushes facing south budded, matters grew worse for her. She
began to be very heavy, her nightly vigils began to tell. She could
not work so well, she lagged in her movements, fell into stares and
woke with starts, blundered occasionally. She had never been a
fanciful girl, having no nurture for such flowering; but now her
visions began to be distorted. Her love became her thorn, her side one
deep wound. More and more of the night was consumed in watchings; she
cried easily and often (for any reason or no reason), and she was apt
to fall faint. So February came and went in storms, and March brought
open weather, warm winds, a carpet of flowers to the woods. This
enervated, and so aggravated her malady: the girl began to droop and
lose her good looks. In turn the Abbess, who was really fond of her,
became alarmed. She thought she was ill, and made a great pet of her.
She got no better.
She was allowed her liberty to go wherever she pleased. In her trouble
she used to run into the woods, with a sort of blind sense that
physical distress would act counter to her sick soul. She would run as
fast as she could: her tears flew behind her like rain. Over and over
to herself she whispered Prosper's name as she ran--"Prosper! Prosper
le Gai! Prosper! Prosper, my lord!" and so on, just as if she were
mad. It was in the course of these distracted pranks that she
discovered and fell in love with a young pine tree, slim and straight.
She thought that it (like the ring) held the spirit of Prosper, and
adored him under its bark. She cut a heart in it with his name set in
the midst and her own beneath. Ceremony thereafter became her relief
and all she cared about. She did mystic rites before her tree (in
which the ring played a part), forgetting herself for the time. She
would draw out her ring and look at it, then kiss it. Then it must be
lifted up to the length of its chain as she had seen the priest
elevate the Host at Mass; she genuflected and fell prone in mute
adoration, crying all the time with tears streaming down her face. She
was at this time like to dissolve in tears! Without fail the mysteries
ended with the _Pater Noster_, the _Ave_, a certain Litany which
the nuns had taught her, and some gasping words of urgency to the Virgin
and Saint Isidore. Love was scourging her slender body at this time truly,
and with well-pickled rods.
On a certain day of mid-March,--it would be about the twelfth,--as she
was at these exercises about the mystic tree, a tall lady in Lincoln
green and silver furs came out of a thicket and saw Isoult, though
Isoult saw not her. She stood smiling, watching the poor devotee;
then, choosing her time, came quietly behind her, saw the heart and
read the names. This made her smile all the more, and think a little.
Then she touched Isoult on the shoulder with the effect of bringing
her from heaven to dull earth in a trice. By some instinct--she was
made of instincts, quick as a bird--the girl concealed her ring before
"Why are you crying, child?" said this smiling lady.
"Oh ma'am!" cried the girl, half crazy and beside herself with her
troubles--"Oh, ma'am! let me tell you a little!"
She told her more than a little: she told her in fact everything--in a
torrent of words and tears--except the one thing that might have
helped her. She did not say that she was married, though short of that
she gulped the shame of loving unloved.
"Poor child!" said the lady when she had heard the sobbed confession,
"you are indeed in love. And Prosper le Gai is your lover? And you are
Isoult la Desirous? So these notches declare at least: they are yours,
"Yes, indeed, ma'am," said Isoult; "but he is not my lover. He is my
"Oh, of course, of course, child," the lady laughed--"they are always
the master. If we are the mistress we are lucky. And do you love him
so much, Isoult?"
"Yes, ma'am," said she.
"Silly girl, silly girl! How much do you love him now?"
"I could not tell you, ma'am."
"Could you tell him then?"
"Ah, no, no!"
"But you have told him, silly?"
"No, ma'am, indeed."
"It needs few words, you must know."
"They are more than I can dare, ma'am."
"It can be done without words at all. Come here, Isoult. Listen."
She whispered in her ear.
Isoult grew very grave. Her eyes were wide at this minute, all black,
and not a shred of colour was left in her face.
"Ah, never!" she cried.
Maulfry laughed heartily.
"You are the dearest little goose in the world!" she cried. "Come and
kiss me at once."
Isoult did as she was told. Maulfry did not let her go again.
"Now," she went on, with her arms round the girl's waist and her arch
face very near, "now you are to know, Isoult, that I am a wonderful
lady. I am friends with half the knights in the kingdom; I have armour
of my own, shields and banneroles, and halberts and swords, enough to
frighten the Countess Isabel out of her three shires. I could scare
the Abbot Richard and the Abbess Mechtild by the lift of a little
finger. Oh, I know what I am saying! It so happens that your Prosper
is a great friend of mine. I am very fond of him, and of course I must
needs be interested in what you tell me. Well now--come with me and
find him. Will you? I dare say he is not very far off."
Isoult stared at her without speaking. Doubt, wonder, longing, prayer,
quavered in her eyes as each held the throne for a time.
"He told me to stay at Gracedieu," she faltered. It seemed to her that
she was maiming her own dream.
"He tells me differently then," said Maulfry, smiling easily; "I
suppose even a lover may change his mind."
"Oh! Oh! you have seen him?
"Certainly I have seen him."
"And he says--"
"What do you think he says? Might it not be, Come and find me?"
"He is--ah, he is ill?"
"He is well."
"I know of none."
"I am to leave Gracedieu and come with you, ma'am?"
"Yes. Are you afraid?"
For answer Isoult fell flat down and kissed Maulfry's silver hem.
"I will follow you to death!" she cried.
Maulfry shivered, then arched her brows.
"It will not be so bad as all that," she said. "Come then, we will
find the horses."
Isoult looked down confusedly at her grey frock.
"You little jay bird, who's to see you here among the trees? Come with
me, I'll set you strutting like a peacock before I've done with you,"
said Maulfry, in her mocking, good-humoured way.
They went together. Maulfry had hold of Isoult by the hand. Presently
they came to an open glade where there were two horses held by a
mounted groom. As soon as he saw them coming the groom got off, helped
Isoult first, then his mistress. They rode away at a quick trot down
the slope; the horses seemed to know the way.
Maulfry was in high spirits. She played a thousand tricks, and
enveigled from the brooding girl her most darling thoughts. Before
they had made their day's journey she had learnt all that she wanted
to know, or rather what she knew already. It confirmed what Galors had
told her: she believed his story. For her part Isoult, having once
made the plunge, gave her heart its way, bathed it openly in love, and
was not ashamed. To talk of Prosper more freely than she had ever
dared even to herself, to talk of loving him, of her hopes of winning
him! She seemed a winged creature as she flew through the hours of a
forest day. It pleased her, too, to think that she was being discreet
in saying nothing of her marriage. If Prosper had not thought fit to
reveal it to his accomplished friend she must keep the secret by all
means--his and hers. Instead of clouding her hopeful visions this gave
them an evening touch of mystery. It elevated her by making her an
accomplice. He and she were banded together against this all-wise
lady. No doubt she would learn it in time--in his time; and then
Isoult dreamed (and blushed as she dreamed) of another part, wherein
she would snuggle herself into his arm and whisper, "Have I not been
wise?" Then she would be kissed, and the lady would laugh to learn how
she had been outwitted by a young girl. Ah, what dreams! Isoult's
wings took her a far flight when once she had spread them to the sun.
Journeying thus they reached a road by nightfall, and a little House
of Access. To go direct to Tortsentier they should have passed this
house on the left-hand, for the tower was south-east from Gracedieu.
But there was a reason for the circuit, as for every other twist of
Maulfry's; the true path would have brought them too nearly upon that
by which Prosper and Isoult had come seeking sanctuary. Instead they
struck due east, and hit the main road which runs from High March to
Market Basing; then by going south for another day they would win
Tortsentier. Isoult, of course, as a born woodlander would know the
whereabouts of Maulfry's dwelling from any side but the north. She was
of South Morgraunt, and therefore knew nothing of the north or middle
forest. All this Maulfry had calculated. At the House of Access the
girl was actually a day's journey nearer Prosper than she had been at
the convent, but she knew nothing of it. Consequently her night's rest
refreshed her, waking dreams stayed the night, and left traces of
their rosy flames in her cheeks next morning. Maulfry, waking first,
looked at her as she lay pillowing her cheek on her arm, with her wild
hair spread behind her like a dark cloud. Maulfry, I say, looked at
"You are a little beauty, my dear," she thought to herself. "Countess
or bastard, you are a little beauty. And there is countess in your
blood somewhere, I'll take an oath. Hands and feet, neck and head,
tell the story. There was love and a young countess and a hot-brained
troubadour went to the making of you, my little lady. A ditch-full of
witches could not bring such tokens to a villein. Galors, my dear
friend, if I owed nothing to Master le Gai, I doubt if I should help
you to this. 'Tis too much, my friend, with an earldom. She needs no
She knew her own crown had toppled, and grew a little bleak as she
thought of it. There was no earldom for her to fall back upon. She
looked older when off her guard. But she had determined to be loyal to
the one friend she had ever had. The worst woman in the world can do
that much. Therefore, when Isoult woke up she found herself made much
of. The sun of her day-dreaming rose again and shone full upon her. By
the end of the day they had reached Tortsentier. Isoult was fast in a
prison that had no look of a prison, where Galors was mending his
throat in an upper chamber.
Maulfry came and sat on the foot of his bed. Galors, strapped and
bandaged till he looked like a mewed owl in a bush, turned his chalk
face to her with inquiry shooting out of his eyes. He had grown a
spiky black beard, from which he plucked hairs all day, thinking and
"Well," was all he said.
Maulfry nodded. "The story is true. She has the feet and hands. She is
a little beauty. You have only to shut the hole in your neck."
Galors swore. "Let God judge whether that damned acrobat shall pay for
his writhing! But the other shall be my first business. So she is
here--you have seen her? What do you think of her?"
"I have told you."
The man's appetite grew as it fed upon Maulfry's praise of his taste.
"Ah--ah! Dame, I'm a man of taste--eh?"
Maulfry said nothing. Galors changed the note.
"How shall I thank you, my dear one?" he asked her.
"Ah," said she, "I shall need what you can spare before long."
Then she left him.
HIGH MARCH, AND A GREAT LADY
In the weeping grey of an autumn morning, but in great spirits of his
own, Prosper left Gracedieu for High March. The satisfaction of having
braved the worst of an adventure was fairly his; to have made good
disposition of what threatened to fetter him by shutting off any
possible road from his advance; and to have done this (so far as he
could see) without in any sense withdrawing from Isoult the advantages
she could expect--this was tunable matter, which set him singing
before the larks were off the ground. He felt like a man who has
earned his pleasure; and pleasure, as he understood it, he meant to
have. The zest for it sparkled in his quick eyes as he rode briskly
through the devious forest ways. Had Galors or any other dark-entry
man met him now and chanced a combat, he would have bad it with a
will, but he would have got off with a rough tumble and sting or two
from the flat of the sword. The youth was too pleased with himself for
killing or slicing.
However, there was nobody to fight. North Morgraunt was pretty
constantly patrolled by the Countess's riders at this time. A few
grimy colliers; some chair-turners amid their huts and white chips on
the edge of a hidden hamlet; drovers with forest ponies going for
Waisford or Market Basing; the hospitality and interminable devotions
of a hermit by a mossy crucifix on Two Manors Waste; one night alone
in a ruined chapel on the top of a down:--of such were the encounters
and events of his journey. He was no Don Quixote to make desperadoes
or feats of endurance out of such gear; on the contrary, he
persistently enjoyed himself. Sour beer wetted his lips dry with
talking; leaves made a capital bed; the hermit, in the intervals of
his prayers, remembered his own fighting days in the Markstake, and
knew what was done to make Maximilian the Second safely king.
Everything was as it should be.
On the third day he fell in with a troop of horse, whose spears
carried the red saltire of the house of Forz on their banneroles.
Since they were bound as he was for the Castle, he rode in their
company, and in due course saw before him on a height among dark pines
the towers of High March, with the flag of the Lady Paramount afloat
on the breeze. It was on a dusty afternoon of October and in a whirl
of flying leaves, that he rode up to the great gate of the outer
bailey, and blew a blast on the horn which hung there, that they might
let down the bridge.
When the Countess Isabel heard who and of what condition her visitor
was she made him very welcome. The Forz and the Gais were of the same
country and of nearly the same degree in it. She had been a Forz
before she married, and she counted herself so still, for the earldom
of Hauterive was hers in her own right; and though she was Earl
Roger's widow (and thus a double Countess Dowager) she could not but
remember it. So she did Prosper every honour of hospitality: she sent
some of her ladies to disarm him and lead him to the bath; she sent
him soft clothing to do on when he was ready for it; in a word, put
him at his ease. When he came into the hall it was the same thing she
got up from her chair of estate and walked down to meet him, while all
the company made a lane for the pair of them. Prosper would have knelt
to kiss her hand had she let him, but instead she gave it frankly into
"You are the son of my father's friend, Sir Prosper," she said, "and
shall never kneel to me."
"My lady," said he, "I shall try to deserve your gracious welcome. My
father, rest his soul, is dead, as you may have heard."
"Alas, yes," the Countess replied, "I know it, and grieve for you and
your brothers. Of my Lord Malise I have also heard something."
"Nothing good, I'll swear," interjected Prosper to himself.
The Countess went on--
"Well, Sir Prosper, you stand as I stand, alone in the world. It would
seem we had need of each other."
Prosper bowed, feeling the need of nobody for his part. Remember he
was three-and-twenty to the Countess's thirty-five; and she ten years
a widow. She did not notice his silence, but went on, glowing with her
"We should be brother and sister for the sake of our two fathers," she
said with a gentle blush.
"I never felt to want a sister till now," cried Master Prosper, making
another bow. So it was understood between them that theirs was to be a
nearer relationship than host and guest.
The Countess Isabel--or to give her her due, Isabel, Countess of
Hauterive, Countess Dowager of March and Bellesme, Lady of Morgraunt--
was still a beautiful woman, tall, rather slim, pale, and of a
thoughtful cast of the face. She had a very noble forehead, level,
broad, and white; her eyes beneath arched brows were grey--cold grey,
not so full nor so dark as Isoult's, nor so blue in the whites, but
keener. They were apt to take a chill tinge when she was rather
Countess of Hauterive than that Isabel de Forz who had loved and lost
Fulk de Breaute. She never forgot him, and for his sake wore nothing
but silk of black and white; but she did not forget herself either;
within walls you never saw her without a thin gold circlet on her
head. Even at Mass she, would have no other covering. She said it was
enough for the Countess of Hauterive, whom Saint Paul probably had not
in his mind when he wrote his epistle. Her hair was a glory, shining
and very abundant, but brown not black. Isoult, you will perceive, was
a warmer, tenderer copy of her mother, owing something to Fulk.
Isoult, moreover, had not been born a countess. Both were
inaccessible, the daughter from the timidity of a wild thing, the
mother from the rarity of her air. Being what she was, twice a widow,
bereft of her only child, and burdened with cares which she was much
too proud to give over, she never had fair judgment she was considered
hard where she was merely lonely. Her greatness made her remote, and
her only comforter the worst in the world--herself. Her lips drooped a
little at the corners; this gave her a wistful look at times. At other
times she looked almost cruel, because of a trick she had of going
with them pressed together. As a matter of fact she was shy as well as
proud, and fed on her own sorrows from lack of the power to declare
them abroad. It was very seldom she took a liking for any stranger;
doubtful if Prosper's lineage had won her to open to him as she had
done. His face was more answerable; that blunt candour of his, the
inquiring blue eyes, the eager throw-back of the head as he walked,
above all the friendly smile he had for a world where everything and
everybody seemed new and delightful and specially designed for his
entertainment--this was what unlocked the Countess's darkened treasury
Once loosed she never drew back. Brother and sister they were to be.
She made him hand her in to supper; he must sit at her right hand; her
own cup-bearer should fill his wine-cup, her own Sewer taste all his
meats. At the end of supper she sent for a great cup filled with wine;
it needed both her hands. She held it up before she drank to him,
saying, "Let there be love and amity between me and thee." The terms
of this aspiration astonished him; he accepted honours easily, for he
was used to observances at Starning; but to be thee'd and thou'd by
this lady! As he stood there laughing and blushing like a boy she made
him drink from the cup to the same wish and in the same terms. When
once your frozen soul opens to the thaw all the sluices are away,
truly. Prosper went to bed that night very well content with his
reception. He saw his schemes ripening fast on such a sunny wall as
this. His head was rather full, and of more than the fumes of wine;
consequently in saying his prayers he did not remember Isoult at all.
Yet hers had been sped out of Gracedieu Minster long before, and to
the same gods. Only she had had Saint Isidore in addition; and she had
had Prosper. Hers probably went nearer the mark. Until you have made a
beloved of your saint or a saint of your beloved--it matters not
greatly which--you will get little comfort out of your prayers.
It was, however, heedlessness rather than design which brought it
about, that as the days at High March succeeded each other Prosper did
not tell the Countess either of his adventure or of his summary method
of achieving it. Design was there: he did not see his way to involving
the Abbot, who was, he knew, a dependant of his hostess, and yet could
not begin the story elsewhere than at the beginning. Something, too,
kept the misfortunes of his wife from his tongue--an honourable
something, not his own pride of race. But he, in fact, forgot her. The
days were very pleasant. He hunted the hare, the deer, the wolf, the
bear. He hunted what he liked best of all to hunt, the man; and he got
the honour which only comes from successful hunting in that sort-the
devout admiration of those he led. So soon as it was found out where
his tastes and capacities lay he had as much of this work as he chose.
High March was on the northern borders of the Countess's country; not
far off was the Markstake, stormy, debatable land, plashy with blood.
There were raids, there were hornings and burnings, lifting of cattle
and ravishment of women, to be prevented or paid for. Prosper saw
service. The High March men had never had a leader quite like him-so
young, so light and fierce, so merry in fight. Isoult might eat her
heart out with love; Prosper had the love of his riders, for by this
they were his to a man.
There were other influences at work, more subtle and every bit as
rapacious. There were the long hours in the hall by the leaping light
of the fire and the torches, feasts to be eaten, songs to sing,
dances, revels, and such like. Prosper was a cheerful, very sociable
youth. He had the manners of his father and the light-hearted
impertinence of a hundred ancestors, all rulers of men and women. He
made love to no one, and laughed at what he got of it for nothing--
which was plenty. There were shaded hours in the Countess's chamber,
where the songs were softer and the pauses of the songs softer still;
morning hours in the grassy alleys between the yew hedges; hours in
the south walk in an air thick with the languors of warm earth and
garden flowers; intimate rides in the pine wood; the wild freedom of
hawking in the open downs; the grass paths; Yule; the music, the hopes
of youth, the sweet familiarity, the shared books, the timid
encroachments and gentle restraints, half-entreaties, half-denials:--
no young man can resist these things unless he thinks of them
suspectingly (as Prosper never did), and no woman wishes to resist
them. If Prosper found a sister, Isabel began to find more than a
brother. She grew younger as he grew older. They were more than likely
to meet half way.
In these delicate times of crisis Isoult found an advocate, a
recorder, if you will be ruled by me. It was none too soon, for the
brother and sister of High March had reached that pretty stage of
intimacy when long silences are an embarrassment, and embarrassments
compact equally of pleasure and pain. As far as the lady was concerned
the pleasure predominated; the pain was reduced to sweet confusion,
the air made tremulous with promise. I do not say that for Prosper the
relationship did more than put him at his ease--but that is a good
deal. Say the Countess was a fire and High March an armchair. Prosper
had settled himself to stretch his legs and drowse. Poor Isoult was
the wailing wind in the chimney--a sound which could but add to his
comfortable well-being. It needs more than a whimper to tempt a man to
be cold in your company. The recorder was timely.
Prosper and his Countess were hawking in the fields beyond the forest,
and the sport had been bad. They had, in fact, their birds jessed and
hooded and were turning for home, when Prosper saw some fields away a
white bird--gull he thought--flying low. He sprang his tercel-gentle;
the same moment the Countess saw the quarry and flew hers. Both hawks
found at first cast; the white bird flew towards the falconers,
circling the field in which they stood, with its enemies glancing
about it. It gradually closed in, circling still round them and round,
till at last it was so near and so low as almost to be in reach of
Prosper's hand. He saw that it was not a gull, but a pigeon, and
started on a reminiscence. Just then one of the towering falcons
stooped and engaged. There was a wild scurry of wings; then the other
bird dropt. The Countess cheered the hawks: Prosper saw only the white
bird with a wound in her breast. Then as the quarry began to scream he
remembered everything, and to the dismay of the lady leapt off his
horse, ran to the struggling birds, and cuffed them off with all his
might. He succeeded. The wounded bird fluttered, half flying, half
hopping, across the grass, finally rose painfully into the air and
soared out of sight. Meantime Prosper, breathless and red in the face,
had hooded and bound the hawks. He brought hers back to the Countess
without a word.
"My dear Prosper," said she, "you will forgive me for asking if you
"I must seem so," he replied. "But I suppose every one has his tender
part which some shaft will reach. Mine is reached when two hawks wound
a white bird in the crop."
He spoke shortly, and still breathed faster than his wont. The
Countess was piqued.
"It seems to me, I confess, inconvenient in a falconer that he should
be nice as to the colour of his quarry. There must be some reason for
this. I will forgive you for making a bad day's sport worse if you
will tell me your story."
Prosper was troubled. He connected his story with Isoult, though he
could hardly say why. He had merely seen a white bird before his
marriage; yet without that sequel the story could have no point. He
did not wish to speak of his marriage, if for no other reason than
that it was much too late to speak of it. The other reasons remained
as valid as ever; but he was bound to confess the superior cogency of
this present one. Meanwhile the Countess clamoured.
"The story, Prosper, the story!" she cried. "I must and will have the
story. I am very sure it is romantic; you are growing red. Oh, it is
certainly romantic; I shall never rest without the story."
Prosper in desperation remembered a hawking mishap of his boyhood, and
clutched at it.
"This is my story," he said. "When I was a boy with my brothers our
father used to take us with him hawking on Marbery Down. There is a
famous heronry in the valley below it whence you may be sure of a
kill; but on the Down itself are great flocks of sheep tended by
shepherds who come from all parts of the country round about and lie
out by their fires. One day--just such a windy morning as this--my
father, my brother Osric, and I were out with our birds, and did
indifferently well, so far as I can remember. I had new falcon with
me--a haggard of the rock which I had mewed and manned myself. It was
the first time I had tried her on the Down, and she began by giving
trouble; then did better, but finally gave more trouble than at first,
as you shall hear. Towards noon I found myself separate from our
company on a great ridge of the Down where it slopes steeply to the
forest, as you know it does in one place. The flocks were out feeding
on the slopes below me, and their herds--three or four boys and girls
--were lying together by a patch of gorse, but one of them stood up
after a while and shaded her eyes to look over the forest. Then I saw
a lonely bird making way for the heronry. I remember it plainly; in
the sun it looked shining white. I flew my haggard out of the hood at
her, sure of a kill. She raked off at a great pace, as this one did
just now; but in mid air she checked suddenly, heeled over, beat up
against the wind, stooped and fell headlong at the shepherds. I could
not tell what had happened; it was as if the girl had been shot. But,
by the Saviour of mankind, this is the truth: I saw the girl who was
standing throw her arms up, I heard her scream; the others scattered.
Then I saw the battling sails of my falcon. She was on the girl. I
spurred my pony and went down the hill headlong to the music of the
girl's screaming. Never before or since have I seen a peregrine engage
at such a quarry as that. She had her with beak and claws below the
left pap. She had ripped up her clothes and drawn blood, sure enough.
The poor child, who looked very starved, was as white as death: I
cannot think she had any blood to spare. As for her screaming, I have
not forgotten it yet--in fact, the bird we struck to-day reminded me
of it and made me act as I did. To cut down my story, I pulled the
hawk off and strangled it, gave the girl what money I had, said what I
could to quiet her, and left her to be patched up by her friends. She
was more frightened than hurt, I fancy. As I told you, I was a boy at
the time; but these things stay by you. It is a fact at least that I
am queasy on the subject of white birds. Before I came to High March,
indeed it was almost my first day in Morgraunt, I saw and rescued a
white bird from two hen-harriers; and now I have been troubled by
another. I seem beset by white birds!"
"It is fortunate you have other hues to choose from," said the
Countess with a smile, "or otherwise you would be no falconer. But
your story is very strange. Have you ever consulted about it?"
"I have said very little about it," Prosper replied, remembering as he
spoke the forest Mass which he had heard, and that he had discoursed
upon this adventure with Alice of the Hermitage.
"The hawk pecked at the girl's heart," said the lady.
"It did not get so far as that, Countess."
"You speak prose, my friend."
"I am no troubadour, but speak what I know."
"The heart means nothing to you, Prosper!"
"The heart? Dear lady, I assure you the girl was not hurt. She is a
young woman by now, probably wife to a clown and mother of half-a-
"Prosper, you disappoint me. Let us ride on. I am sick of these
shivering grey fields."
The Countess was vexed, for the life of him he could not tell why. He
made peace at last, but she would not tell him the cause of her
That was not the only reminder he had that day--in fact, it was but
the first. In the evening came another.
He was in the Countess's chamber after supper. She was embroidering a
banner, and he had been singing to her as she worked. After his music
the Countess took the lute from him, saying that she would sing. And
so she did, but in a voice so low and constrained that it seemed more
to comfort herself than any other.
Prosper sat by the table idly turning over a roll of blazonry--the
coats of all the knights and gentlemen who had ever been in the
service of High March. It was a roll carefully kept by the pursuivant,
very fine work. He saw that his own was already tricked in its place,
and recognized many more familiar faces. Suddenly he gave a start, and
sat up stiff as a bar. He looked no further, but at the end of the
Countess's song said abruptly--
"Tell me, Countess, whose are these arms?"
She looked at the coat--sable, three wicket-gates argent. "There is a
story about that," she said.
"I beg you to tell it to me," said Prosper; "story for story."
"That is only fair," she laughed, having quite recovered her easy
manner with him. "Come and sit by the fire, and you shall hear it. The
arms," she began, "are those which were assumed by a young knight
after a very bold exploit in my service. He came to me as Salomon de
Born, and I think he was but eighteen--a mere boy."
Prosper, from the heights of his three-and-twenty years, nodded
"So much so," said the Countess, "that I fear I must have wounded his
vanity by laughing away what he asked of me. This was no less than to
lead a troop of my men against Renny of Coldscaur, an enemy and
slanderer of mine, but none the less as great a lord as he was rascal.
However, he begged so persistently that I gave in, finding other
things about him--a mystery of his birth and upbringing, a
steadfastness also and gravity far beyond his years--which drew me to
put him to the proof of what he dared. He went, therefore, with a
company of light horse, some fifty men. He was away eight weeks, and
then came back--with but six men, it is true; but youth is prodigal of
life, knowing so little of it."
"Life is given us to spend," quoth Prosper here.
"He came back with six men. But he brought the tongue of Blaise Renny
in a silver cup, and three wicket-gates, which took two men apiece to
"He had saved just enough men. That was wise of him, and like the king
his namesake," Prosper said, approving of Salomon.
"It was what he said himself", pursued the Countess, "that it was a
"And how did he win his adventure, and what had the wicket-gates to do
with the business?"
"You shall hear. It seems that Coldscaur, which is in North Marvilion
beyond the Middle Shires, stands on a fretted scarp. It is strongly
defended by art as well as nature, for there are three ravines about
it with a stepped path through each up to the Castle. These were
defended about midway of each by a wicket-gate and a couple of towers.
The gorges are so narrow that there is barely room for a man and horse
to get through; the gates of course correspond."
"Fine defences," said Prosper.
"Very. Well, Salomon de Born with my fifty men seized and occupied a
village at the foot of the scarp one night. In the morning there were
his defences thrown up man-high, and my standard on the church tower.
Renny was furious, and despatched a stronger force than he could
afford to re-take the village. Salomon, counting upon this, had left
two men in it to be killed; with the rest he scaled the scaur and
waited in hiding to see what force Renny took out. He knew to a nicety
the strength of the garrison, saw what there was to see, made his
calculations, and thought he would venture it. He got over the rock,
he and his men, by some means; came down the gorges from the top,
secured the defences, and posted a couple of men at each wicket. With
the rest he surprised the Castle. I believe, indeed, that all the men
in it were killed as well as most of mine. Yet for three or four hours
Coldscaur was in my hands."
"It should have been yours now," said Prosper, "with fifty of your men
once in it."
"My friend, I didn't need Coldscaur. I have castles enough. But it was
necessary to punish Renny."
"And that was done?"
"It was done. Salomon posted his men in the towers by the wicket-
gates, and waited for Renny to return from the village. Luckily for
him it grew dusk, but not dark, before he could be certain by which
gorge Renny himself was coming in. When he had made sure of this he
took all three wickets off their hinges, and sent six men to carry
them home to High March. With the rest he waited for Renny. Finally he
saw him riding up the stepped way, and, as his custom was, far ahead
of his troop. You must know that these people are besotted with pride;
the state they kept (and still keep, I suppose) was more than royal.
No one must ride, walk, or stand within a dozen yards of Renny of
Coldscaur. Salomon had calculated upon it. Well, it was dark before
Renny reached the wicket. Someone (Salomon, no doubt) called for the
word. Renny gave it; but it was his last. Salomon stabbed him at the
same instant and pulled him off his horse out of the way. He sent the
horse clattering up the hill. Renny's men followed it, nothing
doubting. I might have had the better part of my men but for the
subsequent foppery of the youth. He had Renny dead. He had Renny's
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