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Chapter 9 The Road to Damascus

Darking drew in to a corner of the upper Fisherrow which made a tiny wharf, and shipped the oars. The flurries of snow had ceased, and the air had become still and very cold. Thomas of Oseney rang the hour of ten, and his notes lingered long in the black vault of night. When they had died away, there was no sound in the world but the swirl of the flooded river.

“We must get a bed for the night,” said Darking, stamping his feet against the chill, “and be off by dawn for Wychwood. Goody Littlemouse must lend her aid, for this is a dark business, my lord, and must be done very secretly and in the night.”

Peter shivered. He could not banish from his memory the possessed face and the tortured eyes of the dying man in that room of many lights.

“I do not venture near Minster Lovell except in holy company. Brother Tobias goes with us, or I stir not a yard. God save us, Solomon, but there is a fearsome relish of damnation about this business.”

Darking looked at him sharply. “So be it. Your purpose is honest, my lord, and you but recover your own, but it is true that the Devil walks wherever Lovell trod.... Now for bed. We can lie at Mother Shabbit’s in Titmouse Lane.”

Peter did not dare himself to enter Oseney. Though his clothes were no more clerkly, and his recent life had changed his colour, yet he could not hope to conceal himself from those who had seen him daily in chapel and fratry. So Darking did his errand, and brought him word that Tobias was engaged with the holy business of All–Hallows day and could not leave Oxford till the next morning. The weather was setting to heavy frost, and Peter had no mind to spend the day shivering in the bed-loft of Mother Shabbit’s tavern. He left Darking to make the necessary arrangements for the morrow, since Tobias was an old man who must ride and needed a sober beast to carry him. Darking should bring him to Mother Sweetbread’s before dark on the following day, while Peter would go on ahead and await him there.

So early in the forenoon he took the road on foot, out of the west gate and along the Botley causeway to where the highway to the west country ran between Wytham hill and the shaggy slopes of Cumnor. The sky was an icy blue, and an east wind blew sharp into his back, and on the flood-waters skeins of wildfowl squattered among the crackling cat-ice. The highroad was busy that day, for, besides the usual pack trains, and a variety of religious padding it between Oxford and Eynsham, he passed three armed companies swinging in from Gloucestershire. These men were the King’s levies, on their way to the King’s army in Lincoln, and the sight of them cheered him. The fewer of that breed left in the west the better for his cause.

From Swynford bridge, where he crossed a swollen Thames, he took a short cut over the downland and forestland which make a barrier between Evenlode and Windrush. His head was full of war, for the tramp of horses and the clatter of harness had power to intoxicate him. He had forgotten his scruples and his qualms; the dying face in the Swan inn was no longer an ironic comment on human glory. The biting air and the free movement of his limbs on the winter turf had revived in his blood the pride of life.... Lord Avelard was the master strategist! Peter saw, as in a view from a hilltop, the King (he pictured him as fat and buxom in a suit of gold tissue) sore pressed in the fenlands by a horde of churls who welcomed death in their certainty of heaven; and all the while a vast silent gathering drawing from north and west and creeping like a dark shadow ever nearer the doomed tyrant, who for his lusts had made England sorrow. He saw pallor steal over the ruddy cheeks and fear dawn in the witless eyes. And at the head of the shadow he saw the swan of Bohun.... What was his own place? Was he no more than a watchword, a badge, an oriflamme? That had been his dread, but the dread was gone. If he were the paymaster he would be leader, not in name but in deed. It seemed as if God had moved in the matter to make plain his road, and the hot blood of youth and the clerk’s conscience were alike at peace under this assurance of celestial favour.

He came to Mother Sweetbread’s cottage just before the sun sank in a fiery haze over Cotswold. As he forded Windrush, where the ice was forming on the edge of the slack water, he saw, a mile behind him, the towers of Minster Lovell glowing blood-red in the sunsetting. He halted to gaze, and the sight made him uneasy. Somewhere in that maze of dark stones lay the treasure which was to ensure his triumph — that was what he told himself, but he found his heart incredulous. The place, a jumble of ink and blood and murky gold, seemed too fantastic for earth — unhallowed, too, a thing founded on lust and death and lit terribly by the fires of hell. He remembered how in his boyish days the name of Lovell had been a dark spell, and how, except in bright weather, no one had dared to go near that castle by the stream. In its shadow even Windrush lost its speed, and flowed stagnant and dim under the battlements. He was thankful that he had summoned Tobias to his aid, for he needed all that was of good report behind him.

To his amazement there was no sign of life in Mother Sweetbread’s cottage. There was no candle, no fire on the hearth, no food on the table, though the door was unbarred according to the forest custom. Mother Sweetbread had clearly gone a-journeying.

Peter lit a fire, and found food in the cupboard, on which he made his supper. Then, for no reason which he could give, he dropped the heavy bar over the door, and clamped the window shutters. He was ill at ease, for he could not rid himself of the memory of that grim tower not a mile off, where none had dwelt for half a century. Nothing human, at least, but God knew what things of the night had made their lair in it. The picture of it as seen in the cold twilight filled his mind. It had seemed to be awaiting him, beckoning him, offering some dark commerce.... Thank God, he was above it now, three hundred feet nearer Heaven, and close to the friendly beasts of the forest. He stretched himself on his foster-mother’s bed, close to the hearth, and fell instantly asleep, but he had ill dreams. Door and windows rattled, though the night was bound still in frost. The first time he woke he started at a crooked shadow which ran towards him, till he saw that it was caused by the dying spurt of a log on the hearth. Twice he woke again and each time he seemed to hear the beating of great wings without, and had much ado to compose his mind with prayers. He commended his soul and his cause to God.

“I am only His instrument,” he told himself, “I follow where He leads, and, whether it be His will to break me or to exalt me, I am content.” But in his heart he knew that he lied.

Morning brought a heavy sky and a fiercer cold, but it brought to Peter some peace of mind. He unbarred door and windows, and let in the grey light. With his teeth chattering, he revived the fire, fetched water from the well which rarely froze, and made himself some porridge. He laved his face and breast and arms, and set his blood moving by a brisk run in the forest clearing. He returned to the cottage to find that Mother Sweetbread had returned, and with her an ancient woman whose face was waxen with age, but whose eyebrows and the hair on a mole on her chin were black as jet.

His foster-mother clasped him in her arms. “Woe is me,” she cried, “that you should come to my house and get so cold a welcome! You found food and firing, you say?... But you had to get it for yourself, Peterkin, and that is no task for a great man.... I durst not sleep the night here, for there are devils unloosed — I could hear them whimpering in the dark — so I took shelter with Mother Littlemouse, and Madge has come back with me to bear me company.”

The little old witch-wife looked him over with eyes like pits of bog-water.

“You have my ring on your finger, my lord,” she said, “so no ill can hurt you yet awhile. When do the others come?”

Peter told her that Darking would appear before evening, and with him Brother Tobias. At the name of the latter Mother Sweetbread cried out with delight, but Madge looked grave. “He cannot go where you must go, my lord. It is decreed that he that would challenge the spirits of earth must challenge them alone. A priest will scare them and wound their dignity. The Church, on which be blessings, has its own land, and these spirits have theirs, and God has ruled that for the time the boundaries shall be fixed.... You were no more than in time at the Swan inn. It was needful that you saw him they call the Rustler before his death, and I sat at Shipton sweating with fear lest you should be too late. He died three minutes and twenty seconds after you left him.”

“How did you learn?...” Peter began.

“Hush, sir, and ask not,” said Mother Sweetbread. “Madge here has her own ways of knowledge.”

The witch-wife regarded him with placid eyes.

“The day before yesterday I followed your every step after you left the priggers’ camp at Bladon. I watched you visit Master Catti, and saw you creep into Oxford and have words with a certain one at Quarvex. I could have wept with vexation at every minute you tarried, for I saw also the Rustler with the breath choking in his throat.”

“You saw?” Peter stammered.

“I saw, but with the eye of spirit, not the eye of flesh. I have woven a chain ‘twixt you and me, which keeps me aware of all your doings. Ask me not how, for that is my secret.”

“And with Rustling Jack?”

“With him I have long had such a chain, for once we were lovers.”

“Tell me of to-night. Is there indeed treasure at Minster Lovell? Shall I harvest it?”

“I cannot foretell what God decrees is to come to pass. My knowledge is only of things that already are in being. But this I can tell you. There’s that in Minster Lovell which the Rustler valued as dear as his own life, and which the Lord Lovell valued no less. ’Tis for you to guess what that can be....”

She flung a sort of cowl over her face and withdrew to a corner. “I would be alone now, that I may be busied with arts for your safety this night. Yon earth is as full of dark spirits as there are rooks in Shipton copse, and, Tobias or no, it behoves us to go warily. Many a time the earth devils have played their pranks upon a holy man.”

Peter walked the woods that day, the favoured haunts of his childhood, and his mood was high. He had no doubt as to what the coming night would bring forth. He saw himself able to speak with Avelard and Exeter, with Neville and Latimer, as a potent equal. As one who supplied the sinews of war he would have a final word in that war’s purpose. He told himself — this to his clerk’s conscience — that thus he would keep pure the purpose of the crusade — for God and His Church and the poor commons of England. But deep down in his heart he knew that he had other thoughts. Ambition welled fiercely within him. The nipping air wrought upon his head. His imagination was full of trampling horses and bright swords and banners, the mad cheering of multitudes, thrones and palaces and soft raiment, the soft eyes of fair women.... From a high point in the forest he looked down on Wychwood and saw the blur of Minster Lovell among its trees. The place had no longer any power to affright him. The old pale ghost of its dead lord was an obedient shadow, waiting to surrender its charge before it fled to its appointed torment.

As the day drew to evening the clouds mounted in the east, clouds like foul wool with leaden shadows. “Winter is early upon us,” said Mother Sweetbread; “there was not a swallow in the eaves by mid-September, and they are the birds that know.” The dark had fallen before Brother Tobias’s cob, led by Darking, came up the road from the ford. Tobias was in a sad humour. The journey had tired his bones, and the lowering weather depressed one accustomed to sheltered Oseney, for in his old age it was not his custom to go abroad except when the sun shone. Also he mistrusted his errand, for Lovell was a name of ill omen. “God’s blessing never went with aught of that breed,” he told Peter, “and belike it will not go with their gear.”

“But it will be spent for an honest purpose,” said Peter. “Pecunia non olet.”

Tobias wrinkled his nose, as if he doubted the truth of the adage.

Mother Sweetbread set supper before them, and drew Madge of Shipton from her solitary communings. The little old witch-wife went on her knees to Tobias and sought his blessing, which was given with a doubting face. Then she seemed to take command of the party. Her toothless mumbling changed into a tone of authority; alone of them she seemed to know not the goal only but the road to it. She bade Darking get mattock and pick from the Sweetbread store, for, said she, “The frost has bound the earth, and earth lies heavy on that which we seek.” The keys of the outer curtilage and the keep had been long in Mother Sweetbread’s care, and these were sought out, a mighty bunch of rusted iron strung on a strip of cowhide. “But these are not the keys we seek,” said the witch-wife. “There are deeps in Lovell’s castle which no mortal key will unlock. For these we have the Rustler’s word.” Nor would she allow them to start till she gave the signal. “Let the daylight get out of the earth and the night currents begin to move. We can work only under the blanket of the dark.”

When at last they left the cottage the night was thick as a cloak round them, windless and piercing cold. Darking had a lantern and guided them by a track down a shaggy slope, among scrub of thorn and holly. The old women marched like soldier............

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