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Chapter 10 Of the Conclave at Little Greece

At Mother Sweetbread’s he found the lean urchin Dickon of the Holt, whose rags now hung on yet barer bones. He greeted Peter with a pull of his forelock.

“They be after ye, master,” he said. “The other of you two, a tall man, him that set free the prisoner three nights back, has been at his tricks again. Maybe ’twas he set the Fettiplace men after ye, forbye that ye were seen this day in the forest. In less than an hour they’ll be here, for they know that this is your hidy-hole. They were to muster at Asthall crossroads, for I was dobbing down in a chump of furze and heard them plan it.”

“Are you hungry?” Peter asked, and the boy’s wolfish eyes answered.

“Give him food, mother,” said Peter. “There is a bare cupboard at the Holt.”

“There be no cupboard there,” said the boy, “and there be no Holt. When I followed ye t’other night, father he set the place afire, and hanged himself to a rafter, and him and mother was all burned to cinders.” He spoke calmly as if such doings were trivial, and his eyes followed Mother Sweetbread as she brought food.

“Then you have no home? Where do you sleep?”

“Where there is a chance of meat. Outside Martin Lee’s kennels, where I can pick up scraps from the hounds’ dish, or beside the swine-troughs up Swinbrook way. That’s how I come to hear the talk of the Fettiplace folk.”

“You will come with me, Dickon lad, for it seems you are destined to serve me. Have you any old garments of mine, mother, to amend his raggedness?”

“We must be on the move,” said Darking. “Little Greece is the best shelter. I know not if John Naps be there, but I have the right of entry, and no Fettiplace durst follow.”

Madge of Shipton took up the tale. She was in a sullen mood, and had sat mumbling to herself in a corner.

“What of Lovell’s gold, young sir? The gold I have tracked by my spells through air and earth and water? What of the treasure that will set you among kings?”

“Let the first comer have it,” said Peter. “I have no longer need of it. I am beholden to you, Mother Littlemouse, but I am done now with spells and treasure. I have a path to tread where it would only cumber me.”

Peter’s tone, solemn and resolute, woke Brother Tobias from the half-doze which the fatigues of the night had brought on him.

“And you, Father,” said Darking, “will sleep here the night, and to-morrow I will send a man who will lead you back to Oseney.”

“Not so, friend,” said the old man. “My bones are rested, and my horse can carry me to Little Greece, which I take to be no great journey. I have a notion that my son Peter will need my counsel, and Oseney can well spare me.”

“Then let us haste,” said Darking, “or we shall have the Fettiplaces on our backs, and I for one am in no mood for a mellay. Food, mother, for there may be no larder at Little Greece. Make speed, Dickon, with that new jerkin.”

When they left the cottage, Dickon in the frieze of Peter’s boyhood, Tobias stiff and weary on his ambling cob, Peter and Darking striding ahead, the clouds had for the most part lifted, and the moon was riding in mid-heaven. There was no sign of pursuit, as they entered the forest aisles, and in ten minutes, through Darking’s subtle leading, there was no fear of it. They were back in an ancient world where Darking, and indeed Peter himself, could baffle any Fettiplace lackey. The cold had lessened with the dark, and the wind seemed to have shifted, for it blew in their left ears now and not in their right. Darking sniffed the air. “Winter has taken a step back,” he said. “St Martin will not forget his little summer. The moles were throwing up fresh earth, so I knew that the frost would not hold.”

Few words were spoken on that journey, and none by Peter, for he was in the grip of a great awe and a new enlightenment. The tortured dead, sprawled by the locked door, had tumbled down his fine castle of dreams. What was the glory of the world if it closed in dry bones and withered skin?... Lovell had been, next the King, the greatest man in all England, and he had died like a rat in a trap, gnawing his fingers in his agony. The starved peasant gasping out his last breath in a ditch had a better ending. And, as Lovell, so had been his grandsire, Henry of Buckingham, and his father, save that their threads of life had been shorn by a clean axe in the daylight for all men to see. It was not death that he feared, but the triviality of life. He had the awe of the eternal upon him, and he saw mortal things as through an inverted spy-glass, small and distant against the vast deserts of eternity.... Only a few hours back his head had been full of trumpets and horsemen, and his blood as brisk as a March morning. Now they all seemed little things, short-lived and weakly. The song of Pierce the Piper came to his mind —

“Worm at my heart and fever in my head —

There is no peace for any but the dead.

Only the dead are beautiful and free —

Mortis cupiditas captavit me....”

But no, he had no craving for death, as he had no fear of it, and he did not yearn for a peace which was rottenness. It was the littleness of life that clouded his spirit.

He had known these moods of disillusion before, when light and colour had gone out of everything. At Oseney, often, when he was tempted to forswear his gods, and the solemn chants of the choir in the great abbey church and the manuscripts of Plato in Merton library alike seemed foolishness. Since his new life began, he had scarcely felt them; rather he had been filled with a young lust of living. But now he had seen the world grow suddenly small, once at Avelard when the gospeller spoke his testimony... once when he saw the dead woman in the hut at the Holt... and two nights ago when he had looked at the dying face of the Rustler.... And if earthly greatness had shrunk for him, he was not recompensed by any brighter vision of celestial glory. Was it accidia that troubled him, that deadly sin? Or was it illumination, the illumination of the King Ecclesiast, who had cried Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas.

Nay, there was one thing that was no vanity. In the atmosphere of decay which surrounded him one thing shone fresh and bright and living, a star among clouds, a rose among the graves. The beauty of Sabine came over him like a benediction.... He had got a new mind, he had told Madge of Shipton, and he had spoken the truth. In the last hour he had become very old and wise. He had sacrificed all his whimsies. He would do whatever work God called him to, but he asked no reward. He did not seek kingdoms or dukedoms, or purple and fine linen, or trampling armies behind him. Such pomps he renounced as willingly as any monk. But in his revulsion from death he hungered for life, and to him Sabine shone as life incarnate, youth in excelsis, beauty sanctified. A great tumult of longing filled him. A line of some forgotten wandering poet came into his head —

“O blandos oculos et inquietos!”

It was true; her eyes were both lovely and wild, unquiet and kind. He searched his memory for more. Illic — how did it go? — yes —

“Illic et Venus et leves Amores

Atque ipso in medio sedet Voluptas.”

He tried to turn the couplet into his own tongue:

“For there dwells Venus, and the tiny Loves,

And in their midst Delight.”

The word Voluptas offended him. It should have been Desiderium.

They threaded without challenge the maze of thorn scrub which surrounded Little Greece, and when they reached the great barn there was no light in it. But the door was unlocked, as Darking had told them was the custom, and within there was plenty of kindling, and on the rafters a ham or two and the side of a fat buck. Darking and Dickon, who showed himself assiduous in his new duties, made a fire on the stone floor, and from the bean straw in the far end shook out four beds. “We will rob old John’s larder,” said Darking, and he cut slices from one of the hams and fried them on Naps’s griddle. But of the party he alone ate, and Dickon, who had vast arrears to make up. Peter would have flung himself on his pallet that he might dream of his love, but Tobias detained him. The old man lay couched on the straw, his head on his hand, and the firelight on his face revealed an anxious kindliness.

“There are no secrets among us, son Peter,” he said. “For certain you have none from me, for I read you like a printed book. This night you have seen a vision, such as befell St Paul on the Damascus road. You have seen the vanity of earthly glory, and your soul is loosed from its moorings. Speak I not the truth?”

“It is the truth.” Peter spoke abstractedly, for he had been called from the deeps of another kind of meditation.

“I have wondered sometimes,” Tobias continued, “whether of late months you had not forgot your upbringing, and had become over~worldly for one of your high calling. The lust of the eyes and the pride of life were new things to you, and I have often feared that you were dazzled. But this night you spoke words which were balm to my heart. You said you had got you a new mind, and that you trod a road where Lovell’s gold would only cumber you. If you meant what I take it you meant, you have indeed had a baptism of grace. I would have had you get treasure that you might be the more free to work a noble purpose. But if you sought it only to hold your head higher among worldly men and attain more readily to worldly honour, then your purpose was evil and God in His mercy has frustrated it.”

Peter made no answer.

“For you are a soldier of Christ, my son.” The old man’s voice had a crooning tenderness. “If you fight in your own strength and for your own cause, you will go down — I know it as if God had whispered to me. You will be the third of your house to die a violent and a futile death. For you may drive out the Tudor and yet go the way of Duke Harry and Duke Edward, for he who draweth the sword in his own quarrel will himself be slain by the sword. But if you fight as the champion of God’s Church and His poor folk you cannot fail, for if you fall you fall a blessed martyr, and angels will waft you to Paradise — and if you win, your crown will be like the crown of Israel’s High Priest, with the words writ thereon, ‘Holiness to the Lord.’”

Tobias had raised himself on his couch, eyes and voice had become rapt like a prophet’s, and he held out his arms to Peter in an ecstasy of appeal. Then he sank back, for the fire blazed up in a sudden draught, and there was a bustle at the doorway.

John Naps had entered. The master of Little Greece was wrapped up in several ragged mantles, as if he had found the night chill. From these rags there protruded only some wisps of white hair, the long coppery nose, and the moist magisterial eyes.

“Ho, masters!” he cried, and his voice boomed like a bittern’s. “What a Christ’s mercy ha’ we here? Godsnigs, but you are at ease in another man’s house!” Then his eye fell on Darking. “Solomon, my love, is’t thee? Welcome, old friend, and I prithee present your company!”

Then he caught sight of Brother Tobias, and doffed his hat. “A brother of Oseney, i’ faith? My greeting, holy sir. Lardy! It is the good Tobias that never denied alms to a poor man. May your reverence feed high and sleep deep in John Naps’s kennel!”

His rheumy eyes next covered Peter. “Your ‘prentice, Solomon — the honest lad that attended ye at our parliament a month back?”

“Know him by his true name,” Solomon laughed. “To the king of the Upright Men I present Master Bonamy, out of the west country.”

The old whipjack’s face underwent a sudden change. The comedy left it, and it fell into the stern lines which Peter remembered. His voice, too, became hard and grave.

“Him that has the Word — our Word, Solomon! ’Twas passed to him a sennight back at Avelard, and he passed it to Catti the Welshman t’other day at Gosford. Bonamy, you say? Well, one name will serve the present need as well as another, but maybe the true one also spells with a B. Say, friend,” and he spoke low, “is’t the one we await? In the words of Holy Writ, is’t him that should come or must we look for another?”

“You have said it,” was Darking’s answer.

Naps cast off his ragged cloak and revealed a very respectable suit of brown frieze and leather. He bobbed on his knee before Peter, looking like some king of the gnomes with his domed skull, his mahogany cheeks, and his wisp of white beard. He took the young man’s right hand, and laid it on the crown of his own head and on his heart, mumbling all the while a thing like a paternoster. He took a water-jug which stood on the floor, and sprinkled some drops on his palm. He picked a half-burned stick from the fire, and quenched the glowing end with his wet fingers. Last, he plucked a knife from his belt, and drew the edge over the back of one thumb so that a drop of blood spurted. What he had done to his own left hand, he did to Peter’s right.

“I swear you the beggar’s oath of fealty, sire,” he said, and the whipjack had a sudden hierarchic dignity. “The oath by water and fire and cold steel and common blood. Whenever your call sounds, the beggars will rise around ye like an autumn mist out of every corner of England.”

Then his eyes became anxious.

“We be all true men here?” he asked. “The reverend father?”

“Be comforted, John,” said Darking. “’Twas he that had the bringing up of my lord. He knew his secret first of any.”

The whipjack’s humour changed, and he was again the jovial ruffian. He got himself some food, and made himself a bed of straw by Darking’s side.

“What brings this high and mighty company to Little Greece? Few, save ourselves, come here, unless the King’............

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