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Chapter 11 How Peter Came Again to Avelard

Of the later events of that night Peter had no clear memory. He was conscious of trying to speak and finding utterance hard; his mouth was dry, and the words stuck to his lips; also his head ached. After that came a blank, and the next thing he remembered was lying, not on straw, but on a rough pallet bed with wet cloths on his temples. There seemed to be a pool of water in front of him which glimmered in the darkness; it was a belt of sunlight coming through the half-shuttered window in the barn. There was a woman there, an ancient woman whose face seemed familiar, and Darking sat beside him on a three-legged stool.... The pain in his head had gone, but a wheel was still turning dizzily inside it, and his eyes pained him so that he could not look at the pool of light.

Then, after another spell of oblivion, he heard Darking’s voice, and made sense of his words. He was speaking to John Naps — he could not mistake Naps’s parrot-like white head.

“No more than a common fever,” Darking was saying. “He went down like a felled ox — that is the way of youth that knows nothing of sickness. ’Tis this soft weather. When St Martin starts his summer before the feast of Simon and Jude young blood must suffer. Also he may have got a whiff of some malady by the Rustler’s bed or in that crypt where Lovell died. God knows there were foul airs enough in that hole to sicken an army.”

The whipjack laid his horny claw on the wet clouts on Peter’s brow.

“He burns like a lime-kiln,” he said. “Heaven send the holy one make haste and bring a leech, for there is need here of drenching and purging and blood-letting.”

After that came confusion again. His next memory was of Tobias with a grave face, sitting by his bed and conning his breviary. Then came a new figure — a wisp of a man with a small head and a sharp nose, a figure like a heron, that stooped and pecked at him. He was conscious of little stabs of pain, and of spasms of great weakness, after which he floated away on clouds into forgetfulness....

These were hard days for Brother Tobias. To see the lad, whom he had never known sick or sorry, lie helpless in fever, wrung his old heart and put amazing vigour into his old bones. There was a wise man at Banbury, one Pyramus, who had studied medicine at Palermo; so to Banbury went Tobias, and, having his own means of persuasion, brought the leech straightway to Little Greece. Dr Pyramus pronounced it no common autumn fever. He suspected poison, and finally amended his diagnosis to an infection by evil breath, whence breathed he could not tell. He bled his patient with such vigour that the boy’s face became like tallow and Tobias could not look at it without a heart pang. He compounded noxious draughts, made out of foul things like wood-lice, and spiders, and powdered deer horn, and the dung of white doves, and these, mixed with hot ale, Peter was compelled to swallow. They did one thing effectively, for they made him deathly sick, thereby relieving his body of evil humours.

One day Mother Sweetbread stood beside him weeping, and with her Madge of Shipton, who, to the scandal of Tobias, made spells with well water and a lighted candle and the tail hairs of a black mare. Tobias’s own part was to keep the brow cool and the lips moist, to prevent him tossing the blankets off him, and to hold his hand when Peter clutched at the air in a feverish dream. Also to pray, incessantly, to God and God’s Mother, and to all the saints who furthered the healing art — St Blaize and St John the Almoner, St Timothy and St Michael the Archangel, St Anthony who cures heats of the skin, and St Lazarus who was himself once a youth raised by our Lord from the dead.

The fever was stubborn, but whether it was the purgings and bleedings, Goody Littlemouse’s spells or Tobias’s prayers, there came a day when it left Peter, and he lay as weak as a kitten, while the tides of life began to drift back slowly into his body. Dr Pyramus came from Banbury for the last time, and pronounced over him the curative benediction, half Latin and half Arabic, of the Palermo physicians. Then it was the task of others to speed the patient up the slopes of health. Goody Littlemouse came from Shipton, and this time she did not weave spells. A big fire was lit, and a pot boiled, and she washed Peter in scalding water, and wrapped him in a skin new stripped from a heifer calf. Also her cunning hands, strong as a bear’s paws, picked out and kneaded his flaccid muscles, and soothed the tormented nerves of neck and face, and pounded his breast so that vigour should return to his heart.... Mother Sweetbread took up her quarters in Little Greece, and made him broths of game and wild herbs, and frumenty spiced with ginger, and, to quench his thirst, a gruel of barley mixed with her own sloeberry cordial.... Also Tobias came again from Oseney, and, having given thanks for a son restored, read to him the Colloquies of the great Erasmus, as well as the Scriptures, and gave him the news of Oxford.... It was now long past St Martin’s day, but the good saint’s summer still held, and presently Peter was carried to a chair and looked out on blue skies and smoke-brown coverts, and sniffed the sweet wild odours of the winter woods.

“God has sent you this sickness, my son,” said Tobias, “for His own purpose. Deus nobis haec otia fecit. You have had peace to make your soul before the hour of trial comes. First came that night at Minster Lovell which was a purging of your heart, and then the needful purging of your body, and last these days of quiet reflection. The ways of the Lord are altogether wise.”

For a little, while his strength crept back to him, Peter lay in a happy peace. He felt himself purged indeed, a chamber clean and swept for a new life to fill.... But presently, as his vigour renewed itself, the peace became cloudy. He remembered dimly Simon Rede’s last words, but very clearly he was conscious of his challenge. Sabine’s figure returned to haunt his memory. He would lie for hours dreaming of her, sometimes happy, sometimes vaguely unquiet, now and then in the midnight hours uncommonly ill at ease. While he was tied by the leg in Little Greece, what had become of the girl — what was Simon Rede doing? He had forgotten his greater task. For him Avelard was only Sabine’s bower and Lord Avelard only her guardian.

But little by little his old life rebuilt itself in his mind. What was a-foot in the world beyond the oak shaws? One day John Naps arrived, and he listened to his talk with Darking, who had come the night before from Oxford.

“There is word from Avelard,” said the latter; “my lord here is bidden hold himself in readiness for a sudden call. I had a message in Stowood.”

The whipjack nodded.

“There is a mighty to-do among the great folk,” he cried. “Flatsole is in Bernwood, fresh from the north, and he says there is a fire alight in Yorkshire that the King’s men cannot put out, and a running to and fro of dukes and earls and King’s messengers like the pairing of partridges in February.”

“There is a kindling in the west, too,” said Darking. “The priests are broidering a banner with the Five Wounds, and Neville is gone to Wales. The hour is near when he of Avelard must stir himself, and that means work for our young lord. King Harry, who has been looking east and north, is beginning to throw a glance westward. I had news in Oxford yesterday. Crummle, they say, is more anxious about Severn than Trent, and is turning his pig’s face this way. That spells danger. Is my lord safe here from prying eyes?”

The whipjack spat solemnly. It was his favourite gesture of contempt.

“As safe as if he were in Avelard with all the armed west around him. Since the hour he fell sick, my posts and pickets have been on every road. ‘Twould be harder for one unbidden to enter Little Greece than to kill and cart a buck in Windsor Forest under the castle walls, and any Peeping Tom would soon be an acorn on the highest oak.... But if there be war coming, I fear it may get foul weather. I like not this false summertide which stretches towards Yule. The sky curdles too much of an evening, and the wild geese are flighting in from the sea.”

“What do you fear?” Darking asked, for the whipjack was famous for his weather lore.

“Snow,” was the answer. “Wind, maybe, but I think snow. There will be deep snow by Andrewmas.”

But the feast of St Edmund the Martyr came, and still the weather held, and on St Catherine’s day the sky was still clear, though the wind was shifting by slow degrees against the sun to the north. By now Peter was on his feet, and able to walk a mile or two with comfort, right down through the alleys amid the thorn scrub to where Naps’s sentries kept watch. Indeed, he could have walked farther had not Mother Sweetbread commanded moderation, for he felt his limbs as vigorous as ever, and had that springing sense of a new life which falls only to youth recovering from a fever.

On the night after the festival of Catherine, Darking came to Little Greece — in a great hurry, for he was in the saddle and not a-foot.

“How goes it, my lord?” he asked. “Are your limbs your own once more? Can you back a horse for a matter of twenty miles?”

“I am strong enough to stride that distance in four hours,” said Peter.

“Well and good. The word for you is mount and ride. You must be in Avelard by to-morrow’s noon.”

So there was a furbishing up of Peter’s raiment, and the horse he had brought from Avelard was fetched from its stable in the forest, where it had been bestowed after the loosing of the gospeller at the Holt. And next morning he set out with Darking, who conveyed him only a little way, since he had business of his own on Cherwell side. The sky was still bright, though the air stung when they left the Evenlode vale for the wolds of Stow. It was wintertime clear enough, for there were no larks rising on the hills or swooping plovers — only big flocks of skimming grey fieldfares, and strings of honking geese passing south, and solemn congregations of bustards, and in the wet places clouds of squattering wildfowl. But the grass was still green, and, though the trees were leafless, the bushes were so bright with fruit that they seemed to make a second summer.

“Heaven has sent a breathing space to the world as well as to me,” thought Peter. “I wonder what it portends. Maybe a wild Christmas.”

That morning’s ride was to dwell in his memory like a benediction, for it seemed that from his sickness he had won a new youth. Every sight and sound and scent charmed his recovered senses, and his thoughts had again the zest and the short horizons of the boy. He schooled his spirits to temperance. He reminded himself that no more for him was the foolish dream of worldly glory. He was a soldier vowed to a selfless cause. But he found a substitute for drums and trumpets in this very abnegation. He recalled the many who had lost the world to gain it, and found exhilaration in the thought of a high dramatic refusal. The verse of Boethius ran in his head —

“Ite nunc fortes ubi celsa magni

Ducit exempli via.”

He sung it aloud to the empty wolds:

“Go forth, ye brave, on the high road

Where honour calls to honour’s wars;

Strip from your back the craven load;

Go spurn the earth and win the stars.”

In his new mood he wove for himself delicious dreams of a world where the philosopher would be the king, and Christ and Plato would sit at the same table, and the Psalmist and Virgil would join their voices in the celestial Marriage-song.

But the mood could not last, and before he had come to the last edge of Cotswold and looked down on Severn, he had different fancies. Down in the valley was Sabine, in an hour he would be under the same roof, in an hour he would see her eyes.... He was no longer the seer and the dreamer, but the common lover, with a horizon bounded by his mistress’s face. The verses which now filled his head had no taint of sanctity, but were the snatches of wandering goliards, to whom women and wine were the sum of life.... He would make for her songs of his own — her eyes should be hymned as Catullus had hymned the burning eyes of Lesbia; he would make her famous among men as Peter Abelard had made the Abbess of the Paraclete, so that, like Eloise, men would speak of her beauty long after it was dust.

Arrived at Avelard, he was taken straight to my lord’s chamber. Lord Avelard wore a heavy furred robe, for his blood was thin, and a fire of logs made the place like an oven to one fresh from the sharp out-of-doors. The old man kissed Peter on both cheeks.

“You have been ill, my son? Only stern business kept me from your bedside, but I had constant advices, and you were in good hands. My faith! but sickness has made a hero of you. You look older and sager and more resolute, if still a trifle over-lean. Sit, my son, for you must husband your strength.... The moment is very near. The Welshman is most deeply entangled in the north, and from what I hear both heart and guile are failing him. Our plans are on the edge of completion, and the word has gone forth that on St Lucy’s day our folk begin to draw together. After that we move swift. You shall eat your Christmas dinner in Oxford, and, if God please, you shall sit in London ere Candlemas.”

The waxen face had now more colour in it, and the approach of the hour of action seemed to have put fresh life into his blood, for he moved briskly, and fetched from a side table a mass of charts and papers.

“Now for your own part. In the next week you will visit some of the centres of our rising and show yourself to those who will follow you. ‘Faith, they will think you St George himself, if you are properly habited, for sickness has made you like a young archangel.... Meantime there are these parchments for you to put your hand to. They are, in a manner of speaking, the pay-rolls of your army, only you pay not with coined gold but with assurances. Your followers will spend much substance in your cause, and doubtless much blood. If you win, it is right that they should be recompensed by some increase to their estate.”

The parchments were many, and they made a most comprehensive pay~roll. To his horror Peter saw that they related mainly to Church lands. There were one or two royal manors to be apportioned, but most were the property of the abbeys and priories of the Thames and Severn vales. The lists made very free with the estates of the greater houses — Gloucester and Tewkesbury and Malmesbury and Evesham — and bore somewhat less hard upon the smaller foundations. Eynsham and Bicester and Hailes and Winchcombe were left with a larger proportion than Pershore. His own Oseney was to be comprehensively despoiled and all her rich lands about Bibury were to be taken from her. The abbeys themselves were to remain, apparently, but they were to remain with ............

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