Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Short Stories > The Blanket of the Dark > Chapter 12 Of the Vision in the Snow
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  
Chapter 12 Of the Vision in the Snow

Next day they were in the saddle soon after dawn, Lord Avelard muffled in three cloaks and wearing an extra surcoat. The snow had not begun to fall, but the world lay under the spell of its coming. The sky was leaden grey and, though there was no frost, the earth seemed to be bound in a rigor like an ague; nothing stirred, not a leaf on the tree or a bird in the bush; the very streams seemed to hush their flow in a palsy of expectancy. Even on Peter’s young blood the cold smote like a blow.

The old man said not a word of their talk of yesterday. He seemed to cherish no resentment, and, so far as the discomfort of the weather permitted, to be in a cheerful humour.

“I am taking you to Neville,” he told Peter. “My lord of Abergaveny is the greatest man on the Marches and can horse five thousand spears, besides what he can bring from his Welsh dales. The man is sick — has long been sick — but his spirit burns the more fiercely in his frail body, and he is also a skilled soldier. What he lacks in bodily strength will be supplied by his brethren Sir Thomas and Sir Edward.... My lord is your near kin, for he married your sister by blood, the Lady Mary, now dead.”

“Why is he one of us?” Peter asked. “He stands high at court.”

A laugh like a frog’s croak came from the old man.

“He has some matter of private grievance against the Welshman. Likewise he would increase his estates. He is the richest man in the west country, for he heired the broad Beauchamp lands, but he would leave his son still vaster possessions. Speak him fair, my son, for he has a temper spoiled by much dealing with slippery Welsh.” And he shot at Peter a glance of many meanings.

“Bethink you, my lord, while there is still time,” said Peter, for in the night watches he had been pondering his position. “Am I the man for your purpose? Would not my lord of Exeter better serve it?”

“May the mercy of God forbid!” Lord Avelard cried. “The Nevilles would be posting to London to lay their swords at the King’s feet. The name of Courtenay is not the name of Bohun, and has no spell to summon England.”

They found the chief of the Nevilles in his house of Marchington by the Severn. He was of the old school, wearing the clothes of another age, and eschewing the shaven fashion of the Court, for he had a forked grey beard like the tushes of a boar. His massive figure had grown bulky, his legs tottered, the colour of his face was that of his hair, but he had the old habit of going always armed, and supported indoors a weight of body armour that might have been at Agincourt. The house had not been changed since the time of the Edwards, and was a rough draughty place, very different from the comfort of Avelard. There was a pale woman flitting in the background, his latest wife, who had once been his mistress, but she did not come near the strangers, and the party of three sat in the chilly hall on bare stools, as if they had met at a leaguer.

Neville looked at Peter long and searchingly.

“Ned’s son, by God!” he exclaimed. “I would know that nick in the upper lip out of ten thousand. You have kept him well hidden, or some spy of Henry’s would have unearthed him, and he would have tested Henry’s mercies.... Hark ye, lad, you are my brother, child though you be, for in your sister, now with God, I had as good a wife as a man of my habits deserves. You are abbey-bred and no soldier? So much the better, say I, for you will leave the business of war to such as understand it. Half Henry’s bungling has come from his belief that he is a new C?sar....”

To Peter’s surprise this man, whom, according to report, greed spurred to action in spite of age and sickness, spoke no word of those ill-omened parchments at Avelard. He was new back from Wales, and had much to say of the levies due from thence; they would march on a certain day, so as to be at the meeting-point in Cotswold by St Lucy’s eve. His brother, Sir Thomas, would lead them; he was even now busy on Usk and Wye. All Gwent and Powysland would march, and many of the new-settled English would wear saffron. There was still good fighting stuff in the dales — bowmen like those of the old wars and squires like Sir Davy Gam. The grandson of old Rhys ap Thomas was with them, him who had put Harry’s father on the throne — he had seen at Dynevor the great stirrups used at Bosworth — and as the grandsire had set up the Tudor so the grandson would help to pull him down.... Then he outlined the plan of campaign, and Peter listened with some stir in his heart. They would march swiftly on Oxford, which would at once be surrendered, for they had friends within. It was altogether needful for their security to have a docile Oxford in their rear, for the city was the key of the route between Thames and Severn.... But they would not tarry there, though it might be necessary to hang a few rogues for the general comfort — some of Crummle’s dogs — Dr John London and others.... After that they would not take the valley road to London by way of Windsor; but would move on the capital in two bodies, one going by the backside of Chiltern and coming down from the north, the other keeping the Berkshire and Surrey downs and attacking from the south.

“We must have hard ground for our march,” said the old campaigner, “for at this season the valleys are swamps.... Also by this device we achieve two mighty ends. Our northern force cuts in between London and the King’s armies in Lincoln and York, which by all tales are already in some straits, and it will hinder Henry, too, from drawing support from Suffolk and Norfolk. Our southern force will sever London from the King’s friends in Kent and on the sea-coast. We shall build a dyke on each side of him, and the only open country will be to the west, which is the road of our own folk.”

There was immense vigour in the speech and eyes of the old man, but the strength of his body soon ebbed, and he had to be laid every now and then on a leathern settle till his breath came back to him. At the end of one of these bouts Peter found the sufferer’s eyes fixed on him.

“The new brother you have brought me is to my liking, my lord. He is as handsome a babe as you will see in a year of Sundays. Have you found him a wife?”

“It is proposed,” said Lord Avelard gravely, “that if our venture succeed, he shall marry the King’s daughter, the Lady Mary.”

The old man chuckled.

“Policy, policy! A wise step, doubtless, for the commons have a weakness for the lady and her sad mother. Also, if she has the Tudor in one half of her, she has the high blood of Emperors in the other. But, by the rood of Asseline, she hath an ugly face and the tint of Cheshire whey.... Yet cheer up, brother. ’Tis no bad thing to have a plain wife, for it whets a man’s zest for other and fairer women. I, who speak, have proved it.”

As they rode homeward in the late afternoon Peter’s thoughts were busy. He believed that he read Lord Avelard’s purpose — to allow the matter of the parchments to sleep, but by this very silence to let Peter commit himself unconsciously, so that, in the event of victory, he should find over him that stiffest of compulsions, the will of a victorious army. He had accompanied him to Marchington to prevent undue candour on his part towards Neville, though, as it had fallen out, Neville’s thoughts had been on another bent. But why this tale of the daughter of Catherine, who was devout among the devout?

“You would marry me to the Queen’s daughter?” he said to his companion after a long spell of silence.

“Ay,” was the answer, and there was a dry bitterness in the tone. “You are unworthy of beauty, so we fall back on piety. We must reap what vantage we can out of your monkish tastes.”

The other journeys Peter made alone, for in them it seemed that Lord Avelard scented no danger. Some were to the houses of strong squires, who received him as Buckingham’s son and would have kissed his stirrups. At Stanway the family priest, a man like an ancient prophet, blessed him solemnly, and old Sir John Tracey and his five sons knelt as at a sacrament. At Burwell he found a lord so bitter against the King that he asked for no reward except the hope of seeing the Tudor green and white in the mire. At Abbots-lease he was met by a hundred men of those deep pastures, all girt for war, and the banner of the Five Wounds was consecrated and exalted, and in the burr of Gloucestershire he heard the old recruiting song of the Crusaders,

“O man, have pity upon God.”

As he travelled the roads, he realised that Lord Avelard knew but little of one side of the movement he controlled. The great lords might rise for worldly profit or private vengeance, but here in the west, in outland places and among plain men, there was smouldering the same passion which in Lincoln and the Yorkshire dales was now bursting into flame. They were ready to fight, not for the abbeys, maybe, or even for the Church, but for what they deemed their souls’ salvation. In the churchyard of Ashton-under-Bredon he had listened to the parson chanting to a pale and weeping crowd of armed peasants the tremendous prophecies of Zephaniah, and had felt in his own heart the solemn exaltation of a crusader.

“Juxta est dies Domini magni,” the hoarse voice had risen and fallen like a wandering wind, “dies tribulationis et angusti?... dies tenebrarum et caliginis... dies tub? et clangoris super civitates munitas et super angulos excelsos.”

For certain these were dies tenebrarum, for the snow still tarried, though its shadow darkened. On his journeys Peter was accompanied by six of the Avelard men-at-arms, and by Dickon, mounted on a grey palfrey, and wearing the black and gold Avelard liveries. The hill country lay in a gloom, which was not a fog, for distances could be perceived, but everything was drained of colour and frozen into a tenebrous monotony. Daily the sky seemed to sink nearer the earth. The first utter silence had gone. Now, though there was no wind, the trees and grasses shook and shivered eerily as if some tremor had passed through the ground. It was weather to lie heavy on a man’s spirits, for not only was the cold enough to freeze the marrow, but there seemed to be in the air a dull foreboding. The Avelard varlets never whistled or sang; there was no merriment at the wayside taverns; the horses, well fed on grain and therefore likely to be fractious in the cold air, now plodded like oxen; the sheep had been brought in from the wolds to wattled shelters, where they huddled shivering with scared eyes.

One afternoon on the road between Avelard and Colne Peter saw an encampment by the wayside — half a dozen shelters of boughs and straw around a great fire which burned cheerfully in the brume. Tending it was a man with a vast fat face and a paunch like a promontory, in whom he recognised Timothy Penny-farthing, him whom they called True Timothy, the master of the palliards. Peter bade his men ride on with Dickon, and turned aside to the blaze.

It was as if he had trod on a wasps’ nest. Timothy, unperturbed, continued to feed the fire, but from the beehive shelters appeared a swarm of foul faces and verminous rags, and the glitter of many knives.

Peter sat his horse and waited, till Timothy turned his face towards him, which was not till he had adjusted properly an iron kettle.

“How far is it to the skirts of Wychwood?” he asked.

“As far as to Peter’s Gate,” came the answer, delivered cavalierly, almost insolently.

“Alack,” said Peter, “I... shall... not... be... there... in... time.”

The words wrought a miracle. Every foul head disappeared into its burrow, and Timothy’s flitch of a face assumed an expression of gravity and respect. He came forward from the fire, and bent his forehead till it touched Peter’s left stirrup. Then he led him a little way apart.

“You have the Word, master. Have you also the message? Solomon Darking told us that the hour for it was nigh.”

“Nigh, but not yet. My command is that you and all wandering men be ready against the feast of St Lucy.”

“Your command, my lord? Then are you he we look for?”

“The same. The same who with Darking attended your parliament at Little Greece.”

“Yon forest lad! Soft in the wits, said Darking. ’Twas a good jape to put upon the Upright Men.” Timothy chuckled. “Have you any orders for us palliards?”

“Not yet. How go things underground in England?”

“We be awake — awake like badgers in April. When the hour comes, there will be a fine stirring among our old bones. The word has gone out among the Upright Men from the Black Mountain to Ivinghoe Beacon, and south to the seashore, and north to the Derwent dales. There be much ado, likewise, among the great folk, but that your lordship knows better than me.... There is one piece of news I had but this morning. They say that the King’s grace is disquieted about the westlands, and may come himself to cast an eye over them. They say it is his purpose to keep Christmas at Woodstock.”

Peter cried out. “I had heard nothing of that.”

The palliard shook his head wisely. “True it may be, natheless. I had it from a sure hand. ’Twill serve our purpose nobly, my lord. ’Tis better if the fox blunder into the hounds than to have to dig him out of his earth.”

“Let the word go out,” said Peter, “that any further news of this be brought to me at Avelard.”

Timothy nodded.

“It shall go by Solomon Darking.” Then he sniffed the air. “There is but one danger to your cause, my lord. This devil’s weather may upset the wisest plan of lording and vagabond, for there is no striving against the evil humour of the skies.”

“What do you make of it?” Peter cast his eye over the darkening landscape, which seemed void of life as a sepulchre.

“There will be snow,” was the answer, “a cruel weight of snow. Look ye, the hedgehog, when he snuggles down in winter-time, makes two vents to his cell, one north, one south. He will stop up neither except for the sternest need. Now he hath stopped up the north vent. We have seen it in every wood, for we know his ways and often dig him out for our supper, since a winter hedgehog will fry like an eel in his own fat. That means snow such as you and I have not known, for the thing has not happened in my lifetime, though I have heard my father tell how he saw it in the black winter of ‘87.... I will tell you another thing. The dotterels have all gone from High Cotswold. When they come in flocks it means good weather, but when they leave it means death to beast and man.”

“Snow might serve our purpose well,” said Peter.

“Ay, a modest snow, with a frost to bind it. That were noble weather for armed men. But not mountains of snow which smother the roads, and above all not melting snow. Your folk will come from far places and must ford many streams. I dread the melting wind which makes seas of rivers and lakes of valleys. Robin Hood feared little above ground, but he feared the thaw-wind.”

That night came a message from Darking, who was in south Cotswold near the Stroud valley, and begged that Peter should go to him to meet certain doubting squires of those parts. Lord Avelard approved. “They are small folk in that quarter,” he said, “and therefore the more jealous. ’Twere well to confirm their loyalty by a sight of you.”

So early next morning Peter set out — this time unattended, for the journey was short, and he proposed to return well before the darkening.

To his surprise Sabine declared that she would accompany him for part of the road. She wi............

Join or Log In! You need to log in to continue reading

Login into Your Account

  Remember me on this computer.

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved