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Chapter 13 The Unloosing of the Waters

Peter lay two days abed at Avelard, while the snow muffled the land, made plains of villages, and built new mountains on the levels. Recovering from a great fatigue is in early youth a pleasant thing. Weakness, after a man has slept his fill, passes into a delicious languor, hourly the blood runs more strongly in the veins, hunger revives, the scents and sounds of a recovered life come with a virgin freshness.... Peter lay in a delectable dream, while Sabine brought his meals — first possets of ewes’ milk and white claret, then eggs beaten up with cordials, till his restored strength demanded solider fare. He looked at her without embarrassment — nay, with a kind of cool affection. She was part of the beatific vision he had seen, but part only: now he had gotten a divine discontent and had his mind on the stars.

He rose on the third day, a whole man in body and a new man in spirit. He had come suddenly to maturity, and all the hesitations and doubts of his youth had dropped from him like an old cloak. He felt himself in the mood for command. He could now bend men to his will, for his purpose was a clear flame. No hazard was too great, for he had lost fear. The word of the Israelitish prophet rang in his ears: “Who art thou that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die, and of the son of man which shall be made as grass?”

When on the third day he met Lord Avelard he found that the awe in which he had always held him had gone. This was an old man he looked on, an old man near the end of his days, tramping wearily in the world’s mire. Such an one could not mould the fates of the land; it was very necessary that he himself should be up and doing. Peter felt his youth and vigour surge within him like springtide.

“You are like Phoebus new-risen,” said the old man, and there was that in his eye which wondered. This man that stood before him was not the stripling he had known.

“I feel within me the strength of ten,” Peter replied. “In four days, my lord, it will be St Lucy’s feast. I must be stirring. What news of the King?”

“Darking came here yesterday. The Welshman will pass Christmas at Woodstock. He leaves Windsor to-morrow, and will travel by Reading and Watlington and Hasely. That is his accustomed road, but hitherto he has made his progresses in the height of summer, or in September when the buck are fat. What is his purpose, think you? By the rules of common wisdom he should sit snug in Windsor, or, if he move, go north to the Yorkshire dales, where the trouble waxes daily. ’Tis said he has pardoned the chief rebels there, but his clemency has not abated the discontent.”

“He must have news which makes him fear the west more than the north.”

Lord Avelard nodded.

“Doubtless. And that is the doing of Crummle and his vagabond commissaries. They have been into every abbey on Thames and Severn, and though our plans are well guarded we could not hope that some rumours of them would not escape. The Welshman wishes to learn our condition for himself and, if need be, to strike the first blow. I think that purpose will miscarry.”

“What force does he bring to Woodstock?”

“No more than a hundred mounted men of my lord Shrewsbury’s.... Elsewhere things go happily for us. As I told you, Henry has broke with the Emperor and is now hotly abetting the French King. Therefore the Emperor is with us, and he is sending money — his legate Reginald Pole, him that is Clarence’s grandson, is even now awaiting a ship on the Flanders coast. Also James of Scotland is moving on the northern marches, and his holiness of Durham will find it hard to stay him. There is good news, too, of my lord of Exeter. It seems that the Cornishmen would make him king, but my lord’s heart fails him for such a flight. All he seeks is the Welshman’s downfall, and at the word from us he will march on Bristol.”

“But what of the King at Woodstock? He may be at Avelard gate while we are busy with our muster.”

Lord Avelard smiled. “That is not the way of the King’s grace. He will sit snug in Woodstock and send out intelligencers, and it will be odds against those intelligencers ever returning. Besides, the snow will hamper him. You cannot ride fast on muffled roads.”

Then the two fell to the study of papers and plans. What had hitherto been to Peter a half-understood game which he was content to leave to others had now become a passionate absorption on which his mind worked with precision and speed. He asked a hundred questions; he pressed for exact answers; he made computations of his own, and questioned some of the details of Neville’s plan. Lord Avelard opened his eyes. “These last days you have become a soldier, my son,” he said. “No doubt the gift was in your blood, but what has brought it to birth? Whence got you the light?”

“As Paul got it on the road to Damascus,” said Peter and turned again to the papers.

“I must go abroad,” he said at last. “There are loose nails which need a hammer to drive them home, and the time grows scant. There will be many of the commons that cry out for the Five Wounds and the Holy Blood of Hailes, while the watchword of the lords will be God and the Swan. I must be the one to blend the two into a single army.”

“Then God prosper you, for you will find it no mean labour. There is much wild stuff about in this west of ours. There is a mad Carmelite, who claims that his order descends from Elijah and that he is Elijah reincarnate, sent by God to hew down the groves of Baal — by which groves he signifies the King’s Court and Council. He and his like will need a stout spur to break to harness.”

“I must be that spur,” said Peter.

Lord Avelard looked at him curiously.

“There are ill tidings from Marchington,” he said. “It seems that my lord Abergaveny is mortal sick and like to die. He has been frail these last months, and has ridden his body too hard. He was to be our leader in the field, for he has more skill of war than Norfolk and Suffolk and Shrewsbury joined together. His brother, Sir Thomas, is in Wales, bringing in the hill levies. If my lord should die, the other brother, Sir Edward, must take his place.”

“Nay,” said Peter, “there can be but one commander, and I am he. I, and no other, am Bohun.... This afternoon I ride to Marchington.”

A smile, mingled of humorous surprise, respect and kindliness, broke over the waxen face.

“I commend your spirit, my son. You have assuredly seen a great light.... But you cannot yet ride to Marchington. The snow has ceased falling, but it lies twelve feet deep in every hollow, and Marchington is in the river meadows. You must wait for friendlier weather. I think the change is nigh, for the wind is shifting. What we want is a binding frost which will last till the new year, to set a crust on the snow and make easy travelling. For, as you well know, our people have far to come.”

But that afternoon the wind moved not to the east as some had foretold, but against the sun into the west. Out in the drifts of the park, which had been hard enough for a man to walk on, Peter noted the thaw beginning before the dark fell. In his bed that night he found his blankets too heavy and the room airless, and when he opened the lattice a mild wind fanned his face. At sunrise he saw a strange sight. A black thundercloud swamped the sky, from which the lightning flashed, and the waning moon in that strange radiance showed red as blood.

Then, in one unbroken and relentless deluge, came the rain.

Never in the memory of the oldest man had the fountains of heaven been thus unloosed. It fell as the snow had fallen — as if the clouds were bags of water which drooped near the ground and then discharged themselves in an even torrent. Under the red dawn the earth had been one vast white counterpane, running into hills and ridges, but otherwise unfeatured. By midday it was already piebald. Forests were showing sodden crests, the scarp of Cotswold had resumed its normal shape, every lane was a rushing river where nothing mortal could live. The silence of the snowbound world was exchanged for a devil’s kitchen of sound — the unending beat of the falling rain, the rumour of cascading waters, the sudden soft crush which told that a slope had melted into mud or that a tall tree had slipped down to join the chaos in the valley.

In such weather no man durst tempt the roads. With bitten lips Peter sat in his chamber, watching the grey mists droop over Severn. In two days the hour of destiny would strike, and how could men muster in a dissolving world?... Again and again he essayed the out-of-doors, only to be driven back by the deluge. He had a horse saddled, but the beast could not progress a hundred yards on what had once been dry Cotswold slopes but were now a slippery glacis of mud.... What would the rivers be like in another day and night? The air was too thick to give him any prospect, but he could hear Severn — miles away — roaring like an ocean. And what of Usk and Wye and Teme and Clun, which the Marchmen must cross? What of Avon which guarded Warwickshire? What of the little rivers which barred the road to Oxford? What, above all, of the northern streams which lay in the path of Westmoreland and Cumberland and the Stanleys?

It rained for seventy-three hours, till the eve of St Lucy, just before the darkening. There was not a speck of snow left except some dirty streaks in the lee of walls and ditches. Every inch of soil was sodden a yard deep, and when the sky cleared towards sunset Severn was seen to be the better part of a mile wide, a turbid lagoon like an arm of the sea.

At dawn on St Lucy’s day Peter rode to Marchington. The air was as mild as June, the sun shone through a watery mist, and everywhere rose pale exhalations from the infinity of floods. Often he had to swim his horse across meres which had once been Cotswold meads, strange waters indeed, for instead of clumps of rushes to stud them they had the tops of thorn trees. Marchington moat was a swirling torrent, and Peter had to leave his horse on the near side, and make a perilous passage of the drawbridge on foot.

He found death within. The old lord had given up the ghost two days before, and now lay in grim state in the hall under a splendid mortcloth till such time as he could be moved to the family sepulchre............

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