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Chapter 14 How Peter Strove with Powers and Principalities

St Thomas’s eve was quiet and very mild. There had been no winds to abate the flood-water and dry the sodden meadows, so the valleys were still lagoons and every rivulet an encroaching mere. The rendezvous was in the distant hollows of Wychwood, and thither the little bands from the western Cotswold moved under cover of night.

Peter, with Dickon and a dozen picked Avelard men, took the road by Stow, where the wolds made easy travelling. Word had come that the bridge at Charlbury could be passed, the only crossing of Evenlode, and such a route would take them over Windrush near its source. All were to move slowly and secretly, keeping to cover by day, and making the next stage in the darkness. There were to be no liveries or badges among them, but each man as drab as a deer~stealer.

At cockcrow, when they stopped for meat on Naunton downs, the Carmelite came out of the shadows, his white gown showing in the half-light like a monstrous owl. He knelt and mumbled Peter’s hand, and then his wild eyes scanned his following, and he cried out like a man in pain:

“Where is the trampling of the horsemen?” he screamed, “the mighty array that should sweep the hosts of Midian into the deep ocean? I see but a handful of country folk! Where is your army, my lord? Remember, you go up against the great city of Babel, and her towers are iron and her battlements of hewn stone.”

The man was not easy to soothe.

“The others will come in good time, father,” Peter told him. “We are only like the scouts sent out by Joshua to spy the land. Get you back to your cell, for you can help best by your prayers. We travel secretly and your exhortations may do us a mischief.”

In the end he flitted off, his arms waving and his voice falling and rising in what seemed now a chant and now a moan; but Peter noted with disquiet that the road he took was not west but east.

At Slaughter, where the little river was ill to ford, there was a mad woman in the hamlet who found their camping place in the woods. She seemed to divine their purpose, for she cried around them like a lost soul. It seemed that she was come to warn, and the Avelard men’s faces blanched at the sight of her.

“Back to your homes, my darlings,” she cried. “I see blood in Evenlode, and blood in Glyme, and blood in Cherwell, which all the floods will not wash away. That road there are pretty lads hanging on every tree. Back to your sweethearts, for there are no honest maids where you be going.”

Over Peter’s shoulder she flung a ragged wreath of holly and ivy, such as are made for the Christmas pleasantries.

“May your lordship’s grace be decked with no harsher crown!” she cried, and then fled babbling into the covert.

It was clear that strange rumours had gone abroad in the countryside, for, stealthy as was their journey, they seemed to be expected. If in the twilight they skirted a village street, the doors were shut, but there were curious eyes at the windows. The children had been forewarned; they stared with open mouths, but spoke no word, and did not run away. The Avelard men, who had been advised of the deep secrecy of the journey, were perturbed by this atmosphere of expectation, and spoke aside among themselves. Peter scarcely noticed it. His thoughts had flung ahead, out of this sheepwalk country to the glades of Woodstock, where somewhere a ruddy man was breathing his horse and looking doubtfully towards the west.

At Chadlington in the early hours of the night Darking met them.

“Evenlode runs like a mill-leat,” he said, “but the causeway holds. I can guide you across, my lord. Others are before you, and I have left those who will lead them to their appointed places. Pity you have drawn your folk from High Cotswold, where there is nought but thorns a man’s height. Our work will be in a forest, and these Tracey lads have never seen the tall trees and are easily mazed among them.”

Darking brought news of the King. “I have passed the word among the Upright Men,” he said, “and there are many quick eyes in the Woodstock coverts. See, my lord, yon spark of light in the valley. That is Little Greece, where old John Naps now sits at the receipt of custom. He will be eyes and brain to us.... King Harry is snug at Woodstock with my lord Shrewsbury’s men to guard him. He hunts daily, but only in the park, for the floods have narrowed his venue. Glyme is a young ocean, and Evenlode below Wilcote fills the vale to the brim. I doubt if we have seen the end of this overflow. The snow-cap on High Cotswold is still melting with the mild air, as your lordship has seen this day, and that will prevent the streams abating. Nay, they may rise higher yet, for in certain valleys lakes have formed through the damming of trees and sliding earth, and any hour the dams may break and send down a new deluge. It is fickle weather for our enterprise, and we be terribly at the mercy of God.

“What keeps the King in keeps us out,” he went on. “There is nothing to be done inside the pales of Woodstock, where every furlong has its verderer. We are like a troop sitting round a fortalice which it cannot enter.... Heaven send the weather let Harry go forth. That is what he longs for, since the hunting in the park is a child’s game to the hunting in the forest. ’Tis the great yeld hinds of Wychwood that he seeks. Pray for a cold wind and a drying wind, so long as it do not freeze.”

Darking guided them skilfully across the Charlbury bridge. A causeway of hewn stone led up to it at either end, but this was hidden in the acres of eddying water. A man who did not know the road would have slipped into the swirl, but Darking kept them on the causeway, where the stream was not beyond the horses’ withers. Presently they were on the arch of the bridge, and then on the farther causeway, where the eddies were gentle, and then on the hard ground of the forest slopes. By midnight they were encamped in a dingle of dead bracken, hidden as securely as if they had lain in the Welsh hills.

There were five such encampments within the forest bounds, and by the next morning all the men had arrived — a hundred picked spearmen, some of them old soldiers of the French wars, all of them hard and trusty and silent. For the present their task was to lie hidden, and they were safe enough from prying eyes, for the King had appointed no new keeper of Wychwood in the place of the dead Norris, and every ranger and verderer was Darking’s man. Also there was an outer guard of the vagabonds under the orders of John Naps at Little Greece.

Peter inspected the five companies and approved, but Darking shook his head. “They are lithe fellows, but they belong to the bare hills. Stout arms, no doubt, in a mellay, and good horsemen in the open, but I cannot tell how they will shape in our forest work. They are a thought too heavy-footed for that secret business. God send our chance comes in the open.”

It was a blue day, mild and sunny, with but a breath of wind, and that soft from the south.

“We are for Woodstock park, my lord,” said Darking. “You and I alone, and on foot, for we go as spies. Follow my lightest word, for your life may hang on it. And shed most of your garments. The air is mild and there is swimming before us.”

In shirt and hose and deerskin shoes they made for the old bridge below Finstock, which a week before had been swept down to Thames. Here Evenlode ran for ordinary in a narrow stream which spread into a broad mill-pond. Now it was all one waste of brown torrent. Darking led the way to the end of the broken pier of the bridge. “The current will bear us down to the slack water beyond the hazels. Trust your body to it, and swim but a stroke or two, enough to keep your head up. Then, when I give the word, strike hard for the other shore. The rub is to get out of the stream once it has laid hold of you.”

So Peter found it. The torrent swept him down easily and pleasantly, till he was near the submerged hazel clump. Then Darking struck off left handed, and it was no easy task to get rid of the entangling current, which would have carried him into a maelstrom of broken water. It plucked at his shoulders, and gripped his feet with unseen hands. But, breathless and battered, in five minutes they were shaking themselves among the rushes of the farther bank.

“Let us stretch a leg,” said Darking, “or we will chill, and maybe be late for the fair. The King’s grace on a day like this is early abroad.”

They were now within the pale of Woodstock, but they had four miles to go before they reached the wilderness of green glades and coppices which was the favourite hunting-ground. An hour later Darking had his ear to the ground, and then stood like a dog at gaze. “I can hear horses,” he said, “maybe a mile distant. I could hear them better if the earth were less full of rain. Also the hounds are out. I judge they are in Combe Bottom. If they unharbour a deer there, with what there is of wind it will come our way. Let us harbour ourselves, my lord. No, not on the ground, for that might give our scent and turn the deer or lure the hounds. This oak will be screen enough.”

He caught a spreading limb of the tree and swung himself into a crutch. Peter followed, and found that he had a long vista down an aisle of rough grass. Now he could hear the hounds giving tongue in some thicket, but that was the only sound. ... He might have been listening to mongrels hunting alone in a covert, for there were no horns, or human cries, or the jingle of bridles.

Presently the hounds seemed to come nearer. A cloud of pigeons rose from the opposite trees, and a young buck, a two-year-old at the most, stuck out his head, sniffed the air, and proceeded to amble up the glade. He may have caught a whiff of their wind, for he turned back to covert.

Then the world woke to life. A big old hind, barren by her grey muzzle and narrow flanks, broke from the wood, and behind her the covert was suddenly filled with a babel of noise. The first hounds streamed out, fifty yards behind; and two sweating beaters in blue smocks, who had been stationed there to turn the hind to the open glades, stumbled after them and promptly flung themselves on the ground. In a second they were up again, for a horn was blown behind them.

From an alley in the opposite woods the huntsmen appeared, debouching into the broader aisle. There were five of them — three in livery, with badges in their hats and horns at their saddle bows; one young man with a doublet of crimson velvet, a plumed cap and a monstrous jewel; the fifth a big man who rode first and waved his hand and shouted hoarsely. Peter, from his crutch in the oak, craned his head through the leafless boughs and watched intently. For he knew that he was looking upon the King.

He was plainly dressed, with trunk hose of brown leather and a green doublet with a jewel at his throat. A heavy silver-handled hunting-knife hung at his belt. His horse was a big-boned Fleming with a ewe-neck, and he handled it masterfully; for all his weight his seat was exquisitely balanced and the big hands were light on his beast’s mouth. The face was vast and red as a new ham, a sheer mountain of a face, for it was as broad as it was long, and the small features seemed to give it a profile like an egg. The mouth was comically small, and the voice that came from it was modest out of all proportion to the great body. He swept like a whirlwind up the glade, one hand pawing the air, screaming like a jay. In every line of him was excitement, an excitement na?ve and childish, but in his very abandonment there was a careless power.

Peter’s eyes narrowed as he watched the broad back above the flat rump of the Fleming lessen in the distance, till the men behind blocked the view. He had seen his King — his rival — his quarry. Many a picture had he formed of Henry, but none like this. He had looked for gross appetites, cruel jaws, lowering brows, eyes hot with the lust of power. In all his portraits the man had been elderly. But what he had now seen was more like an overgrown boy. There was a preposterous youthfulness in this ageing creature, whinnying like a puppy with the ardour of the game; there was something mirthful in his great, glowing, fleshy face.... There was more. One who, with his kingdom afire in the east and north and smouldering in the west, could fling his whole heart like a child into his play, had greatness in him. There was about him an insolent security. What he desired, whether it were deer or gold or kingdoms, he desired so fiercely that he was likely to get it. Peter felt as if some effluence of power had struck him, like a wind in his face.

“What think you of his grace?” Darking asked, as they stole back towards Evenlode.

“I think that he will not easily go down, and that if he falls much will fall with him.”

Darking looked up into the sky.

“The wind freshens, and it has moved back to the south-east — a good wind for the forest. To-morrow belike the King will hunt in Wychwood, and kill a yeld hind. There is a great she-devil harbouring in Finstock brake.”

Darking’s forecast was true. Next morning saw a dawn of lemon and gold, and a sharper tang in the air, while, instead of the spring zephyr which had blown for two days, there was a small, bitter easterly breeze. Peter was abroad at the first light, placing his men. If the King crossed Evenlode and entered the forest it would be by the bridge of Charlbury, for the best harbourage for deer lay to the west of Leafield in the thick coverts above Shipton. He would have an escort, since he was outside the Woodstock pales, but it was certain that, if a strong quarry were unharboured, he would soon leave that escort behind him. With the wind in its present quarter, the deer would run towards Ramsden and Whiteoak Green, where the ground was broken and the vistas short. There, at strategic points, his men would lie hidden, while in the undergrowth would lurk some of Naps’s scouts to pass the word to the posts. Peter and Darking had planned every detail like the ordering of a battle, and had their alternatives in case any item miscarried. “Send the wind holds,” said Darking. “The King will not stay abed to-day, and if the slow-hounds are once out in Shipton Barren, his grace in an hour’s time will be among the Ramsden oaks.”

The King was late. Word came by a lad of Flatsole’s, who had swum Evenlode and stood dripping like a water-rat, that he was on the road for Charlbury, with five huntsmen and two companion lords, and a score of men-at-arms mounted on beasts that would soon founder in the heavy bracken of the forest. But it was noon before Naps sent a message that the cavalcade was passing the Charlbury causeway. Peter, on an Avelard bay, whose strain of Welsh blood made him light and sure-footed as a mountain goat, rode west on the high ground to prospect, while Darking kept ward in the eastern forest.

From the Leafield crest he looked down on Shipton Barren, and soon his keen eyes detected the whereabouts of the hunt. The King was an epicure that day, for no chance beast was to his liking. Peter saw deer break cover unregarded, and once the hounds were flogged off a trail on which they had entered. By and by the horns sounded a rally, and there came the wild notes which meant that the chase had begun. Peter swung his horse round, ready to follow east at a higher level, for it was certain that any deer would at first keep to the riverside ground.

But to his amazement the hunt went otherwise. He got a glimpse of the first hounds with a verderer riding furiously on their flanks, and then, well behind them, a knot of men. They were going westward, upstream — westward or south-westward, for, as he looked, he saw them swing towards Fulbrook Gap.... Then he saw the reason. The wind had changed, the sting had gone out of it, and it had moved to west of south, and was now blowing softly down Windrush.

He watched in deep perplexity the hunt wheel towards the high ridges, where the forest opened up into downs, and rose to the Hallows Hill. Beyond that the trees began again, the deep woodland country above Barrington. A yeld hind would need to be the stoutest of her breed to make those distant coverts. More likely she would soon be pulled down in the open, and then the huntsmen would return to draw another of the Wychwood harbours.... There was that famous beast in Finstock brake.

Naps’s men were fewer at this end, but he found a prigger lad cutting himself a switch from a hazel. Him he sent back hot-foot to Darking to report what had happened. It was now afternoon, and there were but two hours left of daylight. If the King was benighted, and he could get up his men in time, all might yet be well.

Peter set spurs to his horse, and galloped for the Taynton wolds. The land lay spread out like a map beneath him, pale as the country of a dream, with far down on his left the smoke of Burford town making a haze in the hollow.... Soon he had come to a point which gave him a long view. That yeld hind must be a marvel, for she was still going strongly, having puzzled the hounds in the Fulbrook coppice. She was not bound for Hallows Hill, but had turned downward to where the Windrush floods drowsed in the valley. That would mean the end of her. She would never face the water, and if she kept down the left bank she could be brought to bay among the Burford garths. Could she but cross the stream, then indeed she might find sanctuary in the dense thickets above the little valley of Leach.

He had lost sight of the hunters, but presently the hounds came into view, running strongly at gaze. The hind was making for Windrush. Peter was now on a tiny promontory, and had the valley clear beneath him. The river at this point was less of a barrier, for the floods were dammed by fallen timber at Barrington. It might be passed....

It was passed. He saw the head of the swimming deer, and then after an interval the dark beads which meant the hounds. Where were the huntsmen? The hounds had outrun them, and they were now stranded on the Taynton downs. He heard far off the thin but furious notes of the horn. They would return the way they came, and they had far to go, and the dusk would presently fall. The fates were kind to him, if only Darking moved his men west in time.

He had turned his horse to gallop back the road he had come, when over his shoulder he took one last look at the Windrush vale. What he saw made his heart stop.... The deer and the hounds were now beyond the river, but all the hunters had not been left behind. One was still following. He was even now crossing, his horse swimming strongly. The light was too dim to see clear, but some instinct gave him certainty. That man was the King.

Peter went down the hill like one possessed. He had no plan or purpose except to keep touch with this lone horseman. There was a furious ardour in him, and awe too. It seemed that the stage was being set otherwise than he had expected, set for a meeting such as he had not dreamed of. Somewhere in that dim land beyond the waters the two of them were destined to come face to face.

He crossed Windrush without trouble, for the dam at Barrington had so shrunken the floods that the stream was little more than its turbid winter flow. But once on the far bank he was at a loss. The light was growing bad, and there was no sign of hounds or hunter. They had not pulled down the quarry, for in that still air he would have heard the savage rumour of the kill.... He looked behind him. Dusk had crept down the Taynton slopes, and there was no sign there of following hunters. Even the angry horns had ceased to sound.

He rode a little way up-hill into the coverts, and then halted. Presently the King would find himself benighted, and would give up the chase. He had hunted in Wychwood often, and must know something of the lie of the land. He would make his way downstream, and cross at the Burford bridge, which was intact. Again Peter clapped spurs to his horse. He must watch the southern approaches to the crossing, from Westwell, and by the track from Lechlade.

He took his stand on a piece of high ground, from which he could see in the dusk a light or two beginning to twinkle in the Burford hollow.... But he did not wait long, for far on his right he seemed to hear the baying of hounds. They were still hunting, and his ear told him that they were running east by Shilton. The King would still be following, for rumour said that he never left the chase so long as there was hope of a kill.... Again, he spurred his horse. In half an hour at the most the dark would have fallen thick. Then the King would give up. He would cross Windrush at Minster Lovell, and take the quickest road to Woodstock. If the Burford bridge still stood, so would that of Minster Lovell, which was sound Roman work....

In an agony of uncertainty he resolved that the only chance was to risk all on the likeliest happening. His horse was still fresh, and he covered the four miles of ground in little time.... The bridge was whole. The shell of Lovell’s castle rose black among the trees, and Windrush lay eerie and dim in its wide lagoon. He noted that the isle in the lagoon, which held one of the castle dovecots, was but little diminished in size. The dam at Barrington was doing its work well.

He dismounted, and tied up his horse to a stump on the slopes of the south bank. If Henry came this way, he would let him cross the bridge, and then follow him up the Leafield road, where his own men were as thick as owls in the night. God had wrought a miracle for him, for his enemy was being guided relentlessly into his net. Peter set his teeth hard to curb his impatience. If he only came!... But he must come, unless he wanted to lie wet and cold in the Shilton woods.

Come he did. A weary horse, lame in the off foreleg, stumbled down the track. On it sat a bulky man, who leaned back to ease his beast in the descent, and whose great hunting boots stuck out from its sides like the yards of a ship. The man had lost his bonnet, and even in the dark Peter could recognise the round head, baldish at the top, the vast square face and the bull shoulders. It was beyond question the King.

Had he been less intent on the sight he would not have missed a sound like a grumbling thunderstorm which seemed to fill the valley and grew every moment in volume. The horse heard it, for it jibbed at the entrance to the bridge. The place was high-backed and narrow over which two men could not ride abreast, and which the wool-staplers’ pack animals could not cross. ... The rider dug deep with his spurs, but the horse again refused. Then with a groan of weariness he rolled out of the saddle and attempted to lead it.

Still it refused. He was in front of it and dragging it by the bridle — he stood on the keystone, while the beast was still plunging on the bank.... Then came a sound which broke in even on Peter’s preoccupation. It was like a gale in a high wood, or a mighty snowslip on a mountain, with a rumbling undercurrent of thunder. Something huge and dark reared itself high above the stone arch, and the next second Peter was struggling in the side eddies of a monstrous wave.

He had been able to swim like a moorhen from childhood, and he had no trouble in shaking off the clutch of the stream. As he dashed the water from his eyes he knew what had happened. The dam at Barrington had burst, and Windrush, half a mile wide, was driving a furrow through the land — Windrush no more a lagoon but a rending ploughshare.

The King! Was this God’s way of working His purpose? Was that mountain of royal flesh now drowning in the dark wastes of water? The bridge had been swept clean — the very horse was gone — nay, the bridge itself must have been broken, for only a swirl in the dimness marked where a fragment of pier still stood, submerged under three feet of flood....

Peter strained his eyes into the gloom. The coming of the water seemed to have lightened the darkness a little, for he could see the black loom of Lovell’s castle on the far shore, and, downstream, the top of the island dovecot.... There was no sound now except the steady lift and gurgle of the tide; the crested wave with its thunder was now far away down the valley. Only the even swish and swirl, with close at hand the murmur of little sucking eddies.

And then in the stillness came a cry. It seemed to come from the island, which was fifty yards below the bridge.... It sounded again, a choked cry as from something in panic or pain. Peter knew that it could come from one throat only — of him who some minutes before had ridden down the hill. He had been plucked from the bridge like a straw and borne down, and was now by some miracle washed up like flotsam on the island shore. He was not drowning, for no drowning man could have sent out so strong a cry, but he must be in instant peril of death.

Peter was in the water before he knew, striking transversely across the floods so as to make the island. He did not stop to consider his purpose, for that oldest instinct was uppermost which of itself quickens a man’s limbs to save another’s life.

He swam strongly and cunningly, and forced his way to midstream. Then he let himself drift and listened. Again came the cry — now very near, and it was a cry of desperation. The man was clinging to something which he could not hold.... Peter’s long arms in an overhand stroke devoured the waters, and his speed was thrice the speed of the stream.... Again a cry, but this time with a choke in it. Peter butted into a tangle of driftwood among the island rushes. Where in God’s name was the King?

Clearly he had lost his hold. Peter stood up in the shallows and shouted. Was that an answer from the dark eddy now sweeping towards the northern bank of Windrush? There seemed to be a sound there which was not the stream. Again he launched himself on the flood, and as his breast caught the current he heard again a cry. This time it was the strangled gasp of a drowning man.

In ten strokes he had overtaken him. The man could only swim feebly, and every second he dipped under the rough tide. A very little longer and he would dip for ever.

Peter raised his head and shouted lustily. The man heard him, for he made several feeble, hurried strokes. Then Peter was on him, and his hand was under his chin.

“Get your breath,” Peter spluttered, for he had swallowed much water in making haste. “I will support you.”

Then: “We must get out of the stream. Hold by my girdle and I will tow you.”

It was a harder business than the crossing of Evenlode the morning before. Happily the main weight of the flood was on the other side of the island, and the stream between the island and the castle ran with less power. But the man was as weighty as a tree-trunk, and his clutch on Peter’s belt was like shackles of lead. The muscles of shoulder and thigh were cracking, before the deadly plucking of the current eased off and they came into slack water. Then the other, who had manfully striven to obey his rescuer’s orders, promptly let go and sank. Peter clutched him by some part of his garments and waded ashore.

He pulled the water-logged body through the selvedge of drift to what had been the quay of the castle. The man was in a swoon, but as Peter rolled him over his senses returned, and he was very sick.

Presently he sat up, coughing.

“God’s name!” he gasped, “that was a rough journey. I am beholden to you, friend, whoever you be.............

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