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Chapter 15 How the Swan of Bohun Went Down

The prigger lad whom Peter found above Shipton Barren duly carried the message to Darking, and about the time when the former was crossing Windrush his men had drawn by secret ways towards the Fulbrook gap. Some of Naps’s scouts were in the river bottom, and presently to Darking, hidden on the heights, they brought strange reports. A hind had crossed the stream with the hounds in full cry after her, and one man after the hounds. Darking guessed that this man might be the King, but he sought confirmation. It came with the first hour of twilight, when the royal escort, guided by the verderers, arrived in hot haste below the Barrington dam. Their master had gone out of their ken, and they had the task of finding him, knowing well that there would be the devil to pay if, when the heat of the chase was over, he found himself without attendants. They roamed the north bank of Windrush like hounds at fault, and at last a party crossed by the Burford bridge to explore the forest on the south shore.

Darking was in doubt about Peter till he got news from one of Flatsole’s people that he had been seen on the high ground towards Westwell. This made his course clear: Peter was following the hounds and the King. His order was for every man to cross, but only half a dozen succeeded. For at that moment came the bursting of the Barrington dam, which drowned two of the Avelard troopers, and put an unfordable width of water between him and the farther bank.

He had now a new problem. The King and Peter were, he believed, somewhere in the thick woods that clothed the ridge between Windrush and Thames. A dozen at the most of the King’s men had followed, and the remainder were aimlessly beating the Taynton slopes. He learned that every bridge on Windrush had been swept to the sea, and that the river could not be forded except far up its valley towards Bourton. This seemed to make his task simpler. The rest of the Woodstock men would doubtless aim at the fords of the upper valley, but he and his folk would outpace them. The dozen who had already crossed — Shrewsbury’s men-at-arms — would make slow going in a land of which they knew nothing. The King was islanded for the better part of the night, cut off in a wild place with Peter on his trail; he himself had men with him who could move fast and sure in the dark; and behind him were Naps’s vagabonds, every man of them skilled like wild things to thread the woods; it would be strange if before morning he did not join hands with Peter and have the King safe. After that a swift ride for Avelard with not one flooded stream to compel a circuit. Things had befallen — or should befall — as if the fates were their eager allies.

So the word was passed to ride west for the Bourton crossings. This was an easy task for the men of High Cotswold, who were now in familiar downland, where they found secrecy an easier matter than in the tangled woods.... But the last twelve of them saw something which brought them off their horses and huddled them in the shelter of a coombe. A large mounted force came spurring from Charlbury way. Word of the King’s disappearance must have already fluttered the Woodstock dovecots. “Soon,” thought Darking, “they will have the countryside roused and every squireling will be out to succour majesty. By that time, if God will, majesty will be looking down on Severn.”

They found a crossing under Rissington, and about the time when Mother Sweetbread was bearing food and clothing down the hill, had come by way of Sherborne to the great heath which lined the highway between Witney and Gloucester, the main road to the west. They left it when they saw the Burford lights, and plunged into the shaggy forest which lay between Shilton and the Windrush, the landscape which five hours before they had looked at from the other bank. It was very dark, but they had guides who knew the ground like their wives’ faces, and could see like wild cats in the gloom.

It was a vain quest. Twice they ran into oddments of the King’s escort who had crossed before the bursting of the dam — men lost utterly and wandering blind in the night. These they could have easily made prisoner, but they let them stumble past unharmed. No clue was to be got from such as to the King’s whereabouts.... The hounds must have long ceased to hunt, and were probably now snuggled together in some dell. What would the King do when the dark descended? Make for Windrush and Woodstock? But the rise in the river would prevent his crossing, and what would he do then? Maybe sleep cold in the bracken. Maybe ride for Witney village.... One of Naps’s lads was sent on to Witney to inquire, and brought word that no man had come out of the forest from the west since nightfall.... Slowly Darking came to the conclusion that the King was now in Peter’s charge. Somewhere the two were together, and he and his men would find them at daybreak. He wished that it could have been in the night, for he had hoped to start for Avelard before dawn, since the daylight would bring half the countryside seeking the King.... He took up his headquarters on the track between Asthall and Brize Norton, and sent out pickets who all night fruitlessly searched the coverts. There was not a man of Darking’s that night in the original rendezvous in the Ramsden brakes, except a lame horseboy who had been brought to cook for the Stanway troop.

Mother Sweetbread bundled up her petticoats and bestirred her old legs to some purpose. The vagabond folk, who for a week had filled the forest around her cottage like woodcock in the first frost, had now mysteriously gone. She tried all their familiar haunts, she gave the beggars’ call in her cracked old voice, but there was no answer. Then on her own feet she set out for Ramsden. The forest at that part lacked tall trees, and was mostly scrub oak, thorn and holly, but there was a track she knew of. She knew also, she thought, the very dingle where she would find Darking.

But she found that she had presumed on her strength. It was very dark and the lantern burned badly, so that she often tripped over the roots of trees. A badger had made its earth on the little-used path, and in it she wrenched her ankle. Long before she was at the moorish tract which dipped to Ramsden brakes, her legs and breath had begun to fail her. On the hilltop she sank on the ground in despair. She could never herself reach Darking, and the underworld of the forest, lately so populous, had become a desert.

A man was coming up the track. She cowered into the dead bracken and shuttered her light till he came close, and she saw from his garments that he was a friar. A white friar, for, when she lifted the lantern, his robe fluttered in its glare like the wings of a moth. Her hope revived. Here was a holy man, and holy men everywhere were on Peter’s side.

The Carmelite was speaking to himself like one in a frenzy, and it was not till she cried out that he halted and looked towards her. His eyes blinked in the light like those of a great bird, and she saw that they were hollow and wild.

“Father,” she cried, “I ask your mercy. I have an errand to do, and my strength fails me. Know you one Solomon Darking?”

“Who speaks that name?” he boomed. “Solomon Darking is busy on God’s tasks. Who would stay him by carnal errands?”

The old woman was comforted. Here was one who was privy to the business.

“It is of these tasks I speak. I have a message to him from him whom he calls master.”

“Mean you the young lord whom God has sent to deliver His people?”

“Even so. This night there is high work afoot, and he we know of has a word which must be gotten straightway to Darking’s ears. Darking is somewhere in Ramsden brakes, but I cannot stir my feet another yard. Have pity, father, and be my messenger.”

The Carmelite mused.

“I have but now passed through Ramsden brakes,” he said, “and I saw no sign of man or horse. They were there four hours back, two~score stalwart lads from my own nook of Cotswold, but now the fires are cold ashes. Yet I will find Solomon Darking, though I should have to borrow the wings of a bird. Speak on, sister. What is the message?”

“He whom we wot of would have Darking know that he is now in Lovell’s castle, and with him is one whose name he did not speak, but of whom Darking is well aware. Darking is bidden bring his men to the place an hour before dawn. My lord said also that I was to tell him that they must hence by the road they came, since there was no bridge left on Windrush.”

The Carmelite sunk his head on his breast and shut his eyes. When he raised it these eyes were glowing.

“That is the great news, mother,” he crooned; “Minster Lovell! A fitting place for God’s revenge upon evil! Who think you is he that is with my lord? None other than Antichrist, the man of blood. God has wonderfully guided His frail people. I have wept and fasted and prayed against this day, and in my folly I despaired, because I saw no great array, as I had dreamed, trooping from the west. But God follows His own secret ways, and those ways are not as ours. If we have gotten the Antichrist, we have gotten what is better than Oxford town or London city.”

With upraised hand he blessed the old woman, and then turned and fluttered back the road he had come.

His zeal was his undoing. There was no one in Ramsden brakes nor yet in Finstock. He tried to plan, but his sick and fevered brain was incapable of thought. Instead he prayed, and it seemed to him that God answered his prayer, and made him take the road to Shipton. “The good Darking,” he told himself, “will have gone there to greet the further levies from the west.”

Till long after midnight he wandered between Leafield and Shipton Barren, running often in the exuberance of his purpose, and leaving rags of his white clothing on the briers as sheep leave tufts of wool on the downland thorns. But he found no Darking, nor any of Darking’s men. Sometimes he flung himself on his knees and poured out a torrent of prayers; he waded through marshes and scrambled among marl-pits, and always his lips were working and he was communing with his mad heart.

An hour before dawn, as the skies in the east lightened, he had a sudden assurance. “Presently I will find him,” he said, “for God tells me so.” And he fell to crooning the message which Mother Sweetbread had given him.

He was above the track from Charlbury to Burford, and he saw men — a dozen and more — riding fast up from Evenlode. The Carmelite was now at the very limit of his strength, but the sight roused some wild remnant of power. He could not see clearly, but he saw enough to know that these men did not wear royal liveries, nor were they Shrewsbury’s squat midlanders. Beyond doubt they were Darking’s folk — for that he had God’s assurance.

He ran down the slope and stayed the cavalcade with uplifted hand. One who seemed to lead turned aside to him.

“I have a word for Solomon Darking,” he cried.

“Ay. What word for Solomon?” asked the leader.

“He must go forthwith with all his men to Minster Lovell. Haste you, for you should have been there even now. It is not an hour till daybreak.”

“And what is toward at Minster Lovell?” came the question.

“The young lord is there... and that other whom ye seek.”

The man turned to his followers.

“Fortune is with us,” he cried. “This is the mad friar who has come out of the west, and he is deep in rebellion. I do not know what his ravings mean, but there is something at Minster Lovell to be looked into. Forward, lads. Then turn to the left up the hill by the old gallows.”

When Peter woke the King was still asleep. He could not be certain of the time, for in that deep cell those tides of air ceased to work which made a clock in his brain, but he believed that it must be close on dawn. Mother Sweetbread could not have failed him. Darking and his men would be without in the west court, with the hoar frost on their bridles, beating their breasts against the cold.

The King slept with his mouth open, his breath coming stertorously from his great chest. What a man! He slept carelessly beside one whom a few hours back he had tried to murder, one whom he knew to be the leader of a plot against his throne. There was the arrogance of greatness here. The man was a king beyond doubt, for power was the one lust of his life. He was the embodied new England, an England that had forsaken God. Peter repeated the phrase like a password. It was a sedative to his doubts. This man was against God, and God himself, not mortal man, would overthrow him.

He almost pitied him. In a little he would be bumping westward with a hundred stout fellows to guard him. And then, while he lay tight at Avelard or maybe in some fortalice of Wales, the vast delayed army would be mustering, hampered no longer by the floods — mustering from north and west and south, to sweep east upon leaderless forces and defenceless cities and courtiers that lacked their master.

A grunt and a succession of volcanic sneezes told him that the King was awake. He lit the lantern.

Henry was at his most vigorous in the morning. He rubbed his eyes, propped himself on one arm, and called for a draught. Peter gave him the last cup of Mother Sweetbread’s cordial.

Recollection slowly flooded back on the King. He frowned and narrowed his eyes.

“What is the order of the day, monk?” he asked.

“I will escort you to breakfast and a more comfortable lodging.”

For an instant suspicion and fear like an animal’s woke in the small eyes. Then he laid some restraint on himself.

“You will guide me to Woodstock,” he said. “Then you will be rewarded for your good deeds and...”

“Punished for my ill ones.” Peter smiled. “Get you ready, sire, and we will taste what weather the morning has brought us.”

Henry, with many groans occasioned by his leg, got himself into trunks, hose and doublet, still damp and wrinkled. He followed Peter’s lantern down the corridor, grumbling at the stiffness of his limbs. The man to Peter’s admiration seemed to have no fear, and to be concerned only with his discomforts.

The open greeted them with a mild frost, which lay white on all the west court, save one little strip which the sun had warmed. The place, to Peter’s surprise, was empty and still. He had looked at least for Darking at the tunnel’s mouth. “Solomon is with ............

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