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Chapter 16 How Peter Returned to the Greenwood

He was brought next morning before the King. Henry sat in the banqueting-house at Woodstock, with every window open, for the day was mild and he heated quickly. The guards were no longer Shrewsbury’s hundred spears, for Norfolk had sent a thousand men under Surrey his son, and Sir John Denton had brought his Epping riders, and half the squires of east Oxfordshire and Berkshire had hastened each with his mounted lackeys to honour the King. The park was like a tented field in the foreign wars.

Peter had been well enough treated by the Fettiplace men. They had forborne to question him, and one, who knew something of leechcraft, had tended his bruises. That morning he had been heavily manacled and handed over by them to the royal guards, after listening to a stammering speech of loyalty from Sir Ferdinando and Henry’s gracious reply — Sir Ferdinando whose name had been on the Avelard muster-roll. Peter did not grumble. He hoped that no thick-witted country lording would suffer in his cause, since that cause was now doomed and destroyed.... Darking would know of his capture, and, he trusted, would lead his men safely back to High Cotswold. Avelard would hear of it, and Neville, and all the rest, and the levies would melt like snow in an April sun. Only he himself would suffer, which was just, since he was Bohun and might have been king.

He was in a strange mood, equable, almost happy. A load of care seemed to have fallen from him. He had no longer to think of others, only of himself, and that was a light task.... For him there was but the one fate. The great mill of destiny with which he had conversed two nights before, would grind him small. A miracle, and he might have overthrown it, but that miracle had miscarried. God had other purposes. It was His celestial will that the Beast should rule a little longer in England.... But he would not see that rule, for he would be under the sod. “Only the dead are beautiful and free”— why should fear vex any man, when so easy a gate gave upon a land where fears were at rest?

He looked curiously at the tall guards on each side of his settle, at the mob of Woodstock townsmen who thronged the doors in lively terror of the yeoman of the hall with his silver wand, at the dust~motes dancing in the sunlight which slanted through the windows, at the King in his crimson chair at the table on the dais, and the councillors about him. He saw Sir John Denton, and Chartley, and a red-faced ecclesiastic whom he knew for Dr John London of Oxford. One other, too, a stout man in a furred black gown, with a large pale face, a host of chins, a low voice, and steady ruminant eyes — a familiar face, it seemed. He asked one of the guards, and was told “the lord Crummle.”

Henry was in a high humour. He had had an adventure out of which he had come with credit and safety. He felt confirmed in his self~confidence and in the approbation of God. That morning he had served at High Mass, and the odour of the black ropy incense which he loved still clung to him. He had eaten for breakfast the best part of a pasty of quails, and a great dish of buttered kidneys. The glow of conscious holiness and good feeding was in his veins.

He had many despatches to read, which he passed among his lords. Then he looked round the hall and saw Peter.

“Ha!” he said. “’Tis the mad monk. Bring the man forward that my lords may see him. This is he that threatened the majesty of England, and held it in durance for a winter’s night. But for your timely appearance, Sir John, it might be now lying in a ditch with a slit throat. Mark the fellow — he has thews like Goliath and the eye of a wrestler. Dangerous stuff to be abbey-bred!”

The lords looked at Peter incuriously. Battered and pale, his clothes torn and soiled, he looked a common vagabond, of whom the land had many. He had fallen in with the King, when lost a~hunting, and had threatened him. For that he must swing, but it did not concern them. The King’s story might or might not be true — he was a ripe liar on occasion — but it mattered little whether there was one unfrocked priest the less in the world. Only Crummle looked at him sharply. The guards would have led Peter away, but Crummle motioned to them to withdraw to the side of the hall.

“Will your majesty see the other?” he asked, and Henry, who was telling the young Howard of a new falcon, nodded.

Peter was in the dusk now, out of the way of the sunbeams. He saw the crowd cleared at the doorway, and a tall man enter with a rope at his wrists. His face had a great gash on the left cheek, from which blood still oozed. He held his head stiffly, and Peter saw for the first time since Little Greece the high bold countenance of Simon Rede.

Henry knitted his brows.

“This is the Luterano,” he said. “A pest on the fellow for a crack-brain! Once he promised well, you say?” And he turned to Crummle.

“He carried letters, your majesty, for the Council to the Court of Denmark,” said Crummle in his soft even voice.

“And now he must needs abet the traitors who would have England godless, and blaspheme the holy mysteries.” Henry, with the incense of the mass still in his nostrils, grew hot. He consulted a paper. “He assisted the escape of one of the most pernicious of the foul brood called gospellers, deforced the servants of King and Church, and, when taken at last, broke sundry honest skulls and was heady in his impenitence. He has uttered blasphemies, says this indictment, too shocking to reiterate to godly ears, and he has altogether refused to confess his sins.... Hark you, sirrah!” Henry’s face was mottled with passion. “I will have no heretics in England, be they gentle or simple. You are born, they tell me, of an honourable house, and have served with credit in the wars. The more shame to you for your errors! I have said it, and I say it now, that I will root out of the land every seed of false doctrine, till this England be the very apple of God’s eye for its sweet and united faith.”

“What is your majesty’s will concerning him?” Crummle asked. He seemed to be about to put forward some plea on the prisoner’s behalf. But the King’s face was stern.

“He will go to the court of my lord Bishop of Lincoln. He will be given the chance to acknowledge his errors and to recant them. If he continue obdurate, he shall burn, by God, burn as if he were a common blasphemer from the kennels.”

Henry signed to Sir John Denton, his temporary marshal. “I would be alone with my Vicar–General. Have the rabble cleared from the door, and do you, my dear lord, wait on me again in an hour’s space.... No. Remove the Luterano, but leave the monk. I may have a word to speak to him.”

The hall was emptied, and the great door shut on the curious Woodstock townsmen. Henry sat in his crimson chair, with the portly Crummle beside him, and he signed to Peter to come out of the gloom. “Get you to the door,” he told the guards, “and wait till you be summoned. The fellow is safe, for he has a load of iron on his wrists.”

It was a different Henry. The complacency, the jollity, the sudden passion had all gone out of face and voice. He looked infinitely wary, and cunning, and wise. He smiled upon Crummle, who smiled also, craftily.

“It is he,” said the King, “he we were told of. Nay, man, there is no need of proof to one who has seen Edward Stafford. Every inch of him is Buckingham’s get.”

The fat man looked Peter over slowly, shrewdly, not unkindly.

“He is a child,” he said.

“No child, by God!” said Henry, “but one with more wits than any six Bohuns since William Conqueror. My lord, this realm has escaped a great peril. We know something of what is afoot in the west. But for the blessed weather, sent by God’s own providence, all Severn might have been on us. This stripling was their hope, and without him they are scattered sheep. How great were Heaven’s mercies usward! First the floods, and then this lad in some wild folly stumbles upon me, and puts his neck into the noose.”

“I have heard your majesty’s tale,” said Crummle. “’Twas a most happy deliverance.”

“Well may you say so. Our troubles thin, my lord, and the sky clears. The east is quiet again. Aske in the north sues for mercy, and the mischief in the west dies still-born.”

“What fate have you decreed for him?” Crummle asked.

“He will hang comfortably and quietly,” said Henry, purring like a great cat. “No new Lambert Simnel tales — only a nameless monk who dabbles in hedge-treason and dangles for it. I purpose to send him into Berkshire with Sir Miles Flambard to hang at Reading. He is condemned of English law under the sanction given to a commander in the field, such as at this moment am I. The name in the death record is that which he bore at Oseney — Peter Pentecost.”

“Your majesty has gone deep into the matter,” said Crummle. “That is a name none of my intelligencers told to me.”

Henry smiled and whispered something in the other’s ear, and Peter thought that he caught the word “Messynger.”

“You are confident that the danger is overpast?” Crummle asked.

“As I hope for salvation. I have sent one post to Avelard and another to Marchington. There will be a hasty spurring of horses eastward to make peace with a merciful King, nor will the suppliants be repelled.” Again Henry smiled, and again he spoke low in the other’s ear, and this time there was no doubt that Messynger was among the words he uttered.

“Leave me now, friend Thomas,” he said. “I would have one word alone with this youth before he is sent to the judgment of an offended God.”

Crummle arose and moved slowly from the hall, limping heavily, for he had a fit of the gout. The guards were back at the door out of earshot. Peter and the King were as secluded as they had been in Lovell’s castle.

Henry was grinning. Peter’s eyes dazzled, and the winter sunlight seemed to darken. It was dusk now, and in it the great red face glowed like a moon.

“You are he that would have ruled England?” The words came with a rich gusto of contempt. “Man, you had me at your mercy. You could have squeezed my life out with these strong hands of yours, and Henry would have been as lost to the world as the rotting bones of Lovell. What brain-sick whimsy made you dream that you were the metal of which kings are wrought?”

The glowing face mesmerised Peter. It was like that moon of blood which he had seen at Avelard when the thundercloud broke at dawn.

“I offered you an abbacy — with the reversion of a bishopric,” the voice went on. “You heeded me not, which was wise, for a promise wrung under durance is no promise. But that was due to no wit of yours, but to your pride of dreams. ‘Faith, you will presently have peace to dream — the dream from which there is no awaking. In the space of twenty-four hours you will be carrion. You will learn what is the penalty of sinning against Henry of England.”

The countenance was no longer a moon, but that of a great cat tormenting its prey. It seemed that the cat was disappointed, for the brows knitted in anger. There was no answering shadow of fear in Peter’s face, for to him the whole scene was like some crazy mumming-play. His eyes regarded the King as incuriously as if he were a guizard at Hallowmas. What they saw was the blanket of the dark rolling over all England, not this angry glow in the heart of it.

“I am merciful,” said the voice. “You saved my life in the floods for your own purpose and out of no love for my person. Nevertheless, for that I will make return. There will be no blazoning abroad of the treason of Buckingham’s son. You will die decently in the name you bore as a monk, and you and your race will be forgotten utterly.... Nay, nay — there will be no cherishing in the west of a tender memory. Avelard and Neville and the rest will be on their knees to make their peace with me, and will be glad to banish the very thought of you. You and your proud stock will have vanished out of the world like the flood waters which are now draining to the sea. In a little men will not know how to spell the forgotten names of Stafford and Bohun.”

At last Peter spoke.

“I am content,” he said. “I perish with the older England. I welcome oblivion.”

Henry’s lips puckered, but the smile was rather of bewilderment than mirth.

“You are for certain a madman or a fool,” he cried, “and the land is well rid of you. Carry your whimsies to the worms.” He rang his silver bell, and Crummle limped from a side door to the dais. He cast one sharp glance at Peter, and he too smiled, but the smile had comprehension in it. He was more familiar than the King with men who sat loose to earthly fears.

Sir Miles Flambard, a knight of the shire who had a small place in Crummle’s retinue, was a heavy anxious man with no love for his mission. He started the instant dinner was over, for he had a mind to sleep at Wallingford, and he wanted to pass Stowood before the twilight. He had twenty-five armed men with him, Sussex choughs from Norfolk’s band — none too many, he held, to guard two desperate men on a journey through broken country. The prisoners were tied leg to leg with loose ropes, so that their beasts were constrained to keep together; each had his hands manacled and fastened loosely to the saddle-bow, and his feet j............

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