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The Chantry Priest of Barnet by  Alfred J. Church

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OF JOHN ELIOT'S HOME

[79] AFTER the Commemoration of Founders and Benefactors in this same year, the vacation being now nigh at hand, saith John Eliot, "Thinkest thou not, Thomas, that we two have applied ourselves to our books as never yet did two since this University was set up—or, shall I rather say, since books were first writ? What sayest thou to a holiday?" "Yea, with my whole heart," said I. Then saith he, "And where shall we better spend it than at my father's house? He hath had somewhat to say to thee these three years and more, and blameth me in every epistle that I do not bring thee. I too would fain see him, for he groweth old, and hath been somewhat shaken of late with sickness. There is my mother also, and the maids my sisters, and young Will my brother, who [80] must be grown a proper lad. It is nigh upon six years since I saw them. Canst thou be content to bestow thyself for a matter of two months or thereabouts in a yeoman's household? Thou shalt be welcome for my sake at thy first coming, and after, I know it well, for thine own. Of sport thou shalt have that which thou lovest best, angling to thy heart's desire, for Severn limiteth my father's farms on the one side, a stream which may compare with Thames himself. In him thou shalt take the very king of fishes, even the salmon, who seemeth to me not to love Thames overmuch, so seldom doth he come, but is as frequent in Severn as are the chevenders in Cherwell, where he floweth under the shadow of trees. And if thou canst not be content to live so long without books, we have more than be often found, yea, even in a knight's household. For my mother was sister's child to Sir Richard Warrington, a very learned clerk, that was Parson of Wednesbury in Shropshire, and had the inheritance of his books. And as for travelling, there has come in our way such a chance as could not have been looked for. Yestereven I found [81] at the door of the Angel hostelry a certain priest from Shropshire that is of my kindred. When we had greeted one another, saith he, 'Well met, Cousin John. I was even now about to seek thee at thy college, having a certain matter wherein thou canst serve me. I am lately promoted by favour of the Lord Chancellor to a benefice in London, and am even now on my way to take possession. And I have with me Thomas Ball, that hath been my servant for these twenty years past, as perchance thou knowest. The simple fellow would not leave me, but must with me to London, though what he will do in the city God knoweth. But Thomas was ever master in such things, and I was content to obey. So we two have ridden hither from Shrewsbury, and, if I could sell our horses to no great damage, so I would do, and finish our journey in the waggon. Knowest thou then any honest man in Oxford with whom I may safely have dealings in this matter?' 'Thou askest a hard thing, Cousin Edward,' I made answer, 'for honesty and the buying and selling of horses are not close friends. Yet doubtless I can [82] help thee.' Then, as I pondered the matter by myself, there came into my head, in one flash as it were, this counsel: We two will buy my cousin's horses, and will ride them slowly and carefully to Shrewsbury, so that they shall be in good case when we are arrived thither. And I will sell them at Shrewsbury fair, not, I warrant thee, without profit. So shall we have somewhat of advantage, and my cousin no damage. But, say, wilt thou come? for verily if thy good will be wanting, my whole counsel is naught." "Yea," said I, "I will come. And thy counsel concerning the horses is notably wise. Say, shall we leave being scholars, and become chapmen in horses? Thou shalt be the master, and I the man." That will we conclude," saith he, "when we have counted the profit on our first venture. But now let us away to my cousin the priest." And when we were come to the Angel we found him in the stable, looking with a countenance somewhat rueful at his horses. And when he turned and saw us, he said to John Eliot—for I lagged somewhat behind as being a stranger—"And is this thy honest dealer, Cousin John? [83] Verily I thought not to see him a boy, though he is indeed puer ingenui vultus." And this the good priest said, not thinking that I could hear him. Then saith John, "Come forward, Master Dealer, and see whether thou canst come to an agreement with Sir Edward Ridley, Parson of St. Nicholas Cole Abbey in the city of London." So I came forward, and made obeisance, after the fashion which the townsfolk use when they have affairs with a person of dignity. Saith he, "Master Dealer, what wilt thou pay me for these two horses?" I made answer, "Name thy price, Sir Edward, for that is our manner of dealing in this city." Then he saith, "What sayest thou to three marks for the two?" And I looked to John, and saw that he nodded to me as though he would say "yea." But that I might play my part the better, I made pretence to feel the beasts' legs, as one that tried whether they had any blemish or weakness; also I looked in their mouths, as one that would tell their age from their teeth, and not doing it, as I take it, after the common manner of dealers, was well-nigh [84] bitten for my pains. And when I had made pretence enough, as I thought, I said, Thou shalt have thy three marks, Sir Edward," and straightway brought them forth out of my pouch. Then said the priest, "Verily this is the paradise of them that would sell horses, where there is no chaffering, or beating down of price, or talk of warranty; but the buyer taketh the seller's price, and asketh no question, and payeth down the money out of hand. I pray that the saints may prosper thee in thy dealings; but yet beware, for it is not every day that thou shalt meet with an honest priest—if indeed I may say so much on my own behalf." And John, when he heard this, laughed aloud, as also did I; and he said, "Cousin Edward, this is no dealer in horses, but Thomas Aylmer, Bachelor of Arts, and Demy of Magdalen College in this University." And thereafter he unfolded to him the whole plan. Then nothing would content the good priest but he must give back half a mark out of the three, saying, "This will make thy bargain the better, Master Dealer." And, that I may finish this portion of my tale, I will here [85] say, that we sold the two horses for four marks at Shrewsbury fair.

After three days we set forth, for we would give the horses sufficient rest. Of our journey there is no need that I should write at length; happy is the traveller that path no adventure, and such happiness was ours. I did note that once or twice certain ill-looking fellows did eye us, as though counting up what we should be worth as a prey. But they seemed to judge, that, as we had the garb of scholars, our pouches were not like to be heavy; nor did they desire, for so small a chance of booty, to make acquaintance with John Eliot's staff. I do remember how noble a prospect there is from a certain hill which standeth between Oxford and Worcester, being named Broadway Hill; nor do I forget how first I saw Severn in this said city of Worcester, a very fair stream and spanned with a right noble bridge.

In ten days we came to Shrewsbury, from which town it is but an hour's easy riding to Master Eliot's house. Thither we came at seven of the clock in the evening—for I am not like to forget the very hour—and found Master [86] Eliot and all his household gathered together, for it so chanced that he had that very hour ended the ingathering of the hay. They stood in the porch, looking at the men as they added the last waggon-load to the rick; and verily they were a comely family. Master Eliot had some fifty-and-five years, but looked to be older. His shoulders were bowed somewhat, so that his stature seemed less than the stature of his son, though in his youth it had been equal at the least. Also his hair was gray, and his eyes somewhat dim and as though they regarded things far away (for so I thought when I first saw him and also afterwards). I judged so soon as I cast my eyes upon him that he had had great trouble in his youth, nor did I err therein. As for Mistress Eliot, one had thought that trouble had never come nigh to vex her, so blithe was she of look. At the first sight I judged that she must be Master Eliot's daughter, for there was never a gray hair in her head, nor a line upon her face. Mistress Joan had the same age as John, being his twin sister; and next to her was Mistress Alice, that had seventeen years or thereabouts; and [87] after her again the youngest, Willie, a stout lad of fifteen, blue-eyed and yellow-haired, that had already five feet and nine inches of height, and promised even to surpass his brother. Mistress Alice was the very image of her mother, and might well have been counted her sister, save that she was somewhat slighter of shape, and her hair, when you looked upon it more closely, brighter of hue, and her eyes of a more lively sparkle. As for Mistress Joan—but how shall I write of her? Verily I could give her portraiture as I sit writing in this book, yea, and have given it not once only. God forgive me if I have done amiss! But if any one would see her similitude, let him look at the Rachel, daughter of Laban, whom I did paint for the great volume of the Vulgate that is now used in the Church, or the Virgin's which is in the Abbot's new exemplar of the Gospels. She was somewhat above the common stature of women, yet not over-tall, and straight as a palm-tree. Her face was of an oval form; her forehead somewhat high and broad for them that with the poet Horatius love the tennis frons, but noble [88] of aspect. Her complexion somewhat brown, but clear and fresh, and with, as it were, a ruddy glow beneath. Her eyes a fair brown of such a colour as you shall not often see; and soft and tender beyond all telling. Her hair was somewhat lighter than one would look for in a woman so complexioned, for there were threads as of gold that sparkled in it. She smiled not rarely, yet not on every occasion, and laughed, I think, almost never. Indeed, there was a certain sadness in her look; so indeed I thought at the first seeing of her, and as I afterwards knew, not wrongly. But I saw it not save at the first, not only because of the sweetness and graciousness of aspect and manner, with which—for I may write the truth at once—I was wholly overcome, but because she was ever careful to keep her troubles from others, and to make others sharers of her gladness only.

The house was somewhat above a yeoman's station. In truth it had been a manor in time past, and had yet somewhat of the look and furniture of such. Chiefly it had a hall, both high and spacious, on whose walls hung three or four helmets, and coats of mail, and swords [89] and lances. One of the coats of mail, I noted, was of chain armour, such as hath not been worn in this realm for two hundred years. Also over the fireplace, which, for greatness, might have served our hall in college, hung two long-bows. There was in this a shovelboard, of which more hereafter; and chairs of oak with velvet of Genoa, finely embroidered. We sat not in the hall, but, for the most part, in the kitchen, which, sooth to say, was of a more cheerful aspect, looking out upon the garden. Than this garden never have I seen a fairer and more fruitful spot. It had great plots of strawberries, which indeed were well-nigh past at our coming, yet lived again in Mistress Eliot's conserves; and cherries, white and red; and plums, of which, both of the red sort and the yellow, we had, for the greater part of August and September, such abundance as can scarce be conceived. Here, too, there were of every hind, borage, and lavender, and peppermint, and sage, and flowers as many as might have satisfied Queen Flora herself—roses red and white, which here grew together in peace, and pinks, and snapdragons, and sweet-williams, and a [90] hundred others which it were long to enumerate. It was a very Eden in my eyes.

And that very evening I had proof, if indeed I needed it, that John had not deceived me concerning the salmon. For as I stood by that side of the garden which overlooketh Severn, running some hundred yards away, I noted a place where there was a fall in the water. And as I looked, behold a great fish, whose sides sparkled even as silver in the sun (which was now low in the heavens), leapt as though he would come at the water that was above the fall; and I saw that he had, as it were, bent himself into a bow, putting his head and his tail together, for his leap. And when he had fallen back into the water, for he failed of his purpose, there leapt another, and after him another, and so many more, of whom the greater part, it seemed to me, failed, but some got their end. And so it went on for the space of about one quarter of an hour; and then the fishes suddenly ceased to leap even as they had begun. While I looked, cometh John and clappeth me on the shoulder, with, "There is sport for thine angle, Thomas, to which Thames cannot compare."

[91] After this we supped, I sitting by Mistress Eliot, with Mistress Joan on my right hand. I, that had never spoken with a woman for eight years and more, save once at Ascensiontide, when I sojourned for a sennight at home, was at the first not a little confused, but after got courage, so gracious was the maiden yet modest withal. And after supper we sat awhile in the garden, for the night was still and warm, and John led me to speak of many things, both grave and gay, till I was well-nigh ashamed to think how much I had discoursed. And she—for already my thoughts were of her only—listened, as they say, with both her ears. And when we went within, she laid her hand on my hand, lightly and but for a moment, as though she were half afraid, saying, "I know what thou hast done for my brother, who is as my life to me—for is he not twin-born?—and keep it in my heart." And her voice brake as with tears, which indeed I, at that instant looking up, saw in her eyes. Her father also, as I turned to my chamber (and they had bestowed me in the very best that there was in the house), said, "Think not that I forget if I [92] am scant of words. Verily thou shalt be as another son to me, if thou wilt."

Then I climbed to my chamber, wherein was braver furniture than I had ever before seen: a bedstead notably carved with flowers and fruit, and a coffer of oak for my clothing, which did but scantily fill it, and chairs of like pattern with them that were in the hall. But nothing did I see more gladly than some roses, white and red, in a pot of blue ware, for I made bold to guess by whose hand they were plucked. And when I slept I had many dreams, of which some were glad and some troubled. But which of these came from the ivory gate, and which from the gate of horn (Virgil hath it that true dreams come from the gate of horn and false from that which is of ivory), I knew not, as indeed it is not in mortals to know, for indeed God doth wisely hide from us the issues of that which is to be, and revealeth them not, save but on rare occasions by vision or dream.


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