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The Chantry Priest of Barnet by  Alfred J. Church




[133] THIS year was, as I have written, one of much rain and storm, so that we could not gather in the harvest but by little and little at a time, and that much damaged by long continuing in the fields. When this was at last done, Willie departeth on an errand for a certain town, whereof I cannot mind the name, but know that it was on the borders of Wales. And the errand was the selling of a horse, and the buying of another in his stead. This he did on the twenty-seventh day of September, and was to return on the second day, that is to say, the twenty-ninth day, being the Feast of St. Michael, which Master Eliot was always wont to keep as a holiday. Mistress Joan also was absent, sojourning with a neighbour whose daughter was sick, for she had a notable gift of nursing. [134] Now in the afternoon of the day when we looked for Willie to return, Severn, who, I have noted, travelleth more quickly than Thames, as, having his birth not in the plain country but among mountains, began greatly to rise. And about six of the clock, when the sun had been now for some time set, and the light was beginning to be dim, cometh Willie to the ford that is above Master Norton's house five furlongs or thereabouts, and maketh essay to cross. We, that is, John Eliot and I, standing on the river's edge, warned him that there was danger, and bade him ride round by Shrewsbury bridge. "Aye," said he, for the night was still save for the rushing of the water, "and lose two good hours of time;" and so, without more ado, rode into the water. At the first he seemed to do well, keeping his horse's head very steadfastly against the stream; but, when he was two parts over, and was come to the strongest of the current, the horse, losing strength or courage (and it was newly bought and knew not the voice and hand of his rider), turned his head downward, and straightway was carried away, being whirled [135] about as might a cork. Nor could we help, though John was a sturdy swimmer, for 'twas as much as a man might do to save himself in such a stream. But while we looked, with our hearts standing still as it were with fear, we were aware of a stranger that road down to the ford to the side whereon we were standing. The man we had scarce time to note, but his horse was such as I have never seen the like of it. 'Twas black of colour, and of such a stature and strength as could scarce be matched in Christendom. Not one moment did he tarry, but rode straight into the river, and coming to Willie's horse, which chanced by good fortune to touch for an instant on shallower ground, caught it by the bridle, and turned his head again up the stream. Then he spake to his own horse, whispering, as I could see, into his ear, and patting him on his neck, while with his other hand he held the bridle of the other (but the rein he held in his teeth). And so they came safe to the shore. And being landed, Willie fell from his horse, being utterly spent, and the horse also could scarce move from weariness. Then the stranger, who seemed [136] to care for nothing, put a flask to the lad's mouth, and constrained him to swallow some cordial; and when he had somewhat revived, he put him on his own horse and walked by the side holding him. And we followed, but this very slowly, for Willie's horse, as I have said, was utterly spent, so that the stranger speedily outstripped us, and was lost to sight, we marvelling not a little that he should be so thoroughly acquaint with the way. And when we came to the house, Willie was in bed, with Alice his sister tending him, and the stranger stood by the fire in the kitchen alone, for both Master Eliot and his wife chanced to be abroad at a neighbour's house. When John cast eyes upon him—for before, as I have said, we had scarce noted him for the urgency of the business in hand—he was astonished like to one, if I may so say, that hath seen a spirit. And while he looked, seeming as if he could not so much as move his foot from the ground—but the stranger spake never a word, but only smiled a little—cometh in Master Eliot the elder. He, too, seemed for a while as though he had been stricken dumb. Then he ran and caught the [137] stranger by the two hands, saying, "This is no spirit, as indeed I was ready to believe, save that spirits show not themselves in company, but flesh and blood. Ho! John, knowest not Edward Norton? But, say, Edward, whence comest thou? and where hast thou been these eight years? We thought thee dead. Verily this is a day of rejoicing, and all the more that thou art, I know well, no prodigal returned, but an honest man, as thou ever well." Then John ran to him and greeted him, as did also Mistress Eliot, chancing to come in at that same time. And I, seeing that this was a dear friend of old time come back, and minding that the wise man had said, "In gaudio ejus non miscebitur extraneus," I withdrew myself to my own chamber. But in a space of half an hour or thereabouts cometh John and biddeth me descend to supper. There was, I do now remember, something strange in his regard, as if he were scarce willing to look me in the face; but I understood not the thing, and it passed from me as such things are wont to do, and I descended suspecting nought. [138] After supper, Willie also being present—for nothing would content him when he heard the news but he must rise from his bed, Edward Norton told us his story, which I will here shortly recount.

"Ye know how I took service with my lord of Shrewsbury, and passed with him into Gascony. There for a while he prospered exceedingly, though having but scarce three thousand men, and took many towns and fortresses. Bordeaux also he got, the townspeople sending to him that he should receive the city. So we came by night, or ever the Frenchmen were aware of the matter, and entered by the gate that had been left open for us. The Frenchmen perceiving this, fled by a postern, but were for the most part overtaken and slain. After this came my lord Shrewsbury's son with other nobles and knights, having with them two thousand men and over, and store of victuals and munitions of war. Then the Earl fortified Bordeaux, and, setting out thence, took many places thereabouts, the people for the most part desiring [139] to return to the liberty they had under the English. But though we had prospered so far in our undertaking, it was an evil time such as, I do pray to God, I may never see again. For the whole land was wasted with war. And much had been suffered to grow wild, as though it had never been inhabited. No man durst abide in the villages, for now the Frenchmen would come, and now the Englishmen. And if a man received the Frenchmen with friendship, then the Englishmen, returning, maybe the next day, would waste his goods as though he had betrayed them. And the Frenchmen would do the very same if he received the Englishmen, so that no man could be safe. And if he chanced to dwell so near to a stronghold of the one or of the other that he was not in peril of attack, then he found that his friends were scarcely less burdensome than his enemies. For the most part the peasants had fled into the towns, and made such shift as they could to cultivate the fields that were nigh to the walls. And when in the morning the men went forth to plough the ground, or drave out the cattle that they might have pasture, a watchman [140] would climb up to the highest tower that there was upon the walls, and watch the country round about. And when he saw any company of horsemen approaching—and such were wont to ride daily about the land, seeking what they might devour—he would blow upon a horn that he had. Then the peasants left their work, and gathered up their tools, and hasted back to the town. And such as tended the cattle drave them back with all speed, though this they had scarce any need to do, for the cattle knew the sound of the horn, and hasted back of their own accord.

"Among other towns, the town and castle of Chatillon was delivered up to the Earl. This the French king besieged with a great army; and the Earl hearing thereof came with all speed to the rescue. And indeed the Frenchmen, hearing of his coming, left besieging the town, and retired to their camp, which they had trenched and ditched and fortified with ordnance. This camp the Earl assaulted, and had almost won the entry thereto when his horse was slain, and he himself shot through the thigh with a hand gun. Then was he [141] slain, for the Frenchmen, who never durst look him in the face while he stood upon his feet, killed him lying upon the ground. With him also was slain his son, fighting his first battle. With many words did my lord entreat him that he would save himself, but he would not, preferring to die than to live on such terms. Many others was slain, and some threescore taken prisoners, of whom I was one.

"I fell into the hands of a very courteous knight, Sir Geoffrey de Brialmont. This knight, being commanded by the physicians to rest awhile, for he had been wounded, and the hurt, though it was but slight, did not heal, departed to his castle by the sea, and took me in his company. Then he kept me for two months in such sort that but for my desire for freedom, I had been well content. For I had entertainment of the best, and sport, hunting wild boars in the woods, and flying falcons for heron's paws, and plying tennis, a noble game of ball, which they do call the game of kings. And when September was nigh spent came news that Bordeaux was to be delivered up to the French on conditions that all the Englishmen [142] that were in the Duchy of Aquitaine should depart, and that such as were prisoners should be set free. And now mark my ill fortune. The Knight and his people dwelt securely, having now no fear of the English, and left the castle, I take it, almost without watch. And the very night after the coming of these good tidings of liberty there came upon us an enemy of whom we had not so much as dreamed. A ship of rovers of Tunis, entering secretly in the darkness, anchored in the river that was hard by. About two hours before dawn cometh a company of these villains and assaulteth the castle—if I may call that an assault where there were none ready to resist. Some they slew, and some they carried off to their ship, and the castle they burned with fire. What I endured on the voyage—for the pirates, who were indeed loaded with spoils, sailed straight to Tunis—I cannot relate. We were ten prisoners in all, and lay in the hold all the night and day also, save for some two hours, when we were suffered to come upon the deck, five at one time and five at another. Of food we had but a scant supply; and of water, of [143] which the villains were very short, but one pint by the day, and that of the muddiest. But when we came to Tunis there again fortune favoured me; for a division of the spoil being made, I was delivered to a citizen of the town who showed me such kindness as could not have been surpassed had he been a Christian man. May he have his reward, though he be an infidel! He put no chain upon me, as all other masters were wont to do, nor kept me in ward; but when I had given him my word that I would not escape, suffered me to go where I would (only for my safety's sake he permitted me not to go into the town). And he gave me for my work such light tasks as came to hand, and these chiefly in his garden, which was as fine an one as I have seen, with great orange trees, and lemons, and pomegranates, and palms, but wanting somewhat in the freshness of our English pleasaunces.

"With him I tarried for a year, and thence came by my deliverance in such a way as I could never have conceived. My master fell under displeasure of the Bey, for so they call the chief ruler of the city of Tunis, who seized [144] all his goods, and among them his slaves, of whom I was one. Then I was marched to the Bey's palace and cast into a dungeon, not without complaints of my hard fortune in being separated from so kind a master, for how should I know that this evil would turn to my good? But so it was. But first I should say that there were others also who were in the like case with me. On the third day among the victuals that we had from abroad, by condescension of our jailer and by help of money, we found a melon. Breaking this open, for a knife we were not suffered to have, we saw therein a writing to this purpose, that if by any means we could escape we should find that night, and the two nights next following, at a certain place two miles westward of the harbour, those that would deliver us from our captivity; and there was with the writing a lump of clay, of which I could not at first conceive the use, till it appeared to me, by the inspiration I do verily believe of the saints, that it was for the making of a false key. Now I chanced to have upon me a knife in a pocket which the jailer, to whom our clothing was strange, had not searched. [145] And first one of us that was a mechanic took with the clay an impression of the lock, and so we made a wooden key. Now we were fastened with a chain to an iron bar till our shackles should be made; and when night was come we sought to pick the lock of the chain with a prong of iron with which the knife was furnished. On this work we spent two hours, but it seemed to no purpose, till being wearied out we lay down to sleep. But about an hour past midnight there came into my heart the thought that I would try the lock yet once again. And this I did, and at the very first trial opened it. Then I woke my companions; and we opened the door of the dungeon with the wooden key. Then coming to another door we easily lifted it from the hooks with an iron bar which we there found; the same we did with a third with a door, which last led us into the street. This by great good fortune we found altogether empty, for it was the hour of the night when fewest are abroad. And the like fortune favoured us that we got clear of the town without meeting any man; and so, fetching a compass, came upon the sea-shore, where we found a boat [146] waiting, with men from a ship of Venice. When we were come on board said the captain to us, 'I have good hopes of your deliverance; but I must use some policy. We of Venice are now at peace with these infidels. If, therefore, I should give them offence I should fall under the displeasure of the State, besides that the merchants on whose behalf I sail this ship have no small interests of commerce in this town. Were it not so, I would straightway hoist sail and depart. Now I doubt not that there will presently come certain to search the ship. Disguise yourselves, therefore; ye that have beards shave them off; ye that have none put on false with which I presently furnish you. And when the searchers shall come I will swear that ye are servants of the Republic; and ye must take like oath. And that we may do this with the better grace ye must sign this paper, wherein ye bind yourselves to serve the Republic for seven years. With this and two or three gold pieces to boot I doubt not that ye will escape.' And so indeed, by God's blessing, it came about."

After this Master Norton told us how he had served the State of Venice in many places, whose very names I cannot now remember. But the end of his speaking I do remember only too well.

[147] "So when my term of service was ended, I embarked on a ship of Venice that was bound for Bristol. And from Bristol I journeyed to Whitchurch in this country, having an errand to the Earl of Shrewsbury from his late father. But him I found deceased, having been slain, as you know, in the battle of Northampton. But his son received me right courteously, and I delivered to him the message of his grandfather, with which he charged me when he lay dying at Chatillon. And my lord hath promised me a good place in his employ. Nor did I fail to gather in the service of these rich merchants of Venice a fair store of gold pieces, so that I came not back as penniless as I went forth. And every penny, as indeed hat been every thought of mine for these eight years past, is for my sweet Joan, if I may so call her with your good leave, Master Eliot."

When I heard this it all came upon me in an instant of time, that this was a lover of time [148] past, and that indeed Joan had not been promised to him, lack of means forbidding, and her youth also, for she could have been but barely fifteen, and that he had been reported as dead, whence the sadness that I at the first noted in her, and that now he was come back. Then I rose from my place, and being favoured by the chance that Willie, not being wholly recovered, grew somewhat faint from long sitting and listening, departed without word said to my chamber.

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