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The Chantry Priest of Barnet by  Alfred J. Church

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[149] ONE comfort I had in my great trouble, that I had not spoken of my love to Mistress Joan. That she had some knowledge thereof I did not doubt; for what woman is there that doth not discern somewhat, at the least, of the love that a man hath towards her. And mine of late I had not sought to hide, because I knew that her kinsfolk were well-inclined to me, and that a livelihood was assured to me by the good bishop, my patron, so only my own industry were not wanting; and because I hoped also that she herself was beginning to turn to me. And, indeed, I should have spoken, if the things of which I have just written had happened but only one day later. And that this was so was, as I have said, my one comfort. For if the maiden had given me her promise, as indeed [150] she was not unlike to have done, being grateful for service done to her brother (to whom she was, as I have before written, singularly bound in affection), and knowing her parents' goodwill, and being persuaded in her mind (though indeed her heart still held out) that Edward Norton was long since dead, what trouble would there not have been. For she would have been divided between faith, of which she was ever most careful, and love; and Edward Norton, than whom there never lived in this world more loyal gentleman, would have been not less distracted between duty and honour, and I myself had been in the sorest strait that can be imagined. But now he knew nought of the matter; and she, though indeed she knew that I loved her, yet knew not how deep was this love; and as for me, I found the task set to me in this the easier, that what I had never possessed I was not constrained to give up to another.

This necessity indeed I felt to be laid upon me, that I must straightway depart. For Mistress Joan was to come back upon the morrow, and her I could not endure to see. [151] Therefore I went about midnight, with my feet unshod, and stepping as lightly as I could, that none might hear, to the chamber of John Eliot the younger. And when I had knocked at his door, I found him watching, for he knew something, at the least, of my trouble. And when he saw me, for the lamp was burning on the table, he reached forth his hand, saying nothing. And I said, "John, I must away, so soon as ever it shall grow light. There is no need to speak the reason which indeed thou knowest; as I doubt not will thy father and mother also, and Alice also. But if Willie, who is but a boy, would know the cause of this sudden departure, thou wilt quiet him as best thou canst. What I shall do hereafter, at this instant I know not for certain, though I have certain thoughts in my heart. But first I go to Oxford, and when I shall have further determined, then I will advertise thee of my purpose." "But how wilt thou go," saith John. "On foot," I made answer; "and what things I have here thou wilt take such occasion to send as may come." Then John reached forth his hand again to mine, and so [152] stood till he could find words to speak, for he was sore troubled in heart. At the last, he said, "Thomas, this is a matter in which it were better to say a few words than many, and best, it may be, to say nought. Comfort I cannot give thee; God shall give it thee in His time, for He doth not altogether desert them that love Him, as I know thou dost. But, say, thou dost not repent that we two have been friends, and that I brought thee to my home, and made thee known to my kinsfolk? I know in what trouble it hath ended; yet I cannot wish in my heart that it had been otherwise." "No," said I, "that will be a joy to me for ever. Whatever betide, I do thank God from my heart that I have found another father and mother, and brothers and sisters, in this household." And when I had thus said I left him.

The next morning at five of the clock, when it was now just beginning to grow light, I came down from the chamber. And lo! John had lighted a fire in the kitchen, and made a hot stoup of ale hot with spices and toasted bread, which I made shift to drink, not having much appetite thereto. Also he had prepared some [153] provision of food by the way, as much as I could conveniently carry. And he gave me a stout oaken staff. Nor would anything serve his turn but he must go with me so far as Shrewsbury town. This he did, but though we walked together we scarce spake a word by the way, not for lack of goodwill, but because our hearts were overfull for words. And when we were gotten on the further side of Shrewsbury town—but the town itself we left on one side lest perchance some acquaintance should espy us—we kissed one the other, and parted with no more than "God speed," but I trow that our hearts had never been more drawn together than they were that day. I have not seen John Eliot since our parting; but I am persuaded in my heart that I shall see him before I die.

So I journeyed towards Oxford. And at the first I was so much taken up with my great sorrow that I could not so much as think what I should do; only my heart was utterly set against the way of life which I had before chosen. It may well be that some one reading this that I have written may charge me with [154] weakness, saying, "Shall a man then mar his whole life because he is crossed in love?" Nor do I deny that such an one may be in the right. I set not up myself for an example, God knoweth. Nay more, I do readily confess that I lack the strength which doth win its way to an end, all hindrances notwithstanding. I have, if I may so say without vain glorying, certain gifts; for I love beautiful things, and have some skill in picturing them, and there is at times the grace in me to speak comfortable words to such as are in sickness or sorrow or any affliction; and patience also I have, for which indeed I do most heartily thank my God, that I may endure the burden which is laid upon me; but the strong heart and good courage that rise up against trouble and overcome, these I have not. And I do count it a singular proof of the wisdom with which God hath ordered the things of this world, that for such as I am there have been set up in Christendom such pious foundations as that wherein I have now found a safe refuge.

On the third day of my journeying I came to Worcester, where there is a fair Priory of [155] the Benedictines; and being somewhat spent with my journey—for I had had small care of meat and drink, and it had been a time of much rain and cold—I asked at the gate whether I might have shelter for the night. Nor was I altogether sure in my mind that I should have a good welcome, for wandering scholars be not always guests to be desired. But when I declared my degree to the porter he received me with all courtesy, for which he had, as I heard afterwards, strict commandment from the Prior. Now it chanced to be a great day, and the Prior supped with the brethren in the refectory, and when he heard that a certain Master of Arts, and of Magdalen College withal—for this also I told on questions being asked—was come, nothing would content him but I must sit at his right hand, for he was a great lover of learning, and a favourer of all who do follow her though but in a humble degree. So I sat in high place, though indeed so worn was I and travel-stained, I would fain have sought a lower room. Then we had much talk together about books, and I—for I could not but put away for a while mine own troubles, so kind and courteous [156] was he, for all that he was a great man—I spoke of all that I had of late read, and especially of the little book of the Greek rudiments of which I have before written.

It was a right noble feast; for the table was set with silver dishes very fairly made, and that which was set before the Prior was silver gilt. And to each guest there was a cup of silver; the meats were beef and mutton, and geese and capons and partridges. And there were set also great silver pitchers of wine, both of Burgundy and Bordeaux. But for all that there was such abundance, none, for so it seemed to me, did exceed in meat or drink; and as for the Abbot, so intent was he on his talk of learned matters that he cared not what he did eat or drink. And after supper the reader, standing in a pulpit that was by the Abbot's table, read in a very sweet and tuneful voice, the Life of St. Hugh, sometime Bishop of Lincoln, writ by Adam, that was his chaplain and after Prior of Eynsham. And when I marked what peace and plenteousness was within these walls, and how harmony and the fear of God with all temperance and sobriety, for so I deemed, did [157] dwell there, it seemed that they who followed such a life had chosen well.

That night I was bestowed in one of the guests' chambers, and at the first, for the bed was soft and pleasant, and I was wearied with my travelling, I slept. But about half an hour before sunrise, when there was just so much of light that I could discern the casement, I awaked out of my sleep, or so I thought. But haply I was not indeed awake, but sleeping in such wise as I have sometimes noted in myself, wherein a man seeth all that is in his chamber and seemeth to be awake but is indeed asleep. But that which I saw was this—but whether it was a vision or a dream, as I knew not then, so now I pretend not to judge. There seemed to stand by the window my sister Alice, of whose decease I have before written, habited as a nun. Round about her head was a ring as of pale gold, it might be a hand's-breadth wide, and her countenance was as if there were a light beneath it, so did it shine and glisten. And as she looked upon me there was in her eyes even such a smile as that wherewith she had bidden me farewell, but brighter, for indeed [158] God had wiped away from them all tears. She spake never a word, no nor yet beckoned with the hand; and yet it seemed that she drew me with such drawing as I must needs yield to. Nevertheless I could neither speak nor move. And in the space of two minutes, as near as I could judge, she vanished out of my sight.

After this I slept no more, but lay and mused on what I had seen or dreamed. And I did not doubt that it was a message to me that I should follow the religious life. And indeed that which before I had thought most hateful now seemed altogether to be desired.

The Prior would have me abide the next day and rest myself; which I was not loath to do, being weary and footsore. And I dined with him in his private chamber, the sub-Prior also and the Master of the Scriptorium bearing us company. And when these went their ways after dinner I was moved to open my whole heart to the old man, for he seemed as a father to me. And when he had heard both my life in the past and what I purposed in the future, he said, "I will not advise thee this way or that. Ponder the matter well with thyself, and [159] be not hasty to do that which cannot be undone. I indeed am well content with my lot; but know that all is not peace within these walls, for all that they seem to be so peaceful. And there are houses which are houses of God in name only. Corruptio optimi pessima, which words I do not need either to translate to thee or to expound. Verily if a religious house, where learning and piety and brotherly love do abound, be as heaven, that wherein not these things, but ignorance and idleness and lust and hatred do abide is as hell. A thousandfold better wert thou in the world than in such. Take heed therefore of thy ways." Then he gave me his blessing and let me go.

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