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Men of Iron by  Howard Pyle


 

 

THE FORBIDDEN GARDEN

[142] THE SUMMER passed away, and the bleak fall came. Myles had long since accepted his position as one set apart from the others of his kind, and had resigned himself to the evident fact that he was never to serve in the household in waiting upon the Earl. I cannot say that it never troubled him, but in time there came a compensation of which I shall have presently to speak.

And then he had so much the more time to himself. The other lads were sometimes occupied by their household duties when sports were afoot in which they would liked to have taken part. Myles was always free to enter into any matter of the kind after his daily exercise had been performed at the pels, the butts, or the tilting-court.

But even though he was never called to do ser- [143] vice in "my Lord's house," he was not long in gaining a sort of second-hand knowledge of all the family. My Lady, a thin, sallow, faded dame, not yet past middle age, but looking ten years older. The Lady Anne, the daughter of the house; a tall, thin, dark-eyed, dark-haired, handsome young dame of twenty or twenty-one years of age, hawk-nosed like her father, and silent, proud, and haughty, Myles heard the squires say. Lady Alice, the Earl of Mackworth's niece and ward, a great heiress in her own right, a strikingly pretty black-eyed girl of fourteen or fifteen.

These composed the Earl's personal family; but besides them was Lord George Beaumont, his Earl's brother, and him Myles soon came to know better than any of the chief people of the castle excepting Sir James Lee.

For since Myles's great battle in the armory, Lord George had taken a laughing sort of liking to the lad, encouraging him at times to talk of his adventures, and of his hopes and aspirations.

Perhaps the Earl's younger brother—who was himself somewhat a soldier of fortune, having fought in Spain, France, and Germany—felt a certain kinship in spirit with the adventurous youngster who had his unfriended way to make in the world. However that might have been, Lord [144] George was very kind and friendly to the lad, and the willing service that Myles rendered him reconciled him not a little to the Earl's obvious neglect.

Besides these of the more immediate family of the Earl were a number of knights, ladies, and gentlemen, some of them cadets, some of them retainers, of the house of Beaumont, for the princely nobles of those days lived in state little less royal than royalty itself.

Most of the knights and gentlemen Myles soon came to know by sight, meeting them in Lord George's apartments in the south wing of the great house, and some of them, following the lead of Lord George, singled him out for friendly notice, giving him a nod or a word in passing.

Every season has its pleasures for boys, and the constant change that they bring is one of the greatest delights of boyhood's days.

All of us, as we grow older, have in our memory pictures of by-gone times that are somehow more than usually vivid, the colors of some not blurring by time as others do. One of which, in remembering, always filled Myles's heart in after-years with an indefinable pleasure, was the recollection of standing with others of his fellow squires in the [145] crisp brown autumn grass of the paddock, and shooting with the long-bow at wildfowl, which, when the east wind was straining, flew low overhead to pitch to the lake in the forbidden precincts of the deer park beyond the brow of the hill. More than once a brace or two of these wildfowl, shot in their southward flight by the lads and cooked by fat, good-natured Mother Joan, graced the rude mess-table of the squires in the long hall, and even the toughest and fishiest drake, so the fruit of their skill, had a savor that, somehow or other, the daintiest fare lacked in after-years.

Then fall passed and winter came, bleak, cold, and dreary—not winter as we know it nowadays, with warm fires and bright lights to make the long nights sweet and cheerful with comfort, but winter with all its grimness and sternness. In the great cold stone-walled castles of those days the only fire and almost the only light were those from the huge blazing logs that roared and crackled in the great open stone fireplace, around which the folks gathered, sheltering their faces as best they could from the scorching heat, and cloaking their shoulders from the biting cold, for at the farther end of the room, where giant shadows swayed and bowed and danced huge and black against the high walls, the white frost glistened in the moonlight on the [146] stone pavements, and the breath went up like smoke.

In those days were no books to read, but at the best only rude stories and jests, recited by some strolling mummer or minstrel to the listening circle, gathered around the blaze and welcoming the coarse, gross jests, and coarser, grosser songs with roars of boisterous laughter.


[Illustration]

STORIES AND JESTS RECITED BY SOME STROLLING MUMMER OR MINSTREL.

Yet bleak and dreary as was the winter in those days, and cold and biting as was the frost in the cheerless, windy halls and corridors of the castle, it was not without its joys to the young lads; for then, as now, boys could find pleasure even in slushy weather, when the sodden snow is fit for nothing but to make snowballs of.

Thrice that bitter winter the moat was frozen over, and the lads, making themselves skates of marrow-bones, which they bought from the hall cook at a groat a pair, went skimming over the smooth surface, red-checked and shouting, while the crows and the jackdaws looked down at them from the top of the bleak gray walls.

Then at Yule-tide, which was somewhat of a rude semblance to the Merry Christmas season of our day, a great feast was held in the hall, and all the castle folk were fed in the presence of the Earl and the Countess. Oxen and sheep were roasted whole; huge suet puddings, made of barley meal [147] sweetened with honey and stuffed with plums, were boiled in great caldrons in the open courtyard; whole barrels of ale and malmsey were broached, and all the folk, gentle and simple, were bidden to the feast. Afterwards the minstrels danced and played a rude play, and in the evening a miracle show was performed on a raised platform in the north hall.

For a week afterwards the castle was fed upon the remains of the good things left from that great feast, until everyone grew to loathe fine victuals, and longed for honest beef and mustard again.

Then at last in that constant change the winter was gone, and even the lads who had enjoyed its passing were glad when the winds blew warm once more, and the grass showed green in sunny places, and the leader of the wild-fowl blew his horn, as they who in the fall had flown to the south flew, arrow-like, northward again; when the buds swelled and the leaves burst forth once more, and crocuses and then daffodils gleamed in the green grass, like sparks and flames of gold.

With the spring came the out-door sports of the season; among others that of ball—for boys were boys, and played at ball even in those faraway days—a game called trap-ball. Even yet in some parts of England it is played just as it was in Myles Falworth's day, and enjoyed just as Myles [148] and his friends enjoyed it.

So now that the sun was warm and the weather pleasant the game of trap-ball was in full swing every afternoon, the play-ground being an open space between the wall that surrounded the castle grounds and that of the privy garden—the pleasance in which the ladies of the Earl's family took the air every day, and upon which their apartments opened.

Now one fine breezy afternoon, when the lads were shouting and playing at this, then their favorite game, Myles himself was at the trap barehanded and barearmed. The wind was blowing from behind him, and, aided perhaps by it, he had already struck three of four balls nearly the whole length of the court—an unusual distance—and several of the lads had gone back almost as far as the wall of the privy garden to catch any ball that might chance to fly as far as that. Then once more Myles struck, throwing all his strength into the blow. The ball shot up into the air, and when it fell, it was to drop within the privy garden.

The shouts of the young players were instantly stilled, and Gascoyne, who stood nearest Myles, thrust his hands into his belt, giving a long shrill whistle.

"This time thou hast struck us all out, Myles," said he. "There be no more play for us until we get [149] another ball."

The outfielders came slowly trooping in until they had gathered in a little circle around Myles.

"I could not help it," said Myles, in answer to their grumbling. "How knew I the ball would fly so far? But if I ha' lost the ball, I can get it again. I will climb the wall for it."

"Thou shalt do naught of the kind, Myles," said Gascoyne, hastily. "Thou art as mad as a March hare to think of such a venture! Wouldst get thyself shot with a bolt betwixt the ribs, like poor Diccon Cook?"

Of all places about the castle the privy garden was perhaps the most sacred. It was a small plot of ground, only a few rods long and wide, and was kept absolutely private for the use of the Countess and her family. Only a little while before Myles had first come to Devlen, one of the cook's men had been found climbing the wall, whereupon the soldier who saw him shot him with his cross bow. The poor fellow dropped from the wall into the garden, and when they found him, he still held a bunch of flowers in his hand, which he had perhaps been gathering for his sweetheart.

Had Myles seen him carried on a litter to the infirmary as Gascoyne and some of the others had done, he might have thought twice before venturing to enter the ladies' private garden. As it was, [150] he only shook his stubborn head, and said again, "I will climb the wall and fetch it."

Now at the lower extremity of the court, and about twelve or fifteen feet distant from the garden wall, there grew a pear-tree, some of the branches of which overhung into the garden beyond. So, first making sure that no one was looking that way, and bidding the others keep a sharp lookout, Myles shinned up this tree, and choosing one of the thicker limbs, climbed out upon it for some little distance. Then lowering his body, he hung at arm's-length, the branch bending with his weight, and slowly let himself down hand under hand, until at last he hung directly over the top of the wall, and perhaps a foot above it. Below him he could see the leafy top of an arbor covered with a thick growth of clematis, and even as he hung there he noticed the broad smooth walks, the grassy terrace in front of the Countess's apartments in the distance, the quaint flower-beds, the yew-trees trimmed into odd shapes, and even the deaf old gardener working bare-armed in the sunlight at a flower-bed in the far corner by the tool-house.

The top of the wall was pointed like a house roof, and immediately below him was covered by a thick growth of green moss, and it flashed [151] through his mind as he hung there that maybe it would offer a very slippery foothold for one dropping upon the steep slopes of the top. But it was too late to draw back now.

Bracing himself for a moment, he loosed his hold upon the limb above. The branch flew back with a rush, and he dropped, striving to grasp the sloping angle with his feet. Instantly the treacherous slippery moss slid away from beneath him; he made a vain clutch at the wall, his fingers sliding over the cold stones, then, with a sharp exclamation, down he pitched bodily into the garden beneath! A thousand thoughts flew through his brain like a cloud of flies, and then a leafy greenness seemed to strike up against him. A splintering crash sounded in his ears as the lattice top of the arbor broke under him, and with one final clutch at the empty air he fell heavily upon the ground beneath.

He heard a shrill scream that seemed to find an instant echo; even as he fell he had a vision of faces and bright colors, and when he sat up, dazed and bewildered, he found himself face to face with the Lady Anne, the daughter of the house, and her cousin, the Lady Alice, who clutching one another tightly, stood staring at him with wide scared eyes.


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