IT WAS a warm, dark winter day with the Sou’-West wind singing through Dallington Forest, and the woods below the Beacon. The children set out after dinner to find old Hobden, who had a three months’ job in the Rough at the back of Pound’s Wood. He had promised to get them a dormouse in its nest. The bright leaf still clung to the beech coppice; the long chestnut leaves lay orange on the ground, and the rides were speckled with scarlet- lipped sprouting acorns. They worked their way by their own short cuts to the edge of Pound’s Wood, and heard a horse’s feet just as they came to the beech where Ridley the keeper hangs up the vermin. The poor little fluffy bodies dangled from the branches—some perfectly good, but most of them dried to twisted strips.‘Three more owls,’ said Dan, counting. ‘Two stoats, four jays, and a kestrel. That’s ten since last week. Ridley’s a beast.’
‘In my time this sort of tree bore heavier fruit.’ Sir Richard Dalyngridge reined up his grey horse, Swallow, in the ride behind them. [This is the Norman knight they met the year before in Puck of Pook’s Hill. See ‘Young Men at the Manor,’ ‘The Knights of the Joyous Venture,’ and ‘Old Men at Pevensey,’ in that book.] ‘What play do you make?’he asked.
‘Nothing, Sir. We’re looking for old Hobden,’ Dan replied. ’He promised to get us a sleeper.’
‘Sleeper? A dormeuse, do you say?’
‘Yes, a dormouse, Sir.’
‘I understand. I passed a woodman on the low grounds. Come!’ He wheeled up the ride again, and pointed through an opening to the patch of beech-stubs, chestnut, hazel, and birch that old Hobden would turn into firewood, hop-poles, pea-boughs, and house-faggots before spring. The old man was as busy as a beaver.
Something laughed beneath a thorn, and Puck stole out, his finger on his lip.
‘Look!’ he whispered. ‘Along between the spindle-trees. Ridley has been there this half-hour.’
The children followed his point, and saw Ridley the keeper in an old dry ditch, watching Hobden as a cat watches a mouse.
‘Huhh!’ cried Una. ‘Hobden always ’tends to his wires before breakfast. He puts his rabbits into the faggots he’s allowed to take home. He’ll tell us about ’em tomorrow.’
‘We had the same breed in my day,’ Sir Richard replied, and moved off quietly, Puck at his bridle, the children on either side between the close-trimmed beech stuff.
‘What did you do to them?’ said Dan, as they repassed Ridley’s terrible tree.
‘That!’ Sir Richard jerked his head toward the dangling owls.
‘Not he!’ said Puck. ‘There was never enough brute Norman in you to hang a man for taking a buck.’
‘I—I cannot abide to hear their widows screech. But why am I on horseback while you are afoot?’ He dismounted lightly, tapped Swallow on the chest, so that the wise thing backed instead of turning in the narrow ride, and put himself at the head of the little procession. He walked as though all the woods belonged to him. ‘I have often told my friends,’ he went on, ‘that Red William the King was not the only Norman found dead in a forest while he hunted.’
‘D’you mean William Rufus?’said Dan.
‘Yes,’ said Puck, kicking a clump of red toad-stools off a dead log.
‘For example, there was a knight new from Normandy,’ Sir Richard went on, ‘to whom Henry our King granted a manor in Kent near by. He chose to hang his forester’s son the day before a deer-hunt that he gave to pleasure the King.’
‘Now when would that be?’ said Puck, and scratched an ear thoughtfully.
‘The summer of the year King Henry broke his brother Robert of Normandy at Tenchebrai fight. Our ships were even then at Pevensey loading for the war.’
‘What happened to the knight?’Dan asked.
‘They found him pinned to an ash, three arrows through his leather coat. I should have worn mail that day.’
‘And did you see him all bloody?’Dan continued.
‘Nay, I was with De Aquila at Pevensey, counting horseshoes, and arrow-sheaves, and ale-barrels into the holds of the ships. The army only waited for our King to lead them against Robert in Normandy, but he sent word to De Aquila that he would hunt with him here before he set out for France.’
‘Why did the King want to hunt so particularly?’ Una demanded.
‘If he had gone straight to France after the Kentish knight was killed, men would have said he feared being slain like the knight. It was his duty to show himself debonair to his English people as it was De Aquila’s duty to see that he took no harm while he did it, But it was a great burden! De Aquila, Hugh, and I ceased work on the ships, and scoured all the Honour of the Eagle—all De Aquila’s lands—to make a fit, and, above all, a safe sport for our King. Look!’
The ride twisted, and came out on the top of Pound’s Hill Wood. Sir Richard pointed to the swells of beautiful, dappled Dallington, that showed like a woodcock’s breast up the valley. ‘Ye know the forest?’ said he.
‘You ought to see the bluebells there in Spring!’ said Una.
‘I have seen,’ said Sir Richard, gazing, and stretched out his hand. ‘Hugh’s work and mine was first to move the deer gently from all parts into Dallington yonder, and there to hold them till the King came. Next, we must choose some three hundred beaters to drive the deer to the stands within bowshot of the King. Here was our trouble! In the mellay of a deer-drive a Saxon peasant and a Norman King may come over-close to each other. The conquered do not love their conquerors all at once. So we needed sure men, for whom their village or kindred would answer in life, cattle, and land if any harm come to the King. Ye see?’
‘If one of the beaters shot the King,’ said Puck, ‘Sir Richard wanted to be able to punish that man’s village. Then the village would take care to send a good man.’
‘So! So it was. But, lest our work should be too easy, the King had done such a dread justice over at Salehurst, for the killing of the Kentish knight (twenty-six men he hanged, as I heard), that our folk were half mad with fear before we began. It is easier to dig out a badger gone to earth than a Saxon gone dumb-sullen. And atop of their misery the old rumour waked that Harold the Saxon was alive and would bring them deliverance from us Normans. This has happened every autumn since Santlache fight.’
‘But King Harold was killed at Hastings,’said Una.
‘So it was said, and so it was believed by us Normans, but our Saxons always believed he would come again. That rumour did not make our work any more easy.’
Sir Richard strode on down the far slope of the wood, where the trees thin out. It was fascinating to watch how he managed his long spurs among the lumps of blackened ling.
‘But we did it!’ he said. ‘After all, a woman is as good as a man to beat the woods, and the mere word that deer are afoot makes cripples and crones young again. De Aquila laughed when Hugh told him over the list of beaters. Half were women; and many of the rest were clerks—Saxon and Norman priests.
‘Hugh and I had not time to laugh for eight days, till De Aquila, as Lord of Pevensey, met our King and led him to the first shooting-stand—by the Mill on the edge of the forest. Hugh and I—it was no work for hot heads or heavy hands—lay with our beaters on the skirts of Dallington to watch both them and the deer. When De Aquila’s great horn blew we went forward, a line half a league long. Oh, to see the fat clerks, their gowns tucked up, puffing and roaring, and the sober millers dusting the under-growth with their staves; and, like as not, between them a Saxon wench, hand in hand with her man, shrilling like a kite as she ran, and leaping high through the fern, all for joy of the sport.’
‘Ah! How! Ah! How! How-ah! Sa-how-ah!’ Puck bellowed without warning, and Swallow bounded forward, ears cocked, and nostrils cracking.
‘Hal-lal-lal-lal-la-hai-ie!’ Sir Richard answered in a high clear shout.
The two voices joined in swooping circles of sound, and a heron rose out of a red osier-bed below them, circling as though he kept time to the outcry. Swallow quivered and swished his glorious tail. They stopped together on the same note.
A hoarse shout answered them across the bare woods.
‘That’s old Hobden,’said Una.
‘Small blame to him. It is in his blood,’ said Puck. ‘Did your beaters cry so, Sir Richard?’
‘My faith, they forgot all else. (Steady, Swallow, steady!) They forgot where the King and his people waited to shoot. They followed the deer to the very edge of the open till the first flight of wild arrows from the stands flew fair over them.
‘I cried, “’Ware shot! ‘Ware shot!” and a knot of young knights new from Normandy, that had strayed away from the Grand Stand, turned about, and in mere sport loosed off at our line shouting: “’Ware Santlache arrows! ’Ware Santlache arrows!” A jest, I grant you, but too sharp. One of our beaters answered in Saxon: “’Ware New Forest arrows! ’Ware Red William’s arrow!” so I judged it time to end the jests, and when the boys saw my old mail gown (for, to shoot with strangers I count the same as war), they ceased shooting. So that was smoothed over, and we gave our beaters ale to wash down their anger. They were excusable! We—they had sweated to show our guests good sport, and our reward was a flight of hunting-arrows which no man loves, and worse, a churl’s jibe over hard-fought, fair-lost Hastings fight. So, before the next beat, Hugh and I assembled and called the beaters over by name, to steady them. The greater part we knew, but among the Netherfield men I saw an old, old man, in the dress of a pilgrim.
‘The Clerk of Netherfield said he was well known by repute for twenty years as a witless man that journeyed without rest to all the shrines of England. The old man sits, Saxon fashion, head between fists. We Normans rest the chin on the left palm. ‘“Who answers for him?” said I. “If he fails in his duty, who will pay his fine?”
‘“Who will pay my fine?” the pilgrim said. “I have asked that of all the Saints in England these forty years, less three months and nine days! They have not answered!” When he lifted his thin face I saw he was one-eyed, and frail as a rush. ‘“Nay, but, Father,” I said, “to whom hast thou commended thyself—?” He shook his head, so I spoke in Saxon: “Whose man art thou?”
‘“I think I have a writing from Rahere, the King’s jester,” said he after a while. “I am, as I suppose, Rahere’s man.”
‘He pulled a writing from his scrip, and Hugh, coming up, read it.
‘It set out that the pilgrim was Rahere’s man, and that Rahere was the King’s jester. There was Latin writ at the back.
‘“What a plague conjuration’s here?” said Hugh, turning it over. “Pum-quum-sum oc-occ. Magic?”
‘“Black Magic,” said the Clerk of Netherfield (he had been a monk at Battle). “They say Rahere is more of a priest than a fool and more of a wizard than either. Here’s Rahere’s name writ, and there’s Rahere’s red cockscomb mark drawn below for such as cannot read.” He looked slyly at me.
‘“Then read it,” said I, “and show thy learning.” He was a vain little man, and he gave it us after much mouthing.
‘“The charm, which I think is from Virgilius the Sorcerer, says: ‘When thou art once dead, and Minos’ (which is a heathen judge) ‘has doomed thee, neither cunning, nor speechcraft, nor good works will restore thee!’ A terrible thing! It denies any mercy to a man’s soul!”
‘“Does it serve?” said the pilgrim, plucking at Hugh’s cloak. “Oh, man of the King’s blood, does it cover me?”
‘Hugh was of Earl Godwin’s blood, and all Sussex knew it, though no Saxon dared call him kingly in a Norman’s hearing. There can be but one King.
‘“It serves,” said Hugh. “But the day will be long and hot. Better rest here. We go forward now.”
‘“No, I will keep with thee, my kinsman,” he answered like a child. He was indeed childish through great age.
‘The line had not moved a bowshot when De Aquila’s great horn blew for a halt, and soon young Fulke—our false Fulke’s son—yes, the imp that lit the straw in Pevensey Castle [See ‘Old Men at Pevensey’ in Puck of Pook’s Hill.]—came thundering up a woodway.
‘“Uncle,” said he (though he was a man grown, he called me Uncle), “those young Norman fools who shot at you this morn are saying that your beaters cried treason against the King. It has come to Harry’s long ears, and he bids you give account of it. There are heavy fines in his eye, but I am with you to the hilt, Uncle!”
‘When the boy had fled back, Hugh said to me: “It was Rahere’s witless man that cried, ‘’Ware Red William’s arrow!’ I heard him, and so did the Clerk of Netherfield.”
‘“Then Rahere must answer to the King for his man,” said I. “Keep him by you till I send,” and I hastened down.
‘The King was with De Aquila in the Grand Stand above Welansford down in the valley yonder. His Court—knights and dames—lay glittering on the edge of the glade. I made my homage, and Henry took it coldly. ‘“How came your beaters to shout threats against me?” said he.
‘“The tale has grown,” I answered. “One old witless man cried out, ‘’Ware Red William’s arrow,’ when the young knights shot at our line. We had two beaters hit.”
‘“I will do justice on that man,” he answered. “Who is his master?”
‘“He’s Rahere’s man,” said I.
‘“Rahere’s?” said Henry. “Has my fool a fool?”
‘I heard the bells jingle at the back of the stand, and a red leg waved over it; then a black one. So, very slowly, Rahere the King’s jester straddled the edge of the planks, and looked down on us, rubbing his chin. Loose-knit, with cropped hair, and a sad priest’s face, under his cockscomb cap, that he could twist like a strip of wet leather. His eyes were hollow-set.
‘“Nay, nay, Brother,” said he. “If I suffer you to keep your fool, you must e’en suffer me to keep mine.”
‘This he delivered slowly into the King’s angry face! My faith, a King’s jester must be bolder than lions!
‘“Now we will judge the matter,” said Rahere. “Let these two brave knights go hang my fool because he warned King Henry against running after Saxon deer through woods full of Saxons. ’Faith, Brother, if thy Brother, Red William, now among the Saints as we hope, had been timely warned against a certain arrow in New Forest, one fool of us four would not be crowned fool of England this morning. Therefore, hang the fool’s fool, knights!”
‘Mark the fool’s cunning! Rahere had himself given us order to hang the man. No King dare confirm a fool’s command to such a great baron as De Aquila; and the helpless King knew it.
‘“What? No hanging?” said Rahere, after a silence. “A’ God’s Gracious Name, kill something, then! Go forward with the hunt!”
‘He splits his face ear to ear in a yawn like a fish-pond. “Henry,” says he, “the next time I sleep, do not pester me with thy fooleries.” Then he throws himself out of sight behind the back of the stand.
‘I have seen courage with mirth in De Aquila and Hugh, but stark mad courage of Rahere’s sort I had never even guessed at.’
‘What did the King say?’ cried Dan.
‘He had opened his mouth to speak, when young Fulke, who had come into the stand with us, laughed, and, boy-like, once begun, could not check himself. He kneeled on the instant for pardon, but fell sideways, crying: “His legs! Oh, his long, waving red legs as he went backward!”
‘Like a storm breaking, our grave King laughed,—stamped and reeled with laughter till the stand shook. So, like a storm, this strange thing passed!
‘He wiped his eyes, and signed to De Aquila to let the drive come on.
‘When the deer broke, we were pleased that the King shot from the shelter of the stand, and did not ride out after the hurt beasts as Red William would have done. Most vilely his knights and barons shot!
De Aquila kept me beside him, and I saw no more of Hugh till evening. We two had a little hut of boughs by the camp, where I went to wash me before the great supper, and in the dusk I heard Hugh on the couch.
‘“Wearied, Hugh?” said I.
‘“A little,” he says. “I have driven Saxon deer all day for a Norman King, and there is enough of Earl Godwin’s blood left in me to sicken at the work. Wait awhile with the torch.”
‘I waited then, and I thought I heard him sob.’
‘Poor Hugh! Was he so tired?’ said Una. ‘Hobden says beating is hard work sometimes.’
‘I think this tale is getting like the woods,’ said Dan, ‘darker and twistier every minute.’ Sir Richard had walked as he talked, and though the children thought they knew the woods well enough, they felt a little lost.
‘A dark tale enough,’ says Sir Richard, ‘but the end was not all black. When we had washed, we went to wait on the King at meat in the great pavilion. just before the trumpets blew for the Entry—all the guests upstanding—long Rahere comes posturing up to Hugh, and strikes him with his bauble-bladder.
‘“Here’s a heavy heart for a joyous meal!” he says. “But each man must have his black hour or where would be the merit of laughing? Take a fool’s advice, and sit it out with my man. I’ll make a jest to excuse you to the King if he remember to ask for you. That’s more than I would do for Archbishop Anselm.”
‘Hugh looked at him heavy-eyed. “Rahere?” said he. “The King’s jester? Oh, Saints, what punishment for my King!” and smites his hands together.
‘“Go—go fight it out in the dark,” says Rahere, “and thy Saxon Saints reward thee for thy pity to my fool.” He pushed him from the pavilion, and Hugh lurched away like one drunk.’
‘But why?’ said Una. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Ah, why indeed? Live you long enough, maiden, and you shall know the meaning of many whys.’ Sir Richard smiled. ‘I wondered too, but it was my duty to wait on the King at the High Table in all that glitter and stir.
‘He spoke me his thanks for the sport I had helped show him, and he had learned from De Aquila enough of my folk and my castle in Normandy to graciously feign that he knew and had loved my brother there. (This, also, is part of a king’s work.) Many great men sat at the High Table—chosen by the King for their wits, not for their birth. I have forgotten their names, and their faces I only saw that one night. But’—Sir Richard turned in his stride—‘but Rahere, flaming in black and scarlet among our guests, the hollow of his dark cheek flushed with wine—long, laughing Rahere, and the stricken sadness of his face when he was not twisting it about—Rahere I shall never forget.
‘At the King’s outgoing De Aquila bade me follow him, with his great bishops and two great barons, to the little pavilion. We had devised jugglers and dances for the Court’s sport; but Henry loved to talk gravely to grave men, and De Aquila had told him of my travels to the world’s end. We had a fire of apple-wood, sweet as incense,—and the curtains at the door being looped up, we could hear the music and see the lights shining on mail and dresses.
‘Rahere lay behind the King’s chair. The questions he darted forth at me were as shrewd as the flames. I was telling of our fight with the apes, as ye called them, at the world’s end. [See ‘The Knights of the Joyous Venture’ in Puck of Pook’s Hill.] ‘“But where is the Saxon knight that went with you?” said Henry. “He must confirm these miracles.”
‘“He is busy,” said Rahere, “confirming a new miracle.”
‘“Enough miracles for today,” said the King. “Rahere, you have saved your long neck. Fetch the Saxon knight.”
‘“Pest on it,” said Rahere. “Who would be a King’s jester? I’ll bring him, Brother, if you’ll see that none of your home-brewed bishops taste my wine while I am away.” So he jingled forth between the men-at-arms at the door.
‘Henry had made many bishops in England without the Pope’s leave. I know not the rights of the matter, but only Rahere dared jest about it. We waited on the King’s next word.
‘“I think Rahere is jealous of you,” said he, smiling, to Nigel of Ely. He was one bishop; and William of Exeter, the other—Wal-wist the Saxons called him—laughed long. “Rahere is a priest at heart. Shall I make him a bishop, De Aquila?” says the King.
‘“There might be worse,” said our Lord of Pevensey. “Rahere would never do what Anselm has done.”
‘This Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, had gone off raging to the Pope at Rome, because Henry would make bishops without his leave either. I knew not the rights of it, but De Aquila did, and the King laughed.
‘“Anselm means no harm. He should have been a monk, not a bishop,” said the King. “I’ll never quarrel with Anselm or his Pope till they quarrel with my England. If we can keep the King’s peace till my son comes to rule, no man will lightly quarrel with our England.”
‘“Amen,” said De Aquila. “But the King’s peace ends when the King dies.”
‘That is true. The King’s peace dies with the King. The custom then is that all laws are outlaw, and men do what they will till the new King is chosen.
‘“I will amend that,” said the King hotly. “I will have it so that though King, son, and grandson were all slain in one day, still the King’s peace should hold over all England! What is a man that his mere death must upheave a people? We must have the Law.”
‘“Truth,” said William of Exeter; but that he would have said to any word of the King.
‘The two great barons behind said nothing. This teaching was clean against their stomachs, for when the King’s peace ends, the great barons go to war and increase their lands. At that instant we heard Rahere’s voice returning, in a scurril Saxon rhyme against William of Exeter:
When that he fawned on the King for his crozier,”
and amid our laughter he burst in, with one arm round Hugh, and one round the old pilgrim of Netherfield.
‘“Here is your knight, Brother,” said he, “and for the better disport of the company, here is my fool. Hold up, Saxon Samson, the gates of Gaza are clean carried away!”
‘Hugh broke loose, white and sick, and staggered to my side; the old man blinked upon the company.
‘We looked at the King, but he smiled.
‘“Rahere promised he would show me some sport after supper to cover his morning’s offence,” said he to De Aquila. “So this is thy man, Rahere?”
‘“Even so,” said Rahere. “My man he has been, and my protection he has taken, ever since I found him under the gallows at Stamford Bridge telling the kites atop of it that he was—Harold of England!”
‘There was a great silence upon these last strange words, and Hugh hid his face on my shoulder, woman-fashion.
‘“It is most cruel true,” he whispered to me. “The old man proved it to me at the beat after you left, and again in our hut even now. It is Harold, my King!”
‘De Aquila crept forward. He walked about the man and swallowed.
‘“Bones of the Saints!” said he, staring.
‘“Many a stray shot goes too well home,” said Rahere.
The old man flinched as at an arrow. “Why do you hurt me still?” he said in Saxon. “It was on some bones of some Saints that I promised I would give my England to the Great Duke.” He turns on us all crying, shrilly: “Thanes, he had caught me at Rouen—a lifetime ago. If I had not promised, I should have lain there all my life. What else could I have done? I have lain in a strait prison all my life none the less. There is no need to throw stones at me. “ He guarded his face with his arms, and shivered. “Now his madness will strike him down,” said Rahere. “Cast out the evil spirit, one of you new bishops.”
‘Said William of Exeter: “Harold was slain at Santlache fight. All the world knows it.”
‘“I think this man must have forgotten,” said Rahere. “Be comforted, Father. Thou wast well slain at Hastings forty years gone, less three months and nine days. Tell the King.”
‘The man uncovered his face. “I thought they would stone me,” he said. “I did not know I spoke before a King.” He came to his full towering height—no mean man, but frail beyond belief.
‘The King turned to the tables, and held him out his own cup of wine. The old man drank, and beckoned behind him, and, before all the Normans, my Hugh bore away the empty cup, Saxon-fashion, upon the knee.
“It is Harold!” said De Aquila. “His own stiff-necked blood kneels to serve him.
“Be it so,” said Henry. “Sit, then, thou that hast been Harold of England.”
‘The madman sat, and hard, dark Henry looked at him between half-shut eyes. We others stared like oxen, all but De Aquila, who watched Rahere as I have seen him watch a far sail on the sea.
‘The wine and the warmth cast the old man into a dream. His white head bowed; his hands hung. His eye indeed was opened, but the mind was shut. When he stretched his feet, they were scurfed and road-cut like a slave’s.
‘“Ah, Rahere,” cried Hugh, “why hast thou shown him thus? Better have let him die than shame him—and me!”
‘“Shame thee?” said the King. “Would any baron of mine kneel to me if I were witless, discrowned, and alone, and Harold had my throne?”
‘“No,” said Rahere. “I am the sole fool that might do it, Brother, unless”—he pointed at De Aquila, whom he had only met that day—“yonder tough Norman crab kept me company. But, Sir Hugh, I did not mean to shame him. He hath been somewhat punished through, maybe, little fault of his own.”
‘“Yet he lied to my Father, the Conqueror, “ said the King, and the old man flinched in his sleep.
‘“Maybe,” said Rahere, “but thy Brother Robert, whose throat we purpose soon to slit with our own hands—”
‘“Hutt!” said the King, laughing. “I’ll keep Robert at my table for a life’s guest when I catch him. Robert means no harm. It is all his cursed barons.”
‘“None the less,” said Rahere, “Robert may say that thou hast not always spoken the stark truth to him about England. I should not hang too many men on that bough, Brother.”
‘“And it is certain,” said Hugh, “that”—he pointed to the old man—“Harold was forced to make his promise to the Great Duke.”
‘“Very strongly, forced,” said De Aquila. He had never any pride in the Duke William’s dealings with Harold before Hastings. Yet, as he said, one cannot build a house all of straight sticks.
‘“No matter how he was forced,” said Henry, “England was promised to my Father William by Edward the Confessor. Is it not so?” William of Exeter nodded. “Harold confirmed that promise to my Father on the bones of the Saints. Afterwards he broke his oath and would have taken England by the strong hand.”
‘“Oh! La! La!” Rahere rolled up his eyes like a girl. “That ever England should be taken by the strong hand!”
‘Seeing that Red William and Henry after him had each in just that fashion snatched England from Robert of Normandy, we others knew not where to look. But De Aquila saved us quickly. ‘“Promise kept or promise broken,” he said, “Harold came near enough to breaking us Normans at Santlache. “
“Was it so close a fight, then?” said Henry.
“A hair would have turned it either way,” De Aquila answered. “His house-carles stood like rocks against rain. Where wast thou, Hugh, in it?”
‘“Among Godwin’s folk beneath the Golden Dragon till your front gave back, and we broke our ranks to follow,” said Hugh.
“But I bade you stand! I bade you stand! I knew it was all a deceit!” Harold had waked, and leaned forward as one crying from the grave.
‘“Ah, now we see how the traitor himself was betrayed!” said William of Exeter, and looked for a smile from the King.
‘“I made thee Bishop to preach at my bidding,” said Henry; and turning to Harold, “Tell us here how thy people fought us?” said he. “Their sons serve me now against my Brother Robert!”
‘The old man shook his head cunningly. “Na—Na—Na!” he cried. “I know better. Every time I tell my tale men stone me. But, Thanes, I will tell you a greater thing. Listen!” He told us how many paces it was from some Saxon Saint’s shrine to another shrine, and how many more back to the Abbey of the Battle.
‘“Ay,” said he. “I have trodden it too often to be out even ten paces. I move very swiftly. Harold of Norway knows that, and so does Tostig my brother. They lie at ease at Stamford Bridge, and from Stamford Bridge to the Battle Abbey it is—” he muttered over many numbers and forgot us.
‘“Ay, “ said De Aquila, all in a muse. “That man broke Harold of Norway at Stamford Bridge, and came near to breaking us at Santlache—all within one month.”
‘“But how did he come alive from Santlache fight?” asked the King. “Ask him! Hast thou heard it, Rahere?”
‘“Never. He says he has been stoned too often for telling the tale. But he can count you off Saxon and Norman shrines till daylight,” said Rahere and the old man nodded proudly.
‘“My faith!” said Henry after a while. “I think even my Father the Great Duke would pity if he could see him.”’
‘“How if he does see?” said Rahere.
‘Hugh covered his face with his sound hand. “Ah, why hast thou shamed him?” he cried again to Rahere.
‘“No—no,” says the old man, reaching to pluck at Rahere’s cape. “I am Rahere’s man. None stone me now,” and he played with the bells on the scollops of it.
‘“How if he had been brought to me when you found him?” said the King to Rahere.
‘“You would have held him prisoner again—as the Great Duke did,” Rahere answered.
‘“True,” said our King. “He is nothing except his name. Yet that name might have been used by stronger men to trouble my England. Yes. I must have made him my life’s guest—as I shall make Robert.”
‘“I knew it,” said Rahere. “But while this man wandered mad by the wayside, none cared what he called himself.”
‘“I learned to cease talking before the stones flew,” says the old man, and Hugh groaned.
‘“Ye have heard!” said Rahere. “Witless, landless, nameless, and, but for my protection, masterless, he can still make shift to bide his doom under the open sky.”
‘“Then wherefore didst thou bring him here for a mock and a shame?” cried Hugh, beside himself with woe.
‘“A right mock and a just shame!” said William of Exeter.
‘“Not to me,” said Nigel of Ely. “I see and I tremble, but I neither mock nor judge.”
‘“Well spoken, Ely.” Rahere falls into the pure fool again. “I’ll pray for thee when I turn monk. Thou hast given thy blessing on a war between two most Christian brothers.” He meant the war forward ’twixt Henry and Robert of Normandy. “I charge you, Brother,” he says, wheeling on the King, “dost thou mock my fool?” The King shook his head, and so then did smooth William of Exeter.
‘“De Aquila, does thou mock him?” Rahere jingled from one to another, and the old man smiled.
‘“By the Bones of the Saints, not I,” said our Lord of Pevensey. “I know how dooms near he broke us at Santlache.
‘“Sir Hugh, you are excused the question. But you, valiant, loyal, honourable, and devout barons, Lords of Man’s justice in your own bounds, do you mock my fool?”
‘He shook his bauble in the very faces of those two barons whose names I have forgotten. “Na—Na!” they said, and waved him back foolishly enough.
‘He hies him across to staring, nodding Harold, and speaks from behind his chair.
‘“No man mocks thee, Who here judges this man? Henry of England—Nigel—De Aquila! On your souls, swift with the answer!” he cried.
‘None answered. We were all—the King not least—over-borne by that terrible scarlet-and-black wizard-jester.
‘“Well for your souls,” he said, wiping his brow. Next, shrill like a woman: “Oh, come to me!” and Hugh ran forward to hold Harold, that had slidden down in the chair.
‘“Hearken,” said Rahere, his arm round Harold’s neck. “The King—his bishops—the knights—all the world’s crazy chessboard neither mock nor judge thee. Take that comfort with thee, Harold of England!”
‘Hugh heaved the old man up and he smiled.
‘“Good comfort,” said Harold. “Tell me again! I have been somewhat punished.”
‘Rahere hallooed it once more into his ear as the head rolled. We heard him sigh, and Nigel of Ely stood forth, praying aloud.
‘“Out! I will have no Norman!” Harold said as clearly as I speak now, and he refuged himself on Hugh’s sound shoulder, and stretched out, and lay all still.’
‘Dead?’ said Una, turning up a white face in the dusk.
‘That was his good fortune. To die in the King’s presence, and on the breast of the most gentlest, truest knight of his own house. Some of us envied him,’ said Sir Richard, and fell back to take Swallow’s bridle.
‘Turn left here,’ Puck called ahead of them from under an oak. They ducked down a narrow path through close ash plantation.
The children hurried forward, but cutting a corner charged full-abreast into the thorn-faggot that old Hobden was carrying home on his back. ‘My! My!’ said he. ‘Have you scratted your face, Miss Una?’
‘Sorry! It’s all right,’ said Una, rubbing her nose. ‘How many rabbits did you get today?’
‘That’s tellin’!’ the old man grinned as he re-hoisted his faggot. ‘I reckon Mus’ Ridley he’ve got rheumatism along o’ lyin’ in the dik to see I didn’t snap up any. Think o’ that now!’
They laughed a good deal while he told them the tale.
‘An’ just as he crawled away I heard some one hollerin’ to the hounds in our woods,’ said he. ‘Didn’t you hear? You must ha’ been asleep sure-ly.’
‘Oh, what about the sleeper you promised to show us?’ Dan cried.
‘’Ere he be—house an’ all!’ Hobden dived into the prickly heart of the faggot and took out a dormouse’s wonderfully woven nest of grass and leaves. His blunt fingers parted it as if it had been precious lace, and tilting it toward the last of the light he showed the little, red, furry chap curled up inside, his tail between his eyes that were shut for their winter sleep.
‘Let’s take him home. Don’t breathe on him,’ said Una. ‘It’ll make him warm and he’ll wake up and die straight off. Won’t he, Hobby?’
‘Dat’s a heap better by my reckonin’ than wakin’ up and findin’ himself in a cage for life. No! We’ll lay him into the bottom o’ this hedge. Dat’s jus’ right! No more trouble for him till come Spring. An’ now we’ll go home.’