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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSt. George And St. Michael - Volume 2 - Chapter 27. The Moat Of The Keep
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St. George And St. Michael - Volume 2 - Chapter 27. The Moat Of The Keep Post by :ProfitAutomaton Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :2410

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St. George And St. Michael - Volume 2 - Chapter 27. The Moat Of The Keep

PART II CHAPTER XXVII. THE MOAT OF THE KEEP

Richard left the cottage, and mounted Oliver. To pass the time and indulge a mournful memory, he rode round by Wyfern. When he reached home, he found that his father had gone to pay a visit some miles off. He went to his own room, cast himself on his bed, and tried to think. But his birds would not come at his call, or coming would but perch for a moment, and again fly. As he lay thus, his eyes fell on his cousin, old Thomas Heywood's little folio, lying on the window seat where he had left it two years ago, and straightway his fluttering birds alighting there, he thought how the book had been lying unopened all the months, while he had been passing through so many changes and commotions. How still had the room been around it, how silent the sunshine and the snow, while he had inhabited tumult--tumult in his heart, tumult in his ears, tumult of sorrows, of vain longings, of tongues and of swords! Where was the gain to him? Was he nearer to that centre of peace, which the book, as it lay there so still, seemed to his eyes to typify? The maiden loved from childhood had left him for a foolish king and a phantom-church: had he been himself pursuing anything better? He had been fighting for the truth: had he then gained her? where was she? what was she if not a living thing in the heart? Would the wielding of the sword in its name ever embody an abstraction, call it from the vasty deep of metaphysics up into self-conscious existence in the essence of a man's own vitality? Was not the question still, how, of all loves, to grasp the thing his soul thirsted after?

To many a sermon, cleric and lay, had he listened since he left that volume there--in church, in barn, in the open field--but the religion which seemed to fill all the horizon of these preachers' vision, was to him little better than another tumult of words; while, far beyond all the tumults, hung still, in the vast of thought unarrived, unembodied, that something without a shape, yet bearing a name around which hovered a vague light as of something dimly understood, after which, in every moment of inbreaking silence, his soul straightway began to thirst. And if the Truth was not to be found in his own heart, could he think that the blows by which he had not gained her had yet given her?--that through means of the tumult he had helped to arouse in her name and for her sake, but in which he had never caught a sight of her beauteous form, she now sat radiantly smiling in any one human soul where she sat not before?

Or should he say it was Freedom for which he had fought? Was he then one whit more free in the reality of his being than he had been before? Or had ever a battle wherein he had perilled his own life, striking for liberty, conveyed that liberty into a single human heart? Was there one soul the freer within, from the nearer presence of that freedom which would have a man endure the heaviest wrong, rather than inflict the lightest? He could not tell, but he greatly doubted.

His thought went wandering away, and vision after vision, now of war and now of love, now of earthly victory and now of what seemed unattainable felicity, arose and passed before him, filling its place. At length it came back: he would glance again into his cousin Thomas's book. He had but to stretch out his hand to take it, for his bed was close by the window. Opening it at random, he came upon this passage:

And as the Mill, that circumgyreth fast, Refuseth nothing that therein is cast, But whatsoever is to it assign'd Gladly receives and willing is to grynd, But if the violence be with nothing fed, It wasts itselfe: e'en so the heart mis-led, Still turning round, unstable as the Ocean, Never at rest, but in continuall Motion, Sleepe or awake, is still in agitation Of some presentment in th' imagination.

If to the Mill-stone you shall cast in Sand, It troubles them, and makes them at a stand; If Pitch, it chokes them; or if Chaffe let fall, They are employ'd, but to no use at all. So, bitter thoughts molest, uncleane thoughts staine And spot the Heart; while those idle and vaine Weare it, and to no purpose. For when 'tis Drowsie and carelesse of the future blisse, And to implore Heav'n's aid, it doth imply How far is it remote from the most High. For whilst our Hearts on Terrhen things we place, There cannot be least hope of Divine grace.

'Just such a mill is my mind,' he said to himself. 'But can I suppose that to sit down and read all day like a monk, would bring me nearer to the thing I want?'

He turned over the volume half thinking, half brooding.

'I will look again,' he thought, 'at the verses which that day my father gave me to read. Truly I did not well understand them.'

Once more he read the poem through. It closed with these lines:

So far this Light the Raies extends, As that no place It comprehends. So deepe this Sound, that though it speake, It cannot by a Sence so weake Be entertain'd. A Redolent Grace The Aire blowes not from place to place. A pleasant Taste, of that delight It doth confound all appetite. A strict Embrace, not felt, yet leaves That vertue, where it takes it cleaves. This Light, this Sound, this Savouring Grace, This Tastefull Sweet, this Strict Embrace, No Place containes, no Eye can see, My God is; and there's none but Hee.

'I HAVE gained something,' he cried aloud. 'I understand it now--at least I think I do. What if, in fighting for the truth as men say, the doors of a man's own heart should at length fly open for her entrance! What if the understanding of that which is uttered concerning her, be a sign that she herself draweth nigh! Then I will go on.--And that I may go on, I must recover my mare.'

Honestly, however, he could not quite justify the scheme. All the efforts of his imagination, as he rode home, to bring his judgment to the same side with itself, had failed, and he had been driven to confess the project a foolhardy one. But, on the other hand, had he not had a leading thitherward? Whence else the sudden conviction that Scudamore had taken her, and the burning desire to seek her in Raglan stables? And had he not heard mighty arguments from the lips of the most favoured preachers in the army for an unquestioning compliance with leadings? Nay, had he not had more than a leading? Was it not a sign to encourage him, even a pledge of happy result, that, within an hour of it, and in consequence of his first step in partial compliance with it, he had come upon the only creature capable of conducting him into the robber's hold? And had he not at the same time learned the Raglan password?--He WOULD go.

He rose, and descending the little creaking stair of black oak that led from his room to the next storey, sought his father's study, where he wrote a letter informing him of his intended attempt, and the means to its accomplishment that had been already vouchsafed him. The rest of his time, after eating his dinner, he spent in making overshoes for his mare out of an old buff jerkin. As soon as the twilight began to fall, he set out on foot for the witch's cottage.

When he arrived, he found her expecting him, but prepared with no hearty welcome.

'I had liefer by much thee had not come so pat upon thy promise, master Heywood. Then I might have looked to move thee from thy purpose, for truly I like it not. But thou will never bring an old woman into trouble, master Richard?'

'Or a young one either, if I can help it Mother Rees,' answered Richard. 'But come now, thou must trust me, and tell me all I want to know.'

He drew from his pocket paper and pencil, and began to put to her question after question as to the courts and the various buildings forming them, with their chief doors and windows, and ever as she gave him an answer, he added its purport to the rough plan he was drawing of the place.

'Listen to me, Master Heywood,' said the old woman at length after a long, silence, during which he had been pondering over his paper. 'An' thou get once into the fountain court thou will know where thee is by the marble horse that stands in the middle of it. Turn then thy back to the horse, with the yellow tower above thee upon thy right hand, and thee will be facing the great hall. On the other side of the hall is the pitched court with its great gate and double portcullis and drawbridge. Nearly at thy back, but to thy right hand, will lie the gate to the bowling-green. At which of these gates does thee think to lead out thy mare?'

'An' I pass at all, mother, it will be on her back, not at her head.'

'Thou wilt not pass, my son. Be counselled. To thy mare, thou wilt but lose thyself.'

Richard heard her as though he heard her not.

'At what hour doth the moon rise, mistress Rees?' he asked.

'What would thou with the moon?" she returned. "Is not she the enemy of him who roves for plunder? Shines she not that the thief may be shaken out of the earth?'

'I am not thief enough to steal in the dark, mother. How shall I tell without her help where I am or whither I go?'

'She will be half way to the top of her hill by midnight.'

'An' thou speak by the card, then is it time that Marquis and I were going.'

'Here, take thee some fern-seed in thy pouch, that thou may walk invisible,' said the old woman. 'If thee chance to be an hungred, then eat thereof,' she added, as she transferred something from her pocket to his.

She called the dog and opened the chamber door. Out came Marquis, walked to Richard, and stood looking up in his face as if he knew perfectly that his business was to accompany him. Richard bade the old woman good night, and stepped from the cottage.

No sooner was he in the darkness with the dog, than, fearing he might lose sight of him, he tied his handkerchief round the dog's neck, and fastened to it the thong of his riding whip--the sole weapon he had brought with him--and so they walked together, Marquis pulling Richard on. Ere long the moon rose, and the country dawned into the dim creation of the light.

On and on they trudged, Marquis pulling at his leash as if he had been a blind man's dog, and on and on beside them crept their shadows, flattened out into strange distortion upon the road. But when they had come within about two miles of Raglan, whether it was that the sense of proximity to his mistress grew strong in him, or that he scented the Great Mogul, as the horse the battle from afar, Marquis began to grow restless, and to sniff about on one side of the way. When at length they had by a narrow bridge crossed a brook, the dog insisted on leaving the road and going down into the meadow to the left. Richard made small resistance, and that only for experiment upon the animal's determination. Across field after field his guide led him, until, but for the great keep towering dimly up into the moonlit sky, he could hardly have even conjectured where he was. But he was well satisfied, for, ever as they came out of copse or hollow, there was the huge thing in the sky, nearer than before.

At last he was able to descry a short stretch of the castle rampart, past which, away to the westward, the dog was pulling, along a rough cart-track through a field. This he presently found to be a quarry road, and straight into the quarry the dog went, pulling eagerly; but Richard was compelled to follow with caution, for the ground was rough and broken, and the moon cast black misleading shadows. Towards the blackest of these the dog led, and entered a hollow way. Richard went straight after him, guarding his head with his arm, lest he might meet a sudden descent of the roof, and lengthening his leash to the utmost, that he might have timely warning of any descent of the floor.

It was a very rough tunnel, the intent of which will afterwards appear, forming part of one of lord Herbert's later contrivances for the safety of the castle; but so well had Mr. Salisbury, the surveyor, managed, that not one of the men employed upon it had an idea that they were doing more than working the quarry for the repair of the fortifications.

From the darkness, and the cautious rate at which he had to proceed, holding back the dog who tugged hard at the whip, Richard could not even hazard a conjecture as to the distance they had advanced, when he heard the noise of a small runnel of water, which seemed from the sound to make abrupt descent from some little height. He had gone but a few paces further when the handle of the whip received a great upward pull and was left loose in his grasp: the dog was away, leaving his handkerchief at the end of the thong. So now he had to guide himself, and began to feel about him. He seemed at first to have come to the end of the passage, for he could touch both sides of it by stretching out his arms, and in front a tiny stream of water came down the face of the rough rock; but what then had become of Marquis? The answer seemed plain: the water must come from somewhere, and doubtless its channel had spare room enough for the dog to pass thither. He felt up the rock, and found that, at about the height of his head, the water came over an obtuse angle. Climbing a foot or two, he discovered that the opening whence it issued was large enough for him to enter.

Only one who has at some time passed where lengthened creeping was necessary, will know how Richard felt, with water under him, pitch-darkness about him, and the rock within an inch or two of his body all round. By and by the slope became steeper and the ascent more difficult. The air grew very close, and he began to fear he should be stifled. Then came a hot breath, and a pair of eyes gleamed a foot or two from his face. Had he then followed into the den of the animal by which poor Marquis had been so frightfully torn? But no: it was Marquis himself waiting for him!

'Go on, Marquis,' he said, with a sigh of relief.

The dog obeyed, and in another moment a waft of cool air came in. Presently a glimmer of light appeared. The opening through which it entered was a little higher than his horizontally posed head, and looked alarmingly narrow.

But as he crept nearer it grew wider, and when he came under it he found it large enough to let him through. When cautiously he poked up his head, there was the huge mass of the keep towering blank above him! On a level with his eyes, the broad, lilied waters of the moat lay betwixt him and the citadel.

Marquis had brought him to the one neglected, therefore forgotten, and thence undefended spot of the whole building. Before the well was sunk in the keep, the supply of water to the moat had been far more bountiful, and provision for a free overflow was necessary. For some reason, probably for the mere sake of facility in the construction, the passage for the superfluous water had been made larger than needful at the end next the moat. About midway to its outlet, however--a mere drain-mouth in a swampy hollow in the middle of a field--it had narrowed to a third of the compass. But the quarriers had cut across it above the point of contraction; and no danger of access occurring to lord Herbert or Mr. Salisbury, while they found a certain service in the tiny waterfall, they had left it as it was.

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