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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVia Crucis - Chapter 25
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Via Crucis - Chapter 25 Post by :neil_stelling Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :2649

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Via Crucis - Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV


It had been early dawn when they had found Sir Arnold dead; it was toward evening when Gilbert and Dunstan followed a young Jew to the door of a Syrian house in a garden of the old quarter of the city, toward the Zion gate. All day they had searched Jerusalem, up and down, through the narrow streets of whitened houses, inquiring everywhere for a knight who had lately come with his one daughter, and no one could tell them anything; for Sir Arnold had paid well to find a retired house, where Beatrix might be safely guarded while he went out to seek Gilbert and kill him, and where he himself could hide if there were any pursuit. So they asked in vain, till at last they saw a boy sitting by the wayside on the hill of the Temple, weeping and lamenting in the Eastern fashion. The guide, who was also a Jew, asked him what had chanced, and he said that his father was gone on a journey, leaving him, his young son, in the house with his mother. And there had come a Christian knight with a daughter and her woman and certain servants, desiring to hire the house for a time because it was in a pleasant place; and they had let him have it, he promising by an interpreter to pay a great price; but he had not yet paid it. In the morning the young man had seen Christians carrying away the body of this knight to bury it; and he had been to the house, but the knight's servants would not let him in, and did not understand his speech, and threatened to beat him; and now he was afraid lest his father should come home unawares and take him and his mother to account for letting strangers use the house without even paying for it beforehand.

When Gilbert saw that he had found what he sought, he first gave money to the boy, to encourage him, and bade the interpreter tell him to lead them all to the house, saying that Gilbert himself would enter, in spite of the servants. The boy took the money, and when he had measured Gilbert with his eye, he understood, and went before them with no more weeping; and the knight's step was light and quick with hope, for he had begun to doubt whether Beatrix were really in the city after all.

The house was low and white, and stood at the end of a small garden in which there were palms, and spring flowers growing in straight lines between small hewn stones, laid so as to leave little trenches of earth between them. There was a hard path, newly swept, leading to the square door of the house, and on the doorpost were clearly written certain characters in Hebrew.

Gilbert knocked on the door, not loudly, with the hilt of his dagger, but no one answered; and again louder, but there was no sound from within. Then he shook the door, trying whether it would open of itself by a push; but it was fast, and the two windows of the house that looked out on each side of the door were barred also.

"They think that some great force is with us, and are afraid," said the Jewish boy. "Speak to them, sir, for they do not understand my tongue." And the interpreter explained what he said. Then Gilbert spoke in English, for he supposed that Curboil's men must be Englishmen, but the Jewish boy knew that the words should sound otherwise.

"In Greek, sir! Speak to them in Greek, for they are all Greeks. That is why they are afraid. All Greeks are afraid."

The interpreter began to speak in Greek, clear and loud, but no sound came. Yet when Gilbert put his ear to the door he thought that he heard something like a child's moaning. It had a sound of pain in it, and his blood rose at the thought that some weak creature was being hurt. So he took little Alric's leathern belt, such as grooms wear, and bound it round his hand to guard the flesh, and he struck the door where the leaves joined in the middle, once and twice and three times, and it began to open inward, so that they could see the iron bolt bent half double. Then with his shoulder he forced it in, so that the bolt slipped from the socket, and the leaves flew open.

There was a little court within, around which the house was built, with a well for rain-water in the middle, after the fashion that was half Roman and half Eastern. Gilbert went in, and bade all be silent that he might hear whence the moaning came; for it was more distinct now, and it seemed to come from the well, with a little splashing of water; so he went and looked down, and when he saw what was there he cried aloud for fear.

For there he saw an upturned face, half dead, with a white thing bound across the mouth, and hands tied together, and struggling to strike the water, but heavily weighted and it was the face of Beatrix, two fathoms below him. There were holes opposite each other, in the two sides of the well, for a man's hands and feet, for climbing down into the cistern; and Gilbert lost no moment, but began to descend at once yet long before he had got the bound hands together in his own, stooping and himself in peril of falling, the face had sunk below the bubbling water.

With his feet firmly planted in the holes, and standing as it might be astride of the well, he lifted the girl up and though she was so slight, it was one of the hardest things he ever had to do, for her clothes were full of water, and he was at a disadvantage; nor could his men help him till he had raised her so high that he could rest her weight on his right knee and against his own body. Then the others climbed down and slipped their belts under her arms, and she was taken out in safety and laid upon the pavement of the little court. And then the Jewish boy went to call his mother from the house of her sister, where they two had gone to live, for Beatrix had need of a woman.

Gilbert knelt down and laid her head upon Dunstan's coat folded together, and covered her with his own mantle, gazing into the unconscious face, small and pale and pitiful, and he remembered how he had seen it last in Antioch, full of anger and unbelief, so that he had turned and left what he loved just when evil was at hands and his heart stood still, and then smote him in his breast, and stood still again, as the smith's hammer is poised in the air between the strokes.

Beatrix did not move and seemed not to breathe, lying as one dead, and suddenly Gilbert believed that there was no life left in her. He tried to speak to Dunstan, but he could make no sound, for his tongue and his throat were suddenly parched and paralyzed, so that he was dumb in his grief; but he took the small white hands, with the wrists all cut by the cords, and folded them upon the breast, and he took his cross- hilted dagger with its sheath, and laid it between the hands for a cross, and gently tried to close the half-opened eyes.

Then, when Dunstan saw what his master meant, he touched him on the shoulder and spoke to him.

"She is not dead," he said.

Gilbert started and looked up at him, and saw that he was in earnest; but the man's lean face was drawn with anxiety.

"Sir," said Dunstan, "will you let me touch the Lady Beatrix?"

The knight's brow darkened, for that a churl's hands should touch a high-born lady's face seemed to him something monstrous and against nature; but in the moment he had forgotten something.

"She is quite dead," he tried to say.

Then Dunstan spoke sadly, kneeling down beside her.

"This lady is half my sister," he said. "I have some skill with half- drowned persons. Let me save her, sir, unless we are to let her die before our eyes. A gipsy taught me what to do."

The cloud passed from Gilbert's face, but still he did not believe.

"In heaven's name, do what you can, try what you know, and quickly!" he said.

"Help me, then," said Dunstan.

So he did as all skilled persons know how to do with half-drowned people, though only the gipsies knew it then. They turned her body gently so that the clear water ran from her parted lips, and laying her down again, they took her arms and drew them over her head, stretched them out, and brought them down to her sides, again and again, so as to make her breathe, and the breath was drawn in and breathed out again with a delicate foam that clung to her lips.

Still Sir Gilbert did not believe, and though he helped his man, in the despair of the instant, and in the horror of losing the least chance of life, it all seemed to him a desecration of the most dear dead, and more than once he would have let the poor little arm rest, rather than make it limply follow the motion Dunstan gave to the other.

"She is quite, quite dead," he said again.

"She is alive," answered Dunstan; "stop not now one moment, or we shall lose her."

His dark face glowed, and his unwinking eyes watched her face for the least sign of life. Ten minutes, a quarter of an hour, passed, and time seemed facing death--the swift against the immovable and eternal. Gilbert, the strong and masterful in fight, humbly and anxiously watched his man's looks for the signs of hope, as if Dunstan had been the wisest physician of all mankind; and indeed in that day there were few physicians who knew how to do what the man was doing. And at last the glow in his face began to fade, and Gilbert's heart sank, and the horror of so disturbing the dead came upon him tenfold, so that he let the slender arm rest on the stones, and sighed. But Dunstan cried out fiercely to him.

"For your life, go on! She is alive! See! See!"

And even as Gilbert sadly shook his head in the last collapse of belief, the long lashes quivered a little with the lids and were still, and quivered again, and then again, and the eyes opened wide and staring, but broad awake; and then the delicate body shook and was half convulsed by the miracle of life restored, and the slight arms quickened with nervous strength, resisting the men's strong hands, and a choking cough brought the bright colour to the pale cheeks.

Then Gilbert lifted her from the pavement to the stone rim of the well, that she might breathe better, and presently the choking ceased, so that she lay quite still with her head against his breast, and her weight in his arms. But still she did not speak, and the man's heart beat furiously with joy, and then stood still in fear, lest the worst should come again, whereof there was no danger; but he did not know, and Dunstan and Alric were suddenly gone, seeking wine in the house. Just when the girl seemed to be sinking into a swoon they brought a short draught of Syrian wine in an earthen cup; for little Alric was not wise, but he would have found wine in the sandy desert, and he had gone straight to a corner where a leathern bottle with a wooden plug was hung up in a cool place.

Beatrix drank, and revived again, and looked up to Gilbert.

"I knew you would come," she said faintly, and she smiled, but Gilbert could not speak.

By this time the Jewish boy had brought his mother, and they carried the girl into a room, and the woman took care of her kindly, fearing lest a Christian should die in her husband's house, and also lest she should not be paid the value of the rent, but with womanly gentleness also, wrapping her in dry clothes of her own before she laid her to rest.

For Arnold de Curboil's servants had been all Greeks, and when they had learned that their master had been killed in the night, they had bolted and barred the house, and had bound Beatrix and her Norman tirewoman hand and foot and gagged their mouths with cloths, in order that they might carry off the rich plunder, but at first they had not meant to kill the women. Only when they were just about to slip away, one at a time, so as to escape notice, they held a council, and the most of them said that it would be better to throw the women into the well, lest either of them should help the other, and getting loose, escape from the house and cause a pursuit. So they threw the Norman woman down first, and when they saw that she sank the third time, being drowned, they threw Beatrix after her. But the well was not so deep as they had thought, and was narrow, so that Beatrix had kept her head above the water a long time, her feet just touching the body of her drowned servant. And in this way the faithful woman had saved her mistress after she was dead. When this was known, they took her from the well and bore her to burial without the city, while Beatrix was asleep.

That night Gilbert and Dunstan lay on their cloaks within the half- broken door of the house, which could not be bolted, for they were tired, having watched by the Sepulchre all the night before that; and little Alric kept watch in the courtyard, walking up and down lest he should sleep, for the Syrian wine might have made him drowsy, and he had the whole bottle to himself. But he drank slowly and thoughtfully, and when he felt that his head was not clear, he let the wine alone, and walked up and down a long time talking to himself and warning himself to keep sober. This being accomplished, he swallowed another draught, wisely sipping it by half mouthfuls, and then walked again; and so all night, and in the dawn he was as fresh and rosy and sober as ever, but the big leathern bottle lay quite flat and disconsolate on the pavement; for he came of the old English archers, who were good men at a bowl, and steady on their legs.

In the morning Gilbert awoke and sat up, on the pavement, and as Alric came near he made a sign that he should not wake Dunstan, but let him rest. He looked at the sleeper's face, and thought how much this servant of his had suffered, being quite half as gentle by birth as he himself; and he remembered how the man had fought ever bravely, and had shed his blood, and had never taken gifts of money from his master, save for great necessity, and had asked for a sword rather than for a tunic when he had raised the riot to save Beatrix and the Queen in Nicaea; and Gilbert was ashamed that such a man, who was in truth the eldest born of a great house, should be a starving servant. So when Dunstan opened his eyes and started up at seeing his master awake, Gilbert spoke to him.

"You have fought with me," he said, "you have endured with me, we have fasted together on the march, and we have drunk of the same spring in battle while the arrows fell about us, and now, God willing, we are to be brothers, when I wed the Lady Beatrix, and but for you I should be mourning by her grave to-day. It is not meet that we should be any longer master and man, for you have gentle blood in you, of a great house."

"Sir Gilbert," murmured Dunstan, flushing darkly, "you are very kind to me, but I will not have gentlehood of a father who was a murderer and a thief."

"You prove yourself gentle by that speech," answered Gilbert. "Had he no other blood to give you than his own? Then the Lady Beatrix is also the daughter of a thief and a murderer."

"And of a lady of great lineage. That is different. I am no peer of my lady sister. But if so be that I may have a name, and be called gentle, then, sir, I pray you, beg of our sovereign in England that I may be called by a new name of my own, that my ill birth may be forgotten."

"And so I will," said Gilbert, "for it is better thus."

Afterwards he kept his word, and when she had her own again, Beatrix gave him a third share of her broad lands, to hold in fief to Gilbert Warde, though he had no rightful claim; and because he had saved her life, he was called Dunstan Le Sauveur, because he had saved her and many; and he had favour of King Henry and fought bravely, and was made a knight, and raised up an honourable race.

But on that morning in Jerusalem, in the little court, Beatrix came out, still weak and weary, and sat beside Gilbert in the shade of the wall, with her hand between his, and the light in her face.

"Gilbert," she said, when she had told him what had happened to her until then, "when I was angry and unbelieving in the Queen's chamber in Antioch, why did you turn and leave me, seeing that I was in the wrong?"

"I was angry, too," he answered simply.

But womanlike, she answered him again.

"That was foolish. You should have taken me roughly in your arms and kissed me, as you did by the river long ago. Then I should have believed you, as I do now."

"But you would not believe my words, nor the Queen's," he said, "nor even when she gave herself up to the King, to prove herself true, would you believe her."

"If men only knew!" Beatrix laughed softly her little bird laugh that had the music of a spring day.

"If men knew--what?"

"If men knew--" She paused, and blushed, and laughed again. "If men knew how women love sweet words when they are happy, and sharp deeds when they are angry! That is what I mean. I would have given my blood and the Queen's kingdom for a kiss when you left me standing there."

"I wish I had known!" exclaimed Gilbert, happy but half perplexed.

"You ought to have known," answered the girl.

Her eyebrows were raised a little with the half-pathetic look he loved, while her mouth smiled.

"I shall never understand," he said, but he began to laugh too.

"I will tell you. In the first place, I shall never be angry with you again--never! Do you believe me, Gilbert?"

"Of course I do," he answered, having nothing else to say.

"Very well. But if I ever should be--"

"But you just said that you never would be!"

"I know; but if I should--just once--then take me in your arms, and say nothing, but kiss me as you did that day by the river."

"I understand," he said. "Are you angry now?" But he was laughing.

"Almost," she answered, glancing sideways in a smile.

"Not quite?"

"Yes, quite!" And her eyes darkened under the drooping lids.

Then he held her so close to him that she was half breathless, and kissed her till it hurt, and she turned pale again, and her eyes were closed.

(Illustration: THE WAY OF THE CROSS)

"You see," she said very faintly, "I believe you now!"

Here ends the story of Gilbert Warde's crusading; for he had reached the end of his Via Crucis in the Holy City, and had at last found peace for his soul, and light and rest for his heart, after many troubles and temptations, and after much brave fighting for the good cause of the Faith against unbelievers.

After that he fought again with the army at Damascus, and saw how the princes betrayed one another, when the Emperor Conrad had come again, so that the siege of the strong town came to naught, and the armies were scattered among the rich gardens to gather fruit and drink strong wine, while their leaders wrangled. Also at Ascalon he drew sword again, and again he saw failure hanging over all, like an evil shadow, and chilling the courage in men, so that there was murmuring, and clamouring for the homeward path. There he saw how the great armies went to ruin and fell to pieces, because, as the holy Bernard had known, there was not the faith of other days, and also because there was no great leader, as Eleanor had told the abbot himself at Vezelay; and it was a sad sight, and one to sicken the souls of good men.

But though he fought with all his might when swords were out, there was no sadness in him for all these things, for life and hope were bright before him. Little by little, too, he had heard how all the poor pilgrims left at Attalia had perished; but he knew that if he had led them, Beatrix would have died there in the court of the little house in Jerusalem, and he held her life more dear than the lives of many, whom his own could hardly have saved.

Moreover, and last of all, he had learned and understood that the cause of God lies not buried among stones in any city, not even in the most holy city of all; for the place of Christ's suffering is in men's sinful hearts, and the glory of his resurrection is the saving of a soul from death to everlasting life, in refreshment and light and peace.

 

(THE END)
(F Marion Crawford's Novel: Via Crucis)

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