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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVia Crucis - Chapter 5
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Via Crucis - Chapter 5 Post by :laurynm Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1566

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Via Crucis - Chapter 5


An autumn morning at dawn, the beach at Dover, the tide at flood, and a hundred half naked sailors launching a long, black Norman sea-boat bows on, over chocks through the low surf to the grey swell beyond. The little vessel had been beached by the stern, with a slack chain hooked to her sides at the water-line, and a long hawser rove through a rough fiddle-block of enormous size, and leading to a capstan set far above high-water mark and made fast by the bight of a chain to an anchor buried in the sand up to the heavy wooden stock. And now a big old man with streaming grey beard, and a skin like a salted ox-hide, was slacking the turns of the hawser from the capstan-drum as the boat moved slowly down over the well-greased chocks, stopping short now and then of her own accord, and refusing to move on till twenty stout sailors on each side, their legs half buried in the sand, their broad shoulders flattened under the planking, their thick brown hands planted upon their thighs, like so many Atlases, each bearing a world, had succeeded, by alternately straining and yielding, in making the little vessel rock on her keel, and start again toward the water's edge. On board, the master stood at the stern, ready to ship the long rudder as soon as she had taken the water. Two men in the bows took in the slack of the cable, by which the anchor had been dropped some fifty yards out, so as to keep her head straight when she should leave the temporary ways. By the mast, for the vessel had but one, stood Gilbert Warde, watching all that was done, with the profoundly ignorant interest which landsmen always show in nautical matters. It seemed very slow to him, and he wondered why the man with the long beard, far up the beach, did not let go, so that the boat might launch herself. And while he was trying to solve the problem, something happened which he could not understand: a chorus of wild yells went up from the sailors under the sides, the master in the stern threw up one hand and shouted, the old man let go and yelled back an answer, Gilbert heard a rattling of chains, and then all at once the boat gathered way, and shot like an arrow through the low curling surf, far out upon the heaving grey water beyond, while the two men in the bows got in the slack of the cable, hand over hand, like madmen, panting audibly, till at last the vessel swung off by her head and rode quietly at her anchor. An hour later, with twenty sweeps swinging rhythmically in the tholes, and a fair southwesterly breeze, the sharp-cut boat was far out in the English Channel, and before night, the wind holding fair and freshening, the master dropped anchor almost under the shadow of the Count of Flanders' castle at Calais. So Gilbert Warde left England, a wanderer, disinherited of all that should have been his, owing all that he had to Lambert de Clare, Abbot of Sheering, in the shape of mail and other armour, with such fine clothes as a young nobleman should have with him on a journey, two horses, and a purse of which the contents should last him several months on his travels. For attendants he had with him a fair-haired Saxon lad who had run away from Stoke to Sheering, and had refused to leave Gilbert, whom he looked upon as his lawful master; and there was with him, too, a dark-skinned youth of his own age, a foundling, christened Dunstan by the monks after a saint of their order, brought up and taught at the abbey, who seemed to know neither whose child he was nor whence he came, but could by no means be induced to enter the novitiate so long as the world had room for wanderers and adventurers. He was a gifted fellow, quick to learn and tenacious to remember, speaking Latin and Norman French and English Saxon as well as any monk in the abbey, quick of hand and light of foot, with daring black eyes in which the pupils could hardly be found, while the whites were of a cold, blue grey and often bloodshot; and he had short, straight black hair, and a face that made one think of a young falcon. He had begged so hard to be allowed to go with Gilbert, and it was so evident that he was not born to wear out a church pavement with his knees, that the abbot had given his consent. During the last weeks before Gilbert's departure, when he was hourly gaining strength and could no longer bear to be shut up within the walls of the convent, he had made a companion of Dunstan, walking and riding with him, for the fellow could ride, and sometimes entering into long arguments with him about matters of belief and conscience and honour, and the two had become attached to each other by their unlikeness; not precisely as friends and equals, yet by no means as master and man; it was rather the sort of relation which often existed between knight and squire, though the two were of the same age, and though Gilbert had no immediate prospect of winning knightly spurs.

It would have been hard, however, to admit that Dunstan could ever develop into a knight himself. There were strange little blanks in his ideas of chivalry, curious, unfeeling spots in his moral organization, which indicated another race, another inheritance of thought, the traditions of a world older and less simple than the one in which Gilbert had been brought up.

For Gilbert was the type of noble youth in the days when the light of chivalry had dawned upon an age of violence, but was not yet fully risen. God, honour, woman--these made up the simple trinity of a knight's belief and reverence, from the moment when the Church began to make an order of fighting men, with ceremonies and obligations of their own, thereby forever binding together the great conceptions of true Christianity and true nobility.

In the absence of anything like real learning among the laymen of those days, education in its simplest and most original sense played a very large part in life, and Gilbert had acquired that sort of culture in its highest and best form. The object of mere instruction is to impart learning for some distinct purpose, but most chiefly, perhaps, in order that it may be a means of earning a livelihood. The object of education is to make men, to produce the character of the man of honour, to give men the inward grace of the gentleman, which cannot manifest itself outwardly save in good manners, modesty of bearing, and fearlessness; and such things in earlier days were profoundly associated in the minds of men with the inward principles and the outward rites of Christianity. It was the perfect simplicity, and in a measure the ample harmony, of beliefs, principles, and rules of action that made life possible at all at a time when the modern art of government was in its earliest infancy, when the idea of a constitution had been lost in the chaos of the dark ages, and when the direction of kingdoms, principalities, and societies was a purely personal matter, wholly dependent upon individual talent or caprice, virtue or vice, charity or greed. Without some such foundation in the character of the times, society, the world, and the Church must have fallen a prey to the devouring ambitions of that most horrible of human monsters, the princely unbeliever of the middle ages, who flourished again and again, sporadically, from England to Constantinople, from Paris to Rome, but who almost invariably ended in disastrous failure, overcome and trodden down by the steadily advancing morality of mankind. Such men were John the Twelfth, of the evil race of Theodora in Rome, and the Jewish Pierleone who lived a hundred years later, and King John of England, and last and greatest of all, perhaps, as he was most certainly the worst, Caesar Borgia.

To be a gentleman when Henry Plantagenet was a boy of twelve, and Gilbert Warde was going to the Duke of Normandy's court, implied not many gifts, few principles, and two or three accomplishments at most; but it meant the possession of those simple requirements in their very best accepted form, and that species of thoroughness in a few matters which has been at the root of social superiority in all ages. We have heard of amateur artists, amateur soldiers, amateur statesmen; but no one has ever heard of an amateur gentleman. Gilbert Warde knew little Latin beyond the few prayers taught him by the manor priest at Stoke; but in the efficacy of those prayers he believed with all his heart and soul. The Norman French language of the nobles in England was no longer that of their more refined cousins over the water; but though his tongue betrayed him for an Englishman, Gilbert had the something which was of more worth among his equals than a French accent--the grace, the unaffected ease, the straightforward courtesy, which are bred in bone and blood, like talent or genius, but which reach perfection only in the atmosphere to which they belong, and among men and women who have them in the same degree. Possessing belief and good manners, the third essential was skill in arms, and, as has been seen, Gilbert was a match for a swordsman of considerable reputation. The only absolutely necessary accomplishment for a gentleman in his day was a thorough knowledge of the chase as a fine art in all its branches, from falconry to boar-hunting, and in this respect Gilbert was at least the equal of the average young noble. In spite of his youth, he was therefore thoroughly equipped for the world; and besides the advantages here set forth, he had the very great one of feeling that, although he might be going among strangers, he was going to meet men all brought up to act and think like himself, in the belief that their ways of acting and thinking were very much better than those of other people.

But as he rode along the dunes, he was not reflecting upon his own gifts or prospects. His life was strange to him by its sudden and complete change, from an existence of more or less peaceful enjoyment, in which the certainty of fortune, local dignity, and unthwarted love made the idea of ambition look empty and foolish, to the state of possessing only a pair of good horses, good weapons, and a little ready money, with which to lay siege to the universe. Yet even that wide difference of conditions was insignificant beside the deeper and sadder misfortunes upon which the young man brooded as he rode, and which had already embittered his young existence by the destruction of his highest and most beautiful illusion and of his dearest and happiest hope.

In the fall of his mother's image from the altar upon which he had set it, there was the absolute destruction of his own past childhood as it had always appeared to him. In the fearful illumination of her true nature, in the broad glare of evil, the little good there might have been had faded to nothing. It was not possible that she who had married her husband's murderer within the month could ever have felt one sincere impulse of love for Raymond Warde, nor that she could ever have known the slightest real affection for the son whom she had first left to his fate, and then treacherously cheated of his birthright. The temple where she had been was still in his heart and mourned her in emptiness. For nothing else had taken the place of her there; she was not transformed, she was gone, and had taken with her a lifetime of tender and gentle memories. When his inward eyes sought her they found nothing, and their light was quenched in her darkness. She was not as his father was, dead in fact, but dead in honour. There he lay, as Gilbert had last looked upon his white face and stiff, mailed form, himself still, himself as he had been in life and as he was thereafter, in that place of peace and refreshment where brave men rest. In the quiet features was reflected forever the truth whereby his life had been lived; in the crossed hands upon the breast was the last outward symbol and sign of the simple faith that had been life's guide; in the strong, straight outlines of a strength splendid in death was the record of strong deeds well done. Alive, he had been to his son the man of all others; dead, he was still the man of men, without peer and without like. It mattered not that he was silent, for he had spoken the truth; that he was as motionless as a stone, for the cold hand had been swift to thrust and smite, and had dealt unforgotten blows in a good cause; that he was deaf, for he had heard the cry of the weak, and had forborne; that he was blind, for his eyes had seen the light of victory and had looked unflinching upon an honourable death. Loyal, true, brave, strong, he lay in his son's heart, still at all points himself. And Gilbert turned his mind's eyes to the darkness on the other side, and many a time, as the unwept tears burned in his brain, he wished that his mother were lying there too, beside his father, dead in the body but alive forever to him in that which is undying in woman; to be cherished still, still honoured; to be loved, and still obeyed in the memory of precept and teaching; to be his mother always, and he to be in thought her child, even until the grey years should be upon him, and the Bridge of Fear in sight.

Instead, as his thoughts went back to his home, the woman herself faced him, not as he had always seen her, but as she had been sometimes seen by others. The deed she had done--the greatest, the worst, the most irrevocable--was in her face, and Gilbert's unconscious memory brought back the details his love of her had once rejected. The cold face was as hard as flint, the deep blue eyes were untrue and unbelieving, the small red lips were scornfully parted to show the cruel little teeth, and there were dashes of flame in the russet hair. Better she had been dead, better a thousand times that she had come to the sharp end before her time, than that such a face should be her son's only memory of his mother.

The lines of the image had been etched in the weak places of his heart with the keen point of his first grief, and the biting acid of a new and unnatural hate was eating them deeper day by day. And when, in spite of himself, his mind dwelt upon her and understood that he was cursing her who had borne him, he turned back in sheer despair to the thought of a religious life.

But though it drew him and appealed to all in his nature which had been uppermost when death had almost tripped him into his grave, it spoke but half a language now, and was less than half convincing. He could understand well enough that the monastery might hold the only life for men who had fought through many failures, from light to darkness, from happiness to sorrow--men who loved nothing, hoped nothing, hated nothing any longer, in the great democracy of despair. They sought peace as the only earthly good they might enjoy, and there was peace in the cloister. Hope being dead in life, they tasted refreshment in the hope of a life to come. The convent was good enough for the bankrupt of love and war. But there must be another rule for those in whom youth was wounded but not dead, whose hearts were offended but not slain, whose blood was still strong and hot for good and evil, for men whose battles were before them still. There must be a remedy against fate which should not be an offence to God, a struggle against God's will which should not be a revolt, a life in which virtue should not mean a prison for soul and body, nor the hope of salvation a friar's cell.

Like many enthusiasts, knowing nothing of the world save by guesswork, and full of an inborn belief in the existence of perfection, Gilbert dreamed of realizing the harmony of two opposites--the religious life and the life of the world. Such dreams seemed not so wild in those days, when the very idea of knighthood was based upon them, and when many brave and true men came near to making them seem anything but fanciful, and practised virtue in a rough-and-ready fashion which would not pass muster in modern society, though it might in heaven. The religious idea had taken hold of Gilbert strongly, and before he had left the abbey he had fallen into the habit of attending most of the offices in the choir, still wearing the novice's frock which had been at first but an invalid's robe. And now that he was out in the world to seek his fortunes, tunic and hose, spur and glove, seemed strange to him, and he would have felt more at home in a friar's hood. So he felt that in his life he should never again quite lose the monastic instinct, and that it was well for him that he could not. He stood on that perilous thin ridge between past and future to which almost every man of heart is sooner or later led by fate, where every step may mean a fall, and where to fall is almost to be lost. The things he had lived for, the things he had hoped, the things he had loved, had been taken from him violently, and all at once. There was neither clue, nor guide, nor hope, and on each side of him yawned the hideous attraction of despair. Even the recollections of a first love were veiled by what he understood to be the irrevocable interdiction of the Church, and, in his strongly spiritual mood, to think of Beatrix appeared to him like a temptation to mortal sin.

In leaving England, without any definite aim, but with a vague intention of making his way to Jerusalem, he had obeyed the Abbot of Sheering rather than followed friendly advice, and his obedience had savoured strongly of the monastic rule. Lambert de Clare, a man of the world before he had become a churchman, and a man of heart before he was a ruler of monks, had understood Gilbert's state well enough, and had forced the best remedy upon him. The cure for a broken heart, if there be any, is not in solitude and prayer, but in facing the wounds and stings of the world's life; and the abbot had almost forcibly thrust his young friend out to live like other men of his order, while suggesting a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a means of satisfying his religious cravings. As for the material help which Gilbert had received, it was no shame, in an age not sordid, for a penniless gentleman to accept both gifts and money from a rich and powerful person like the Abbot of Sheering, in the certainty of carving out such fortune with his own hands as should enable him amply to repay the loan. So far as his immediate destination was concerned, the abbot, who considered his house to be vastly superior to political dissension, and secretly laughed at his cousins for supporting King Stephen's upstart cause, had advised Gilbert to make his way directly to the court of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy, and Grand Seneschal of France, the husband of the Empress Maud, rightful Queen of England. Thither he was riding, therefore, with Dunstan on his left hand, mounted upon his second horse, while Alric, the sturdy little Saxon groom and archer, rode behind them on a stout mule laden with Gilbert's possessions.

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CHAPTER IV Two months after Sir Arnold de Curboil had left Gilbert Warde in the forest, believing him to be dead, the ghostly figure of a tall, wafer- thin youth, leaning on the shoulders of two grey brothers, was led out into the warm shadows of the cloister in Sheering Abbey. One of the friars carried a brown leathern cushion, the other a piece of stiff parchment for a fan, and when they reached the first stone seat, they installed the sick man as comfortably as they could. Three travelling monks, tramping homeward by the short forest path from Harlow to