An Initial Letter

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An Initial Letter  (1910) 
by Marjorie Bowen
From Harper's Magazine, Apr 1910. Illustrated by Howard Pyle


An Initial Letter


MASTER HUMPHREY looked out of his window at Chepeside.

In the garden opposite was a hawthorn in full flower, and beside it a lime tree, almost bare of leaves as yet, but full of wood-doves.

It was very warm, and Master Humphrey had the window wide open; the pale, still sun circled the chamber, gilded the dark smooth walls, the long chest that stood in a corner, carved with a procession of revellers, the table at which Master Humphrey sat, and the parchments that covered it with heavy leaves that fluttered a little in the spring breeze.

Close to his idle right hand that held a reed pen was a box of ebony and silver and over it trailed a cluster of very frail roses, white stained with pink.

Master Humphrey sighed, then yawned and gazed out of the window at the Chepe, the may, and the blue above the gabled houses.

His room was on the ground floor, and his window low, so that when he rested his elbow on the sill and leaned out he was almost in the street.

He was not a young man, nor in appearance gay, being pale and slight, and soberly dressed in olive green, but he looked at the hawthorn and sighed like a love-sick youth.

A clerk in a red hood went down the street; Master Humphrey followed the spot of color with idle eyes almost to the city gates, then set himself to writing again.

A great French book in a cover of leather touched with gold stood at his elbow; he was translating from it a celebrated romance.

Flaggingly the reed pen went up and down the vellum.

"Into ye hallo sche came
Knelt before lorde and dame
Saying In Gode hys name
Ich grete ye alle.

"And King Artour
Who is of greet valour,
Of Knyghtes ye flour,
On hym Ich calle.

"Set ye swerdes a flame,
Ich telle a heavy shame
Justyce be dulle and lame
If ye delaye.

"In a darke tour
Loathly a villian dour
Holdes in thys hour
A hygh borne may."

Master Humphrey yawned again and dropped the pen.

With an air of reflection he took up a sheet of vellum on which was drawn in red paint a large and flourishing capital letter P, finely shaped, but bare, hollow, and unadorned.

Master Humphrey looked at it ruefully, shook his head, set it down, and presently fell asleep, leaning sideways in his chair.

As the bells of the convent of St. Austin were ringing, a young squire came singing down the street.

He was tall and slender; his hair was a soft brown, his lips red, his eyes very brightly gray; he wore a clear-green doublet, one red hose and one white, a hood of blue satin, and a cloak of cramoisy. One hand he held on his hip, where a little dagger hung; he walked daintily, careful of his pointed shoes, and his manner was most joyous.

"God Himself was born in Maytime
Philomel at night, the bounting in the day time
The throstle in the even and my heart at the dawn
Bless the merrie month when God Himself was born!"

At Master Humphrey's open window he stayed his steps and his singing and looked into the mellow little chamber.

Seeing the writer was asleep, he smiled and climbed the sill gracefully to peep at the writing on the parchment.

He read over the lines with a smiling disdain, then mischievously took up the pen and added:

"Ich am tyred of Hercules and Lysander,
Of Peryceles and Alysander
Of Pereeforert and ye Salymander
Of Artour and hys courte.

"If sich a tale ye must rite
Of dragon, dame and heavy fighte,
Prey mak oure labour lighte
And thys tale shorte."

Master Humphrey woke up with the scratching of the pen, and the young squire burst out laughing.

"Master Jeffray!"

"I have been finishing thy accomplished 'rime couée' for thee," said the youth, demurely. "See how very smooth it goes—"

Master Humphrey looked.

"Now thou hast spoiled a page of parchment for me—how must I rub to get that fair again?"

"Leave it," smiled the squire; "it is as good as thine—"

"But not so pertinent to the tale."

"A silly tale!" cried the other, joyously. "Art thou not tired of such silly tales?"

"I earn good money with them," returned Master Humphrey.

"Why, so thou dost, and a pleasant way, too. I would like to write tales well enough"—he waved a fair hand—"but differently. Come out into the fields; thou art so bemused with chant royal, couplet, 'rime couée,' thou canst not see there is a better poem than ever thou stained vellum with in that fresh hawthorn facing thee."

The older man smiled indulgently.

"Peace, for God His sake; you are young and vain."

The squire caught up the ebony box and tried to see his own fair face in the polished silver fittings.

"Attend to me, Jeffray." Master Humphrey held up the unfinished capital. "See, I have to complete this—it was sent me from Burgundy."

"Burgundy!" sighed the young man. "I have been there— Oh, Venus!"

"Listen to me—one of the Duke's men did it and died; now, as it was a good skin, they have sent it to me, to write a poem and even decorate it. You have sometimes a wit—tell me what P stands for?"

Master Jefiray shook back his curls.

"By Gesu and Ovid—say Phillipa!"

The other frowned.

"It is not a love poem—"

"By charity! I do not know the word." Then he sprang over the sill into the street again and laughed over his shoulder. "I think it means 'Pleasure'—that is what the poor wight would have written—

"Pleasure is a goddess
Well beloved by me-
With bliss she comes and honeysuckle
To bind me to her knee!"

Singing as he had come, he went down the street toward the gates.

Master Humphrey mixed his saucer of colors and began to paint in, standing by the stem of the letter, a youth in green and white and red, with a chaplet of daisies round his soft locks.

While he was still bending over this a lady came past with two pages and a serving-man. She wore an amber-colored gown, a long silver veil, and a 'cote-hardie' of purple trimmed with ermine; she also stopped at the window and turned her face, like a breathing blossom, toward Master Humphrey.

"Hast thou any fresh romances since I came back from Burgundy?" she asked.

"This one, Mistress Phillipa, that a certain squire of his Grace has passed but now on his way to the fields."

"By charity!" her red mouth was scornful. "I go not there to meet him—nor any other, but to pull flowers for my lady Blanche, certes, but I have walked from the Savoy."

Master Humphrey held up the letter he worked on.

"Master Jeifray says it means 'pleasure'—so I paint him standing there."

Her glass-gray eyes became suddenly wet, like pale irises in the rain.

"He thinketh of nought but pleasure," she said, petulantly.

"Nay—first he said—Phillipa!"

"A silly jest by the rood," she declared, and pulled at the yellow curl on her breast.


"You play with him too long," admonished Master Humphrey. "Before ye both went to Burgundy with the Duke it was the same tale."

"Thou art too ready with thy romances—"

"Yet he loveth thee, Mistress Phillipa."

"Maybe," she spoke indifferently, "he is no more to me than this—"

She shook a crimson butterfly off her veil.

"Yet you break your heart for him," smiled Master Humphrey.

She leaned in through the window.

"Listen to me; I give you another meaning for your letter:

"Pride holds Love in armes two
Giveth a hundred pains and mo
Poor Love he cannot move nor go
Pride is very strong, I tell you so—"

"Shall I paint thee here also," asked Master Humphrey.

"Why," she said, "I mind not if in a picture I stand by Master Jeffray Chaucer."

She waved her hand and went on, followed by the bright liveries of Lancaster.

Master Humphrey smiled and drew in a figure of a lady with yellow hair the other side of the stem of the letter P.

Several people—priests, nuns, clerks, monks, and soldiers—went past the window, and presently came another lady who was of a very breath-taking beauty.

Master Humphrey, seeing her, bowed from the window; she was on foot and had three damsels with her.

"Mistress Sywnford," said the painter. "Your sister has just passed here."

She paused.

"Ay, the whole world goes to the field to-day. Was Master Jeffray Chaucer with her?"

"Nay; he went first."

"She is out of humor with, him, for yesterday he fell a-brawling and beat the watch."

"But being my lord's squire he escaped?"

"Oh ay," she said, heavily.

Master Humphrey looked at her curiously; she was of a golden-red loveliness, with brown eyes and drooping mouth; he had never seen her look anything but serenely or stormily sad. Her gown was pale blue, worked with little wreaths and roses of gold and silver; round her hair was a twist of velvet flowers, purple and white; over them a veil of fine tissue.

"My lord's grace is in the fields?" asked Master Humphrey.

"Yes," she said, and looked away down the Chepe.

Then suddenly she was scornful.

"By faith, thou art very peaceful here!"

"Ay," he answered. "I paint an initial letter."

He showed it to her; already it glittered with wet colors.

"Pride and pleasure," he nodded his head. "Can you think of another meaning, Mistress Sywnford?"

"Passion and pain," she answered, instantly.

At this her three damsels, who were clad severally in russet, tawny, and murry, smiled at one another behind her back.

"Make a rhyme on that," said the painter.

"I am no trouvère."

"Shall I try?" He laid down his brush and folded his arms on the parchments.

"Passion and pain be hard to fight
Good lack!
My beauty gives me no delight
Good lack!
Nor pomp of ribible and clokardè
Of low dowcemere and bombardè
Good lack!—"

"Ah!" interrupted Katherine Sywnford. "You mean to rhyme on misplaced love—"

She frowned dangerously.

Something about a king's son," answered Master Humphrey, "who had a dark face would have been in that song."

"By charity!" she cried; then she sighed. "A king's son!"

"The Duke's Grace of Lancaster is a son of kings."

"Why do you speak of him?"

"Because he is the most perfect knight I ever knew, and I have made him the hero of many a tale."

She laughed uneasily.

"Johan of Ghent is much praised and much admired. Give you good day, Master Humphrey."

Slowly and with her head held a little droopingly she passed on, and her damsels fingered their hoods and smiled at one another under quiet lids.

Master Humphrey painted in the loop of the P a lady sitting bowed, with braided hair and embroidered robe, and behind her a background of dark blue sprinkled with stars.

And while he was finishing this a company came back through the Chepe toward the Savoy.

First on a white horse with scarlet trappings rode Johan of Ghent and Lancaster, and the common people stopped under the eaves and in the gutter to watch him pass.

He wore a furred robe of gold-colored silk, a deep rose coif over his dark hair, and gloves sparkling with jewels on the back.

Beside him was the Duchess Blanche, delicate with gold locks glimmering in a net; riding a white palfrey.

They talked together very lovingly.

After came knights and squires, pages and serving-men, among them Sir Otto Sywnford whittling a rose stick.

Then Katherine and Phillipa walking slowly, the elder with her eyes on her mistress showing pale and lovely through the press, and her sister with a half-smile for Jeffray Chaucer's joyous glance as he looked over his shoulder at her petulant beauty.

Most of his company carried flowers that they had picked without the ramparts—narcissi, daffodils, cowslips, hawthorn, wild roses, eglantine, and the marguerite.

Master Humphrey looked at Johan of Ghent.

"Power would be the meaning ye would set to this," he said to himself, and his thoughts shook into rhyme as he watched the procession pass.

"Power of life and death I hold,
Of love too, I wis, and such fair things
Well may I be proud and bold
Favourite of God and heir of Kings.
Beauty and strength adorn me like fine gold.
And while the sword on my bright greaves rings
I do not think I ever can grow old.
Oh Gesu and Phœbus, these English Springs
When the sun 'gins tO' shine across the wold!"

And so they passed. And it fell very still, for it was midday.

The painter looked at his unfinished letter.

"My own meaning now," he said.

He drew a splendid knight riding away across the page with a pennon in his hand, and then above the letter over all an angel hooded and meek.

With that finished, he wrote with his reed pen dipped in brown:

"Peace comes to alle, after alle,
Longe toyle, short stryfe or strong sea.
Peace to them that ryse and them that falle,
Either in joje or miserie.
Peace at laste, beyonde ye kindly starres
Where Gode He smyles and waytes,
Looking on alle oure revelryes and warres
Short joys, sade loves and M^eary hates,
Peace for alle; after most stormy daye.
Cometh Peace which lasteth for alwaye."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1952, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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