The White Company/Chapter V
HOW A STRANGE COMPANY GATHERED AT THE ' PIED MERLIN'
The night had already fallen, and the moon was shining between the rifts of ragged drifting clouds, before Alleyne Edricson, footsore and weary from the unwonted exercise, found himself in front of the forest inn which stood upon the outskirts of Lyndhurst. The building was long and low, standing back a little from the road, with two flambeaux blazing on either side of the door as a welcome to the traveller. From one window there thrust forth a long pole with a bunch of greenery tied to the end of it—a sign that liquor was to be sold within. As Alleyne walked up to it he perceived that it was rudely fashioned out of beams of wood, with twinkling lights all over where the glow from within shone through the chinks. The roof was poor and thatched; but in strange contrast to it there ran all along under the eaves a line of wooden shields, most gorgeously painted with chevron, bend, saltire, and every heraldic device. By the door a horse stood tethered, the ruddy glow beating strongly upon his brown head and patient eyes, while his body stood back in the shadow.
Alleyne stood still in the roadway for a few minutes reflecting upon what he should do. It was, he knew, only a few miles further to Minstead, where his brother dwelt. On the other hand, he had never seen this brother since childhood, and the reports which had come to his ears concerning him were seldom to his advantage. By all accounts he was a hard and a bitter man. It might be an evil start to come to his door so late and claim the shelter of his roof. Better to sleep here at this inn, and then travel on to Minstead in the morning. If his brother would take him in, well and good. He would bide with him for a time and do what he might to serve him. If, on the other hand, he should have hardened his heart against him, he could only go on his way and do the best he might by his skill as a craftsman and a scrivener. At the end of a year he would be free to return to the cloisters, for such had been his father's bequest. A monkish upbringing, one year in the world after the age of twenty, and then a free selection one way or the other—it was a strange course which had been marked out for him. Such as it was, however, he had no choice but to follow it, and if he were to begin by making a friend of his brother he had best wait until morning before he knocked at his dwelling.
The rude plank door was ajar, but as Alleyne approached it there came from within such a gust of rough laughter and clatter of tongues that he stood irresolute upon the threshold. Summoning courage, however, and reflecting that it was a public dwelling, in which he had as much right as any other man, he pushed it open and stepped into the common room.
Though it was an autumn evening and somewhat warm, a huge fire of heaped billets of wood crackled and sparkled in a broad, open grate, some of the smoke escaping up a rude chimney, but the greater part rolling out into the room, so that the air was thick with it, and a man coming from without could scarce catch his breath. On this fire a great caldron bubbled and simmered, giving forth a rich and promising smell. Seated round it were a dozen or so folk, of all ages and conditions, who set up such a shout as Alleyne entered that he stood peering at them through the smoke, uncertain what this riotous greeting might portend.
'A rouse! A rouse!' cried one rough-looking fellow in a tattered jerkin. 'One more round of mead or ale and the score to the last comer.'
''Tis the law of the "Pied Merlin,"' shouted another.
'Ho, there, Dame Eliza! Here is fresh custom come to the house, and not a drain for the company.'
'I will take your orders, gentles; I will assuredly take your orders,' the landlady answered, bustling in with her hands full of leathern drinking-cups. 'What is it that you drink, then? Beer for the lads of the forest, mead for the gleeman, strong waters for the tinker, and wine for the rest. It is an old custom of the house, young sir. It has been the use at the "Pied Merlin" this many a year back that the company should drink to the health of the last comer. Is it your pleasure to humour it?'
'Why, good dame,' said Alleyne, 'I would not offend the customs of your house, but it is only sooth when I say that my purse is a thin one. As far as two pence will go, however, I shall be right glad to do my part.'
'Plainly said and bravely spoken, my sucking friar,' roared a deep voice, and a heavy hand fell upon Alleyne's shoulder. Looking up, he saw beside him his former cloister companion, the renegade monk, Hordle John.
'By the thorn of Glastonbury! ill days are coming upon Beaulieu,' said he. 'Here they have got rid in one day of the only two men within their walls—for I have had mine eyes upon thee, youngster, and I know that for all thy baby-face there is the making of a man in thee. Then there is the Abbot, too. I am no friend of his, nor he of mine; but he has warm blood in his veins. He is the only man left among them. The others, what are they?'
'They are holy men,' Alleyne answered gravely.
'Holy men? Holy cabbages! Holy bean-pods! What do they do but live and suck in sustenance and grow fat? If that be holiness, I could show you hogs in this forest who are fit to head the Calendar. Think you it was for such a life that this good arm was fixed upon my shoulder, or that head placed upon your neck? There is work in the world, man, and it is not by hiding behind stone walls that we shall do it.'
'Why, then, did you join the brothers?' asked Alleyne.
'A fair enough question; but it is as fairly answered. I joined them because Margery Alspaye, of Bolder, married Crooked Thomas of Eingwood, and left a certain John of Hordle in the cold, for that he was a ranting, roving blade who was not to be trusted in wedlock. That was why, being fond and hot-headed, I left the world; and that is why, having had time to take thought, I am right glad to find myself back in it once more. Ill betide the day that ever I took off my yeoman's jerkin to put on the white gown!'
Whilst he was speaking the landlady came in again, bearing a broad platter, upon which stood all the beakers and flagons charged to the brim with the brown ale or the ruby wine. Behind her came a maid with a high pile of wooden plates, and a great sheaf of spoons, one of which she handed round to each of the travellers. Two of the company, who were dressed in the weather-stained green doublet of foresters, lifted the big pot off the fire, and a third, with a huge pewter ladle, served out a portion of steaming collops to each guest. Alleyne bore his share and his ale-mug away with him to a retired trestle in the corner, where he could sup in peace and watch the strange scene, which was so different to those silent and well-ordered meals to which he was accustomed.
The room was not unlike a stable. The low ceiling, smoke-blackened and dingy, was pierced by several square trap-doors with rough-hewn ladders leading up to them. The walls of bare unpainted planks were studded here and there with great wooden pins, placed at irregular intervals and heights, from which hung overtunics, wallets, whips, bridles, and saddles. Over the fireplace were suspended six or seven shields of wood, with coats-of-arms rudely daubed upon them, which showed by their varying degrees of smokiness and dirt that they had been placed there at different periods. There was no furniture, save a single long dresser covered with coarse crockery, and a number of wooden benches and trestles, the legs of which sank deeply into the soft clay floor, while the only light, save that of the fire, was furnished by three torches stuck in sockets on the wall, which flickered and crackled giving forth a strong resinous odour. All this was novel and strange to the cloister-bred youth; but most interesting of all was the motley circle of guests who sat eating their collops round the blaze. They were a humble group of wayfarers, such as might have been found that night in any inn through the length and breadth of England; but to him they represented that vague world against which he had been so frequently and so earnestly warned. It did not seem to him from what he could see of it to be such a very wicked place after all.
Three or four of the men round the fire were evidently under-keepers and verderers from the forest, sunburned and bearded, with the quick restless eye and lithe movements of the deer among which they lived. Close to the corner of the chimney sat a middle-aged gleeman, clad in a faded garb of Norwich cloth, the tunic of which was so outgrown that it did but fasten at the neck and at the waist. His face was swollen and coarse, and his watery protruding eyes spoke of a life which never wandered very far from the wine-pot. A gilt harp, blotched with many stains and with two of its strings missing, was tucked under one of his arms, while with the other he scooped greedily at his platter. Next to him sat two other men of about the same age, one with a trimming of fur to his coat, which gave him a dignity which was evidently dearer to him than his comfort, for he still drew it round him in spite of the hot glare of the faggots. The other, clad in a dirty russet suit with a long sweeping doublet, had a cunning foxy face with keen twinkling eyes and a peaky beard. Next to him sat Hordle John, and beside him three other rough unkempt fellows with tangled beards and matted hair—free labourers from the adjoining farms, where small patches of freehold property had been suffered to remain scattered about in the heart of the royal demesne. The company was completed by a peasant in a rude dress of undyed sheepskin, with the old-fashioned galligaskins about his legs, and a gaily dressed young man with striped cloak jagged at the edges and parti-coloured hosen, who looked about him with high disdain upon his face, and held a blue smelling-flask to his nose with one hand, while he brandished a busy spoon with the other. In the corner a very fat man was lying all asprawl upon a truss, snoring stertorously, and evidently in the last stage of drunkenness.
'That is Wat the Limner,' quoth the landlady, sitting down beside Alleyne, and pointing with the ladle to the sleeping man. 'That is he who paints the signs and the tokens. Alack and alas that ever I should have been fool enough to trust him! Now, young man, what manner of a bird would you suppose a pied merlin to be—that being the proper sign of my hostel?'
'Why,' said Alleyne, 'a merlin is a bird of the same form as an eagle or a falcon. I can well remember that learned brother Bartholomew, who is deep in all the secrets of Nature, pointed one out to me as we walked together near Vinney Ridge.'
'A falcon, or an eagle, quotha? And pied, that is of two several colours. So any man would say except this barrel of lies. He came to me, look you, saying that if I would furnish him with a gallon of ale, wherewith to strengthen himself as he worked, and also the pigments and a board, he would paint for me a noble pied merlin which I might hang along with the blazonry over my door. I, poor simple fool, gave him the ale and all that he cared, leaving him alone too, because he said that a man's mind must be left untroubled when he had great work to do. When I came back the gallon jar was empty, and he lay as you see him, with the board in front of him with this sorry device.' She raised up a panel which was leaning against the wall, and showed a rude painting of a scraggy and angular fowl, with very long legs and a spotted body.
'Was that,' she asked, 'like the bird which thou hast seen?'
Alleyne shook his head, smiling.
'No, nor any other bird that ever wagged a feather. It is most like a plucked pullet which has died of the spotted fever. And scarlet, too! What would the gentles, Sir Nicholas Borhunte, or Sir Bernard Brocas, of Roche Court say if they saw such a thing—or, perhaps, even the king's own majesty himself, who often has ridden past this way, and who loves his falcons as he loves his sons? It would be the downfall of my house.'
'The matter is not past mending,' said Alleyne. 'I pray you, good dame, to give me those three pigment-pots and the brush, and I shall try whether I cannot better this painting.'
Dame Eliza looked doubtfully at him, as though fearing some other stratagem, but, as he made no demand for ale, she finally brought the paints, and watched him as he smeared on his background, talking the while about the folk round the fire.
'The four forest lads must be jogging soon,' she said. 'They bide at Emery Down, a mile or more from here. Yeomen-prickers they are, who tend to the king's hunt. The gleeman is called Floyting Will. He comes from the north country, but for many years he hath gone the round of the forest from Southampton to Christchurch. He drinks much and pays little; but it would make your ribs crackle to hear him sing the "Jest of Hendy Tobias." Mayhap he will sing it when the ale has warmed him.'
'"Who are those next to him?' asked Alleyne, much interested. 'He of the fur mantle has a wise and reverent face.'
'He is a seller of pills and salves, very learned in humours, and rheums, and fluxes, and all manner of ailments. He wears, as you perceive, the vernicle of Sainted Luke, the first physician, upon his sleeve. May good St. Thomas of Kent grant that it may be long before either I or mine need his help! He is here to-night for herbergage, as are the others, except the foresters. His neighbour is a tooth-drawer. That bag at his girdle is full of the teeth that he drew at Winchester fair. I warrant that there are more sound ones than sorry, for he is quick at his work and a trifle dim in the eye. The lusty man next him with the red head I have not seen before. The four on this side are all workers, three of them in the service of the bailiff of Sir Baldwin Redvers, and the other, he with the sheepskin, is, as I hear, a villein from the midlands who hath run from his master. His year and day are well-nigh up, when he will be a free man.'
'And the other?' asked Alleyne in a whisper. 'He is surely some very great man, for he looks as though he scorned those who were about him.'
The landlady looked at him in a motherly way and shook her head. 'You have had no great truck with the world,' she said, 'or you would have learned that it is the small men and not the great who hold their noses in the air. Look at those shields upon my wall and under my eaves. Each of them is the device of some noble lord or gallant knight who hath slept under my roof at one time or another. Yet milder men or easier to please I have never seen: eating my bacon and drinking my wine with a merry face, and paying my score with some courteous word or jest which was dearer to me than my profit. Those are the true gentles. But your chapman or your bearward will swear that there is a lime in the wine, and water in the ale, and fling off at the last with a curse instead of a blessing. This youth is a scholar from Cambrig, where men are wont to be blown out by a little knowledge, and lose the use of their hands in learning the laws of the Romans. But I must away to lay down the beds. So may the saints keep you and prosper you in your undertaking!'
Thus left to himself, Alleyne drew his panel of wood where the light of one of the torches would strike full upon it, and worked away with all the pleasure of the trained craftsman, listening the while to the talk which went on round the fire. The peasant in the skeepskins, who had sat glum and silent all evening, had been so heated by his flagon of ale that he was talking loudly and angrily with clenched hands and flashing eyes.
'Sir Humphrey Tennant of Ashby may till his own fields for me,' he cried. 'The castle has thrown its shadow upon the cottage over long. For three hundred years my folk have swinked and sweated, day in and day out, to keep the wine on the lord's table and the harness on the lord's back. Let him take off his plates and delve himself, if delving must be done.'
'A proper spirit, my fair son!' said one of the free labourers. 'I would that all men were of thy way of thinking.'
'He would have sold me with his acres,' the other cried, in a voice which was hoarse with passion. '"The man, the woman, and their litter"—so ran the words of the dotard bailiff. Never a bullock on the farm was sold more lightly. Ha! he may wake some black night to find the flames licking about his ears—for fire is a good friend to the poor man, and I have seen a smoking heap of ashes where overnight there stood just such another castlewick as Ashby.'
'This is a lad of metal!' shouted another of the labourers. 'He dares to give tongue to what all men think. Are we not all from Adam's loins, all with flesh and blood, and with the same mouth that must needs have food and drink? Where all this difference, then, between the ermine cloak and the leathern tunic, if what they cover is the same?'
'Aye, Jenkin,' said another, 'our foeman is under the stole and the vestment as much as under the helmet and plate of proof. We have as much to fear from the tonsure as from the hauberk. Strike at the noble and the priest shrieks, strike at the priest and the noble lays his hand upon glaive. They are twin thieves who live upon our labour.'
'It would take a clever man to live upon thy labour, Hugh,' remarked one of the foresters, 'seeing that the half of thy time is spent in swilling mead at the "Pied Merlin."'
'Better that than stealing the deer that thou art placed to guard, like some folk I know.'
'If you dare open that swine's mouth against me,' shouted the woodman, 'I'll crop your ears for you before the hangman has the doing of it, thou long-jawed lackbrain.'
'Nay, gentles, gentles!' cried Dame Eliza, in a singsong, heedless voice, which showed that such bickerings were nightly things among her guests. 'No brawling or brabbling, gentles! Take heed to the good name of the house.'
'Besides, if it comes to the cropping of ears, there are other folk who may say their say,' quoth the third labourer. 'We are all freemen, and I trow that a yeoman's cudgel is as good as a forester's knife. By St. Anselm! it would be an evil day if we had to bend to our masters' servants as well as to our masters.'
'No man is my master save the king,' the woodman answered. 'Who is there, save a false traitor, who would refuse to serve the English king?'
'I know not about the English king,' said the man Jenkin. 'What sort of English king is it who cannot lay his tongue to a word of English? You mind last year when he came down to Malwood, with his inner marshal and his outer marshal, bis justiciar, his seneschal, and his four-and-twenty guardsmen. One noontide I was by Franklin Swinton's gate, when up he rides with a yeoman-pricker at his heels. "Ouvre," he cried, "ouvre," or some such word, making sign for me to open the gate; and then "Merci," as though he were adrad of me. And you talk of an English king!'
'I do not marvel at it,' cried the Cambrig scholar, speaking in the high drawling voice which was common among his class. 'It is not a tongue for men of sweet birth and delicate upbringing. It is a foul, snorting, snarling manner of speech. For myself, I swear by the learned Polycarp that I have most ease with Hebrew, and after that perchance with Arabian.'
'I will not hear a word said against old King Ned,' cried Hordle John in a voice like a bull. 'What if he is fond of a bright eye and a saucy face? I know one of his subjects who could match him at that. If he cannot speak like an Englishman, I trow that he can fight like an Englishman; and he was hammering at the gates of Paris while alehouse topers were grutching and grumbling at home.'
This loud speech, coming from a man of so formidable an appearance, somewhat daunted the disloyal party, and they fell into a sullen silence, which enabled Alleyne to hear something of the talk which was going on in the farther corner between the physician, the tooth-drawer, and the gleeman.
'A raw rat,' the man of drugs was saying, 'that is what it is ever my use to order for the plague—a raw rat with its paunch cut open.'
'Might it not be broiled, most learned sir?' asked the tooth-drawer. 'A raw rat sounds a most sorry and cheerless dish.'
'Not to be eaten,' cried the physician, in high disdain. 'Why should any man eat such a thing?'
'Why, indeed?' asked the gleeman, taking a long drain at his tankard.
'It is to be placed on the sore or swelling. For the rat, mark you, being a foul-living creature, hath a natural drawing or affinity for all foul things, so that the noxious humours pass from the man into the unclean beast.'
'Would that cure the black death, master?' asked Jenkin.
'Aye, truly would it, my fair son.'
'Then I am right glad that there were none who knew of it. The black death is the best friend that ever the common folk had in England.'
'How that then?' asked Hordle John.
'Why, friend, it is easy to see that you have not worked with your hands, or you would not need to ask. When half the folk in the country were dead it was then that the other half could pick and choose who they would work for, and for what wage. That is why I say that the murrain was the best friend that the borel folk ever had.'
'True, Jenkin,' said another workman; 'but it is not all good that is brought by it either. We well know that through it corn land has been turned into pasture, so that flocks of sheep with perchance a single shepherd wander now where once a hundred men had work and wage.'
'There is no great harm in that,' remarked the tooth-drawer, 'for the sheep give many folk their living. There is not only the herd, but the shearer and brander, and then the dresser, the curer, the dyer, the fuller, the Webster, the merchant, and a score of others.'
'If it come to that,' said one of the foresters, 'the tough meat of them will wear folks' teeth out, and there is a trade for the man who can draw them.'
A general laugh followed this sally at the dentist's expense, in the midst of which the gleeman placed his battered harp upon his knee, and began to pick out a melody upon the frayed strings.
'Elbow room for Floyting Will!' cried the woodmen. 'Twang us a merry lilt.'
'Aye, aye, the "Lasses of Lancaster,"' one suggested.
'Or "St. Simeon and the Devil."'
'Or the "Jest of Hendy Tobias."'
To all these suggestions the jongleur made no response, but sat with his eye fixed abstractedly upon the ceiling, as one who calls words to his mind. Then, with a sudden sweep across the strings, he broke out into a song so gross and so foul that ere he had finished a verse the pure-minded lad sprang to his feet with the blood tingling in his face.
'How can you sing such things?' he cried. 'You, too, an old man who should be an example to others.'
The wayfarers all gazed in the utmost astonishment at the interruption.
'By the holy Dicon of Hampole! our silent clerk has found his tongue,' said one of the woodmen. 'What is amiss with the song then? How has it offended your babyship?'
'A milder and better mannered song hath never been heard within these walls,' cried another. 'What sort of talk is this for a public inn?'
'Shall it be a litany, my good clerk?' shouted a third; 'or would a hymn be good enough to serve?'
The jongleur had put down his harp in high dudgeon. 'Am I to be preached to by a child?' he cried, staring across at Alleyne with an inflamed and angry countenance. 'Is a hairless infant to raise his tongue against me, when I have sung in every fair from Tweed to Trent, and have twice been named aloud by the High Court of the Minstrels at Beverley? I shall sing no more to-night.'
'Nay, but you will so,' said one of the labourers. 'Hi! Dame Eliza, bring a stoup of your best to Will to clear his throat. Go forward with thy song, and if our girl-faced clerk does not love it he can take to the road and go whence he came.'
'Nay, but not too fast,' broke in Hordle John. 'There are two words in this matter. It may be that my little comrade has been over quick in reproof, he having gone early into the cloisters and seen little of the rough ways and words of the world. Yet there is truth in what he says, for, as you know well, the song was not of the cleanest. I shall stand by him, therefore, and he shall neither be put out on the road, nor shall his ears be offended indoors.'
'Indeed, your high and mighty grace,' sneered one of the yeomen, 'have you in sooth so ordained?'
'By the Virgin!' said a second, 'I think that you may both chance to find yourselves upon the road before long.'
'And so belaboured as to be scarce able to crawl along it,' cried a third.
'Nay, I shall go! I shall go!' said Alleyne hurriedly, as Hordle John began to slowly roll up his sleeve, and bare an arm like a leg of mutton. 'I would not have you brawl about me.'
'Hush, lad!' he whispered, 'I count them not a fly. They may find they have more tow on their distaff than they know how to spin. Stand thou clear and give me space.'
Both the foresters and the labourers had risen from their bench, and Dame Eliza and the travelling doctor had flung themselves between the two parties with soft words and soothing gestures, when the door of the 'Pied Merlin' was flung violently open, and the attention of the company was drawn from their own quarrel to the new-comer who had burst so unceremoniously upon them.