This story takes place in the England of the Middle Ages, specifically during the months from June 1382 to February 1383. The year 1381 had seen the upheaval and apparent fruitlessness of the Peasants’ Revolt, and the beginning of the Lollard movement that was to be strong for the next fifty years or more, with far-reaching influence. John Wycliffe had already faced persecution and retired to Lutterworth, and his “Poor Priests” with their English Bibles were slowly beginning to be seen about the countryside and in the towns. The terrible years of the Black Death (1348-1349) were close enough to be a horror still, and the plague had visited enough since then to be an ever-threatening reality. The established church was corrupt, sterile, hypocritical, and wealthy, while the commons were poor, and misery of every sort walked abroad. Still, the hearts of many were full of courage and a simple faith, and certainly the vision then of brotherhood and Christ’s truth catches our eye even through the intervening centuries.
COLCHESTER WAS AN ANCIENT TOWN, full of memories. The Celts had first settled there. Buried under its fourteenth-century cobbles were the coins and pagan graves of Rome; the Norman keep had been built partly of Roman stone, and the streets followed the old pattern. Its heroine was Queen Boadicea. Its spirit was independent; it bred rebels like Wat Tyler and John Ball, and was to become a stronghold of Lollardism in the 1400s. It lay close enough to the coast to have a sense of blue distance and far places; from time to time strange mariners appeared in its markets, come up from the Hythe to see a foreign town; and the gulls followed the River Colne up from the sea to wheel and cry over the marshy meadows by the Middle Mill and the King’s Lands, reminding the land-bound citizens that not so far away was the end of the world they knew and the beginning of the unknown.
It was a sturdy town, and lively, allotted five yearly fairs, ten parishes with a cheerful mingling of bells, the Abbey of St. John prosperous and handsome just outside the walls, and a leper hospital at a healthy distance. Lord Fitz-Walter rode in from Lexden now and then and made a stir in the streets. If one went in and out at Head Gate on the south side of the wall, one could see the windmill wheeling down on the Bishop’s Fields. The river was a constant element; the three water mills clacked away from dawn till late afternoon, and the tanners and fullers toiled on its banks, while the wind often blew laden with the smell of old fish and drying nets. Many a tidy garden had its paths paved with the bleached white of oyster shells, some from the ancient heaps left by the Romans.
There were such shells on the paths in Simon Beston’s garden, crushed and broken almost to a powder now, but he had never wondered whose ingenious rake had dragged them up from the river bottom, or whose hands had prized them open, with a tool long since lost. Other men’s labors he gave little heed to, especially that centuries old, for he was deeply wrapped by his own, care-ridden and joyless, prosperous and proud, lonely as the heron that stood long hours in the marshes below the Lower Mill but, unlike the heron, with no young to whom to carry home the trophy. He was obscure and nameless, yet was one of a new man in England, enterprising and independent, shrewd and industrious, with a quiet, steady eye to his own outward welfare. As for what happened inwardly, Mass and the confession and communion at Easter took care of that, he told himself. Though now and then, especially with the dawn when something woke him, doubt like a great, gray abyss would loom under him, and he would feel himself swing out over it, helpless in terror. Sweating, he would scramble out of his massive bed to cling to the window sill, gazing over the garden and pastureland to St. Botolph’s and beyond it to the mistily rising towers of St. John’s Abbey. Such times were few, but they left him shaken and questioning for a day or two till the accustomed rounds and the press of business swept over him and carried him on uncaring.
But that doubt was a hidden jewel set deep in his mind, and now and then it caught the light to burn forth clear and undeniable. Perhaps that was why the heart had leaped when he had heard John Ball preach some ten years ago now, on pride and lechery and covetousness and sloth, thundering out against the church itself and calling all humble and true men to link hands as brothers and rise together; but John Ball went on his way and the jeweled fire died amid Simon’s own sorrows. Now and then he heard the name of the priest, with a little flicker deep inside, and then in the mutinous, terrible times of the uprising— Simon had drawn the shutters close, stopped his ears, covered his eyes, and spoken to no one.
As for Wat Tyler, he was a loud and insolent fellow who had lived in a daub-and-wattle hut, now pulled down and turned to dust, on St. Helen’s Lane, in the town itself; he had served in the French War and had killed his erstwhile master during the London insurrection, Simon had heard, which hadn’t surprised him. Now Tyler himself was dead and his ready tongue silenced forever; many a time Simon had heard him pounding on the table in the Falcon and sounding forth for the power of the commons and the smashing of all wealth. But no fire gleamed in Simon in response. Why? He never wondered. Perhaps the lovelessness and arrogance of the man left him without warmth. Perhaps also he feared a bit for his own house, so snug and fine, and for his well-swept, well-stocked shop.
That piece of land outside the town had been his from his father’s time. He had been a young man when he set his eyes on it for a house for several reasons. First, he wanted a house, a good, sturdy one, and one to be proud of, no patched and mended stuck-together-anyhow shelter, but a house made to last, with his initials carved over the door and the mercer’s sign hung out. Also he had his eye on the spot as a likely one for business—outside the walls it is true, but near the juncture of the London Road and the old Roman Road by Botolph’s Gate, and it was a busy thoroughfare with much traffic coming up from Magdalen Road also, or the comings to and fro from the big abbey. Many had scoffed at the time, but had shaken their heads later at his shrewdness, and all around the town now outside of the walls business had spread; he had quite started a trend, which helped him, too. Also ever since all of the town in the North Hill Gate section had gone up in flames when he was a boy, he had feared city fires, and he wanted a place at a safe distance, not crowded shoulder to shoulder with its fellows and vulnerable to their careless sparks. And, perhaps, though he never knew how big a part this played, he wanted a fair, new place for Hawise. But she didn’t live longer than there was time to plot out the garden and set out the apple trees with him, and she only saw them bloom once.
The house had been for him, when he built it, pretentious, but not so now that he was well-to-do; now it was suitable. It stood directly on More-elm Lane, on either side it a brick wall with neat, solid gates, surrounding the garden. To the right as one went in was the hall, beyond the screens, and to the left a door to the shop, whose wide shutter opened on the street. Directly ahead one glimpsed the kitchen, and beyond, the buttery. Above the shop and kitchen was a second story with storeroom in front, and chamber behind, both reached by a winding stair from the kitchen. The hall itself had a fireplace built in the far wall, quite a new-fangled thing, and also the kitchen had its built-in hearth, and above it Simon’s chamber had its fireplace, so the house was serviceable and fine. No man could ask more for comfort within. And without? Well, he took pride in husbandry, for all he was a mercer by trade. Beyond the buttery he had added a shed and cowstall; against the east garden wall were set the hives, among the apple trees, and beyond them the chicken roost and the vegetable garden with well-kept rows of cabbages, leeks, lettuces, kale, and beans. There was a duck pond with a big willow overhanging it, and beyond it the land dropped off to pastures, a wandering small stream, marshland, and in the far distance southeasterly the parish of St. Mary Magdalen’s, and past it the river; northeasterly was the cluster of abbey buildings with his own parish of St. Botolph’s huddling nearer at hand.
The garden Hawise had planned was in the angle of the house, near the wall; it was fragrant with rosemary and saffron, thyme and lavender; corn poppies grew there, and white violets in the spring; roses, blue scabious, and herb Robert. Simon tended them all, partly out of love for growing things, partly out of pride, and partly out of a lonely, sorrowing memory for someone that, as far as he could remember, he had once loved.
SIMON, ON THAT FRESH, sparkling June morning, knelt in the storeroom before the large oaken chest where he kept his stock of gloves. He picked them over carefully, laying some aside in small piles on the floor to be taken below to the shop. When he finished he let the lid fall to with a thump, and then turned to a coffer that had a peacock painted on the lid, a strutting bird with a spread tail and bright eye; with the back of his sleeve he smoothed and dusted it, for it had belonged to Hawise, and he remembered her delight in it. Now it held the richest belts, and he opened it to finger them over and take out three or four; he chose only one that was jeweled, as they were too precious to display much for fear of theft, and not greatly in demand in the town of Colchester—nevertheless, one girdle gleaming with pearl and emerald would signify that there was more wealth, perhaps, hidden away for one who could afford it. He chose also a wide red belt embossed with dragons and a knight at arms, with a golden clasp, and two more modest, green-braided ones.
When he had gathered them together with the gloves he went into his chamber to go below, and then stopped to listen to the voices he had heard dimly in the back of his mind while he had been working. One was Margrit, the old woman who kept his house, and the other was a man’s voice, and unknown. He was puzzled that anyone had come, for Ben, the great mastiff chained by the kitchen door, always raised a fury when a stranger appeared. With his foot on the top stair, Simon paused. He could see only a patch of sun on the well-scrubbed floor, and as he listened, he heard the bell ringing for Terce across the fields from the abbey. Simon waited for the strange voice to speak again, but it was Margrit.
“You’d best eat a bit before you go on. The master wouldna’ mind. He’s not stingy for all he’s not generous.”
“Have you no mistress, then?” The man’s voice was clear and fresh, with a gentleness in it. Simon could not place it, nor its inflection; certainly not an Essex man, anyway, nor one out of the North.
“No, nor little ones here, either. Mistress died of the plague, ten years ago now, and a baby daughter too, and another on the way. It was a sad time, and the town bad hit, also, though not as bad as that first spell of it, when I was a girl. That was bad beyond all thinking—half the town lying dead and mostly unburied, and the priests either dead or fled away from fear, but that was over thirty years ago now and one forgets a bit except sometimes in the night or when the sickness strikes again, as it did when Mistress Hawise died.”
Simon stood and waited. He could not go down now. The old time flooded over him again, the terror and the stunned sorrow, Hawise lying cold and still and the child crying in fever; how no one would come to help but old Margrit, not so old then, and her idiot son Piers, and how together they had made the bier and he had fetched the priest who all hasty and fearful had mumbled the service, and the lonely walk down the lane in the drizzling morning to the burying with no bearers but the bier laid on the haywain and the old horse plodding; and the fresh earth being thrown in the grave with a sickening sound; and the next day it all to do over again with the little lass. And then the days afterward empty and cold, no one coming near but old Margrit from her hovel down the lane, the shop closed, the street quiet, until after the early frosts when the contagion passed, and fear began to dwindle; people spoke again, and St. Denis Fair opened as usual in a brilliant October with the townsmen, jocund and noisy, here and there one in mourning, but all eager to put death behind them and make the most of the day.
“It is a brave house for one man alone,” said the stranger.
“That’s how he chose it; that’s how it is to be,” said Margrit flatly. There was a little silence.
“Where be you from, mister?” There was a respectful curiosity in Margrit’s voice that puzzled Simon. He heard her begin to shell peas, the pods snapping open and the peas rattling into the bowl.
“Here, I can as well do that, while you do something I cannot do,” said the stranger’s voice, and there was a little stir while the job was handed over, and Margrit stumped over to the table. The patch of sunlight was blotted out. Simon could hear dough being plumped and rolled for a pasty.
“Where be you from, and what is your trade, mister, if I may ask?” she repeated.
“I come from a city a ways from here, and I am a shepherd,” said the man quietly.
“Have you been here for St. John’s Fair?”
“Well, in a way, perhaps.” The man chuckled a little. “Though I brought no sheep to sell, and mayhap bought none either.”
Margrit thumped the dough. “Your master will chide you.”
“No, not mine. Maybe you rightfully do not know my master. He bids me travel about now and then, to seek the sheep that have lost their true shepherd, or never found him.”
“You speak in riddles, mister. Where is it you come from, and what nonsense is this you speak? It smacks a bit of the time so lately passed, just a year ago, and some of the words we heard then. That is over and done with now, and best forgotten.”
The man went on shelling peas, and Simon, as if he had been drawn by a magnet, came slowly down the stairs. At his step, the man looked up and smiled, and Margrit bobbed a curtsy. Simon stood there at the bottom, his hands full of belts and gloves, and stared at the man. He was bearded and brown-visaged, with piercing blue eyes and dark lashes like star points; he wore a dusty gray tunic and hood, and broidered over his heart a bright blue flower. He laid the bowl aside and stood up, looking Simon through and through. The sunlit silence lengthened.
Finally, “Sit,” said Simon, motioning to the bench, and the man sat again, taking up the pea-shelling, which was nearly done.
“You’ve come a long way?” asked Simon, though he knew not why.
“That depends,” said the man. “From where you are, mayhap quite a way,” and he flashed Simon a smile, “but not too far to be reached.”
“Who is your master?”
“None better,” came the quiet answer. Margrit waited for Simon to flare up in impatience.
“Has he no name?”
“If I told you, would you believe me?” The man let his hands rest and looked at Simon squarely. “There are things a man will not believe, even when he hears them with his own ears. What if I told you that my master was our Lord himself?”
“The man is mad,” muttered Simon, and turned to go. But he checked himself and turned back for another question.
“What manner of city is it, then, where you dwell with such a master?”
The man bent his head a bit, as if to gauge his words, then his voice came soft and joyful.
“A city of music, and little children; a city where peace dwells, and no sorrow but what it is shared and turned to blessing; a city of labor but no strife, where no man speaks but in honesty and love; where sin is turned back at the gate and driven out not by the sword of hate but by the seal of purity; a city beyond our words to reckon…” His voice died off, and then he looked up, such a light in his face as Simon had never seen. “I wish I could show it to you, brother.” His voice had a longing in it.
Simon stood motionless and stunned.
“And where is this place?” he finally dragged out.
“North, and then west. Over the hills. A long way, and a hard way, full of danger. But not too far for every man. A fair blue flower grows there that grows in no other land,” and his hand went to his heart.
“Do you take me for a fool, to believe all this?”
“It isn’t for me to say,” came the voice of the man, and he smiled at Simon, “but if you do, then you are God’s fool, at least.”
The shop bell tinkled insistently. Simon’s hands on the belts and gloves were sweating. He turned away and went into the shop, letting the heavy door swing to behind him. The kitchen was silent for a while, Margrit too dumbstruck to finish her pasty and the man sitting there peacefully with his hands on his knees, the bowl of the shelled peas on the floor between his feet.
“A daft way you have of speaking,” she said at last, and slung the round of dough into a deep pan, trimming the edges with deft movements. “Methinks he was angry.”
The man sighed and stood up. “I have cheese and bread in my wallet,” he said, slapping it, “and a ways to go today, so I’ll be moving. Say farewell to your master, and mayhap someday I’ll set eyes on his face again.”
He stepped out into the sun, under the blossoming apple trees that hummed and quivered with bees, and his eyes rested on the yellow hives, and the trim wall, and then on the big dog that lay at his feet with head between his paws, his eyes turned up, and his tail flapping.
“Good fellow,” said the man, stopping to pat him. Then he swung off down the path, out the gate, and left along the London Road. The gate swung to with a little click behind him. Far off the abbey bell rang Sext, and all the other bells chimed in, mellow and soft in the noon sun.
WITH THE COMING OF EVENING, Simon went out of the house door to lower the lattice and shutter over the shop front; a fastening had caught in a rose vine and he pricked his finger freeing it, and was sucking at the blood when Derek Munsley came by with a string of fish from the river. He lingered a moment. Simon turned back to his work, but Derek had too much talk in his head to be daunted.
“Do you remember the day a year ago, happen, Simon?”
“Best forget these days now. Over and done,” muttered Simon, as he slammed to the shutter and bent back the rose vine.
“Wat Tyler’s forgotten them, dead and buried no one knows where, all his brash talk and free notions gone to earth. And John Ball too, with his fancy rhymes and fetching phrases. What good did it do us, or anyone? The world’s the same, and always will be.” Simon stopped at his doorstep and looked back at Derek.
“If ye think that,” he said, “why breathe?” Then he went inside, to the dim quiet and the emptiness, shutting the door on the road and Derek standing there with a blank face, and in his head his own words echoing, “If ye think that, why breathe?” Had he rightly said it to Derek, or to himself?
Why indeed breathe; why get up in the morning and wrangle in the market and count the silver and wait for the folk to come into the shop to buy; why go to Mass and hear the priest Fulcun muttering at the altar, and trouble at that picture of doomsday over the door, with the flames of hell and the devils torturing the damned; why go to the Falcon for a draft of ale in the quiver of a hope to find a friendly face and an honest word; why go down to the churchyard ever and anon to lay a posy on Hawise’s grave and the little one beside it; why prune the apple trees and harvest the honey and breed the cow and gather the eggs and weed the garden and put back the tile on the roof when the tempests displaced it; why keep old Margrit in the kitchen and her lazy lout of a son, Piers. If the world’s the same and always will be, he thought, time might as well stand still and the sand stop running through the glass. I might as well be done with it now. What little I had of joy is under the ground now and what little I knew of God is false words and a foul priest. He latched the shutter from the inside and began to put the shop to rights, in the dimness of the light that came from the hall door. In the kitchen he could hear Margrit groaning and grunting to herself as she fixed his supper, beans and bacon by the smell of it.
Then he pulled out into the open what he had pushed under all day, the gnawing, haunting memory. That man, that strange man this morning. The look in his eye, the warm fresh look, the smile at the corner of his eye, the clear undertone to his voice, the bright blue flower sewn on the breast of his worn tunic, the look of his hands as he slid the peas from their shells, the clear glance that could not be withstood. And those riddling words that rang with truth.
All day long like a bright spark dancing among the dark memories of a year ago the image of this man had come; now the spark ignited the dry dust of the past and all flared up newly revealed. Somewhere a man walked who was free within and without; in whose eyes there seemed to be no shadow of fear, who seemed to have not mirth nor bawdiness nor loud foolery, but a true joy. And the fair city he spoke of, it must be heaven itself!
Simon left the dusky shop and stepped over into the empty reach of the hall; with his arms folded across his chest he paced back and forth from the hearth to the screens, and let the full flood of memory sweep over him. A man could not have gone through that time indifferent, not if he had a beating heart at all. He remembered first the rumors and the wild hopes in the town, set alongside the scoffing and belittling of others. What would ever hope to change the old order, said some? Wealth was wealth, and power was power; the poor were poor and never would be otherwise except in paradise. But throughout Essex the word went that the time was come, that the boy-king was to be faced and would be found favoring the commons, that the fat friars and proud abbots were to be thrown down, and all men joined equally under their true Head, as Scripture would have it (if only all men could read it for themselves, not hear it mumbled in an ancient tongue). But the burgesses wagged their heads and counseled caution and warned against treason. Simon had listened and kept his own opinion to himself, if indeed he knew it; he remembered John Ball and felt a flicker of hope; he remembered Wat Tyler and felt a wave of disgust.
But then, like thunderheads piling up in the west, the storm gathered, silent at first, but dark and overhanging. Essex was rising! went the word. A few men vanished from town and their wives went about with dull faces. Mid-June came, and each day dawned taut and expectant, and at last the riders came in from London one hot, dusty noon. The king, young Richard, had granted all! He had pledged himself to the commons. Justice was done at last! And Simon listened bleakly, feeling the world turned topsy-turvy.
After that the thunder broke, and like gall the once-sweet words burned on the tongues of those who had brought the news. London was in murder and riot; the king had betrayed his pledge; Wat Tyler was dead, and John Ball seized for a heretic and traitor; the king’s men were marching against the commons at Billericay.
And then followed the darkest time of all. He remembered standing by Head Gate as the first stragglers of the peasants came into town, sweat-streaked and wild. There had been riots in the market, with the commons crying for support, and the burgesses shouting them down; the bailiffs were called out, and even as the town authorities strove for order, the Earl of Buckingham’s men came marching in, and the last dim hope any man had held that the old power had power no longer dwindled to a little dust under the trampling feet. In place of the murdered chief justice, Sudbury, Tressilian was carried in on a litter, with a cool level stare, and the bloody assize began.
Simon laid his arms on the carved mantel over the hearth, and put his head on them, half sick with the memory. For all he had seen a bit of life and thought he had a strong stomach, the hanging and quartering that had gone on that week had shaken him fearfully; he never went by the junction of St. Martin’s Lane and High Street without a shudder, and the cobbles yet looked brown to him, and even a faint stench of blood still. The gallows past East Mill Gate and over the river had been black with vultures for weeks.
And then this man, like an ambassador from a foreign land speaking a foreign tongue…a place of no fear, no hating, no sorrow.
He raised his head listening, for he heard Piers outside fetching up water from the well, and mingling with it from the street a singer, with a familiar tune, but English words that fell new on his ears.
Thou hast brought forth thy holy son
That man’s redemption might be won;
He shall forgive and all men shrive
Our present help is come
To bring us joy eternal
And out of exile home.
Simon heard Piers go lumbering into the house with a full bucket, and he drew his sleeve across his eyes as if to brush the mist from them. He suddenly knew he was weary to the bone, and where his heart had been numb and cold, there was now a great aching.
NEXT MORNING, being a Wednesday, was market. Simon woke in a cool dim dawn, feeling somehow that the world was different, but not knowing why. After a bowl of porridge and a beaker of cider, he and Piers started out, Piers pushing a barrow with their gear in it, through Botolph’s Gate, already thronging with farmers and tradesmen going the same way. They went straight, then left past All Saints, into the market. In the bustle and stir there, the voices sounded loud and raw, or tired to desperation. The banter and merriment seemed thin; beneath it lay a bleakness that smote Simon. He looked about and paused, while Piers tugged at the barrow and grunted at him to move on.
Their stall was set up at the eastern end, where one caught cross-traffic as well as those who strolled around fingering goods and taking their time. As the morning broke fresh and fair, the crowds came. The faces Simon saw, even the ones not new to him, were strange now, and he was so mazed by studying them that Piers, standing back, nudged him now and then when a likely sale was all but ignored. He had sold the green braided belts he had fetched down the day before from the storeroom, and a small blue purse with a white violet stamped on it, and two needle cases with silver needles when the lady came along, with a Maltese spaniel on her arm, and a waiting woman behind. She was feeding the dog morsels of fine white bread from a wallet at her side. She fingered Simon’s stuff idly.
“Have ye not any blue silk? Last time I was by ye had blue silk, at a fair price. This russet would make me look like a Poor Priest!”
“No blue silk, mistress, but Friday there will be. But here is a blue girdle, straight from London.”
The little dog yawned, showing two rows of white, sharp teeth and a long pink tongue; he licked the end of his nose and whined for more bread.
“Friday I may come, or I may not, but have it here all the same,” and she idly turned away. A beggar was in her path, an old man with a gray face and shriveled legs, rheumy blue eyes and sunken lips. Speechless he held out his hand to her. She lifted her skirts carefully and stepped around him, her face cold. Simon stood with the blue girdle in his hands and watched; the beggar scuttered off, crablike. Simon put his hand to his heart, where the ache was, and Piers nudged him as a fat goodwife stood there with her fingers on a small red wallet.
“You are asleep today, Master Simon. I could have waited here till Doomsday,” she joshed. “Come, give me the price of this, and make it fair, and make haste. I want this home before it spoils in the heat,” and she motioned to a mesh bag of cod over her arm.
Simon hastened and took her silver, and she went off, her broad skirts swinging. And now the abbot himself came by, two chaplains at his heels. He stopped long enough to run a stale eye over Simon’s goods, and then proceeded on. Simon saw the beggar, who had huddled behind an empty stall, come creeping forth, his hand held out to the abbot. With a little gesture, the abbot indicated his will, and one of the chaplains dug into his purse, and dropped a coin in the beggar’s hand. The old man slid away again, this time toward the alley where an alehouse stood. Simon watched him out of sight.
Piers nudged him again. Before him stood a little girl, her face besmudged and her blue smock dusty. Her eyes scarce reached above the rim of the stall, and her fingers clutched the top, their tips pressed white beneath their dirt. She gazed up at him. Simon leaned over toward her.
“What is it, my little lass?”
“My mother went to buy clogs, and I have lost her and myself, too,” and she began to weep soundlessly. While Piers stared at him, Simon smiled and came around the stall to her. With the edge of his tunic he wiped her face.
“I’ll take thee where clogs are sold and likely she’ll be there. We’ll find her, never fear, and likely she’s looking for thee, too. Watch the goods, Piers.” And turning his back on his business, Simon walked off holding the little girl’s hand. She took his trustingly, and the feel of her little hard palm in his was very strange. As they went past the flower stalls, Simon could feel her dragging, so he stopped and let her look them over. She seemed less frightened now, and he, not knowing how to deal with a child, still ventured a word.
“What is thy name, little lass?”
“Gillian,” she answered.
“Where’s thy home, Gillian?”
“Duck Lane. My father is a carter.”
“Have you a garden?”
“Not much. The ducks dig it up.”
Simon bought a posy of roses and campion and put it in her hand. Her eyes were dazzled and she was speechless. He looked down at the brown tangles of her hair and thought she looked not much cared for. Then they went on.
By the clogs they found her mother. She was a large woman in a brown cotte, and had a baby on one arm and a basket on the other. When she saw Gillian she put the basket down and gave her a slap, glared at Simon, then seized the basket again and with it drove the little girl before her. Gillian gave one backward look, clutching her posy and weeping, and then she disappeared into the crowd and up St. Martin’s Lane. Simon stood like a stranger looking after her. It had happened so quickly, the child engulfed and carried off in her mother’s anger, that he was suddenly and unaccountably bereft, like one who had found a jewel, only the next moment to lose it in a swift, black river. But she was only a dirty little girl who was lost; what had come over him, standing openmouthed like a fool in the middle of market day, and Piers no doubt making a mucks of things back at the stall. He turned and went swiftly through the crowd, his face set. He found Piers in a fluster, some knave having snatched a pair of red-broidered black gauntlets from under his very nose, and no sale but a meager one for a small purse. Simon wordlessly set the stall to rights again, while Piers snuffled and looked frightened at the untoward behavior of his master. He would have felt more assured had he had a tongue-lashing.
Next day, being the feast of St. Paul, the shop was closed. Restless and ill at ease, Simon paced in the garden. He felt a strange, unreasoning fear growing in him; the night had been sleepless or filled with fitful dreams: Hawise lying dead with Gillian’s posy in her hands; the fat abbot suddenly scuttling crablike in the old beggar’s rags; a mesh bag of cod stinking in the painted coffer when he flung up the lid. By dawn he had been up, and now, as the bells rang merrily from all over town, from the valley, from the far meadows, he had the fowls fed and the cow milked and out to the pasture, and a blank day ahead. Nothing, nothing, nothing. He stopped by the pond to watch the white ducks paddling; eight little ones; with what hawks and turtles would get, maybe there would be three left to fatten for Margrit’s oven. He thought of the empty house. He could smell the savory roast in the air— apple, onion, sage—and see the brown, dripping carcass in the platter before him. But none to share it, no one, no one. The fear clutched his throat again. Why? He had been content till now to live in this way. True, he had been joyless, but the days had been full and ever fuller with work for house and homestead and shop; trips to London for the latest goods, the whole enormous pressure of business swallowed him up, the long years of building up respect— Simon Beston, mercer; bows and curtsies on the streets, and his heart fattening on pride while his soul starved.
Now suddenly, frantically, he stopped short before an abyss, like that dream, that doubt which had haunted him intermittently. Was he ill? Was he mad?
He clutched the old willow and watched the ducks paddling around, leaving little spreading ripples behind them that made the reflection of the willow branches dance crazily. He forced his mind to steady. Before that man had come, he asked himself, hadn’t everything been as before? Couldn’t he go back to before the morning the stranger came, only two days ago, and go on unchanged?
But he could not force his mind back to that time. He had to own that the seed of this unrest had been in him before; man or no man it was there and was only flowering now. But why? What was wrong with his life? He harmed no one; he lived to himself. Ah, but what was right with his life? Was it not barren and void of all but the chink of silver? A cold respect? And a tidy holding? For whom? For himself alone. Alone. But not by his choice, by God’s choice—God, who had snatched his wife and child and left him comfortless and cold. God had done this to him! But to how many others? And what did they do? Were they comfortless too? And even those who had not lost wife and child, did they not more often than not curse at one another and beat their children, as Gillian had been beaten?
Gillian. She had looked at him with brown eyes in a smudged face. She had put her hard little hand in his.
She had looked back at him weeping. If he could find her…Duck Lane, she had said. Ah, but what could she matter to him—or he to her? Still, no harm, no harm. At least it was a place to go, a spot to head for, a direction to set his feet. And maybe his mind would steady, this turmoil would settle, his eyes would clear, and his world fall into place again.
He left the pond, walked along the path between the wych-elms and went out the garden gate, turning his face toward Duck Lane.
It was past noon when he got there. The town had been merry and full of life. Derek Munsley had caught him near Holy Trinity to tell him that William Faircloth, Draper, was selling needle cases and braided belts in his own shop, and was selling kersey and murray in false lengths. Simon had shouldered him off finally to go into St. Martin’s for late Mass, which had sickened in his throat. He had come out finally to go into the Falcon across the road, to wash down the whole mess with ale. The Falcon was cool and quiet, and he sat over his tankard in a daze, until a gang came in from the street, ribald and noisy, and he had pushed himself up, tossed his coin on the table, and made his way out into the blinding sun.
Now he stood just outside Rye Gate and looked about him. He couldn’t remember when he had last been this side of town. Northeast the land sloped off to meadows and marshes lying in the curve of the protecting river; a white gull flashed in the sun and settled on the water. Directly before him down a little path was the Mill, silent today, and beyond it across the river the King’s Mead. There was no thoroughfare here; it was quiet after the flurry of the town. Then he looked left along the hovels of Duck Lane—a miserable spot. What had brought him here? What had he hoped from this?
The noon heat of a bright June day lay on the road and hushed the air. He went along slowly. A few dogs came out and barked at him, snapping warily at his heels; he made his way carefully through a little flock of ducks, be-draggled and dusty; they scurried to make passage for him. There was a faint smell of cabbage cooking, and a stench of garbage. Most folk were indoors. Smoke rose from a few roofs. There were untidy gardens, the fences knocked awry by the pigs. A thin tethered cow raised its head and looked at him with large, sad eyes. A ragged little boy with a harelip stood gaping at him, then ran indoors. A fat woman by one hovel was taking clothes out of a basket to lay them on a hedge to dry. Simon looked at her. It was Gillian’s mother.
Then he stopped in his tracks, not knowing what to do. He looked around for Gillian, but there was no one save that fat woman. She had not turned to see him yet. While he stood there in the dust of the road, Gillian came out of the doorway lugging a pail of swill, and went around the cottage to the pig trough where she dumped it in, the pigs shoving against her skirts and squealing. At the sound the mother turned, and saw him. For a moment she stared at him, and then slowly she remembered; a flush rose on her face, a black look of hatred and fear. She glanced around swiftly, seized a hoe that lay on the ground nearby, and came toward him. He stood dumbstruck and waited till the blows and foul words began to rain upon him.
“Child-snatcher—lecher—filthy old man! Get off—get gone—do your whoring elsewhere! Hunting out children, buying them flowers, spying and prowling—the devil twist your soul! Get out! Shame and hellfire!”
From the nearby cottages the neighbors ran, seizing stones as they came. Amidst the pain and the hail of words Simon saw Gillian clutching the gate, her little face white, her eyes big with terror, and with all his voice he cried, “No, Gillian, do not believe her! Do not believe her!”
He thought he saw her face change, grow old with understanding and terror of a new sort, and then the hail of stones became too much, and he fled.
Simon had fled up Duck Lane, past Rye Gate, and along the wall where the lane ended in a footpath that hugged the ancient ramparts; he plunged through the thickets and brambles heedlessly, stumbled over refuse heaps, and finally, realizing that he was no longer followed, he sank down and lay there sobbing and panting, surges of pain rising over him. He finally lost consciousness in a kind of stupor. When he stirred himself at last, the shadows of the walls lay over him and halfway down the slope to the meadows; he was cold, sore, thirsty, and filthy. He came to himself slowly, his shocked and battered mind piecing together the cause of his being there. To have been the center and target for the revilings and blows of men—he who had been as withdrawn and secure as a man could be—that mystified him. Also an exhausted peace had hold of him; he was drained of bitterness or vengeance, and had only an acceptance of what he remembered had happened.
He began to wonder dimly what to do, and how to get himself home. It would be long till darkness fell, for the summer twilights were lingering. Anyway, what did he care who saw him; it was only that he felt raw and naked, and he dreaded the questioning and shoulderings of men.
He heard a plover crying on the meadow, and he could see the people coming and going on East Hill Gate Road and over the meadows and the Lower Mill; a few boats were on the river, the town lads in them beating the water with their staves and splashing one another; their shouts reached Simon’s ears from a great distance. When the shadows reach the river, he thought, I will go home.
July 22, Feast of St. Mary Magdalen
RAIN SWEPT UP from the southwest that morning. When he wakened, Simon heard it beating on the tiles and dripping off the shutters, and a wind soughed around the house. His first thought was of the fair, one day old and this the last day, and he felt a fresh sickening at the stench and clamor of it yesterday. Today he would not go.
Slowly he climbed out of bed and went to the press where his clothes hung. He took down an old brown tunic and shook it out. He pulled on his hose and buttoned the tunic with clumsy fingers, for on one thumb there was a festering wound. Margrit would make another poultice for it, he thought, maybe the last it would need. He remembered how the throb of it had wakened him the morning after he had come back from Duck Lane, and he had asked Margrit to bind it up with one of her messes. A bramble or a blow from the hoe must have done the damage. She hadn’t asked, and he hadn’t said. She’d grumbled at his torn and filthy surcoat, but had not questioned. The bruises on his face had astonished her more, no doubt, for he was not one to brawl. But they were gone now.
Rinsing his face in the basin, he wiped it on his sleeve and went down. The kitchen was still dim, but he opened the door to let in the dawn light and the morning air. The wind and rain beat from the other side, and he stood looking out at the hives set along the wall between the apple trees; a wren sang out suddenly; the morning was sweet and wet and wild. He laid his head against the doorframe and shut his eyes. What would he make of this day? He would not, he could not, go to the fair, though soon the townsfolk would come trooping out at Botolph’s Gate, rain or no rain, along the Roman Road past St. Botolph’s, and turn off on Magdalen Road down the hill to the hospital. The last time he had stood so with a blank day before him—it had meant Duck Lane and that sight of Gillian’s little face. The pain of that still stung him. Nor could he ever make amends.
If he went away from the fair, where could he go? Through the town on the other side would mean Duck Lane—not there. The London Road would be crowded. He would go the other way, down More-elm Lane and across the fields to the East Mill and over the river, and then out past the gallows and on the road to Ipswich. Out there, they said, before one came to the road to Wivenhoe, there was a hermit. The hermitage was on a hillside, where there was a tumble of rocks and a big pine. He knew that much from what Derek had said one day, in the Falcon. At least it would be a place to go, a spot to head for, a direction to set his feet.
He turned back into the kitchen. A bottle of mead stood on the table, and a loaf of brown bread. He ate and drank, and then sliced bread and bacon for his wallet. The gusts of rain beat less fitfully against the house now, and he was anxious to be gone. Fastening his belt and pulling his capuchon over his head, he went out into the weather, the door swinging to behind him. He went up the path and into the lane; the gate closed behind him with a little click.
About midmorning the sky broke up; in ridges and humps the clouds hurried off eastward before a brisk wind; the sunlight fell in shafts over the hills and then came out fully except where the black cloud shadows sailed slowly over field and woodland. By noon Simon sank in the grass by the roadside and took out his wallet; he felt hungry and weary. When he had eaten he rolled over and looked about him. There was an immense silence over everything, and he lay in a sort of hollow in the land, before the muddy track went over a little rise and skirted the beech woods. There was red clover all about him, sweet-smelling and bee-swarming, and by a stone a slender plant with sturdy blue flowers, succory; he had seen it many times, yet his eye fastened on it now and his mind circled around a memory and finally came to rest on that other blue flower, sewn on the man’s tunic: blue and round like this one, but cupped like a buttercup, blue-veined gold in the center, with three black stamens tipped with gold. He was amazed at how he remembered it; and he stared now at this flower, wondering dully where the other flower grew and if he could ever find it, and why a man would ever travel anyway except on pilgrimage to save his soul, or if one were driven to it by poverty or sin, or by some desperate quest.
He watched a hawk coasting around and around far up, and wondered if it spied him with its sharp eyes, an unaccustomed lump here by the roadside. A cricket clambered through the grass near his hand. Bird and bug and man, he thought. Peace and naught else. What if I should come to that, like the hermit. Then he roused himself and stood up; around the curve of the woods and up on the hill, beyond which lay the forest of Wivenhoe, there was the hermit, or so he believed. He stooped and plucked a flower of succor, thrusting it in his tunic, and then he went on up the road.
When he reached the bend in the road he saw the great pine on the hillside, saplings and jumbled rocks at its foot, and a tiny hut. He stood and watched for a moment; there was no movement about the place except for a thin trail of smoke. What to do next? He had heard it often said that people came to see the hermit. Derek’s wife had brought their sick baby here, and afterward it thrived. It was said by some he was a wizard and by others he was holy and by others he was mad. He may be all three, thought Simon, and began to climb the hill. As he came nearer he called out, “Father, Father,” and waited; then he called again. This time the skins over the door parted and an old man peered out; when he saw Simon he slowly came forth. He was bent, grizzled, in a ragged brown robe.
“A blessing, Father,” called Simon, and the old man made the sign of the cross in the air before him. Simon drew nearer. Now, he could see the old man’s eyes, very black, with red rims, and his toothless mouth.
“What is it ye seek, son?” he asked, looking at Simon with an unchanged face.
“Peace from torment,” said Simon.
“What is thy torment?”
Ah, what was his torment!
“I am of all men alone, and I have a great emptiness, within me and beneath.”
The old man still stood motionless and pondering.
“To be single and alone is good; only so are men not trapped into sin.”
“Is that God’s will?”
There was a silence between them. Then Simon with that ache in his breast said, “What of the emptiness?”
“Fill thyself with God.”
“How can I? How can I?”
“Forswear thy fellowman, stamp out Adam. Leave the foul world.”
Simon stared at him, the crumpled face, the sharp eyes.
“Father, is there no other purpose, no comfort?”
Simon slowly shook his head; he felt rising in him a tide of refusal; the words No, no, no! surged up in him, but he throttled them at the sight of that pitiable face, those tattered shoulders. Then he turned and plunged down the hillside, fleeing as he had fled Duck Lane, and he ran until he was around the curve of the road again. Then he slowed, panting. When he passed his former resting place he saw the succory, blue and sturdy, by the stone, and he looked at the flower in his tunic: it was limp and gray, all color drained from it.
SIMON HAD TAKEN A DAY from the shop to bring in the hay from the lower meadow; with Piers he had worked long in the sun. Far off he could see the Bishop’s Fields of wheat, bright orange and a dull gold where great cloud shadows drifted over them; another day or two and they would be laid low and gathered in, the great stooks standing in rows. It would be a good harvest. Now he went to the well and splashed water over his face and arms, and then flung himself down by the shrunken duck pond. The wych-elm leaves hung dusty and still. The ricks that had been empty were full now, by the cowshed, and Piers clambered about pitching the last sheaves in. The shadows lay long across the grass and the cropping sheep. It was cooler, but the air was pent. A haze of midges danced before his eyes, and he brushed them away. Margrit tossed a basin of water out the buttery door; it fell in a silvery shower. Near at hand and clear in the still air, the passing bell began to toll at St. Botolph’s. Simon listened, and ran over in his mind who was ill or dying in the parish, then he sat up. It rang the three-times-three strokes for a man, and then the heavy, steady toll of years.
Piers turned his head and stopped his work.
“Piers, the bell. For whom does it ring?”
Piers shook his head dumbly. Simon had lost count of the strokes, but it was for no youth. Margrit came to the buttery door again and stood listening.
“Mayhap for that Poor Priest that came through yesterday,” she said. “He was taken with a falling fit and they shrived him last night.”
“Where did they take him?”
“Priest Fulcun had him, though not gladly.”
The bell ceased. Simon lay back. Margrit called the hens and clucked at them, scattering corn; then she went in. He lay for a long time and thought of a man dying a stranger and unwanted; and for what he came there in the parish only to be smitten dumb. He had heard these men preached poverty and simple truth, whatever that was, and made the bishops squirm. Also that they had the word of Scripture changed into English, for any man to read. But the man was dead now, thought Simon, and would have no more words, but would be laid unknown in the parish field.
Then Simon sat up, going suddenly dizzy; he laid his head on his knees and waited till his mind steadied. No harm to go, and ask for him at least; though he’d heard of them he’d seen no Poor Priest yet; he might as well look on a dead one who could not stir him with the words that would give a fruitless hope.
In the long dusk he went down through the meadow and across the field into the churchyard. The evening was sweet now; swallows skimmed the grasses and a night¬ hawk cried as it wheeled above the tower; there was the scent of phlox, and mown hay, and crushed mint. As he went in by the porch a bat flittered out, mewing softly, and was gone in the shadows. The church was dark and cool; in the chancel the candles winked and gleamed, and the great chalice shimmered. But there was no bier, so he went softly across to Our Lady’s Chapel on the north side. There in the dim light he saw the bier, candles at head and feet, and a figure kneeling before the rood. He went for-ward slowly until, in the light that flickered at his step, he looked at the body of the dead priest. He was old, yet not so old, with weathered face, a beaked nose, and two lines cut deep in his cheeks; his hands were folded on a wooden cross, and he was clad in a russet gown, the hood folded back under his head; the mud of the road was still on the hem. They had taken off his sandals. And his feet…Ah, thought Simon, they could not even wash his feet, and a little knot came in his throat.
The figure kneeling by the rood stirred and rose haltingly, with mutterings and groans; the man shuffled forward and gave a start to find Simon standing there motionless. It was Priest Fulcun’s vicar, Father Meurice.
“Comst tha to watch?” he hissed.
Simon shook his head.
“Knows tha his name?” asked the vicar.
“Nay. I only heard there was a man died here.”
“Peace to him. There’s some of his kind would get no decent burial, what with their preaching and dissension. Fulcun was rare put to it to know what to do with this un.” And Meurice chuckled a little, glad of a bit of company.
“Said he nought before he took sick?” asked Simon, his eyes on the still face in the wavering light.
“Nay. They found him by Shire Gate, all in a heap, and brought him here, knowing the abbey would have nought to do with him. He had a great book with him, which Fulcun tossed with the rubbish to be burned. We’ll send a missive to Lutterworth tomorrow—where this kind comes from—and doubtless they’ll know which of ’em it is, but he’ll be in the ground before they get here, if they come.”
There was a silence, except for a faint sputter of candle and the breathing of the two men. Simon went on his knees beside the bier; but he could not pray; even the Pater Noster had gone clean out of his head; so he knelt there wordless and empty for a seemly interval, and then he stumbled to his feet and went out.
On the porch he paused, one hand resting on the cool stone. Daylight had gone now. Something stayed his feet. Where was the rubbish heap? He searched his memory. It would be around behind Fulcun’s house, where the covered walk led to the little door and gallery stair; there in the corner he had seen a jumble of trash, hidden by hollyhocks. He slipped out into the dark and around the church, cursing the dim light yet glad that it covered him. He felt grass under his feet and the stones of the wall under his fingers, and at length ivy, and thick furry leaves on thick stalks; then he went down on his knees, feeling a prick of broken glass, a moldy vestment, and at last a leather binding; he tugged at it, and the book came into his hands. He stood up in the dark, clasping it, and listening.
Nothing stirred but the glitter of stars above him and a little wind. Then he went off noiselessly, through the dim yard, across the meadow, and into his own land.
THE HOUSE WAS DARK, for Margrit had gone home. On the kitchen hearth the fire was carefully covered. He laid the book on the table, took a fat beeswax candle from the cupboard, and knelt to light it from the embers; then he rose and set it on the table. In the ring of yellow light he saw the book for the first time, a plain brown leather cover which he unclasped and laid back, and saw the thick pages covered with neat, close rows of letters. He drew up a stool, pulled the candle closer, and, laying elbows on the table, he began to read.
At the first cockcrow, he raised his head. The candle had burned down to within an inch of its socket. His eyes smarted and his shoulders ached; his mouth was dry. Rising stiffly, he rummaged on the shelf for mead, and poured a tankard, which he drank standing, with his eyes closed and his head swimming. Then he set the tankard down and began to walk softly back and forth, back and forth, before the hearth. He felt empty and light, shattered and unchained. At last he stopped, and gripped the edge of the table, and muttered between his teeth.
“It was all false, from the day I came forth and was christened until now. It was all false and falsehood. I never knew God or God’s Son. I was fed shame and lies and tricks and mumblings, bowings and mysteries, a ladder of priests and false holiness up to the Holy Father himself, and preachings of heaven and hell that gold could buy, or buy pardon and blessedness. I wipe it all out; I cast it all away. I know naught. I am naked as the day I was born. Now I must find out. I must find what God is and who is his Son, and what he wants of me, if he is at all.”
Then he sank down on the stool again and hunted for words that hammered at his mind; when he found them, he pulled the candle closer and read again, his fingers running over the page.
And he said, A man hadde twei sonses; and the younger of hem seide to the fadir, Fadir, gyue me the porcioun of catel, that fallith to me. And he departid to hem the catel. And not after many days, when all things were gathered together, the younger son went forth in pilgrimage in to a far country; and there he wasted his goods in living lecherously. And after that he had ended all things, a strong hunger was made in that country, and he began to have need. And he went and drew him to one of the citizens of that country. And he sent him into his town, to feed swine. And he coveted to fill his womb of the cods that the hogs eat, and no man gave him. And he turned again to himself, and said, How many hired men in my father’s house have plenty of loaves; and I perish here through hunger. I shall rise up, and I shall go to my father, and I shall say to him, Father I have sinned in to heaven, and before thee; and now I am not worthy to be clept thy son, make me as one of thy hired men. And he rose up, and came to his father. And when he was yet afar, his father saw him, and was stirred by mercy. And he ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned in to heaven, and before thee, and now I am not worthy to be clept thy son. And the father said to his servants, Swithe bring ye forth the first stool and clothe ye him and give ye a ring in his hand, and shoon on his feet; and bring ye a fat calf, and slay ye, and eat we, and make we feast. For this my son was dead, and he has lived again; he perished, and is found. And all men begun to eat. But his elder son was in the field; and when he came and nighed to the house, he heard a symphony and a crowd. And he clept one of the servants, and asked, what these things were. And he said to him, Thy brother is come, and thy father slew a fat calf, for he received him safe. And he was wroth, and would not come in. Therefore his father went out, and began to pray him. And he answered to his father and said, Lo! so many years I serve thee, and I never brake thy commandment; and thou never gave to me a kid, that I with my friends should have eaten. But after that this thy son, that hath devoured his substance with whores, came, thou hast slain to him a fat calf. And he said to him, Son, thou art ever more with me, and all my things be thine. But it behoved for to make feast, and to have joy; for this thy brother was dead, and lived again; he perished, and is found.
The candle all but winked out. He rose hurriedly and fetched another, conscious of the day soon coming, and Margrit finding him there before long. He set wick to wick and watched the new wick flare, and in the fresh light hunted farther.
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and I have not charity, I am made as brass sounding or a cymbal tinkling. And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all cunning, and if I have all faith, so that I move hills from their place, and I have not charity, I am naught. And if I depart all my goods in to the meats of poor men, and if I betake my body, so that I burn, and if I have not charity, it profiteth to me nothing. Charity is patient, it is benign; charity envieth not, it doeth not wickedly, it is not upblown, it is not covetous, to seeketh not the things that be its own, it is not stirred to wrath, it thinketh not evil, it joyeth not on wickedness, but it joyeth together to truth; it suffereth all things, it believeth all things, it hopeth all things, it sustaineth all things. Charity falleth never down, whether prophecies shall be void, or languages shall cease, or science shall be destroyed. For a part we know; and a part we prophesy; but when that shall come which is perfect, that thing that is of part shall be avoided. When I was a little child, I spake as a little child, I understood as a little child; but when I was made a man, I avoided the things that were of a little child. And we see now by a mirror in darkness, but then face to face; now I know of part, but then I shall know, as I am known. And now dwell faith, hope, charity, these three; but the most of these is charity.
He sank back, with his hands over his face. Then he leaned forward again slowly, and this time sought in John’s gospel. And in one day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the grave, when it was yet dark. And she saw the stone moved away from the grave. There she ran, and came to Simon Peter, and to another disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith to them, They have taken the Lord from the grave, and we wis not where they have laid him. Therefore Peter went out, and that other disciple, and they came to the grave. And they twain run together, and that other disciple run before Peter, and came first to the grave. And when he stooped, he saw the sheets lying, natheless he entered not. Therefore Simon Peter came pursuing him, and he entered in to the grave and he saw the sheets laid, and the napkin that was on his head, not laid with the sheets but by itself wrapped in to a place. Therefore that disciple that came first to the grave, entered and saw and believed. For they knew not yet the scripture, that it behoved him to rise again from death. Therefore the disciples went eftsoon to themselves. But Mary stood at the grave with outforth weeping. And the while she wept, she bowed her, and beheld forth in to the grave. And she saw two angels sitting in white, one at the head and one at the feet, where to body of Jesus was laid. And they said to her, Woman, what weepest thou? She said to them, For they have taken away my Lord, and I wot not where they have laid him. When she said these things, she turned backward, and saw Jesus standing, and wist not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith to her, Woman, what weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She guessing that it was the gardener, saith to him, Sire, if thou hast taken him up, say to me where thou hast laid him, and I shall take him away. Jesus saith to her, Mary. She turned and saith to him, Raboni, that is to say, Master. Jesus saith to her, Nil thou touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I go to my Father, to my God, and to your God. Mary Magdalene came, telling to the disciples that I saw the Lord, and these things He said to me. Therefore when it was eve in that day, one of the sabbaths, and the gates were shut, where the disciples were gathered, for dread of the Jews, Jesus came, and stood in the middle of the disciples, and he saith to them, Peace to you. And when he had said this, he showed to them hands and side; therefore the disciples joyed, for the Lord was seen. And he saith to them eftsoons, Peace to you: as the Father sent me, I sent you. When he has said this, he blew on them, and said, Take ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins ye forgive, they be forgiven to them; and whose ye withhold, they be withholden. But Thomas, one of the twelve, that is said Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. Therefore the other disciples said, We have seen the Lord. And he said to them, But I see in his hands the print of nails and put my hand into his side, I shall not believe. And after eight days eftsoon his disciples were with in, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, while the gates were shut, and stood in the middle, and said, Peace to you. Afterward he saith to Thomas, Put here thy finger, and see mine hands, and put hither thine hand, and put into my side, and nil thou be unbelieveful, but faithful. Thomas answered and said to him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith to him, Thomas, for thou hast seen me, thou believedest; blessed be they that see not, and have believed. And Jesus did many other signs in the sight of his disciples, which be not written down in this book. But these be written, that ye believe, that Jesus is Christ, the son of God, and that ye believing have life in his name.
“…ye believing have life in his name,” he whispered. His face was drawn and old, and his fingers shook. Dimly he heard the cock crow again, and the sleepy hens begin to call. He rose, snuffing the candle and shutting the book with a little thud. He carried the book through the shop into the hall, where he hid it in the great chest, under his furred cloak. Then he came back to tidy the kitchen, and flung open the door to let in the morning. A robin sat by the well, and flew up as he came out to draw water. He doused his head and his eyes began to clear a bit; the drops clung to his brows and his beard. Then he leaned against the rim and looked off across the meadows to where St. Botolph’s spire rose above the churchyard. They would be burying the Poor Priest this morning. They would be burying Simon, too, all that he had known or thought or, unheeding, had believed. He no longer questioned if it was false; he knew. But what was true, or what lay beyond him—emptiness or life—or what he must do—that he did not know.
THE HAZE OF AUTUMN lay on the land; the evenings had a chill, and the call of the rooks a wintry sound, as they flapped in a straggling line homeward in the shortening twilight. The harvest was in but the fields not empty, for the plowmen were out again, and sowing winter wheat and rye. The colors and sounds of the earth were changed. Simon’s garden was full of roses. The herbs were cut and hung in the kitchen to dry. The apple trees were heavy laden, and Margrit heard all day as she worked the plunk of apples falling to the grass. The straw hives had been carefully lifted and robbed of a portion of their combs. The onions were pulled and hung in strings from the rafters.
After the long, warm, growing days of summer, it was a time of gathering and drawing in, of laying up for the dark cold days ahead. Winters had been hard of late years; snows had been deep and the storms fierce, with wicked tides on the coasts, and lowlands flooded. People had starved, and more than one traveler had vanished, to be found in the spring thaws, a heap of rags in a snowdrift. Winter was an evil thing if one was not ready for it. So Margrit and Piers labored as usual. But Simon went about with a set face doing the accustomed tasks only in a heartless way, and often went off without a word to be gone all day, and they did not know where he was or why he had gone. People had begun to look at him in the town and mutter about him. Something was not right. The Priest Fulcun had stopped him in the street once, and fixed him with his eye, and uttered a pious phrase, but Simon had stared at him as if he were not there, and pushed on.
Simon was empty and lost. Each dawn was a fresh dread; each day must be labored through, and each night a time of torment, when he lay in the dark silence and looked into the abyss. The ingathering of summer, the mellow colors of the autumn earth, the song of the plowman to his oxen, drifting over the hedgerows, the whir and wheel of the clouds of swallows as they circled and dipped in the clear air, they stirred his heart with a terrible ache. He was not fit to share in creation with such beauty. Of all God’s creatures, man was the foulest and the most per-verse, the most alone for all his society; and he, Simon, was of all men the most perverse—though many of the sins preached against he had not done in fact. But in his heart he had done them all, and a deep-rooted, all-pervading, subtle sin had overwhelmed him; he lay in its clutches, recognizing it yet unable to be free: the sin of denial to life, loveless, coldhearted, deaf and blind to God, hedged in by self, lost in a maze, trustless.
Now, on this fair and ingathering day, with a frosty sparkle in the air, he closed the stall early, gathered the wares and all their gear into a barrow, and sent Piers off with it alone. Then he went slowly through the town, looking at faces, listening to voices. He felt odd and disembodied, almost as if he were not in his flesh there, and truly it seemed as if no one saw him, and he walked invisible. It was only when a rough shoulder brushed him, or a man with a cart shouted him out of the way, that he knew he was there and not in a dream.
So, as the bells of the abbey rang for Evensong and the bells of Trinity echoed them, he drifted into the Falcon, where a fire already snapped and hissed on the hearth against the chill and the dim light. A row of pewter tankards glowed on the shelf. From the pantry there came the tuneless hum of the alewife at her work. The place was empty, except for a small cluster in the corner of men he did not know—a carter, a plowman, a chapman with a dark, wild face, and a forester in green. Simon slipped into a settle nearby and signaled for ale, then he stared into the fire, his eyes blurred and his mind dumb.
After a long while the voices reached him.
“I met him north, toward Cantebrege, on the far side of the forest, where the track runs into the road to Bery. I’ve met many a man for talk in my day, but none like him. I took him home to Nan that night, but she’d have none of it, turned him out next morning, and bid me settle my thoughts and stick to my green.” It was the forester talking. “Women are always fearful for house and hearth and what might threaten it. But his words run in my mind still.”
“What manner of talk? Priest or friar? Stirring the commons?”
“Nay, not that.” The forester sighed and was silent, as if listening within. “It was as if, as if he came from another land, and strove to tell me of it, a fair land, full of peace. He said there was no man there who did not belong, and they belonged to one another. He said men should belong to one another, not going each his own way but shoulder to shoulder following the same master. He said God meant us to be one, and to be joyful.”
The chapman pushed his mug aside and laughed. “Joyful? Should we laugh at the pestilence and chuckle at an empty belly, and be glad over a cruel master?”
“Aye, I asked him that. He said God suffered with us in our pain, and held us in the hollow of his hand no matter what the world might deal us, and in him and one another we might have joy, despite all. But mostly God suffers for our heartlessness, and because we do not see that we are his and one another’s.”
There was a short silence, marked by the thump of ale mugs and shifting of feet.
“Where was he from and what was his trade?”
“A shepherd. He did not rightly say where his city was—north, and west, over the hills. Nor shall I ever see it, if it is at all. A man can dream of such a place—but he is bound to his spot of earth and tied as tight as ever was bondsman tied, and no year and a day can free him from the yoke of this life into a free city of such love as this shepherd spoke. Still and all…if it is God’s will we live in such love…then in what sin do we all stew…and should not all chains be brast apart, though we die for it! I know not, I know not. Only his words come back to me now and again, and I would Nan had heeded him also.”
“Men ever dream such things and they come to naught,” said the carter, uneasily. “Such idle talk leads us away from what we are duty bound to follow, here and now. The snares and pitfalls ye’ll find in the forest are such sins as should trouble you. Leave the rest to priest and bishop!”
“Mayhap,” groaned the forester. He pushed back his empty flagon and they all rose. There was the rattle and ring of coin and the stamping of feet. As they reached the door Simon found himself by the forester, his hand clutched on his green sleeve. He pulled him aside.
“Tell me,” he whispered, “where wast ye saw this man, and how long past?”
The forester looked at him with sad, black eyes in a seamed face. “A fortnight gone. By the road to Bery. He went toward Cantebrege,” he said.
“Had he a blue flower broidered here?” and Simon’s hand went to his chest, where the pain was.
“Aye, now I think of it, he did. Knowst him also?”
“Him or his brother. And I die at the roots—we all die at the roots—for lack of that ground in which he dwells.”
The two men stared at one another; the look went deep, in it the knowledge of all need, a far-reaching, naked knowledge past all words.
“I go,” gasped Simon. “I needs must, though I die in it.”
And then the chapman broke upon them with his wild laugh, a hand on each man’s shoulder pushing them apart. “Come, man, we are late now at Martin’s house and his good wife will scold. Supper waits and this idle talk addles your wits.” He pulled the forester into the street. Simon turned blindly toward home, running. The pain round his heart spread but he did not heed it, nor anything but the hammering in his brain. He was going, going. He was a fool, but God’s fool at least. If he could do naught else, he could be God’s fool. And so he ran.
Darkness found him in the kitchen, writing slowly and painfully. He laid down his quill and stared at his words.
I, Simon Beston, am leaving this life. All that is in this shop should be sold at fair price and the monies given to the poor of this parish. House and land is for Margrit Goodspeed and her son Piers. May God have mercy on us all.
Then he rose. He went through the shop and into the hall to the great carved chest. He took out his furred cloak, and the great book. This he carried out to the well, where he dropped it in, waiting till the splash had died away and the water settled. Then he went back in, to the kitchen, with the cloak over his arm. This he laid on the bench while he packed his wallet with bread and cheese. The keys from the chain at his belt he took off and laid on the paper he had written. Then he stood for a moment looking about him, before he picked up the flickering candle and blew it out. In the blackness he gathered up his cloak and felt his way to the door. Outside, it was cool and dark. Ben, tied by the apple tree, rose, growling faintly in his throat. Simon touched his head, and the stiff, upstanding ears. Then he went down the path and pushed open the gate, letting it click to behind him. Then he set his feet toward the London Road, and Cantebrege.
October 24, Feast of Edward the Confessor
THE FOREST WAS STILL when Simon halted, and full of rustle when he went ahead, for the track was all but hidden by the fallen leaves. Once he came upon pigs rooting for mast in the soft earth under the oaks, and they went squealing into the underbrush; and in a clearing where the grass was still fair and green a herd of wild ponies was cropping; they, too, lit off at his step and he listened to the light thunder of their hoofs until they stopped, waiting for him to move on. The sun came through in great patches where the leaves were already down, and in patterns of light and shade where the late leaves hung still on the ash trees and the gray beeches. A squirrel leaped along a branch. With a whir of wings a partridge flew up out of the brake. But there was no man save Simon, who was enveloped in a great peace.
He had left Braintree at dawn, making toward Walden, he hoped, and then on toward Cantebrege, which was still several days’ journey away at the pace he took. The tentative questions he had put about the man had been met with blank looks. Folk had been friendly enough. He had worked in the harvest a day here, a day there, to refill his wallet. The fair weather had held. He was weary, and the pain around his heart persisted, but he went ahead. He thought of Gillian now and again, and the forester, and once or twice of Margrit, hoping she had met with no trouble after he had gone. But it was as if house and shop and all the trappings of his former life had vanished away.
Only he found Hawise in his thoughts more than ever at any time since her death; even her face came before him vivid and clear again; he dreamed of her at night, and her persistent presence followed him all day. Something or someone he had once tried to blank out of his life and dismiss as meaningless now entered in afresh; fear of pain at remembering had disappeared and he welcomed Hawise now. He thought of her as he walked, with a feeling so strange to him that he did not know it was joy. Once as he went through a clearing in the early morning, he gathered a few asters for her and carried them all day, half expecting to come across her as he walked; in the evening, when they were wilted and pale, he laid them under a little aspen tree whose leaves were all a-tremble, and he went on, feeling tears upon his cheeks. It was a mystery, that he carried Hawise in his heart now, when she had been, he supposed, forgotten; and by virtue of his lovelessness and forgetting, surely she had long since withdrawn from him; but no, she was there. He dreamed of her as she first came into his uncle’s shop, in a scarlet hood, to buy needles, and he had pricked his fingers when he had showed them to her, so awestruck he was by her green eyes and the freckles on her nose, and her slender fingers that held the needles up to the light one by one. And then he had met her when he had gone a-maying; and they had walked in the lanes, in that wild, sweet spring. And he remembered now her care of him, for no wish of his that she could fill had ever gone unanswered.
He thought of himself very little now, of his plight or any danger and discomfort he might be in. His heart had been split wide open. He saw everything; the bug colored and shaped like a knight’s shield on the wild crabapple where he stopped to eat; the hare that sat up in the long grass and looked at him; the sweeping frond of fern all spotted in even rows of velvet brown on the underside; the sleek otter sliding into the water of the black forest pool. He felt, too, for all he met: the leper on the far side of Waltham who had gone off into a field to wait for Simon to pass, standing like an eyeless statue in his hood and wide hat and black cloak, his clapper clutched to his side; the goose girl singing to her flock as she went down the hillside to the stream; the earl’s men riding in from the forest with three dead deer lashed on poles slung between their horses, the laughing and the loud words, the bright tunics and heraldry. Pictures hung in his mind as on a tapestry. It was as if he had never seen the world before—God’s world or the men in it.
Now he went through the woods, a-rustle at his step. Past midday a little breeze sprang up; he could hear it in the treetops overhead. The sunlight grew more golden and warm, and he grew wearier. The track went down a gradual slope, into a clearing, and in the middle stood a great beech, still holding all its leaves. He made for it, thinking to rest beneath it, striding down through the long grass with the crickets leaping aside at his step, to where ponies had cropped the grass short all around the tree; and there he stood in a dazzle, for the breeze blew up again, but strongly now, and as he stood the leaves began to fall. They were steady and golden in a great shower as the tree took the wind; on and on they fell, as if his coming had been a signal for their descent, and as if his stepping out of the circle would signal them to stop. He stood there amazed, with leaves on his head and shoulders and brushing his cheek and falling all around him like golden snow. For long moments they fell, and when the wind at last passed on, the tree was nearly bare. A few last leaves spun down, and the soft, magical music floated away. Simon stood ankle deep in gold, with the golden sunlight pouring down upon him.
Out of the past there came to him another time when he had stood ankle deep in gold with sunlight warm upon him; but the gold had been buttercups, and he was a little lad running in from a long morning in the June hay harvest, and at the edge of the meadow he had met his mother, a tall lady in a blue gown. She had caught him and knelt before him, with a hand upon each shoulder, and she had smiled into his eyes, with a look of joy upon her face. “Little son,” she had said, “the sunshine has already kissed thee on thy nose, but mayhap thy chin is left for me!” And she had ducked him a kiss upon his chin, and then let him run laughing off to the well to wash before his meal. He remembered the plash of water on his face, and the look of her still standing there watching him.
Soon after that she had suddenly died, and his dark, silent father had sent him off to the abbey to get some schooling, as he had a sweet voice and a musical ear and a keen mind for learning. So the cold stone had begun to close around him, and at twelve, with no heart for the life of the church or for much else either, he had left the abbey and gone into his uncle’s shop, with a firm ground of learning and sums and a guarded heart. And until this moment he had hardly thought of her.
Now in an instant she had been given back to him. He was a little lad again and her joy in his small manliness stood like a shield between him and all sorrow. He felt as if his heart would break with a new amazement. Like long-forgotten treasure poured into his lap, love flooded him. He had cried out against God for having denied him love, but now he knew it had been there and had always followed him, but his blindness and stoniness had shut it out. Even with Hawise he had not rightly known the gem that had lain in his hands—even for so brief a time. Like jewels upon a necklace he counted now the remembered times love had been proffered him. God had loved him, and poured out love upon him, but he had not recognized or remembered; his ingratitude had clouded all his sight; he it was who had been loveless, not God, whose ways were past question.
So he wept, standing under the leafless beech, with sorrow for the past but joy for the present; then in weakness he sank down among the fallen leaves and put his back against the warm tree, and set his mind, with a kind of wondering courage, toward the future, and after a while in gratitude he fell asleep.
November 24, Leicester
THE PALE WINTER SUN shone on the great courtyard, astir and noisy. Through the wide gates haywains rumbled, dogs barking by the wheels, carters shouting, urchins catching at the straw that hung over the wain sides and left a trail on the cobbles. Maids carried green rushes from a laden wagon into the new church to strew on the stone floor, and came out laughing and singing for more armfuls. A dozen sheep were driven slowly through the hurrying press, toward the kitchen and offices and kitchen yard; and three peasants came lurching through with reed pens of squawking hens on their backs, headed the same way. A cool wind blew in from the river, and tossed the sound of the new organ from the new church in billows on the air. From the ancient parish chapel the bell pealed and the pigeons scattered in alarm, circling the gray Norman towers, swinging free over the river and the brown oaks on the other shore, circling back, and settling again to strut and mutter on the walls.
The whole castle, the whole town was out and busy, for the Earl of Lancaster himself was coming. The new church, St. Mary in the Newark, was being blessed by the bishop, and under its stones the earl himself would some-time lie, and all his descendants. Now in the thin November chill the people forgot the season that lay ahead, the long dark and the cold, and made a merry stir.
As the last wain rolled in, the steward’s man checked it off and shouted to clear a passage for it while the great, meek oxen with their massive heads and swinging shoulders plodded steadily toward the wide-flung doors of the hall. The man on the top of the load dug his fork into a toppling corner of the hay and braced with his feet as they rocked to a halt. He gritted his teeth as pain across his chest and shoulders spread, and his eyes swam. A shout from below—“Holla, man! Toss it down!” roused him and his eyes cleared. Simon, for it was he, let the first load of straw slide down with a rustling thud onto the threshold, and the earl’s men with their forks tossed it bundle by bundle into the sweet duskiness of the hall. As he stooped to pitch a load down he glimpsed within the huge oaken pillars, the great dais at the far end, and the wide hearth. Then he forgot all in the steady labor, the pitch and toss, pitch and toss, until the wain was bare except for stubble and chaff, and he could clamber down, sweating and dizzy. The steward’s man hastened by.
“Quench your thirst in the kitchen yard, man,” he said, not unkindly, as he saw Simon’s white face. “’Tis yonder”—pointing to a huddle of outbuildings that flanked the hall under the wall on the right. Then he hurried on. Simon looked across at the kitchen; the distance between seemed like a vast sea of rippling cobbles, but he set his feet that way. He had all but reached the other side when the pain seized him again; this time it could not be denied. He staggered to the low wall of the kitchen garden and clung there, panting. The carter who had driven Simon’s wagon in came out of the door with a tankard in his hand; he set it down on the sill with a cry and sprang forward, as for Simon the world went black and roaring, and then still.
DANCING FIRELIGHT was the first thing he saw; out of a deep and terrible sense of loss and despair he began to struggle, like a swimmer fighting toward the surface with bursting lungs. The faint firelight beckoned, and he knew he had not died. Shimmering and gleaming like treasure, the knowledge came that he had not died and he yet could journey on his search. God had put life back in his hands; it was not finished!
There was no more pain, only a terrible weakness that was iron on all his limbs. When he opened his eyes again, he saw a man’s face bending over him—the eyes, one was black and bright, the other cloudy and blind with a deep scar behind it. The man smiled; he had broken teeth, and pox, but he looked kind.
“Well,” he said. “We near called the priest for ye, but maybe ye’ll do after all. A little broth now’ll set the blood astir again.”
He lifted Simon’s head gently and put a cup to his lips. The broth was tasty and strong. Simon took a small sip, and then a longer. The man laid him back, and sat looking at him.
“In time,” he said, “tell who ye are and from where, for you’re not much known in these parts. This is St. Edmund’s Hospice and Almshouse, and I am the warden. The carter from Kirby Manor brought ye here after he’d picked ye up in a fit at the castle. Said ye’d come from the road to the east a fortnight gone, looking for work, and he called ye Simon. But now rest and sleep.”
Out of a spinning and shattered world, pieces began to slip in place; Simon kept his eyes fixed on the man’s face. The thought went on dancing in his mind like a gem: Maybe I shall yet find it; I am not yet dead. God still gives me life.
“More broth,” he whispered.
“Easy, man, easy,” said the warden. “Thee’ll have plenty of time for eating. ’Tis peaceful now with all gone to the great feast at the castle. I stayed by to watch, not knowing whether ye’d be a corpse soon or begin to draw breath more easily. Now methinks ye’ll do, with rest, and food, and drink, and a bit of this brew—made from the foxglove I grew in our own garden.” He rose and fetched more wood for the fire, and from a hutch near the hearth he poured a drink from a small blue jug into an earthenware mug. This he brought to Simon. But first he knelt and laid a finger on Simon’s wrist, feeling the heartbeats, with his shrewd black eye on Simon’s face.
“Now drink this, man, and then sleep.”
The drink was bitter and cool. Simon lay back, spent and weaker than a babe; out of a sick weakness and a new joy, tears gathered in the corners of his eyes and slid down his cheeks. The warden, stooping to cover him, clucked his tongue.
“What do ye weep for now, man?”
“Out of joy…that I have not died,” whispered Simon.
The warden sat on a low stool by Simon’s pallet. He fixed his eye again on Simon’s face.
“’Tis many a mortal would weep because they had not died, and only because God has given them a certain span do they go on pushing and plodding. Is the world that merry? Or thy good fortune so great? Thee pricks me with a wonder, man. Yet ’tis no time to ply thee with talk! Here I tell thee to sleep, and then sit chinning.” His black eye winked. “In the morning, after the beggars and poor wanderers have guzzled their porridge and gone out on the streets, then thee can better talk, and I can listen.”
Simon closed his eyes. He saw in his mind’s eye the old beggars he had seen often on Colchester Market, the old man who had begged of the abbot the day he met Gillian; and the paupers, the poor wandering landless men, whom he had scorned, not pitied, and hounded, not loved. And now here he lay—weak, penniless—yet joy played over him and warmed his limbs like the firelight. And then he slept.
He slept so long and so sound, he never heard or saw the rabble that crept in as night settled, nor the warden hushing them and shaking his fist at them if they began to jest and raise a ruckus, nor how one or two came to cast a look at him, and then went to their own pallets to lie down groaning and stretching till sleep took them. He could not know that all that night the warden sat by him, with an eye on his breathing, and a finger laid now and again on his wrist, and now and again rising to stir up the fire. And yet, also, he did know it, for love warmed his limbs, and love beat quietly and strongly in his pulse and laid peace on his mind.
As morning came he woke when the warden’s man came through ringing a little bell and rousing all the poor. They rose yawning and scratching and groaning from their beds and trooped noisily out of the long dormitory into the room beyond. Through the wide stone doorway Simon could see, from where he lay, a long table, with benches, and bowls set out, and the warden standing over a huge steaming pot of porridge. He filled each bowl with a dripping ladle, and bade them sit, and then a long, lean priest came in, and blessed them all, and mumbled a prayer. Then they all began to eat, spoons scraping the bowls, a low mumble of talk, coughs, clearing of throats, here and there a long sigh. Simon heard the priest say to the warden:
“Where is the sick man brought in last night?”
With averted face, busy with stirring up the porridge, the warden answered, “Still sleeping. He is mending now.”
So the priest went away. And Simon fell into a doze again. When he woke, the place was quiet. The warden sat near the fire, a stool pulled up to a low table, working his accounts in a large ledger. Simon watched him for a bit. Then he said softly, “I would I could pay thee a bit for all thy care for me.”
The warden laid down his pen at once and looked over at Simon, his black eye smiling. He stood up then and came closer.
“Let me fetch thee food and drink and tidy up a bit,” he said, “and then by words ye can pay me.”
So he brought an ewer of water, and washed Simon’s face and hands and tended his needs, and brought him porridge and warm milk and a piece of fine white bread spread with honey, and Simon felt like a king. Then he set another pillow behind Simon’s head and went back to his stool, but he closed his account book and shoved his quill aside.
“Now, Simon what-ever-other-name-ye-bear, ’tis a law on the land, as all men know, against wandering here and there except on pilgrimage or on some stated business, or unless licensed as a beggar or serving as a laborer. The earl’s men come around here now and then, or the Sheriff, casting an eye on all those who have asylum here, and they pick up a man now and then who tells no likely tale. I know not thy business or thy trade—but I know from the snatch I have heard of thy speech that thou art not from hereabouts, and thy hands look too newly blistered to have seen too steady toil, and what’s left of thy cloak tells that it was once fine. If I can help in whatever thou art after, that I will, but I must know straight where thou journeys and why, or from what, thou art fleeing. Don’t make thy words many, for thou art weak still and tires quickly. But speak me truth, as I truly feel thou wilt.”
So Simon looked at him, and the words came bit by bit.
“I come from Colchester, Essex. I was a mercer, and did right well. But I was alone, heart, soul, body, loving naught but myself, seeking naught but my own gain, and yet sick inside, with misery and sin, and the wasting of God’s life.”
He paused with his eyes on the warden’s face. The warden nodded, and leaned closer.
“One day, last summer, a man came by. He was a shepherd, and he had a wondrous tale to tell of his city and his master—to the north and then the west it was—a city so full of joy and holy peace, where men dwelt together in love as brothers—and he said it was a city beyond our words to reckon. And he was sent by his master to seek all those lost sheep.”
“Who was his master?” whispered the warden.
“Our Lord himself, he said it was our Lord himself.”
A golden silence fell on the room, with the firelight and the thin winter sun slanting through the narrow window. The warden shaded his eye, as if the light were too bright. Simon went on.
“When he had gone, I had no rest. I thought that I was going mad; I sought here and there. I roused talk in the town by my crazed ways. And finally, one night, a Poor Priest had died in our parish, and I went to his bier, and found his Bible, and read. And I knew…” he stopped again and watched the warden’s face.
“Go on,” whispered the warden.
“And I knew all I had been taught I could no longer swallow but must spew it forth. So I went about in a black emptiness. And then one day in the tavern I heard a forester talking, and he had met my man, my shepherd—or his brother—and he too, like me, was trapped in his life and could not break free. And then I knew I must go out to seek God for myself, and his city, though I died for it, for I was dying at the roots already. And I, who had denied all love, and denied life, have had it put back into my hands in ways I cannot tell. And I am thus far in my search, and pray God I may go still further. Now you know, so do as you like. The earl’s men may come, and I am on no rightful quest in their eyes. But he who has brought me so far will not let loose of me now! I am God’s fool now, and he cares for me. As you have cared for me.”
The warden’s head was bowed. For a long moment the silence lay on them. Then he raised his head.
“If ever thou reachest that city, wilt thou send back for me? Once I had a glimpse of it—in my own heart. When I was young, and not so ugly and half blind. I was taught in the abbey school, to train for a priest—and I knew the words of the Book, and I could not stomach the life—but I dared not say so—and I ran away, and went to the wars in France—and came back like this, and fit for nothing but to serve the beggars or be one myself. But over the years I have found it a grace to serve the poor for I count no man, neither myself, better than they, and we are all poor in God’s sight, those who sleep on silk or on the cobbles of the street. And I will help thee all I can, if thou wilt send back to me, if thou findest that city, God’s city, for such there must be! Surely Christ came to earth to change this miserable earth, as well as promise the hereafter.”
And he gave a sob, with his hands over his face. Simon, on one elbow, reached out a hand to him.
“Brother, I promise—unless thou wilt come with me!”
“Nay, that I cannot. I can only go on here. These poor, these filthy poor”—he gestured to the empty pallets by the walls—“who would love them, who would dip their porridge in the mornings, who would quiet them at night? I cannot leave them.”
Simon lay back. The sweat stood on his forehead, and a great pity grew in his heart.
“This city is for them, also. It is for us all. But I will send back, that I swear,” he whispered. And the two clasped hands.
The Day Before Christmas
THE SNOW HAD DRIVEN across the land in thick flakes all morning, coating the trees on their north sides, gathering in clumps on the dried weed tops along the road, putting white hoods on the boulders and the stepping stones across the creeks. It was a thick, wetting snow, and Simon felt it driving into each seam and cranny, so he was damp at wrist and neck and ankle, and cold all through. But at noon, when he emerged from the forest, the sun began to shine and the last flakes fell. So he stood at the edge of the wood and looked across the fields to where in its hollow lay the town of Coventry, its roofs white and its spires agleam.
He brushed the snow off a rock and perched on it to rest and eat. He ran over in his mind what he knew of Coventry, a far-famed city. He knew St. Michael’s was the largest parish church in England and was even now building a great spire—surely that scaffolded tower on the north. The abbey was an old one, founded by Leofric, Earl of Chester, and had the richest sanctuary in the kingdom. It was the Duke of Cornwall’s city—and famous for its players. And its Bakers’ Guild was the largest in the land. It was a rich and lively city, with thick walls and many gates; and from where he perched on his rock he could count two tall spires, besides the one being built, and a host of lesser ones, all sending noon chimes in a medley across the fields.
The cheese and bread left in his sack were soon finished, and pulling his hood partly over his eyes to keep off the glare of the sun on the snow, he rose and slogged on down the track. Where the road was he could scarcely tell except for the bare hedge on one side and a ditch on the other. So he went across the fields, and as the winter sun began to lower and the shadows to lie long, he came wearily to Bablake Gate, and into the city. Hard by the gate was the Guild Church of St. John the Baptist, and the collegiate buildings, with the hospital for poor wayfarers, standing gray and stark. He pushed on, through Gosford Street, and stopped by a town well, Jordan Well, he read on the stone, named for Jordan Stepney, mayor of the city, and perished by the Black Death in 1349. He stood leaning against the stone rim. John Ball, he remembered, had been hidden in a house in this town in the Great Revolt. He looked about him at the houses trim and white, with black timbers, the streets narrow but fairly free of filth, and well paved.
The stir and sounds of human voices struck him like blows. He felt, as he had felt long ago in Colchester, invisible, until someone brushed against him. The corner where he stood was by Baker Street, and half the city must have been going to and fro for their Christmas sweets. He caught whiffs of anise and clove and bay, and the warm, rich scent of yeast. An alderman in scarlet came past, with his page lugging a wicker pannier. A little boy trotted by with a raisin loaf under his arm, his nose rosy with frost, and a dog at his heels. A Carmelite from Whitefriars came slowly by, in white frock and brown scapular. Next a draper came past with his apprentice close to his elbow; they carried laden baskets. Three squires came reeling over the cobbles, merry and singing, and two nuns followed, their hands folded and their faces disapproving. They disappeared into the nearest shop.
Simon thought where he should go. He could go back to St. John’s Hospice or inquire for Trinity. He could seek shelter there. But it might be dreary past bearing. He still had some coins in his purse from the warden at St. Edmund’s. He would find an inn, pay for a supper and a decent bed and a bit of cheer. It was Christmas, after all!
But then his heart smote him. For this was Christmas, and never, never, had it been Christmas before for him. Except when he was a little lad, and clung to his mother’s side in the cold church, and wondered at the singing and the lovely shining crèche, and felt stirring in him an awe that they all worshiped a baby so small and weak. And he wondered now what the abbot and the duke, or the rich draper, felt in their hearts.
And then like a breaking wave the memory of the man descended over him, and Simon stood with his fingers clutching the frozen stone of the well. In that city, he wondered, what would they be doing? This was the birthday of their Master and King. And he was sick with longing, his head bent, his eyes blurred.
But it was late, and cold, and darkness coming. He roused himself and went on resolutely, following the crowd toward the center of the town. The square was noisy and cheery, and he shouldered his way toward where he saw a sign—a white bull on a black field. It was a large inn, by the looks of it. The leaded windows were warm with light inside. An arched gateway led to the courtyard and the stables. The chimneys were broad and smoking. The wide door opened and shut and a gust of smells came out—roast meat and hot spiced wine and green rushes— and a sound of singing, the clatter of plates, laughter. Simon went nearer. Then he pushed on the door, and went inside. He shut the door and stood with his back against it. The large room was bright with a hearth at either end, and fat beeswax candles set in sconces glowed along the walls. There were settles by the hearth, and long tables, and the room was noisy and crowded. A maid in a green gown came by with a steaming platter of meat and gave him a curious look. She set her platter down on the nearest table and passed by him again, beyond the screens to the kitchens. Then the innkeeper came out, flushed of face, wiping his hands on his apron. He came to Simon and looked him over.
“I seek supper, and a night’s lodging,” said Simon.
“H’m,” said the innkeeper, and he cast his eye about the room. “’Tis a more humble place ye seek. Try the White Cock, on Crooked Lane.”
“But it is late, and darkening, and I a stranger,” said Simon, softly. “I must find shelter before curfew.”
The door opened behind Simon, and three men swept in—a merchant, and his clerk, and his boy. The merchant wore a cloak with an ermine border and scarlet hose. The innkeeper rubbed his hands.
“To the kitchen,” he hissed at Simon, and went forward to his new guests. Simon slipped behind the screens and into the warm kitchen. The maid in the green gown was basting a fowl. She glanced up, and motioned him to a bench near the hearth. Simon sat and watched while she and two boys flitted in and out with food and drink. At length the innkeeper came back. He cut a wedge from a hot pie and thrust it on a trencher and fetched a flagon of ale, and set both before Simon.
“Eat,” he said, gruffly. “There is no bed here left—but ye can stay in the stable if ye’ve a mind to. Mayhap ye’ll see the beasts kneel at midnight—’tis Holy Eve— or hear them talk.” He laughed. “I once knew a shepherd who swore such tales were true. Perhaps when the world was young!” and he hurried on.
Simon ate in silence and exhaustion. Weariness was his companion, he thought, and loneliness his continuing bondage. The maid came back. He had finished his food, and now he laid down a coin for it, and rose.
“Which way the stable?” he asked.
She jerked her thumb toward a door in the far wall. He walked over and opened it, going out into the courtyard. He stood for a moment in the dark and cold, until the starlight grew, and then he saw the stables on the left. He went slowly across the flagstones and opened the wide stable door on its old creaking hinges, and stepped inside, carefully pulling the door to behind him.
What it was that came to him then he could not have told. But the world changed. He stood in the breathing dark and smelled the sour-sweet stable smell, and a sudden joy surged over him.
“It was here the Lord was born!” he whispered. Not in the warm glowing inn, not in the gleaming sanctuary, not in the great abbey, not in the tidy houses. Here, in a miserable stable!
Simon stood still, and his heart thudded. Little by little he began to see around him, by the faint starlight from the narrow window. The horses stamped in their stalls, and overhead a pigeon cooed and resettled herself. On the right he saw a dim white shape lying on the straw, and he moved that way. It was a cow, and over the edge of her stall a donkey drooped his head; his big ears dipped toward Simon, who put out a hand and scratched him between the eyes. The cow was warm and quiet, and Simon sank into the straw beside her. He leaned against the wall and stared before him into the faint light. The world was new-made, and he almost feared to touch it.
He had never thought, truly, of to whom he owed his loyalty, to whom he gave fealty—yet now he knew. It was to a man like himself, poor and despised, yet truly God; one to whom all kings must bow. Yet all poor men, who knelt to so many, must also kneel to him in their hearts, who came as poor as they, and who died despised. But he came and he died that he might always walk with them, in all things, and that they might share, out of God’s great mercy, in this miracle of love past all understanding. And what he called men out from—those poor fishermen and menders of nets—he still called men from, and just as they then were his, so he, Simon, could be his. And not alone. But at his Master’s feet. Always. And he could serve him now—in this instant—as the Man served him, as his City served him. He, Simon, could be Christ’s fool, his least servant—now, in this instant, in a stable in Coventry. And he wanted to sing with joy, that Christ was born and had come to him. So he sat in the breathing dark of the stable, and listened to the bells, and worshiped the Babe. And after a long while he lay against the warm cow and slept.
HE WAS TRAVELING through the Malvern Hills on the twentieth day of January, rising before dawn from the shelter of an empty forester’s hut. He had crossed the Severn below Worcester, after staying in the town long enough to earn bread and lodging by copying accounts for a mercer. On the night of the twentieth, he sheltered in an abandoned hermitage. In the morning it was bitter cold; the trees, each separate dead grass stem, each brown frond of bracken silver with hoar; and by a little stream he crossed, the mist had frozen like jeweled ferns along the bank. As he went on and the sun rose higher, the hoar melted and dripped, the dazzle vanished little by little, and the world turned brown again. He sang as he went, a wordless jumbled tune, but full of praise anyway, and he laughed at himself.
He came down out of the hills in the afternoon, and found the road to the bridge over Leadon River, and saw in the distance the huddled cottages of the village of Dymock. He set off that way, hoping for shelter, and because it looked a simple place, unwalled and castleless.
By the bridge some small boys were playing at staves. He heard their shouts as he came near, and the sound of hard thwacks, and a sudden crying; then an angry clamor broke out.
When Simon appeared amongst them they all fell back, silent, except the little boy on the ground who held his leg and continued to raise a howl. Simon looked at each grubby face, each heaving chest, and last he looked at the boy on the ground, who suddenly ceased howling and got up, wiping his nose on his sleeve. Simon smiled.
“None the worse?” he queried, and the boy shook his head.
“A game’s a game,” said Simon. “Best fling these in the river”—pointing to the staves—“if they bring anger instead of pleasure.”
The biggest lad picked up the staves.
“’Tis nearly sundown, and we’d best be going home, anyway,” he said. “Yonder is our village, and we could take ye the shortest way, across the fields, if that is where you are set to go. There is a hostel by the church for travelers, and many a hearth would give ye shelter.”
So Simon fell in with them, and they clattered over the wooden bridge, and went off across the wet meadows. They whistled to their dogs, who came one by one to sniff at Simon and wag their tails at him. They chattered like starlings in a bush about fishing, falcons, and the skill of making rushlights. Only the little boy who had cried was silent, and he stayed by Simon’s side, and after a bit took Simon’s hand. So they came into the village, and one by one the boys turned off home, till none were left but Simon and the little boy, and then they stood by the hostel. It was brown and bleak, and Simon looked at it with a sinking heart. The little boy tugged at his hand.
It is only a mean house, where I live, but…”
“I slept last night in an empty, bare hut,” said Simon, looking down at him. “What would thy mother say, if thee brought me home?”
“We are poor,” whispered the little boy, “and she is sad.”
“Then mayhap I can help make her merrier,” said Simon, “and I would like much to see thy house.”
“But that is not all. I have a little sister, and she can’t see. And my father…”
“He goes into great rages,” and the little boy shivered.
“Come,” said Simon. “Show me the way.” So they set off down the road again, and at the farthest cottage, in a ruined brown garden, they turned in.
The girl who rose from beside the fire was tall and slender; her face was pale and tired, and her hands red with chapping. She looked at her boy, and then at the strange man.
“He stopped with us where we were playing, Mother, and I brought him home. He was going to stay at the hostel, but it looked so comfortless.”
She smiled a little wryly.
“Nay, Dickon, any stranger is welcome here, though there be little comfort here also—”
“Then may he stay?”
“Lady,” broke in Simon, “this lad would not let me go. I will be no trouble, but also do what I can to fetch and carry, or mend what the lad is still too small to mend for thee, and can sleep in the shed I saw outside, gladly.”
The girl looked at him then, and her tired face softened.
“First sit and rest. And Dickon, fetch our guest cider from the shed, and clean his shoes and thy own clogs, and fetch in a bit of wood.” She pulled out a stool for Simon. “And go about it softly, for Elspeth sleeps.”
Simon sat, and let his weariness thaw out by the fire. Dickon vanished outside. The mother pulled oatcakes from the fire, and stirred a kettle of cabbages and curds. Then she stooped over a pallet that lay beneath the settle. On it was curled a golden-haired little girl. “The boy said he had a little sister,” Simon spoke softly.
“Yes,” said the mother, and sighed.
“I lost my little lass, long ago. She was golden-haired also.”
The mother ran her fingers softly over the child’s head.
“This little one is blind,” she whispered, “and perhaps better off where thy little one has gone. The world is hard and coldhearted to such as she.”
“Nay,” replied Simon, “not everywhere.”
The woman looked up. “I could give her to the Sisters to raise…but God sent her to me, and I love her more than my own life.”
Then Dickon came in and set a mug of cider by Simon, and stooped to take his boots to clean. Simon made him sit instead, and rolled down the hose on his right leg. There was a great bruise on his shin, from the stave blow. Simon slipped his hand under Dickon’s chin and tipped up his face. “Thee cried because it hurt!”
Dickon nodded dumbly.
“Then why did thee stop howling?”
“Because…because it did not hurt enough to spoil all, and for me to lie there in my own misery! And thee stood there and looked at me.”
Then they both laughed aloud, and the little girl on the pallet woke, and sat up, turning misty eyes their way.
“Now, Elspeth is awakened by our noise, lad. And I must make amends for it. Fetch me a bit of grease and a rag, and I’ll fix thy leg, and then maybe I can search my memory for a tale that might please a little girl, though such a little one as that needs a very little tale.”
Dickon fetched as he was bid. The mother brought the little girl out, and laid her hand in Simon’s. She had a round, rosy little face and Simon drew her close. She reached up her free hand and felt his beard and nose and eyes, and last reached around to pull at his ear. He crowed like a cock, and she drew back her hand, then suddenly sensed the jest, and gently tugged his ear again, and again he crowed. The little girl laughed a merry laugh and tried the other ear. That time a hen cackled. The mother stood and watched the game, her face alight, and Dickon, waiting to have his leg mended, began to quack. So Elspeth tried his ears, but soon came back to Simon, and perched on his lap, and there stayed while he spooned her supper into her, and gave her a mug of barley water. At last, after they had all had a merry supper, she went to sleep on his shoulder, and he laid her down, and covered her crumpled blue gown gently with a little quilt. The mother lit her tallow candle and set it on the table. Dickon’s head was nodding, and she sent him to his bed. Simon sat by the fire shaping a new leg for a broken stool. The mother brought her mending to the table, but the candle light was too feeble. She thrust her needle into the patched garment, put it aside, and stared into the flames. Then she looked at Simon.
“Art on a long journey? Art going home?” she asked.
He peeled off another curl of wood and tossed it into the fire. He smiled faintly.
“Lady, I may be nearing journey’s end. I travel out of exile, home.”
“Ever since Dickon brought thee, I meant to ask. He is a shy and wary lad, and for him to bring a stranger in puzzled me. But where was thy exile, and for why? If thou canst tell me. And where is thy city to which thee returneth?”
Simon’s hands were at rest and his face shone.
“I was in exile as all men are in exile, out of a proud and stubborn loneliness, out of a lovelessness, and a cold heart, and unbelieving.” He shook his head a bit as if to drive those memories away. “And then my brother came to me, though I did not know him, and he called me home, and proclaimed my true master, and I had no peace until I had set forth. And so I travel homeward, though I have never seen that city—yet will I know it, and its fair meadows are even now green with winter wheat before my eyes, and I hear its children singing in the streets, and its quiet bell proclaiming God’s love.”
The mother’s hands were white as she gripped the table edge and leaned toward him.
“Where is that city?” she whispered.
“North of here, somewhere over the mountains. That is all I know.”
“Who is the lord of that city?”
“Jesus, son of Mary, he is Lord of that city, and none other.”
There was no sound except the snap of the flames and the breathing of the children. The room was golden in the firelight. And then the mother put down her head and began to weep.
“Would I could go with thee,” she wept, “but I cannot, I cannot. My man, I cannot leave him. He goes off for days, raving, in the forest, and comes back sick and half starved, weak and helpless. He was a clerk, but with our marriage ruined all, and the abbey turned him off. Yonder are his pens and parchment. The loveliest letters he could do—all gold and blue scrolls, with peacocks and unicorns and pomegranates. So he went as a common laborer to earn our bread—but after Elspeth came he blamed himself for her affliction, and went mad, in these fits of raving when I cannot hold him here, and cannot follow. And no one can help. But surely in thy city there is forgiveness, and peace, and life for a little blind innocent, and a master to be loved beyond measure!”
“Lady, my sister,” said Simon, softly, “have no fear. My city is thy city also. And when I find it, I shall come back for thee, and for thine.”
She raised her head and looked at him then, and the color came to her cheeks.
“Canst find thy way here again?” she asked, half believing.
“Bring me parchment, and ink and quill,” said Simon. So she rose and brought it, blowing the dust away from the roll, and shaking the ink in its little jar. With his knife he cut a piece from the parchment. Then he dipped the quill, and laboriously began to write. The mother stood watching him, her hands clasped to her heart. He looked up at her.
“Thy name?” he asked.
“Julian, of Dymock, by Leadon River. And my man, he is Stephen.”
Simon wrote it down, and wrote some more. Then he laid aside the quill and put the piece of parchment in the wallet on his belt, fastening it securely. Then he rose and faced her.
“Dost thou believe me?”
“Yea, and even now I serve him in my heart.”
“Then tomorrow I must journey on, but first sleep, if I may.” And he moved toward the door. Julian gathered up a bearskin from the corner and gave it to him, and Simon went out into the night, to sleep in the shed.
HE HAD CROSSED the River Wye many days before, traveling slowly now, for the way was hard and he was weary to the bone. The way led up, and was rocky and steep, then down into shallow valleys where no man dwelt, then up again into the craggy hills. Here lived the golden eagle; and the shy little stoat, in its winter dress, who crouched on its ledge against the snow and watched him pass. He saw the track of deer and hare, and little prints of birds. He ate sparingly of what was in his wallet, and sucked snow when he was thirsty, and he pushed on, keeping the sun on his left. He was never warm, and always hungry, and in pain, but he did not know it, and went on, unheeding.
There came a day of thaw, and warm sun. The earth smelled new, and the ferns in the hollows were green and fresh. A gray bird with a rosy breast and bright black eye watched him as he ate his hard bread by a little stream and scooped water in his palm. Simon sang to it, and threw it crumbs, and laughed, and felt fresh courage. He was in a little valley, before him a steep cliff, with a trace of a path going up its face.
And as he sat there resting and drinking in the silence, he heard a bell.
It sounded muted and far, yet very clear, and after a time ceased. Simon sat as if in a spell, his heart thudding. And then he stood up. On either side as far as he could see, the cliff rose. Before him was that trace of path, the only way that he could see. So he began to climb.
He knew that others had been there before him, for here and there a step seemed hewn out of the rock, or a root that served as a handhold was worn and smooth. And halfway up he found the remains of a fire on a broad ledge, where someone had rested and warmed himself. Simon also rested there, and then looked back across the little valley, to the hills beyond that he had climbed. Then he turned to go upward again, and it was there, in a little green hollow, that he found it.
It was a blue flower. It grew all alone; it was cupped like a buttercup, blue-veined gold in the center, with three black stamens tipped with gold. He stared at it, sobbing with joy. And then with trembling fingers he reached out and plucked it very gently. He cupped it in his hands as if it were the fairest jewel. And then he looked up at the cliff, and the steep path. He tucked the flower into his tunic, and began to climb, more quickly now, his breath coming in gasps, his hands scratched, the sweat running into his eyes, his arms aching.
He climbed up, and up, never looking forward or back, but simply at the next foothold, the next tree or shrub to clutch. He passed more little green protected hollows, where the blue flowers grew, and he sobbed with joy and climbed higher. When he reached the top he hardly knew it, but suddenly found himself on a level, where there were large rocks and thick green laurel bushes, and the path ran straight before him. He staggered and caught himself against a rock, the breath rasping in his throat, and then he went on, straight through the bushes, and out into the sun.
There he stood in a dazzle. He stood at the edge of a sloping meadow, and before him there fell away a fair valley, with the sun a-shimmer over it, the fields green with winter wheat, the near pasture dotted with sheep. Below there was the clustered village, and as he stood, a solitary figure against the forest edge, the bell began to peal, and out of the village figures began to run, streaming out to meet him. A shepherd in the nearest field turned, and saw him, and broke into a stride his way.
And then Simon knew. Joy, like a great golden flower, grew and grew within his breast. The pain of it swelled and swelled and finally shattered. The valley opened out, broader and broader, into a golden kingdom, with many bells, and a vast host hastening out to welcome him. And he reached out his hands and cried, “Master, I have come!”
The shepherd was the first to reach him. He lay with his back against a rock, and his open eyes fixed on the village below, in his hands a blue flower. The shepherd gently closed his eyes, and the shepherd’s dog stood with head down, and his tail drooping and still. The shepherd was bearded and brown-visaged, with blue eyes and lashes like starpoints. When his brothers came up and stood in a silent circle he said quietly, “I found him in Colchester, many months ago. I felt someday I would set eyes on his face again. Truly he has come home.”
They took up a trestle, and the shepherd flung his cloak over it, and on this they laid Simon, and carried him down into the village. They made his bier in a small room set with greens and candles, and they placed a cluster of blue flowers in his hands. And one by one they came to look on his face, in sorrow and yet in joy that in death they were not divided. And the children sang in the road outside. And all night, in twos, his brothers watched by his side.
And in the morning, just after dawn, while they were digging his grave, the shepherd set forth. He went across the fields and up the sloping meadow, and disappeared into the forest edge along the path. In his wallet he carried Simon’s parchment, and on it was written:
To be gathered:
Julian, and her man Stephen, with their children,
of Dymock, near Leadon River. The warden, St. Edmund’s Hospice, Leicester. An unnamed forester, from near Cantebrege,
with a wife named Nan. Gillian, a little lass, of Duck Lane, Colchester.
Oh seek - while the hills remain. God calls, though daylight fails, the cruel, the pitiful, the proud, the weak, the brave, the covetous, the faltering, the wise, the poor, the kings, the lepers, and the crowd.
Struck through with death, we hold the seed; life springs, though our pale roots are dry: though heaven never seemed so high, God stoops, to touch our need.
And all the ages fall away; eyes meet, and shoulders touch at last; Christ waits, and gathers in His day the present, future, and the past.