Beauvale is, or was, the largest parish in England. It is thinly populated, only just netting the stragglers from shoals of houses in three large mining villages. For the rest, it holds a great tract of woodland, fragment of old Sherwood, a few hills of pasture and arable land, three collieries, and, finally, the ruins of a Cistercian abbey. These ruins lie in a still rich meadow at the foot of the last fall of woodland, through whose oaks shines a blue of hyacinths, like water, in May-time. Of the abbey, there remains only the east wall of the chancel standing, a wild thick mass of ivy weighting one shoulder, while pigeons perch in the tracery of the lofty window. This is the window in question.
The vicar of Beauvale is a bachelor of forty-two years. Quite early in life some illness caused a slight paralysis of his right side, so that he drags a little, and so that the right corner of his mouth is twisted up into his cheek with a constant grimace, unhidden by a heavy moustache. There is something pathetic about this twist on the vicar's countenance: his eyes are so shrewd and sad. It would be hard to get near to Mr Colbran. Indeed, now, his soul had some of the twist of his face, so that, when he is not ironical, he is satiric. Yet a man of more complete tolerance and generosity scarcely exists. Let the boors mock him, he merely smiles on the other side, and there is no malice in his eyes, only a quiet expression of waiting till they have finished. His people do not like him, yet none could bring forth an accusation against him, save, that "You never can tell when he's having you."
I dined the other evening with the vicar in his study. The room scandalizes the neighbourhood because of the statuary which adorns it: a Laocoon and other classic copies, with bronze and silver Italian Renaissance work. For the rest, it is all dark and tawny.
Mr Colbran is an archaeologist. He does not take himself seriously, however, in his hobby, so that nobody knows the worth of his opinions on the subject.
"Here you are," he said to me after dinner, "I've found another paragraph for my great work."
"What's that?" I asked.
"Haven't I told you I was compiling a Bible of the English people--the Bible of their hearts--their exclamations in presence of the unknown? I've found a fragment at home, a jump at God from Beauvale."
"Where?" I asked, startled.
The vicar closed his eyes whilst looking at me.
"Only on parchment," he said.
Then, slowly, he reached for a yellow book, and read, translating as he went:
"Then, while we chanted, came a crackling at the window, at the great east window, where hung our Lord on the Cross. It was a malicious covetous Devil wrathed by us, rended the lovely image of the glass. We saw the iron clutches of the fiend pick the window, and a face flaming red like fire in a basket did glower down on us. Our hearts melted away, our legs broke, we thought to die. The breath of the wretch filled the chapel.
"But our dear Saint, etc., etc., came hastening down heaven to defend us. The fiend began to groan and bray--he was daunted and beat off.
"When the sun uprose, and it was morning, some went out in dread upon the thin snow. There the figure of our Saint was broken and thrown down, whilst in the window was a wicked hole as from the Holy Wounds the Blessed Blood was run out at the touch of the Fiend, and on the snow was the Blood, sparkling like gold. Some gathered it up for the joy of this House. . . ."
"Interesting," I said. "Where's it from?"
"Beauvale records--fifteenth century."
"Beauvale Abbey," I said; "they were only very few, the monks. What frightened them, I wonder."
"I wonder," he repeated.
"Somebody climbed up," I supposed, "and attempted to get in."
"What?" he exclaimed, smiling.
"Well, what do you think?"
"Pretty much the same," he replied. "I glossed it out for my book."
"Your great work? Tell me."
He put a shade over the lamp so that the room was almost in darkness.
"Am I more than a voice?" he asked.
"I can see your hand," I replied. He moved entirely from the circle of light. Then his voice began, sing-song, sardonic:
"I was a serf in Rollestoun's Newthorpe Manor, master of the stables I was. One day a horse bit me as I was grooming him. He was an old enemy of mine. I fetched him a blow across the nose. Then, when he got a chance, he lashed out at me and caught me a gash over the mouth. I snatched at a hatchet and cut his head. He yelled, fiend as he was, and strained for me with all his teeth bare. I brought him down.
"For killing him they flogged me till they thought I was dead. I was sturdy, because we horse-serfs got plenty to eat. I was sturdy, but they flogged me till I did not move. The next night I set fire to the stables, and the stables set fire to the house. I watched and saw the red flame rise and look out of the window, I saw the folk running, each for himself, master no more than one of a frightened party. It was freezing, but the heat made me sweat. I saw them all turn again to watch, all rimmed with red. They cried, all of them when the roof went in, when the sparks splashed up at rebound. They cried then like dogs at the bagpipes howling. Master cursed me, till I laughed as I lay under a bush quite near.
"As the fire went down I got frightened. I ran for the woods, with fire blazing in my eyes and crackling in my ears. For hours I was all fire. Then I went to sleep under the bracken. When I woke it was evening. I had no mantle, was frozen stiff. I was afraid to move, lest all the sores of my back should be broken like thin ice. I lay still until I could bear my hunger no longer. I moved then to get used to the pain of movement, when I began to hunt for food. There was nothing to be found but hips.
"After wandering about till I was faint I dropped again in the bracken. The boughs above me creaked with frost. I started and looked round. The branches were like hair among the starlight. My heart stood still. Again there was a creak, creak, and suddenly a whoop, that whistled in fading. I fell down in the bracken like dead wood. Yet, by the peculiar whistling sound at the end, I knew it was only the ice bending or tightening in the frost. I was in the woods above the lake, only two miles from the Manor. And yet, when the lake whooped hollowly again, I clutched the frozen soil, every one of my muscles as stiff as the stiff earth. So all the night long I dare not move my face, but pressed it flat down, and taut I lay as if pegged down and braced.
"When morning came still I did not move, I lay still in a dream. By afternoon my ache was such it enlivened me. I cried, rocking my breath in the ache of moving. Then again I became fierce. I beat my hands on the rough bark to hurt them, so that I should not ache so much. In such a rage I was I swung my limbs to torture till I fell sick with pain. Yet I fought the hurt, fought it and fought by twisting and flinging myself, until it was overcome. Then the evening began to draw on. All day the sun had not loosened the frost. I felt the sky chill again towards afternoon. Then I knew the night was coming, and, remembering the great space I had just come through, horrible so that it seemed to have made me another man, I fled across the wood.
"But in my running I came upon the oak where hanged five bodies. There they must hang, bar-stiff, night after night. It was a terror worse than any. Turning, blundering through the forest, I came out where the trees thinned, where only hawthorns, ragged and shaggy, went down to the lake's edge.
"The sky across was red, the ice on the water glistened as if it were warm. A few wild geese sat out like stones on the sheet of ice. I thought of Martha. She was the daughter of the miller at the upper end of the lake. Her hair was red like beech leaves in a wind. When I had gone often to the mill with the horses she had brought me food.
"'I thought,' said I to her, ''twas a squirrel sat on your shoulder. 'Tis your hair fallen loose.'
"'They call me the fox,' she said.
"'Would I were your dog,' said I. She would bring me bacon and good bread, when I called at the mill with the horses. The thought of cakes of bread and of bacon made me reel as if drunk. I had torn at the rabbit holes, I had chewed wood all day. In such a dimness was my head that I felt neither the soreness of my wounds nor the cuts of thorns on my knees, but stumbled towards the mill, almost past fear of man and death, panting with fear of the darkness that crept behind me from trunk to trunk.
"Coming to the gap in the wood, below which lay the pond, I heard no sound. Always I knew the place filled with the buzz of water, but now it was silent. In fear of this stillness I ran forward, forgetting myself, forgetting the frost. The wood seemed to pursue me. I fell, just in time, down by a shed wherein were housed the few wintry pigs. The miller came riding in on his horse, and the barking of dogs was for him. I heard him curse the day, curse his servant, curse me, whom he had been out to hunt, in his rage of wasted labour, curse all. As I lay I heard inside the shed a sucking. Then I knew that the sow was there, and that the most of her sucking pigs would be already killed for tomorrow's Christmas. The miller, from forethought to have young at that time, made profit by his sucking pigs that were sold for the mid-winter feast.
"When in a moment all was silent in the dusk, I broke the bar and came into the shed. The sow grunted, but did not come forth to discover me. By and by I crept in towards her warmth. She had but three young left, which now angered her, she being too full of milk. Every now and again she slashed at them and they squealed. Busy as she was with them, I in the darkness advanced towards her. I trembled so that scarce dared I trust myself near her, for long dared not put my naked face towards her. Shuddering with hunger and fear, I at last fed of her, guarding my face with my arm. Her own full young tumbled squealing against me, but she, feeling her ease, lay grunting. At last I, too, lay drunk, swooning.
"I was roused by the shouting of the miller. He, angered by his daughter who wept, abused her, driving her from the house to feed the swine. She came, bowing under a yoke, to the door of the shed. Finding the pin broken she stood afraid, then, as the sow grunted, she came cautiously in. I took her with my arm, my hand over her mouth. As she struggled against my breast my heart began to beat loudly. At last she knew it was I. I clasped her. She hung in my arms, turning away her face, so that I kissed her throat. The tears blinded my eyes, I know not why, unless it were the hurt of my mouth, wounded by the horse, was keen.
"'They will kill you,' she whispered.
"'No,' I answered.
"And she wept softly. She took my head in her arms and kissed me, wetting me with her tears, brushing me with her keen hair, warming me through.
"'I will not go away from here,' I said. 'Bring me a knife, and I will defend myself.'
"'No,' she wept. 'Ah, no!'
"When she went I lay down, pressing my chest where she had rested on the earth, lest being alone were worse emptiness than hunger.
"Later she came again. I saw her bend in the doorway, a lanthorn hanging in front. As she peered under the redness of her falling hair, I was afraid of her. But she came with food. We sat together in the dull light. Sometimes still I shivered and my throat would not swallow.
"'If,' said I, 'I eat all this you have brought me, I shall sleep till somebody finds me.'
"Then she took away the rest of the meat.
"'Why,' said I, 'should I not eat?' She looked at me in tears of fear.
"'What?' I said, but still she had no answer. I kissed her, and the hurt of my wounded mouth angered me.
"'Now there is my blood,' said I, 'on your mouth.' Wiping her smooth hand over her lips, she looked thereat, then at me.
"'Leave me,' I said, 'I am tired.' She rose to leave me.
"'But bring a knife,' I said. Then she held the lanthorn near my face, looking as at a picture.
"'You look to me,' she said, 'like a stirk that is roped for the axe. Your eyes are dark, but they are wide open.'
"'Then I will sleep,' said I, 'but will not wake too late.'
"'Do not stay here,' she said.
"'I will not sleep in the wood,' I answered, and it was my heart that spoke, 'for I am afraid. I had better be afraid of the voice of man and dogs, than the sounds in the woods. Bring me a knife, and in the morning I will go. Alone will I not go now.'
"'The searchers will take you,' she said.
"'Bring me a knife,' I answered.
"'Ah, go,' she wept.
"'Not now--I will not--'
"With that she lifted the lanthorn, lit up her own face and mine. Her blue eyes dried of tears. Then I took her to myself, knowing she was mine.
"'I will come again,' she said.
"She went, and I folded my arms, lay down and slept.
"When I woke, she was rocking me wildly to rouse me.
"'I dreamed,' said I, 'that a great heap, as if it were a hill, lay on me and above me.'
"She put a cloak over me, gave me a hunting-knife and a wallet of food, and other things I did not note. Then under her own cloak she hid the lanthorn.
"'Let us go,' she said, and blindly I followed her.
"When I came out into the cold someone touched my face and my hair.
"'Ha!' I cried, 'who now--?' Then she swiftly clung to me, hushed me.
"'Someone has touched me,' I said aloud, still dazed with sleep.
"'Oh hush!' she wept. ''Tis snowing.' The dogs within the house began to bark. She fled forward, I after her. Coming to the ford of the stream she ran swiftly over, but I broke through the ice. Then I knew where I was. Snowflakes, fine and rapid, were biting at my face. In the wood there was no wind nor snow.
"'Listen,' said I to her, 'listen, for I am locked up with sleep.'
"'I hear roaring overhead,' she answered. 'I hear in the trees like great bats squeaking.'
"'Give me your hand,' said I.
"We heard many noises as we passed. Once as there uprose a whiteness before us, she cried aloud.
"'Nay,' said I, 'do not untie thy hand from mine,' and soon we were crossing fallen snow. But ever and again she started back from fear.
"'When you draw back my arm,' I said, angry, 'you loosed a weal on my shoulder.'
"Thereafter she ran by my side, like a fawn beside its mother.
"'We will cross the valley and gain the stream,' I said. 'That will lead us on its ice as on a path deep into the forest. There we can join the outlaws. The wolves are driven from this part. They have followed the driven deer.'
"We came directly on a large gleam that shaped itself up among flying grains of snow.
"'Ah!' she cried, and she stood amazed.
"Then I thought we had gone through the bounds into faery realm, and I was no more a man. How did I know what eyes were gleaming at me between the snow, what cunning spirits in the draughts of air? So I waited for what would happen, and I forgot her, that she was there. Only I could feel the spirits whirling and blowing about me.
"Whereupon she clung upon me, kissing me lavishly, and, were dogs or men or demons come upon us at that moment, she had let us be stricken down, nor heeded not. So we moved forward to the shadow that shone in colours upon the passing snow. We found ourselves under a door of light which shed its colours mixed with snow. This Martha had never seen, nor I, this door open for a red and brave issuing like fires. We wondered.
"'It is faery,' she said, and after a while, 'Could one catch such--Ah, no!'
"Through the snow shone bunches of red and blue.
"'Could one have such a little light like a red flower--only a little, like a rose-berry scarlet on one's breast!--then one were singled out as Our Lady.'
"I flung off my cloak and my burden to climb up the face of the shadow. Standing on rims of stone, then in pockets of snow, I reached upward. My hand was red and blue, but I could not take the stuff. Like colour of a moth's wing it was on my hand, it flew on the increasing snow. I stood higher on the head of a frozen man, reached higher my hand. Then I felt the bright stuff cold. I could not pluck it off. Down below she cried to me to come again to her. I felt a rib that yielded, I struck at it with my knife. There came a gap in the redness. Looking through I saw below as it were white stunted angels, with sad faces lifted in fear. Two faces they had each, and round rings of hair. I was afraid. I grasped the shining red, I pulled. Then the cold man under me sank, so I fell as if broken on to the snow.
"Soon I was risen again, and we were running downwards towards the stream. We felt ourselves eased when the smooth road of ice was beneath us. For a while it was resting, to travel thus evenly. But the wind blew round us, the snow hung upon us, we leaned us this way and that, towards the storm. I drew her along, for she came as a bird that stems lifting and swaying against the wind. By and by the snow came smaller, there was not wind in the wood. Then I felt nor labour, nor cold. Only I knew the darkness drifted by on either side, that overhead was a lane of paleness where a moon fled us before. Still, I can feel the moon fleeing from me, can feel the trees passing round me in slow dizzy reel, can feel the hurt of my shoulder and my straight arm torn with holding her. I was following the moon and the stream, for I knew where the water peeped from its burrow in the ground there were shelters of the outlaw. But she fell, without sound or sign.
"I gathered her up and climbed the bank. There all round me hissed the larchwood, dry beneath, and laced with its dry-fretted cords. For a little way I carried her into the trees. Then I laid her down till I cut flat hairy boughs. I put her in my bosom on this dry bed, so we swooned together through the night. I laced her round and covered her with myself, so she lay like a nut within its shell.
"Again, when morning came, it was pain of cold that woke me. I groaned, but my heart was warm as I saw the heap of red hair in my arms. As I looked at her, her eyes opened into mine. She smiled--from out of her smile came fear. As if in a trap she pressed back her head.
"'We have no flint,' said I.
"'Yes--in the wallet, flint and steel and tinder box,' she answered.
"'God yield you blessing,' I said.
"In a place a little open I kindled a fire of larch boughs. She was afraid of me, hovering near, yet never crossing a space.
"'Come,' said I, 'let us eat this food.'
"'Your face,' she said, 'is smeared with blood.'
"I opened out my cloak.
"'But come,' said I, 'you are frosted with cold.'
"I took a handful of snow in my hand, wiping my face with it, which then I dried on my cloak.
"'My face is no longer painted with blood, you are no longer afraid of me. Come here then, sit by me while we eat.'
"But as I cut the cold bread for her, she clasped me suddenly, kissing me. She fell before me, clasped my knees to her breast, weeping. She laid her face down to my feet, so that her hair spread like a fire before me. I wondered at the woman. 'Nay,' I cried. At that she lifted her face to me from below. 'Nay,' I cried, feeling my tears fall. With her head on my breast, my own tears rose from their source, wetting my cheek and her hair, which was wet with the rain of my eyes.
"Then I remembered and took from my bosom the coloured light of that night before. I saw it was black and rough.
"'Ah,' said I, 'this is magic.'
"'The black stone!' she wondered.
"'It is the red light of the night before,' I said.
"'It is magic,' she answered.
"'Shall I throw it?' said I, lifting the stone, 'shall I throw it away, for fear?'
"'It shines!' she cried, looking up. 'It shines like the eye of a creature at night, the eye of a wolf in the doorway.'
"''Tis magic,' I said, 'let me throw it from us.' But nay, she held my arm.
"'It is red and shining,' she cried.
"'It is a bloodstone,' I answered. 'It will hurt us, we shall die in blood.'
"'But give it to me,' she answered.
"'It is red of blood,' I said.
"'Ah, give it to me,' she called.
"'It is my blood,' I said.
"'Give it,' she commanded, low.
"'It is my life-stone,' I said.
"'Give it me,' she pleaded.
"'I gave it her. She held it up, she smiled, she smiled in my face, lifting her arms to me. I took her with my mouth, her mouth, her white throat. Nor she ever shrank, but trembled with happiness.
"What woke us, when the woods were filling again with shadow, when the fire was out, when we opened our eyes and looked up as if drowned, into the light which stood bright and thick on the tree-tops, what woke us was the sound of wolves. . . ."
"Nay," said the vicar, suddenly rising, "they lived happily ever after."
"No," I said.