Thursday, November 8, 2007


The Gathering of Brother Hilarius by Michael Fairless

The Gathering of Brother Hilarius by Michael Fairless
HILARIUS stood at the Monastery gate, looking away down the smooth,
well-kept road to the highway beyond. It lay quiet and serene in
the June sunshine, the white way to the outer world, and not even a
dust cloud on the horizon promised the approach of the train of
sumpter mules laden with meats for the bellies and cloth for the
backs of the good Brethren within. The Cellarer lacked wine, the
drug stores in the farmery were running low; last, but not least,
the Precentor had bespoken precious colours, rich gold, costly
vellum, and on these the thoughts of Hilarius tarried with anxious
On his left lay the forest, home of his longing imaginings. The
Monastery wall crept up one side of it, and over the top the great
trees peered and beckoned with their tossing, feathery branches.
Twice had Hilarius walked there, attending the Prior as he paced
slowly and silently along the mossy ways, under the strong,
springing pines; and the occasions were stored in his memory with
the glories of St Benedict's Day and Our Lady's Festivals. Away to
the right, within the great enclosure, stretched the Monastery
lands, fair to the eye, with orchard and fruitful field, teeming
with glad, unhurried labour.
At a little elevation, overlooking the whole domain, rose the
Priory buildings, topped by the Church, crown and heart of the
place, signing the sign of the Cross over the daily life and work
of the Brethren, itself the centre of that life, the object of that
work, ever unfinished because love knows not how to make an end.
To the monks it was a page in the history of the life of the Order,
written in stone, blazoned with beauty of the world's treasure; a
page on which each generation might spell out a word, perchance add
a line, to the greater glory of God and St Benedict. They were
always at work on it, stretching out eager hands for the rare
stuffs and precious stones devout men brought from overseas,
finding a place for the best of every ordered craft; their shame an
uncouth line or graceless arch, their glory each completed pinnacle
and fretted spire; ever restoring, enlarging, repairing,
spendthrift of money and time in the service of the House of the
The sun shone hot on grey wall and green garth; the spirit of
insistent peace brooded over the place. The wheeling white pigeons
circling the cloister walls cried peace; the sculptured saints in
their niches over the west door gave the blessing of peace; an old,
blind monk crossed the garth with the hesitating gait of habit
lately acquired - on his face was great peace. It rested
everywhere, this peace of prayerful service, where the clang of the
blacksmith's hammer smote the sound of the Office bell.
Hilarius, at the gate, questioned the road again and again for sign
of the belated train. It was vexatious; the Prior's lips would
take a thinner line, for the mules were already some days overdue;
and it was ill to keep the Prior waiting. The soft June wind swept
the fragrance of Mary's lilies across to the lad; he turned his
dreamy, blue eyes from the highway to the forest. The scent of the
pinewoods rushed to meet his sudden thought. Should he, dare he,
break cloister, and taste the wondrous delight of an unwalled
world? It were a sin, a grave sin, in a newly-made novice,
cloister-bred. The sweet, pungent smell overpowered him; the trees
beckoned with their long arms and slender fingers; the voice of the
forest called, and Hilarius, answering, walked swiftly away, with
bowed head and beating heart, between the sunburnt pine-boles.
At last he ventured to stop and look around him, his fair hair
aflame in the sunlight, his eyes full of awe of this arched and
pillared city of mystery and wonder.
It was very silent. Here and there a coney peeped out and fled,
and a woodpecker toiled with sharp, effective stroke. Hilarius'
eyes shone as he lifted his head and caught sight of the sunlit
blue between the great, green-fringed branches: it was as if Our
Lady trailed her gracious robe across the tree-tops. Then, as he
bathed his thirsty soul in the great sea of light and shade, cool
depths and shifting colours, the sense of his wrong-doing slipped
from him, and joy replaced it - joy so great that his heart ached
with it. He went on his way, singing Lauda Syon, his eyes
following the pine-boles, and presently, coming out into an open
glade, halted in amazement.
A flower incarnate stood before him; stood - nay, danced in the
wind. Over the sunny sward two little scarlet-clad feet chased
each other in rhythmic maze; dainty little brown hands spread the
folds of the deep blue skirt; a bodice, silver-laced, served as
stalk, on which balanced, lightly swaying, the flower of flowers
itself. Hilarius' eyes travelled upwards and rested there. Cheeks
like a sunburnt peach, lips, a scarlet bow; shimmering, tender,
laughing grey eyes curtained by long curling lashes; soft tendrils
of curly hair, blue black in the shadows, hiding the low level
brow. A sight for gods, but not for monks; above all, not for
untutored novices such as Hilarius.
His sin had found him out; it was the Devil, the lovely lady of St
Benedict; he drew breath and crossed himself hastily with a
murmured "Apage Sataas!"
The dancer stopped, conscious perhaps of a chill in the wind.
"O what a pretty boy!" she cried gaily. "Playing truant, I dare
wager. Come and dance!"
Hilarius crimsoned with shame and horror. "Woman," he said, and
his voice trembled somewhat, "art thou not shamed to deck thyself
in this devil's guise?"
The dancer bit her lip and stamped her little red shoe angrily.
"No more devil's guise than thine own," she retorted, eyeing his
semi-monastic garb with scant favour. "Can a poor maid not
practise her steps in the heart of a forest, but a cloister-bred
youngster must cry devil's guise?"
As she spoke her anger vanished like a summer cloud, and she broke
into peal on peal of joyous laughter. "Poor lad, with thy talk of
devils; hast thou never looked a maid in the eyes before?"
Shrewdly hit, mistress; never before has Hilarius looked a maid in
the eyes, and now he drops his own.
"Dost thou not know it is sin to deck the body thus, and entice
men's souls to their undoing?"
"An what is the matter with my poor body, may it please you, kind
sir?" she asked demurely, and stood with downcast eyes, like a
scolded child.
"It is wrong to deck the body," began Hilarius, softening at her
attitude, "because, because - "
Again the merry laugh rang out.
"Because, because - nay, Father" (with a mock reverence), "methinks
thy sermon is not ready; let it simmer awhile, and I will
catechise. How old art thou?" She held up her small finger
"Seventeen," replied Hilarius, surprised into reply.
"Art thou a monk?"
"Nay, a novice only."
"Hast thou ever loved?"
Hilarius threw up his hands in shocked indignation, but she went on
unconcerned -
"'Twas a foolish question; the answer's writ large for any maid to
read. But tell me, why art thou angry at the thought of love?"
Hilarius felt the ground slipping from under his feet.
"There is an evil love, and a holy love; it is good to love God and
the Saints and the Brethren - "
"But not the sisters?" the wicked little laugh pealed out. "Poor
sisters! Why, boy, the world is full of love, and not all for the
Saints and the Brethren, and it is good - good - good!" She opened
her arms wide. "'Tis the devil and the monks who call it evil.
Hast thou never seen the birds mate in the springtime, nor heard
the nightingale sing?"
"It is well for a husband to love his wife, and a mother her child.
That is love in measure, but not so high as the love we bear to God
and the Saints!" quoth Hilarius sententiously, mindful of
yesterday's homily in the Frater.
"But how can'st thou know that thou lovest the Saints?" the dancer
How did he know?
"How dost thou know that thou lovest thy mother?" he cried
triumphantly, forgetting the reprobate nature of the catechist, and
anxious only to come well out of the wordy war.
But the unexpected happened.
"Dost thou dare speak to me of my mother? I, love her? - I hate
her;" and she flung herself down on the grass in a passion of
Even a master of theology is helpless before a woman's tears.
"Maid, maid," said Hilarius, in deep distress, "indeed I did not
mean to vex thee;" and he came up and laid his hand on her
So successfully can the Prince of Darkness simulate grief!
The dancer sat up and brushed away her tears; she looked fairer and
more flowerlike than before, sitting on the green sward, looking up
at him through shining lashes.
"There, boy, 'tis naught. How could'st thou know? But what of
thine own mother?"
"I know not."
"Nay, what is this? And thy father?"
"He was a gentle knight who died in battle ere I knew him. I came
a little child to the Monastery, and know no other place."
"Ah," - vindictively, - "then thy mother may have been a light o'
"Light of love; it has a wondrous fair sound," said Hilarius with a
The maid looked at him speechless.
"Go home, Boy," she said at last emphatically.
Just then a lad, a tumbler by his dress, pushed a way through the
undergrowth, and stood grinning at the pair.
"So, Gia!" he said. "We must make haste; the others wait."
"''Tis my brother," said the dancer, "and" - pointing to the bag
slung across the youth's shoulder - "I trust he hath a fine fat hen
from thy Monastery for our meal."
Hilarius broke into a cold sweat.
The Convent's hens! The Saints preserve us! Was nothing sacred,
and were the Ten Commandments written solely for use in the
"'Tis stealing," he said feebly.
"'Tis stealing," the dancer mocked. "Hast thou another sermon
ready, Sir Preacher?"
"Empty bellies make light fingers," quoth the youth. "Did'st thou
ever hunger, master?"
"There is the fast of Lent which presses somewhat," said Hilarius.
"But ever a meal certain once in the day?" queried the girl.
"Ay, surely, and collation also; and Sunday is no fast."
The mischievous apes laughed - how they laughed!
"So, good Preacher," said the dancer at last, rising to her feet,
"thou dost know it is wrong to steal; but hast never felt hunger.
Thou dost know it is wrong to love any but God, the Saints, and thy
mother; but thou hast never known a mother, nor felt what it was to
love. Blind eyes! Blind eyes! the very forest could teach thee
these things an thou would'st learn. Farewell, good novice, back
to thy Saints and thy nursery; for me the wide wide world; hunger
and love - love - love!"
She seized her brother's hand and together they danced away like
two bright butterflies among the trees.
Hilarius stared after them until they disappeared, and then with
dazed eyes and drooping head took his way back to the Monastery.
The train of mules had just arrived; all was stir, bustle, and
explanation; and in the thick of it he slipped in unseen,
unquestioned; but he was hardly conscious of this mercy vouchsafed
him, for in his heart reigned desolation and doubt, and in his ears
rang the dancer's parting cry, "Hunger and love - love - love!"
BROTHER BERNARD, the Precentor, dealt out gold, paint and vellum
with generous hand to his favourite pupil, and wondered at his
downcast look.
"Methinks this gold is dull, Brother," said Hilarius one day,
fretfully, to his old master.
And again -
"'Tis very poor vermilion."
The Brother looked at him enquiry.
"Nay, nay, boy; 'tis thine eyes at fault; naught ails the colours."
Later, the Precentor came to look at the delicate border Hilarius
was setting to the page of the Nativity of Our Lady.
"Now may God be good to us!" he cried with uplifted hands. "Since
when did man paint the Blessed Mother with grey eyes and black hair
- curly too, i' faith?"
Hilarius crimsoned, he was weary of limning ever with blue and
gold, he faltered.
It was the same in chapel. The insistent question pursued him
through chant and psalm. Did he really love the Saints - St
Benedict, St Scholastica, St Bernard, St Hilary? The names left
him untouched; but his lips quivered as he thought of the great
love between the holy brother and sister of his Order. If he had
had a sister would they have loved like that?
The Saints' Days came and went, and he scourged himself with the
repeated question, kneeling with burning cheeks, and eyes from
which tears were not absent, in the Chapel of the Great Mother.
"Light of Love," the girl had called his mother; what more
beautiful name could he find for the Queen of Saints herself? So
he prayed in his simplicity:- "Great Light of Love, Mother of my
mother, grant love, love, love, to thy poor sinful son!"
The question came in his daily life.
Did he love the Prior? He feared him; and his voice was for
Hilarius as the voice of God Himself. Brother John? He feared him
too; Brother John's tongue was a thing to fear. Brother Richard,
old, half-blind? Surely he loved Brother Richard? - sad, helpless,
and lonely, by reason of his infirmities - or was it only pity he
felt for him?
Nay, let be; he loved them all. The Monastery was his home, the
Prior his father, the monks his brethren; why heed the wild words
of the witch in the forest? And yet what was it she had said?
"For me the wide world, hunger, and love - love - love!"
He wandered in the Monastery garden and was troubled by its
beauties. Two sulphur butterflies sported around the tall white
lilies at the farmery door. Did they love?
He watched the sparrows at their second nesting, full of business
and cheerful bickerings. Did they love?
She had said the answer was writ large for him to see: he wandered
staring, wide-eyed but sightless.
At last in his sore distress he turned to the Prior, as the shipwrecked
mariner turns to the sea-girt rock that towers serene and
unhurt above the devouring waves.
The Prior heard him patiently, with here and there a shrewd
question. When the halting tale was told he mused awhile, his
stern blue eyes grew tender, and a little smile troubled the firm
line of his mouth.
"My son," he said at length, "thou art in the wrong school;
nursery, was it the maid said? A shrewd lass and welcome to the
hen. Thou art a limner at heart - Brother Bernard tells of thy
wondrous skill with the brush - and to be limner thou must learn to
hunger and to love as the maid said. Ay, boy, and to be monk too,
though alack, men gainsay it."
"Father," said Hilarius, waxing bold from excessive need, "did'st
thou ever love as the maid meant?"
"Ay, boy - thy mother."
There was a long silence. Then the boy said timidly:-
"The maid said she might be light of love; 'tis a beautiful
The Prior started, and looked at him curiously:-
"What didst thou tell the maid?"
"That I never knew her, but that my father was a gentle knight who
died ere I saw him; and then the maid said perchance my mother was
light of love."
"Boy," said the Prior gravely, "'tis a weary tale, and sad of
telling. Thy mother was wondrous fair without, but she reckoned
love lightly, nay, knew it not for the holy thing it is, but
thought only of bodily lusts. Pray for her soul" - his voice grew
stern - "as for one of those upon whom God, in His great pity, may
have mercy. Thus have I prayed these many years."
Hilarius looked at him in wide-eyed horror:-
"She was evil, wicked, my mother?"
"Ay - a light woman, that was what the maid meant."
Then great darkness fell upon the soul of Hilarius, and he clasped
the Prior's knees weeping and praying like a little child.
"And so, my son," said the Prior, "for a time thou shalt go out
into the world, to strive and fail, hunger and love; only have a
care that thou art chaste in heart and life; for it is the pure
shall see God, and seeing love Him. Leave me now that. I may set
in order thy going; and send the Chamberlain hither to me."
That night Hilarius knelt through the long hours at the great Rood,
and then at St Mary Maudlin's altar he did penance for his dead
mother's sin.
A week later he left the Monastery as a bird leaves its nest, nay,
is pushed out by the far-seeing parent bird, full of vague terrors
of the great world without. He had a purse for his immediate
needs; a letter to a great knight, Sir John Maltravers, who would
be his patron; and another to the Prior's good friend, the Abbat of
St Alban's. The Convent bade him a sad farewell, for they loved
this gentle lad who had been with them from a little child; and
Brother Richard strained his filmy eyes to look his last at the
young face he would never see again.
The Prior gave him the Communion; and later walked beside him to
the gates. Then as Hilarius knelt he blessed him; and the boy,
overmastered by nameless fear, sprang up and prayed that he might
stay and learn some other way, however hard. The Prior shook his
"Nay, my son, so it must be; else how shall I answer to the Master
for this most precious lamb of my flock? Come back to us - an thou
can'st - let no fear deter thee; only take heed, when thine eyes
are opened and the great gifts of hunger and love are vouchsafed
thee, to keep still the faithful heart of a little child."
Then he bade him go; and Hilarius, for the pull of his heartstrings,
must needs run hot-foot down the broad forest road and
along the highway, without daring to look back, and so out into the
wide, wide world.
MARTIN THE MINSTREL sat under a wayside oak singing softly to
himself as he tuned his vielle. He was a long lanky fellow with
straight black locks flat against his sallow face, and dark eyes
that smouldered in hollow cavities. He wore the King's colours,
and broke a manchet of white bread with his mid-day repast.
"Heigh-ho!" sighed Martin, and laid the vielle lovingly beside him,
"another four leagues to Westminster, and I weary enough of shoeleather
already, and not another penny piece in my pocket 'til I
win back to good King Ned. A brave holiday I have had, from
Candlemas to Midsummer; free to sing or to be silent, to smile or
frown; wide England instead of palace walls; a crust of bread and a
jug of cider instead of a king's banquet. Now but another few
leagues and the cage again. Money in my pocket, true; but a song
here and a song there, such as suit the fancy of the Court gentles,
not of Martin the Minstrel. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho! 'tis a poor bird
sings at the word of a king, and a poor enough song too, if Edward
did but know it.
"Who comes here? Faith, the lad goes a steady pace and carries a
light heart from his song; and no ill voice either."
It was Hilarius, and he sang the Alma Redemptoris as he sped along
the green grass which bordered the highway.
When Martin hailed him he turned aside gladly, and his face lit up
at the sight of the vielle.
"Whence dost thou come, lad?" said Martin, eyeing him with
"Many days' journey from the Monastery of Prior Stephen," answered
"But thou art no monk!"
"Nay, a novice scarcely; but the Prior hath bidden me go forth to
see the world. It is wondrous fair," he added sincerely.
"He who speaks thus is cloister-bred," said Martin, and as Hilarius
made sign of assent, "'tis writ on thy face as well. Thy Prior
gave thee letters to the Abbat of St Peter's, I doubt not; thy face
is set for Westminster."
"Ay, for Westminster, but my letters are for that good knight, Sir
John Maltravers. I should have made an end of my journeying ere
now but that two days ago I met strange company. They took my
purse and hat and shoes, and kept me with them all night until the
late dawn. Then they gave me my goods again, and bade me Godspeed.'
"But kept thy purse?" Martin laughed.
"Nay, it is here, and naught is missing. It was all passing
strange, and I feared them, for they looked evil men; yet they did
me no wrong, and set me on my way gently enough, giving me
provision, which I lacked."
"Pick-purses and cut-throats afraid of God's judgments for once,"
muttered Martin; then aloud, "Well, young sir, we shall do well if
we win Westminster before night-fall; shall we journey together
since our way is the same?"
Hilarius assented gladly; and as they went, Martin told him of
Court and King, and the wondrous doings when the Princess Isabel
was wed. He listened open-eyed to tales of joust and revel and
sport; and heard eagerly all the minstrel could tell of Sir John
Maltravers himself, a man of great and good reputation, and no mean
musician; "and," added Martin, "three fair daughters he hath, the
eldest Eleanor, fairest of them all, of whom men say she would fain
be a nun. Thou art a pretty lad, I wager one or other will claim
thee for page."
"I will strive to serve well," said Hilarius soberly, "but I have
never spoken but to one maid 'til yesterday, when a woman gave me
Martin looked at his companion queerly.
"And thou art for Westminster! Nay, but by all the Saints this
Prior of thine is a strange master!"
"It is but for a time," said Hilarius, "then I shall go back to the
Monastery again. But first I would learn to be a real limner; I
have some small skill with the brush," he added simply.
Martin stared.
"Back to the cloister? Nay, lad, best turn about and get back now,
not wait till thou hast had a taste of Court life. Joust and
banquet and revel, revel, banquet, and joust, much merry-making and
little reason, much love and few marryings: a gay round, but not
such as makes a monk."
Hilarius smiled.
"Nay, that life will not be for me. I am to serve my lord, write
for him, methinks. But tell me, good Martin, dost thou love the
Court? It seems a fine thing to be the King's Minstrel."
"Nay, lad, nay," said the other hastily, "give me the open country
and the greenwood, and leave to sing or be silent. Still, the King
is a good master, and lets me roam as I list if I will but come
back; 'tis ill-faring in winter, so back I go to pipe in my cage
and follow the Court until next Lady-day lets the sun in on us
He struck his vielle lightly, and the two fell into a slower pace
as the minstrel sang. Hilarius' eyes filled with tears, for he was
still heart-sore, and Martin's voice rose and fell like the wind in
the tossing tree-tops which had beckoned him over the Monastery
wall. The song itself was sad - of a lover torn from his mistress
and borne away captive to alien service. When it was ended they
took a brisker pace in silence; then, after a while, Hilarius said
"Did'st thou sing of thyself, good Martin?"
"Ay, lad, and of my mistress." He stopped suddenly, louted low to
the sky, and with comprehensive gesture took in the countryside.
"A fair mistress, lad, and a faithful one, though of many moods. A
man suns himself in the warmth of her caresses by day, and at night
she is cold, chaste, unattainable; at one time she is all smiles
and tears, then with boisterous gesture she bids one seek shelter
from her buffets. She gives all and yet nothing; she trails the
very traces of her hair across a man's face only to elude him. She
holds him fast, for she is mother of all his children; yet he must
seek as though he knew her not, or she flouts him."
Hilarius listened eagerly. Was this what the dancer had meant -
the "wide wide world, hunger and love"?
"Did'st thou ever hunger, good Martin?"
"Ay, lad," said the minstrel, surprised, "and 'tis good sauce for
the next meal"
"Did'st thou ever love?"
Martin broke into a great laugh.
"Ay, marry I have more times than I count years. But see, here
comes one who knows little enough of hunger or love." Round the
bend of the road came a man in hermit's dress carrying a staff and
a well-filled wallet. His carriage seemed suddenly to become less
upright, and he leaned heavily on his stick as he besought an alms
from the two travellers.
Hilarius felt for his purse, but Martin stayed him.
"Nay, lad, better have left thy money with the pick-purses than
help to fill the skin of this lazy rogue; 'tis not the first time
we have met. See here," and with a dexterous jerk he caught the
hermit's wallet.
This one was too quick for him; with uplifted staff and a mouthful
of oaths, sorely at variance with his habit, he snatched it back,
flung the bag across his shoulder, and made off at a round pace
down the road, while Martin roared after him to wait an alms laid
on with a cudgel.
Hilarius gazed horrified from the retreating figure to his laughing
companion, who answered the unspoken question.
"A rascal, lad, yon carrion, and no holy father. They are the pest
of every country-side, these lazy rogues, who never do a hand's
turn and yet live better than many a squire. I warrant he has good
stuff in that larder of his to make merry with."
Hilarius walked on for some time in silence with bent head.
"I fear the world is an ill place and far from godliness," he said
at last.
"It will look thus to one cloister-bred, and 'tis true enough that
godliness is far from most men; but if a hermit's robe may cover a
rascal, often enough a good heart lies under an ill-favoured face
and tongue. See, lad," as another turn in the road brought them in
sight of Westminster, "there lies thy new world, God keep thee in
He pointed to a grey-walled city rising from the water's edge, with
roof and pinnacle, gable and turret, aflame in the light of the
western sky; in front flowed the river like a stream of molten
Hilarius gave a little cry.
"'Tis like the New Jerusalem!" he said, and Martin smiled grimly.
An hour later they stood within the walls of Westminster city, and
Hilarius, amazed and weary, clung close to Martin's side. Around
him he saw russet-clad archers, grooms, men on horseback, pedlars,
pages, falconers, scullions with meats, gallant knights, gaily
dressed ladies; it was like a tangled dream. The gabled fronts of
the houses were richly blazoned or hung with scarlet cloth; it was
a shifting scene of colour, life, and movement, and to Hilarius'
untutored eyes, wild confusion. Outside the taverns clustered all
sorts and conditions of men, drinking, gossiping, singing, for the
day's work was done. In the courtyard of the "Black Boar" a
chained bear padded restlessly to and fro, and Hilarius crossed
himself anxiously - was the devil about to beset him under all
guises at once? He raised a fervent Ora pro me to St Benedict as
he hurried past. A string of pack-horses in the narrow street sent
folk flying for refuge to the low dark doorways, and a buxom wench,
seeing the pretty lad, bussed him soundly. This was too much, only
the man in him stayed the indignant tears. "Martin, Martin!" he
cried; but the minstrel was on his own ground now, and was hailed
everywhere with acclamations, and news given and demanded in a
breath. Hilarius, shrinking, aghast, his ears scourged with rough
oaths and rude jests, his eyes offended by the easy manners round
him, his cheek hot from the late salute, took refuge under a low
archway, and waited with anxious heart until the minstrel should
have done with the crowd.
Martin did not forget him.
"Hole, lad!" he cried, "see how they welcome the King's bird back
to his cage! As for thee, thou hast gone straight to thy cot like
a homing pigeon; through that archway, lad, lies thy journey's
end." Then, apprehending for the first time Hilarius' white face
and piteous eyes, Martin strode across, swept him under the archway
into a quiet courtyard where a fountain rippled, and, having handed
him over to Sir John's steward, left him with a friendly slap on
the back and the promise of speedy meeting.
Hilarius delivered the Prior's letter, and followed the steward
into a rush-strewn hall where scullions and serving-men were busy
with preparations for the evening meal; and sat there, lonely and
dejected, his curiosity quenched, his heart sore, his whole being
crying out for the busied peace and silent orderliness of his
cloister home. The servants gibed at him, but he was too weary to
heed; indeed he hardly noticed when the household swept in to
supper, until a page-boy tweaked him slyly by the ear and bade him
come to table. He ate and drank thankfully, too dazed to take note
of the meal; and the pages and squires among whom he sat left him
alone, abashed at his gentleness. At last, something restored by
the much-needed food, Hilarius looked round the hall.
It reminded him of the Refectory at home, save that it was far
loftier and heavily timbered. The twilight stealing in through
high lancet windows served but to emphasize the upper gloom, which
the morrow's sun would dissipate into cunningly carved woodwork - a
man's thought in every quaintly wrought boss and panel, grotesque
beast and guarding saint. A raised table stood at the upper end of
the hall, and here gaily dressed pages waited on the master of the
house and his honoured guests. Hilarius rightly guessed the tall,
careworn man of distinguished presence to be no other than Sir John
himself, and he liked him well; but his eyes wandered carelessly
over the rest of the company until they were caught and held by a
woman's face. It was Eleanor, the fairest of the knight's three
fair daughters; and when Hilarius saw her he felt as a weary
traveller feels who meets a fellow citizen in a far-off land.
"Even such a face must the Blessed Agnes have had," he thought, his
mind reverting to his favourite Saint; "she is like the lilies in
the garth at home."
It was a strange comparison, for the girl was extravagantly dressed
in costly materials and brilliant colours, her hair coifed in the
foolish French fashion of the day; and yet, despite it all, she
looked a nun. Her face was pale, her brows set straight; her eyes,
save when she was much moved, were like grey shadows veiling an
unknown soul; her mouth, delicately curved, was scarcely reddened;
her head drooped slightly on her long, slender neck, a gesture
instinct with gracious humility. She was like a pictured saint:
Hilarius' gaze clung to her, followed her as she left the hall, and
saw her still as he sat apart while the serving men cleared the
lower tables and brought in the sleeping gear for the night. He
lay down with the rest, and through the high, lancet windows the
moonlight kissed his white and weary face as it was wont to do on
bright nights in the cloister dormitory. Around him men lay
sleeping soundly after the day's toils; there was none to heed, and
he sobbed like a little homesick child, until his tired youth
triumphed, and he fell asleep, to dream of Martin and the Prior,
the lady at the raised table, and the pale, sweet lilies in the
cloister garth.
"BLIND eyes, blind eyes!" sang the dancer.
Hilarius woke with a start. He had fallen asleep on a bench in the
sunny courtyard and his dream had carried him back to the forest.
He sat rubbing his eyes and only half-awake, the sun kissing his
hair into a halo against the old grey wall. A falcon near fretted
restlessly on her perch, and a hound asleep by the fountain rose,
and, slowly stretching its great limbs, came towards him.
It was four o'clock on a warm day in September; the courtyard was
deserted save for a few busied serving men, and the knight and his
household, were at a tilting in the Outer Bailey, all but the Lady
Eleanor, Hilarius' mistress, for, as Martin had foreseen, Sir John
had so appointed it.
It was now two months since Hilarius had come to the city which had
seemed to him in the distance as the New Jerusalem full of promise;
but he had found no angels at the gates, nor were the streets full
of the righteous; nay, the place seemed nearer of kin to the
Babylon of Blessed John's Vision - with a few holy ones who would
surely be caught up ere judgment fell, amongst them Sir John and
Lady Eleanor.
A good knight and a God-fearing man was Sir John, tender to his
children, gentle with his people, a faithful servant to God and
King Edward; shrewd withal, and an apt reader of men. Therefore,
and because of the love he bore to Prior Stephen, he set Hilarius
to attend his eldest daughter, who seemed to belong as little to
this world as the lad himself; and felt that in so doing he had
achieved the best possible for his old friend, according to his
Hilarius for his part served the Lady Eleanor as an acolyte tends
the chapel of a saint, only she was further removed from him than a
saint, by reason of her pale humanity. He soon perceived, as he
watched her at banquet, tourney, or pageant, that she went to a
revel as to the Sacrament, and sat at a mummers' show with eyes
fixed on the Unseen. She moved through the gay vivid world of
Court gallants and joyous maidens like a shadow, and the rout grew
graver at her coming.
It was much the same with her lover, Guy de Steyning - brother of
that Hugh de Steyning men wot of as Brother Ambrosius - a gentle
knight with mild blue eyes, a peaked red beard, and great fervour
for heavenly things. The pair liked one another well; but their
time was taken up with preparation for Paradise rather than with
earthly business, and their speech lent itself more readily to
devout phrases than to lovers' vows. It was small wonder,
therefore, that another year saw them both by glad consent in the
cloister, he at Oxford, and Eleanor in the Benedictine House of
which her aunt was Prioress.
Hilarius had written of his saintly mistress to Prior Stephen just
as he had written of the wondrous beauty of St Peter's Abbey:
"With all its straight, slender, upstanding pillars, methinks 'tis
like the forest at home" (forgetting that his more intimate
knowledge of the forest partook of the nature of sin). "The Lady
Eleanor, my honoured mistress," he wrote, "is a most saintly and
devout maiden, full of heavenly lore, and caring nought for the
things of this world;" and he added, "'tis beautiful to see such
devotion where for the most part are sinful and light-minded
The Prior laid the script aside with a smile and a sigh; and when
Brother Bernard asked news of the lad, answered a little sadly,
"Nay, Brother, he still sleeps;" and indeed there seemed no waking
him to a world of men - living, striving, sorely-tried men.
He dwelt in a land of his own making - a land of colour and light
and shadow in which much that he saw played a part; only the
gorgeous pageants turned to hosts of triumphant saints heralded by
angels; while the knights at a tourney in their brave armour
pictured St George, St Michael, or St Martin in his dreams.
It was a limner he longed to be, far away from the stir and stress,
not a page attending a great lady to the Court functions. He
yearned ever after the Scriptorium, with its busied monks and
stores of colour and gold. It lay but a stone's throw away behind
the jealous Monastery walls, but it was no part of Prior Stephen's
plan that the lad should go straight from one cloister to another.
To Hilarius sitting on the bench in the sun, came one of Eleanor's
tirewomen to bid him wait on her mistress. He rose at once and
followed her through the hall and up the winding stair, along a
gallery hung with wondrous story-telling tapestry, to the bower
where Eleanor sat with two of her women busied with their needle.
Hilarius found his mistress, her hands idle on her knee. He louted
low, and she bade him bring a stool and sit beside her.
"I am weary," she said; "this life is weariness. Tell me of the
Monastery and the forest - stay, tell me rather of the New
Jerusalem that Brother Ambrose saw and limned.'
Hilarius, nothing loth, settled himself at her feet, elbow on knee,
and chin on his open hands, his dreamy blue eyes gazing away out of
the window at the cloud-flecked sky above the Abbey pinnacles.
"The Brother Ambrose," he began, "was ever a saintly man, approved
of God and beloved by the Brethren; ay, and a crafty limner, save
that of late his eyesight failed him. To him one night, as he lay
a-bed in the dormitory, came the word of the Lord, saying: "Come,
and I will show thee the Bride, the Lamb's wife." And Brother
Ambrose arose and was carried to a great and high mountain, even as
in the Vision of Blessed John. 'Twas a still night of many stars,
and Brother Ambrose, looking up, saw a radiant path in the heavens;
and lo! the stars gathered themselves together on either side until
they stood as walls of light, and the four winds lapped him about
as in a mantle and bore him towards the wondrous gleaming roadway.
Then between the stars came the Holy City with roof and pinnacle
aflame, and walls aglow with such colours as no earthly limner
dreams of, and much gold. Brother Ambrose beheld the Gates of
Pearl, and by every gate an angel, with wings of snow and fire, and
a face no man dare look on, because of its exceeding radiance.
"Then as Brother Ambrose stretched out his arms because of his
great longing, a little grey cloud came out of the north and hung
between the walls of light, so that he no longer beheld the Vision,
but heard only a sound as of a great multitude crying, 'Alleluia';
and suddenly the winds came about him again, and lo! he found
himself in bed in the dormitory, and it was midnight, for the bell
was ringing to Matins; and he rose and went down with the rest; but
when the Brethren left the choir, Brother Ambrose stayed fast in
his place, hearing and seeing nothing because of the Vision of God;
and at Lauds they found him and told the Prior.
"He questioned Brother Ambrose of the matter, and when he heard the
Vision, bade him limn the Holy City even as he had seen it; and the
Precentor gave him uterine vellum and much fine gold and what
colours he asked for the work. Then Brother Ambrose limned a
wondrous fair city of gold with turrets and spires; and he inlaid
blue for the sapphire, and green for the emerald, and vermilion
where the city seemed aflame with the glory of God; but the angels
he could not limn, nor could he set the rest of the colours as he
saw them, nor the wall of stars on either hand; and Brother Ambrose
fell sick because of the exceeding great longing he had to limn the
Holy City, and was very sad; but our Prior bade him thank God and
remember the infirmity of the flesh, which, like the little grey
cloud, veiled Jerusalem to his sight."
There was silence. Lady Eleanor clasped her shadowy blue-veined
hands under her chin, and in her eyes too was a great longing.
"It seemeth to me small wonder that Brother Ambrose fell sick," she
said, at length.
Hilarius nodded:
"He had ever a patient, wistful look as of one from home; and often
he would sit musing in the cloister and scarce give heed to the
Office bell."
"Methinks, Hilarius, it will be passing sweet to dwell in that Holy
"Nay, lady," said her page tenderly, "surely thou hast had a vision
even as Brother Ambrose, for thine eyes wait always, like unto
Eleanor shook her head, and two tears crept slowly from the shadow
of her eyes.
"Nay, not to such as I am is the vision vouchsafed; though my
desire is great, 'tis ever clogged by sin; and for this same reason
I would get me to a cloister where I might fast and pray
Hilarius looked at her with great compassion.
"Sweet lady, the Lord fulfil all thy desires; yet, methinks, thou
art already as one of His saints."
"Nay, but a poor sinner in an evil world," she answered. "Sing to
me, Hilarius."
And he sang her the Salve Regina, and when it was ended she bade
him go, for she would fain spend some time in prayer upon her
"Our Lady and all Saints be with thee, sweet mistress!" he said,
and left her to sob out once more the sins and sorrows of her
tender childlike heart.
HILARIUS went back to the courtyard, his soul full of trouble. He
leant against the fountain, playing with the cool water which fell
with monotonous rhythm into the shallow timeworn basin. The
cloudless sky smiled back at him from the broken mirror into which
he gazed, and the glory of its untroubled blue thrilled him
strangely. He too had a vision which he longed to limn; but it was
of earth, not Heaven, like that vouchsafed to Brother Ambrose; and
yet none the less precious, for was it not the Monastery at home
which so haunted him, the grey, familiar walls with their girdle of
sunlit pasture, and the mantling forest which bowed and swayed at
the will of the whispering wind?
"As well seek Heaven's gate in yon fair reflection as learn to love
in this light-minded, deceitful city," Hilarius said to himself a
little bitterly. He deemed that he had plumbed its hollowness and
learnt the full measure of its vanity. Already he shunned the
company and diversions of his fellow pages, though he was ever
ready to serve them. A prentice lad's homely brawl set him
shivering; a woman's jest painted his cheeks 'til they rivalled a
young maid's at her first wooing. He plucked aside his skirts and
walked in judgment; only wherever mountebank or juggler held the
crowd enthralled, there Hilarius, half-ashamed, would push his way,
in the unacknowledged hope of seeing again the maid whose mother,
like his own, was light o' love: a strange link truly to bind
Hilarius in his blindness to the rest of poor sinful humanity.
Suddenly there broke on his musing the clatter of horse-hoofs, and
a gay young page came spurring with bent head under the low
archway. He reined up by Hilarius:
"Dear lad, kind lad, wilt thou do me a service?"
"That will I, Hal, an it be in my power."
"Take this purse, then, to the Cock Tavern and give it mine host.
'Tis Luke Langland's reckoning; he left it with me yesternight, but
my head was full of feast and tourney, and 'tis yet undelivered.
Mine host will not let the serving men and the two horses go 'til
he hath seen Luke's money, and I cannot stay, for my lord will need
Hilarius took the purse; and his fellow page, blessing him for a
good comrade, clattered back through the gateway.
The streets were full of life and colour; serving men in the livery
of Abbat and Knight, King and Cardinal, lounged at the tavern doors
dicing, gaming, and drinking. Hilarius walked delicately and
strove to shut eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of sin. He
delivered the purse, only to hear mine host curse roundly because
it was lighter than the reckoning; and after being hustled and
jeered at for a milk-faced varlet by the men who stood drinking, he
sought with scarlet cheeks for a less frequented way.
The quiet of a narrow street invited him; he turned aside, and
suddenly traffic and turmoil died away. He was in a city within a
city; a place of mean tenements, wretched hovels, ruined houses,
and, keeping guard over them all, a grim square tower, blind save
for two windowed eyes. Men, ill-favoured, hang-dog, or care-worn,
stood about the house doors silent and moody; a white-faced woman
crossing the street with a bucket gave no greeting; the very
children rolling in the foul gutters neither laughed nor chattered
nor played. The city without seemed very far from this dismal
sordid place.
Hilarius felt a touch on his shoulder, and a kindly voice said:-
"How now, young sir, for what crime dost thou take sanctuary?"
He looked up and saw an old man in the black dress of an
ecclesiastic, the keys of St Peter broidered on his arm.
"Sanctuary," stammered Hilarius, "nay, good sir, I - "
The other laughed.
"Wert thou star-gazing, then, that thou could'st stray into these
precincts and know it not? This is the City of Refuge to which a
man may flee when he has robbed or murdered his fellow, or been
guilty of treason, seditious talk, or slander - a strange place in
which to see such a face as thine."
"I did but seek a quiet way home and lost the turning," said
Hilarius; "in sooth, 'tis a fearful place."
"Ay, boy, 'tis a place of darkness and despair, despite its safety
- even the King's arm falls short when a man is in these precincts:
but from himself and the knowledge of his crime, a man cannot flee;
hence I say 'tis a place of darkness and despair."
The unspoken question shone in Hilarius' eyes, and the other
answered it.
"Nay, there is no blood on my soul, young sir. 'Twas good advice I
gave, well meant but ill received, so here I dwell to learn the
wisdom of fools and the foolishness of wisdom."
"Does the Abbat know what evil men these are that seek the shelter
of Holy Church?" asked Hilarius, perplexed.
"Most surely he knows; but what would'st thou have? It hath ever
been the part of the Church to embrace sinners with open arms lest
they repent. A man leaves wrath behind him when he flees hither;
but should he set foot in the city without, he is the law's, and no
man may gainsay it."
"Nay, sir, but these look far from repentance," said Hilarius.
"Ay, ay, true eno'," rejoined the other cheerfully, "but then 'tis
not for nothing Mother Church holds the keys. Man's law may fail
to reach, but there is ever hell-fire for the unrepented sinner."
Hilarius nodded, and his eyes wandered over the squalid place with
the North Porch of the Abbey for its sole beauty.
"It must be as hell here, to live with robbers and men with bloody
"Nay," said the old man hastily, "many of them are kindly folk, and
many have slain in anger without thought. 'Tis a sad place,
though, and thy young face is like a sunbeam on a winter's day.
Come, I will show thee thy road."
He led Hilarius through the winding alleys and set him once more on
the edge of the city's stir and hum.
"I can no further," he said. "Farewell, young sir, and God keep
thee! An old man's blessing ne'er harmed any one."
Hilarius gave him godden, and sped swiftly back through the streets
crowded with folks returning from the tourney. The Abbey bell rang
out above the shouts and din.
"'Tis an evil, evil world," quoth young Hilarius.
OCTOBER and November came and sped, and Hilarius' longing to be a
limner waxed with the waning year. One day by the waterside he met
Martin, of whom he saw now much, now little, for the Minstrel
followed the Court.
"The cage grows too small for me, lad," he said, as he stood with
Hilarius watching the sun sink below the Surrey uplands; "ay, and I
love one woman, which is ill for a man of my trade. I must be away
to my mistress, winter or no winter, else my song will die and my
heart break."
"'Tis even so with me, good Martin," said Hilarius sadly; "I too
would fain go forth and serve my mistress; but the cage door is
barred, and I may not open it from within."
Martin whistled and smote the lad friendly on the shoulder.
"Patience, lad, patience, thou art young yet. Eighteen this
Martinmas, say you? In truth 'tis a great age, but still leaves
time and to spare. 'All things come to a waiting man,' saith the
A week later he chanced on Hilarius sitting on a bench under the
south wall of the farmery cloister. It was a mild, melancholy day,
and suited the Minstrel's mood.
He sat down by him and told of King and Court; then when Hilarius
had once more cried his longing, he said gravely:-
"One comes who will open more cage doors than thine and mine, lad -
and yet earn no welcome."
Hilarius looked at him questioningly.
"Lad, hast thou ever seen Death?"
"Nay, good Martin."
"It comes, lad, it comes; or I am greatly at fault. I saw the
Plague once in Flanders, and fled against the wind, and so came out
with a clean skin; now I am like to see it again; for it has landed
in the south, and creeps this way. Mark my words, lad, thou wilt
know Death ere the winter is out, and such as God keep thee from."
Hilarius understood little of these words but the sound of them,
and turned to speak of other things.
Martin looked at him gloomily.
"Best get back to the cloister and Prior Stephen, lad."
"Nay, good Martin, that may not be; but I have still a letter for
the Abbat of St Alban's, and would hasten thither if Sir John would
set me free. Methinks I am a slow scholar," went on poor Hilarius
ruefully, "for I have not yet gone hungry - and as for love,
methinks there are few folk to love in this wicked city."
Martin laughed and then grew grave again.
"Maybe he comes who will teach thee both, and yet I would fain find
thee a kinder master. Well, well, lad, get thee to St Alban's an
it be possible; thou art best in a cloister, methinks, for all thy
wise Prior Stephen may say."
And he went off singing -
"Three felons hung from a roadside tree,
One black and one white and one grey;
And the ravens plucked their eyes away
From one and two and three,
That honest men might see
And thievish knaves should pay;
Lest these might be
As blind as they.
Ah, well-a-day, well-a-day!
One - two - three! On the gallows-tree hung they."
Hilarius listened with a smile until the last notes of Martin's
voice had died away, and then fell a-musing of hunger and love, the
dancer and the Prior.
Suddenly, as if his thought had taken speech, he heard a voice say:
"I hunger, I hunger, feed me most sweet Manna, for I hunger - I
hunger, and I love."
He sprang to his feet, but there was no one in sight. Again the
shrill quavering voice called:
"Love of God, I hunger, Love of God, I die. Blessed Peter, pray
for me! Blessed Michael, defend me!"
Hilarius knew now; it was the Ankret, that holy man who for sixty
years had fasted and prayed in his living tomb at the corner of the
cloister. He was held a saint above all the ankrets before him,
and wondrous wise; the King himself had sought his counsel, and the
Convent held him in high esteem.
Again the voice: Hilarius strove to reach up to the grated window
of the cell - it was too high above him. An overpowering desire
came upon him to ask the Ankret of his future. With a spring he
caught at the window's upright bars; his cap flew off and he hung
bare-headed, the sun behind him, gazing into the cell.
On his knees was an old man whose long white hair lay in matted
locks upon his shoulders, and whose beard fell far below his
girdle. The skin of his face was like grey parchment, and his
deep-set eyes glowed strangely in their hollow cavities.
Hilarius strove to speak, but words failed him.
The Ankret looking up saw the beautiful face at his window with its
aureole of yellow hair, and stretched out his bony withered hands.
"Blessed Michael, Blessed Michael, the messenger of the Lord!" he
cried, gaining strength from the vision.
"What would'st thou, Father!" said Hilarius, afraid.
"Nay, who am I that I should speak? and yet, and yet - " the old
man's voice grew weaker - "the Bread of Heaven, that I may die in
He stretched out his hands again entreatingly, and Hilarius was
sore perplexed.
"Dost thou crave speech of the Abbat, my Father?"
The Ankret looked troubled.
"Blessed Michael, Blessed Michael!" he murmured entreatingly.
Hilarius' hands hurt him sore; it was clear that the holy man saw
some wondrous vision, and 'twas no gain time to speech of him.
"Blessed Michael, Blessed Michael!" quavered the old, tired voice.
Hilarius felt himself slipping; with a great effort he held fast
and braced himself against the wall
"Blessed Michael, Blessed Michael!" - The appeal in the half-dead
face was awful.
Hilarius' grip failed; he slid to the ground bruised and sore from
the unaccustomed strain, but well pleased. True, he had gained no
counsel from the Ankret, but he had seen the holy man - ay, even
when he was visited by a heavenly messenger, and that in itself
should bring a blessing. He turned to go, when a sudden thought
came to him. There was no one in sight, no sound but the failing
cry from the tired old saint. Hilarius doffed his cap again and
his fresh young voice rose clear and sweet through the thin still
"Iesu, dulcis memoria,
Dans vera cordis gaudia;
Sed super mel et omnia
Dulcis ejus praesentia."
At the fourth stanza his memory failed him; but he could hear the
Ankret crooning to himself the words he had sung, and crying softly
like a little child.
Hilarius went home with wonder in his heart, but said no word of
what had befallen him; and that night the Ankret died, and the Sub-
Prior gave him the last sacraments.
Next day it was known that a vision had been vouchsafed the holy
man before his end; and that the Prince of Angels himself had
brought his message of release: and Hilarius, greatly content to
think that the Blessed Michael had indeed been so near him, kept
his own counsel.
He told Lady Eleanor of Martin's words.
"God save the King!" she said, and went into her oratory to pray:
and there was need of prayer, for the Minstrel's foreboding was no
idle one. Ere London knew it the Plague was at her gates; yet the
King, undeterred, came to spend Christmas at Westminster; but
Martin was not in his train. Men's mirth waxed hot by reason of
the terror they would not recognise. Banquet and revel, allegory
and miracle play; pageant of beautiful women and brave men;
junketing, ay, and rioting - thus they flung a defiance at the
enemy; and then fled: for across the clash of the feast bells
sounded the mournful note of funeral dirge and requiem.
Eleanor, knowing Hilarius' ardent longing for school and master,
prayed her father to set him on the way to St Alban's instead of
keeping him with them to follow a fugitive Court. The good knight,
feeling one page more or less mattered little when Death was so
ready to serve, and anxious for the lad's safety and well-being,
assented gladly enough. So it came to pass that on the Feast of
the Three Kings Hilarius found himself on the Watling Street Way, a
well-filled purse in his pocket, but a fearful heart under his
jerkin; for the Death he had never seen loomed large, a great king,
and by all accounts a most mighty hunter.
IT is, for the most part, the moneyed man who flees from the face
of Death; the poor man awaits him quietly, with patient
indifference, in the field or under his own roof-tree; ay, and
often flings the door wide for the guest, or hastens his coming.
Thus it came to pass that while the stricken poor agonised in the
grip of unknown horror, bishop and merchant, prince and chapman,
fine ladies in gorgeous litters, abbesses with their train of nuns,
and many more, fled north, east, and west, from the pestilent
cities, and encumbered the roads with much traffic. One
procession, and one only, did Hilarius meet making its way to
It was a keen frosty day; there had been little previous rain or
snow, and the roads were dry; the trees in the hedgerows, bare and
stricken skeletons, stood out sharp and black against a cold grey
sky. Suddenly the sound of a mournful chant smote upon the still
air, music and words alike strange. The singers came slowly up the
roadway, men of foreign aspect walking with bent heads, their dark,
matted locks almost hiding their wild, fixed eyes and thin, haggard
faces. They were stripped to the waist, their backs torn and
bleeding, and carried each a bloody scourge wherewith to strike his
fellow. At the third step they signed the sign of the Cross with
their prostrate bodies on the ground; and thus in blood and
penitence they went towards London.
Hilarius was familiar with the exercise but not the manner of it.
These strange, wild men filled him with horror, and he shrank back
with the rest. Then a man sprang from among the watching crowd,
tore off jerkin and shirt, and flung up his arms to heaven with a
great sob.
"I left wife and children to perish alone," he cried, "and fled to
save my miserable skin. Now may God have mercy on my soul, for I
go back. Smite, and smite hard, brother!" and he stepped in front
of the first flagellant.
At this there arose a cry from the folk that looked on, and many
fell on their knees and confessed their sins, accusing themselves
with groanings and tears; but Hilarius, seized with sudden terror,
turned and fled blindly, without thought of direction, his eyes
wide, the blood drumming in his ears, a great horror at his heels -
a horror that could drive a man from wife and child, that had
driven brave Martin to flee against the wind, and all this folk to
leave house and home to save that which most men count dearer than
At last, exhausted and panting, he stayed to rest, and saw, coming
towards him, a blind friar. Hilarius had turned into a by-way in
the hurry of his terror, and they two were alone. The friar was a
small, mean-looking man, feeling his way by the aid of hand and
staff; his face upturned, craving the light. He stopped when he
came up with Hilarius, and turned his sightless eyes on him; a fire
burnt in the dead ashes.
"Art thou that son of Christ waiting to guide my steps, as the Lord
promised me?"
Hilarius started back, afraid at the strange address; but the friar
laid one lean hand on his arm, and, letting the staff slip back
against his shoulder, felt Hilarius' face, not with the light and
practised touch of the blind, but slowly and carefully, frowning
the while.
"Son, thou wilt come with me?"
"Nay, good Father, I may not; I am for St Alban's."
"Whence, my son?"
"From Westminster, good Father."
"Nay, then, thou mayest spare shoe-leather. I left the Monastery
but now, and, I warrant thee, they promise small welcome to those
from the pestilent cities. What would'st thou with the Abbat?"
Hilarius told him.
The friar flung up his hands.
"Laus Deo! Laus Deo!" he cried, "now I know thou art in very truth
the lad of my dream. Listen, my son, and I will tell thee all.
Thrice has the vision come to me; I see the mother who bore me
carried away, struggling and cursing, by men in black apparel, and
Hell is near at hand, belching out smoke and flame, and many
hideous devils; yet the place is little Bungay, where my mother
hath a cot by the river. When first the dream came I lay at
Mechlin in the Monastery there; my flesh quaked and my hair stood
up by reason of the awfulness of the vision; then as I mused and
prayed I saw in it the call of the Lord, that I might wrestle with
Satan for my mother's soul, for she was ever inclined to evil arts
and spells, and thought little of aught save gain.
"Forthwith I suffered no man to stay me, and set off, the Plague at
my heels; but ever out-stripping it, I was careful to preach its
coming in every place, that men might turn and repent. Then as I
tarried on the seaboard for a ship the Plague came; and because I
had preached its coming, the people rose in wrath, and, falling
upon me, roughly handled me. They beat me full sore in the marketplace;
then, piercing my eyeballs, set me adrift in a small boat.
"Two days and two nights I lay at the mercy of the sea, darkness
and light alike to me, and with no thought of time; for the flames
of hell burnt in my eyes, and a worse anguish in my heart because
of my mother's soul."
"And then, and then?" tried Hilarius breathlessly, tears of pure
pity in his eyes.
"Then the Lord cared for me even as He cared for the Prophet Jonas,
and sent a ship that His message might not be hindered. The
shipmen were kindly folk, but we were driven out of our course by a
great wind, and at last came ashore in Lincolnshire. I have come
south thus far by the aid of Christian men, but time presses; and
now, lo! thou art here to guide me."
"But, my Father," said poor Hilarius, seeing yet another barrier in
the way of his desires, "'tis a limner I would be; and I am from
Westminster, not London, and then there is Prior Stephen's letter -
The friar held up his hand:
"Thou shalt be a limner, my son, the Lord hath revealed it to me.
Last night the vision came again, and a voice cried: 'Speed, for a
son of Christ waits by the way to guide thy steps,' and lo! thou
art here, waiting by the way, as the voice said. And now, son, an
thou wilt come thou shalt take thy letter to Wymondham - 'tis a
cell of this Abbey - for there is Brother Andreas from overseas who
hath wondrous skill with the brush; he will teach thee, for thou
shalt say to him that Brother Amadeus sent thee, who is now as
Bartimeus, waiting for the light of the Lord; but first thou shalt
set me in that village of Bungay, where my mother dwelleth."
Hilarius listened, gazing awestruck at the withered eyes that
vainly questioned his face. He had forgotten plague, death,
flagellants, in this absorbing tale of the man of God, who was even
as one of the blessed martyrs. Brother Andreas! A skilled limner!
How should he, Hilarius, gainsay one with a vision from the Lord?"
"I obey, my Father," he cried joyously, taking the friar's hand;
and they two passed swiftly down the road, their faces to the east.
IT was a bitterly cold night and St Agnes' Eve; the snow fell
heavily, caught into whirling eddies by the keen north wind.
Hilarius and the Friar, crossing an empty waste of bleak
unprotected heath, met the full force of the blast, and each moment
the snow grew denser, the darkness more complete. They struggled
on, breathless, beaten, exhausted and lost; Hilarius, leading the
Friar by one hand, held the other across his bent head to shield
himself from the buffets of the wind.
Suddenly he stood fast.
"I can no more, Father," he said, "the snow is as a wall; there is
naught to see or to hear; I deem we are far from our right way."
His voice was very weak, and he caught at the Friar for support.
"I will pray the Lord, my son, that He open thine eyes, even as He
opened the eyes of the prophet's servant in the besieged city; so
shalt thou see a host of angels encompassing us, for we are about
the Lord's business."
"Nay, my Father," said Hilarius feebly, "I see no angels, and I
perish." He tottered, and would have fallen, but the Friar caught
him in his arms. A moment he stood irresolute, the boy on his
breast, then flung away his staff and lifted him to his shoulder.
With unerring, confident step he went forward through the snow, a
white figure bearing a white burden in a white world. All at once
the wind dropped, the blinding shower ceased, and Hilarius, rested
and comforted, spoke:-
"Is it thou, my Father?"
"It is I, my son, but angels are on either hand and go before to
guide. The snow hath ceased, canst thou walk?"
He set Hilarius gently on his feet, and lo! he found the stars
The boy gave a cry, and forgetting his companion's darkness,
pointed to the left where lay a snow-clad village.
"A miracle, a miracle, my Father!"
"A miracle, i' faith, my son: the Lord hath given guidance to the
blind as He promised. Let us go down."
They went by the white way under the stars; and Hilarius was full
of awe and comfort because of the angels of God which attended on a
poor friar.
At the village hostel they found rough but friendly entertainment
and several guests. They dried themselves at a roaring fire, and
Hilarius made a hearty meal; the Friar would eat nothing save a
morsel of bread.
A messenger was there, a short stout man with stubbly beard, bright
black eyes like beads, and a high colour. He was riding with
despatches from the King to the Abbat at Bury, and had fearful
tales to tell of the Plague; how in London they piled the dead in
trenches, while many who escaped the pest died of want and cold; it
was a city of the dead rather than the living. One great lord,
travelling post-haste from Westminster, had been found by his
servants to have the disorder, and they fled, leaving him by the
wayside to perish.
Hilarius heard horror-struck.
"'Tis a grievous shame so to desert a sick master," he said.
"Nay, lad," said a chapman in the corner, "but a man loves his own
skin best."
"Ay, ay," said a fat ruddy-faced miller, overtaken by the storm on
his way to a neighbouring village, "a man's own skin before all.
Fill your belly first and your neighbour's afterwards. Live and
let live."
"Ay, let live," chimed in mine host, bustling in with a stoop of
cider for the chapman, "but, by the Rood, 'tis cruel work when two
lone women are murdered for a bit of mouldy bacon and a lump of
bread; for I'se warrant 'tis a long day sin' they had more than
that at best."
The chapman took his cider.
"Where was this work done?" he said.
"Nay, where but here on the bruary! The women were found Wednesday
se'n-night by the herd as he went folding. They lay on the floor
in their blood."
Hilarius turned sick. In Westminster, by some miracle, he had been
spared the sight of violent death - ay, or of death in any form -
and had seen nothing worse than a rogue in the stocks, for which
sight he had thanked Heaven piously.
"'Tis the fault of the rich," said a voice, and Hilarius saw, to
his surprise, that there was a second friar in the room; a tall,
bullet-headed man, with a heavy, obstinate jaw ornamented with a
scanty fringe of black hair.
"The rich grow fat, and the poor starve," he went on, "'tis hunger
makes a man kill his brother for a mouthful of mouldy bacon."
"Nay," said the miller, "there was no need to kill, Father. A man
could have taken the meat from two lone women and left them their
"Why take from folk as poor as themselves?" said mine host. "Let
them rob the rich an they must rob."
"Ay," said the friar, "rob the rich, say you, take their own, say
I. God did not make this world that one man should be over full
and another go empty; nor is it religion that the monks' should
live on the fat o' the land and grind the faces of the poor. How
many manors, think you, has the Abbat of St Edmund's, and how many
on his land lack bread?"
Hilarius listened, scarlet with indignation, a flood of wrathful
defence pent at his lips, for the blind friar laid a restraining
hand on his sleeve.
Mine host scratched his head doubtfully. The teaching was
seditious, and made a man liable to stocks and pillory; but it
tickled the ears of the common folk and 'twas ill to quarrel with
the Mendicants. Help came to him in his perplexity: a loud
knocking on the barred door made the guests within start.
"'Tis eight o' the clock," said the miller, affrighted, for he had
a heavy purse on him.
"Let them knock and cool their hot heads," said the seditious friar
The rest nodded approval.
Then a man's voice threatened without.
"What ho! unbar the door. Is this a night to keep a man without?
Open, open, or, by the Mass, thou shalt smart for it."
Mine host shook his head fearfully, and his fat cheeks trembled; he
moved slowly and unwillingly to the door and took down the stout
wooden bar. As it swung back the door flew open, and a man burst
in, at sight of whom mine host turned yet paler.
"Food and drink," said the new-comer sharply, flinging himself on a
bench by the fire.
Hilarius thought he had never seen so strange a fellow. His hair
was close cropped; ay, and his ears also. His eyes were very small
and near together; his nose a shapeless lump; his lip drawn up
showed two rat-like teeth. Silence fell on the company, and the
chapman who had been searching amongst his goods for something
wherewith to pay his hospitality, was hastily putting them back,
when the man, looking up, caught sight of a bundle of oaten pipes
among the miscellaneous wares. He plucked one to him, and in a
moment the air was full of tender liquid notes - a thrush's
roundelay. Then a blackbird called and his mate answered; a cuckoo
cried the spring-song; a linnet mourned with lifting cadence; a
nightingale poured forth her deathless love.
Mine host came in with a dish piled high and a stoop of mead; the
man threw the pipe from him with a rough oath and fell to
ravenously on the victuals. He held his head low and ate brutishly
amid dead silence; then he looked up and cursed at them for their
sorry mood.
"What! Hugh pipes and never a word of thanks nor a jest? Damn you
all for dull dogs!"
The blind friar rose and fixed his withered eyes on the man's
dreadful face.
"Piping Hugh of Mildenhall," he said, and at his voice the man
leapt to his feet and thrust his arm out as if for protection.
"Piping Hugh of Mildenhall," said the Friar again, "I have a
message for thee from the Lord God. I cried thee damned in my own
name once, when thou did'st take my little sister to shame and
death; now I cry thee thrice damned in the name of the Lord, for
the cup of thine iniquity is full and thy hands red with blood.
Man hath branded thee; now God will set His mark on thee and all
men shall see it. The Plague will come and come swiftly, but it
shall not touch thee; many shall die in their sins; thou shalt live
on with thine. A brute thou art, and with brutes thou shalt herd;
thou shalt howl as a ravening wolf, and as such men shall hunt thee
from their doors. Thou shalt seek death, even as Cain sought and
found it not, because of the mark of the Lord. Thou art damned,
thrice damned; thy speech shall go from thee, thy sight fail thee,
thy mind be darkened; thou art given over to the Evil One, and he
shall torment thee with remembrance."
There was dead silence; then with a long shrill howl the man tore
open the door, dashed from the house, and fled, a black blotch upon
the whiteness of the night.
The guests huddled together aghast, and no man moved, until
Hilarius, full of pride at his Friar's powers, stepped forward to
close the door. He was too late; it swung to with a loud crash
like the sound of doom. The Friar sank back composedly on the
bench, and the company began in silence to make preparation for the
night. When all was ordered, Hilarius bade the Friar come, and he
rose at the lad's voice and touch. Then he crossed to where the
others stood apart eyeing him fearfully.
He laid his hand on the miller's breast and said in a clear, low
voice: "Thou wilt die, brother."
He laid his hand on the messenger's breast: "Thou wilt die,
He laid his hand on the chapman's breast: "Thou wilt die,
He laid his hand on mine host's breast: "Thou wilt die, brother."
Then he came to the other Friar who stood at a little distance, his
face dark with anger and fear, and laid his hand on his breast:
"Thou wilt live, my brother - and repent."
IT is a far cry from St Alban's to Bungay - which village of the
good ford lies somewhat south-east of Norwich, five leagues distant
- and the journey is doubled in the winter time. Hilarius and the
Friar were long on the road, for January's turbulent mood had
imprisoned them many days, and early February had proved little
kinder. They had companied with folk, light women and brutal men;
but, for the most part, coarse word and foul jest were hushed in
the presence of the blind friar and the lad with the wondering
eyes. In every village the Friar preached and called on men to
repent and be saved, for Death's shadow was already upon them.
Folk wondered and gaped - the Plague was still only a name ten
leagues east of London - but many repented and confessed and made
restitution, though some heard with idle ears, remembering the
prophecy of Brother Robert who had come with the same message half
a man's lifetime before, and that no evil had followed his
At last St Matthias' Eve saw Hilarius and the Friar at St Edmund's
Abbey. There were many guests for the Convent's hospitality that
night, and as Hilarius entered the hall of the guest-house - a
brother had charged himself with the care of the Friar - he heard
the sound of the vielle, and a rich voice which sang in good round
English against the fashion of the day.
"Martin, Martin!" he cried.
The vielle was instantly silent.
"Hole, lad!" cried the Minstrel, springing to his feet; he caught
Hilarius to him and embraced him heartily.
"Why, lad, not back in thy monastery? Nay, but I made sure the
Plague would send thee flying home, and instead I find thee strayed
farther afield." Then seeing the injured faces round him for that
the song was not ended, he drew Hilarius to the bench beside him
and took up his vielle. "Be still now, lad, 'til I have finished
my ditty for this worshipful company; then, an't please thee to
tell it, I will hear thy tale."
The guests, who had looked somewhat sour at the interruption,
unpursed their lips, and settled to listen as the minstrel took up
his song:-
"The fair maid came to the old oak tree
(Sun and wind and a bird on the bough),
The throstle he sang merrily - merrily - merrily,
But the fair maid wept, for sad was she, sad was she,
Her sweet knight - Oh! where was he?
He lay dead in the cold, cold ground
(Moon and stars and rain on the hill),
In his side and breast were bloody wounds.
Woe, woe is me for the fair ladye, and the poor knight he,
The poor knight - Ah! cold was he.
The maiden sat her down to die
(Cold, cold earth on her lover's breast),
And the little birds rang mournfully,
And the moonshine kissed her tenderly,
And the stars looked down right pityingly
On the poor fair maid and the poor cold knight.
Ah misery, dear misery, sweet misery!"
This mournful song was no sooner ended than supper was served; and
the company proved themselves good trenchermen. Hilarius caught
sight of the seditious friar making short work of the Convent's
victuals, and marvelled to see him in a place to which he had given
so evil a name.
Martin was unfeignedly glad to see the lad, and listened intently
to his tale. He nodded his head as Hilarius related how the friar
he companied with preached in each village that men should repent
ere the scourge of God fell upon them; "but there is naught of it
as yet," said the lad.
"Nay, nay, it is like a thief in the night. One day it is not; and
then the next, men sicken and fall like blasted wheat. I heard a
bruit of London that it was but a heap of graves - nay, one grave
rather, for they flung the bodies into a great trench; there was no
time to do otherwise: Black Death is swift with his stroke."
Then Hilarius told of Piping Hugh and the Friar's death-words to
the guests.
Martin swore a round oath and slapped his thigh.
"Now know I that thy Friar is a proper man an he has set a curse on
Piping Hugh of Mildenhall! A foul-mouthed knave, with many a black
deed to his name and blood on his hands, if men say truth; and yet
there was never a bird that would not come at his call, and I never
heard tell that he harmed one. What will thy Friar in Bungay,
When he had heard the story of the Friar's twice-repeated vision
and quest, the Minstrel sat silent awhile with knitted brow and
head sunk on his breast; then he eyed Hilarius half humorously,
half tenderly.
"Methinks, lad, an thy Friar alloweth it, I will even go to Bungay
with thee; for I love thee well, lad, and would have thy company.
Also I like not the matter of the vision and would fain see the end
of it."
That night the dream came again to the Friar, and a voice cried:
"Haste, haste, ere it be too late." And so Hilarius and Martin
came to Bungay, the Friar guiding them, for the way was his own.
None of the three ever saw St Edmund's Abbey again, for in one
short month the minster with its sister churches was turned to be a
spital-house, while the dead lay in heaps, silently waiting to
summon to their ghastly company the living that sought to make them
a bed.
Quaint little Bungay lay snug enough in the embrace of the low
vine-crowned hills which half encircled common and town. The Friar
strode forward, straining in his pace like a leashed hound; Martin
and Hilarius following. Once he stopped and turned a stricken face
on his companions.
"What is that?" he said shrilly.
A magpie went ducking across the road, and Hilarius crossed himself
"Let us make haste," cried the Friar when they told him; and so at
full pace they came to Bungay town.
The place looked empty and deserted, but from the distance came the
roar and hum of an angry crowd.
"The people are abroad," said Martin, and his face was very grave,
"no doubt some knight is here, and there is a bear-baiting on the
common. Prithee, where is thy mother's dwelling, good Father, and
I will go and ask news of her?"
"'Tis a lonely hovel by the waterside not far from the Cattle Gate;
Goody Wooten thou shalt ask for."
Martin went swiftly forward over the Common; Hilarius and the Friar
followed more slowly, and when they came to the Cattle Gate they
stood fast and waited, the Friar turning his head anxiously and
straining to make his ears do a double service.
Hilarius, who had hitherto regarded Bungay and the Friar's business
as the last stage of his journey to Wymondham and Brother Andreas,
was full of foreboding; he watched Martin on the outskirts of the
crowd, saw him throw up his hands with an angry gesture and point
to the Friar. Then he fell to parleying with the people, but
Hilarius was too far off to catch what was said.
"See there, 'tis her son," Martin was saying vehemently; "yon holy
friar hath seen this thing in a vision, but alack! he reads it
otherwise; yea, and hath hasted hither from overseas to wrestle
with the Evil One for his mother's soul - and now, and now - "
The crowd parted, and he saw the most miserable sight. An old
woman lay on the ground by the river's edge; a bundle of filthy
water-logged rags crowned by a bruised, vindictive face and grey
hair smeared with filth and slime. She lay on her back a shapeless
huddle; her right thumb tied to her left toe and so across: there
was a rope about her middle, but in their hot haste they had not
stayed to strip her.
Martin pressed forward, and then turning to the jeering, vengeful
"By Christ's Rood, this is an evil work ye have wrought," he said.
"Nay," said one of the bystanders, "but it was fair judgment,
Minstrel. For years she hath worked her spells and black arts in
this place, ay, and cattle have perished and women gone barren
through her means. Near two days agone a child was lost and seen
last near her door, ay, and never seen again. When we came to
question her she cursed at us for meddling mischief-makers, and
would but glare and spit, and swear she knew naught of the
misbegotten brat."
"Maybe 'twas true eno'," said Martin. "I hate these rough-cast
witch-findings - 'tis not a matter for man's judgment, unless 'tis
sworn and proven in court before the Justiciary."
"Nay," joined in an old man, "what need of a Justice when God
speaks? We did but thole her to the river to see if she would sink
or swim. The witch did swim, as all can testify, her Master
helping her; and seeing that, we drew her under - ay, and see her
now as she lies, and say whether the Devil hath not set a mark on
his own?"
Martin wrung his hands.
"For the love of Christ, lay her decently on her pallet, and say no
word of this to yon holy man."
Moved by his earnest manner, one or two more kindly folk busied
themselves unfastening the ropes and thongs which bound the witch,
and bore her to her wretched bed.
The people, in their previous eagerness, had torn down the front of
the miserable hovel she called home, so all men could see the poor
place and its dead dishonoured mistress.
Martin, finding his bidding accomplished, turned to meet Hilarius
and the Friar who were now coming slowly across the windswept
common. March mists gathered and draped the sluggish river; the
dry reeds rattled dismally in the ooze and sedge. Hilarius
shivered, and the Friar started nervously when Martin spoke.
"Friar," he said, "God comfort thee! After all thy pains thou art
too late to speed thy mother's soul; she passed to-day, and lies
even now awaiting burial at thy faithful hands."
The Friar drew a quick breath, and Hilarius questioned Martin with
a look. The crowd parted to let them through, and hung their heads
abashed in painful silence as the Friar, led by Hilarius, gave his
They were close to the mean hovel now, and he turned to Martin.
"Didst thou hear of her end, or did she die alone, for the people
feared her?"
"Ay, she died alone," answered Martin, and muttered, "now God
forgive me!" under his breath.
As they went into the wretched shed the setting sun broke through
the lowering grey clouds and shone full on the dead woman. It
lighted each vicious line and hideous trait of the wrinkled,
toothless face, and betrayed the mark of an evil life, surcharged
with horrid fear.
Hilarius shrank back shuddering. Could this hideousness be death?
The Friar stepped forward, but Martin stayed him.
"Nay, touch her not, Father, it may be the pestilence as thou didst
read in thy dream."
The Friar fell on his knees; and, in the silence that followed was
heard the drip, drip, drip, from the sodden rags on the beaten
earth floor. The people without, staring, open-mouthed and silent,
saw the Friar look up; his hand hastily outstretched touched the
dank, muddy hair; then he knew all, and fell on his face with an
exceeding bitter cry. It was answered by another cry - the glad
cry of a lost child that is found.
The Friar, standing in front of that hovel of death, preached to
the cringing, terrified people, many of whom knelt and crouched in
the down-trodden grass and quag. He threw up his arms, and turned
his blind, anguished face to the setting sun.
"Woe to the rebellious children, saith the Lord, that take counsel
but not of Me, that they may add sin to sin. Darkness shall come
upon them; Death shall overtake them; their place shall know them
no more. Let them bare their backs to the scourge, let them
confess and repent ere I visit them as I visited Sodom and
Gomorrah, cities of the Plain.
"O ye people, ye have taken judgment in your hands and judged
falsely withal; but ye shall be judged in truth, yea, even
according to your measure. Repent, repent, for Death cometh
swiftly and maketh no long tarrying. It shall come; it shall
snatch men's souls away, even as ye have torn away my mother's
soul, leaving no space for repentance."
He stretched his hands out over the common, and pointed to the
little town.
"Your dwellings shall be desolate, and this place a place of heaps.
Ye shall run hither and thither, seeking safety and finding none;
for the arm of the Lord is stretched out still because of the
wickedness of the earth. Woe, woe, woe, a disobedient and
gainsaying people! Woe, woe, woe, a people hating righteousness
and loving iniquity! The Lord shall straightway destroy them from
off the face of the earth."
He made an imperative gesture of dismissal, and first one and then
another in the crowd turned to slink home like beaten dogs,
snarling, growling, but afraid.
Hilarius and Martin buried the witch at the back of her wretched
den; and the Friar, the priest lost in the son, prayed long by the
else unhallowed grave, and Martin prayed beside him.
Hilarius stood apart, his lips set straight, and said no prayer;
for what availed it to pray for an unassoilzied witch who had met
her due, damned alike by God and man?
Martin came up to him.
"She was his mother," he said, as if making excuse.
Hilarius stared in bewilderment. His mother? Ay, but an evil
liver; and the people of Bungay had wrought a good work in sending
her to her own place. He crossed himself piously at the thought of
the near neighbourhood of devils busied with a thrice-damned soul.
Martin led them out of Bungay by the Earsham road, and the Friar
clung to him like a little child, for the strength of his vision
was spent. They lay that night with a friendly shepherd; but only
one slept, and that one Hilarius. He lay on a truss of sweetsmelling
hay, and dreamt of Wymondham and Brother Andreas; of gold,
vermilion and blue; of wondrous pictures, and a great name: and
the scent of the pine forest at home swept across his quiet sleep.
On the morrow came the parting of the ways, for Hilarius was all
aglow for Wymondham, and Martin had charged himself with the Friar
at least as far as Norwich.
"As well lead a blind friar as sing blindly at another's bidding,"
he said whimsically, and so they bade one another farewell never to
meet again in this world: for Martin and the Friar went to
Yarmouth, not Norwich, and there they perished among the first when
the east wind swept the Plague thither in a boat-load of sickened
shipmen. And Hilarius - once again the Angel of the Lord stood in
the path of his desires.
HILARIUS fared but slowly; it was ill travelling on a high-road in
good weather, but on a cross-road in the spring! - that was a time
to commend oneself body and soul to the Saints. He walked warily,
picking his way in and out of the bog between fence and ditch,
which was all that remained to show where the piety of the past
once kept a road. The low land to his left was submerged, a
desolate tract giving back a sullen grey sky, lifeless, barren,
save where a gaunt poplar like the mast of a sunken ship broke the
waste of waters.
The sight brought Hilarius' thoughts sharply back to the events of
the evening before. Wonderful indeed were the judgments of God! A
witch - plainly proved to be such - had been struck dead in the
midst of her sins; and London, that light-minded, reprobate city,
was a heap of graves. Now he, Hilarius, having seen much evil and
the justice of the Almighty, would get him in peace to Wymondham,
there to learn to be a cunning limner; and having so learnt would
joyfully hie him back to Prior Stephen and his own monastery.
Presently the way led somewhat uphill, and he saw to his right a
small hamlet. It lay some distance off his road, but he was sharpset,
for the shepherd's fare had been meagre; and so turned aside
in the hope of an ale-house. There was no side road visible, and
he struck across the dank, marshy fields until he lighted on a rude
track which led to the group of cottages. The place struck him as
strangely quiet; no smoke rose from the chimneys; no dogs rushed
out barking furiously at a stranger's advent. The first hovel he
passed was empty, the open door showed a fireless hearth. At the
second he knocked and heard a sound of scuffling within. As no one
answered his repeated summons he pushed the door open; the low room
was desolate, but two bright eyes peered at him from a corner, -
'twas a rat. Hilarius turned away, sudden fear at his heart, and
passed on, finding in each hovel only empty silence.
Apart from the rest, standing alone in a field, was a somewhat
larger cottage; a bush swung from the projecting pole above the
door: it was the ale-house that he sought; here, at least, he
would find some one. As he came up he heard a child crying, and
lo! on the doorstep sat a dirty little maid of some four summers,
sobbing away for dear life.
Hilarius approached diffidently, and stooped down to wipe away the
grimy tears.
The child regarded him, round eyes, open mouth; then with a shrill
cry of joy, she held out her thin arms.
At the sound of her cry the door opened; on the threshold stood a
woman still young but haggard and weary-eyed; at her breast was a
little babe. She stared at Hilarius, and then pulling the child to
her in the doorway, waved him away.
"Stand off, fool! - 'tis the Plague."
Hilarius shrank back.
"And thy neighbours?" he asked.
"Nay, they were light-footed eno' when they saw what was to do, and
left us three to die like rats in a hole." Then eagerly: "Hast
thou any bread?"
He shook his head.
"Nay, I came here seeking some. Art thou hungry?"
She threw out her hands.
"'Tis two days sin' I had bite or sup."
"Where lies the nearest village? and how far?"
"A matter of an hour, over yonder."
"See, goodwife," said Hilarius, "I will go buy thee food and come
She looked at him doubtfully.
"So said another, and he never came back."
"Nay, but perchance some evil befell him," said gentle Hilarius.
"Well, I will trust thee." She went in and returned with a few
small coins. "'Tis all I have. Tell no man whence thou art, else
they will hunt thee from their doors."
Hilarius nodded, took the money, and ran as fast as he could go in
the direction of the village.
The woman watched him.
"Is it fear or love that lends him that pace?" she muttered, as she
sat down to wait.
It was love.
Hilarius entered the village discreetly, and adding the little
money he had to the woman's scanty store, bought bread, a flask of
wine, flour and beans, and a jug of milk.
"'Tis for a sick child," he said when he asked for it, and the
woman pushed back the money, bidding him God-speed.
The return journey was accomplished much more slowly, because of
his precious burden; and as he crossed a field, there, dead in a
snare, lay a fine coney.
"Now hath Our Lady herself had thought for the poor mother!" cried
Hilarius joyously, and added it to his store.
When he reached the cottage, and the woman saw the food, she broke
into loud weeping, for her need had been great; then, as if giving
up the struggle to another and a stronger, she sank on the bed with
her fast-failing babe in her arms.
Hilarius fed her carefully with bread and wine - not for nothing
had he served the Infirmarian when blood-letting had proved too
severe for some weak Brother - and then turned his attention to the
little maid who sat patient, eyeing the food.
For her, bread and milk. He sat down on a low stool, and taking
the child on his knee slowly supplied the gaping, bird-like mouth.
At last the little maid heaved a sigh of content, leant her flaxen
head against her nurse's shoulder, and fell fast asleep.
Hilarius, cradling her carefully in gentle arms, crooned softly to
her, thrilling with tenderness. She was his own, his little
sister, the child he had found and saved. Surely Our Lady had
guided him to her, and her great Mother-love would shield this
little one from a foul and horrid death. In that dirty, neglected
room, the child warm against his breast, Hilarius lived the
happiest moments of his life.
Presently he rose, for there was much to be done, kissed the little
pale cheek, noted fearfully the violet shadows under the closed
eyes, and laid his new-found treasure on the bed by her mother.
The woman was half-asleep, but started awake.
"Art thou going?" she said, and despair gazed at him from her eyes.
"Nay, nay, surely not until we all go together," he said
soothingly. "I would but kindle a fire, for the cold is bitter."
Wood was plentiful, and soon a bright fire blazed on the hearth.
The poor woman, heartened by her meal, rose and came to sit by it,
and stretching out her thin hands to the grateful warmth, told her
"'Twas Gammer Harden's son who first heard tell of a strange new
sickness at Caxton's; and then Jocell had speech with a herd from
those parts, who was fleeing to a free town, because of some ill he
had done. Next day Jocell fell sick with vomitings, and bleeding,
and breaking out of boils, and in three days he lay dead; and
Gammer Harden fell sick and died likewise. Then one cried 'twas
the Plague, and the wrath of God; and they fled - the women to the
nuns at Bungay, and the men to seek work or shelter on the Manor;
but us they left, for I was with child."
"And thy husband?' said Hilarius.
"Nay, he was not my husband, but these are his children, his and
mine. Some hold 'tis a sin to live thus, and perhaps because of it
this evil hath fallen upon me."
She looked at the babe lying on her lap, its waxen face drawn and
shrunk with the stress of its short life.
Hilarius spoke gently:-
"It is indeed a grievous sin against God and His Church to live
together out of holy wedlock, and perchance 'tis true that for this
very thing thou hast been afflicted, even as David the great King.
But since thou didst sin ignorantly the Lord in His mercy sent me
to serve thee in thy sore need; ay, and in very truth, Our Lady
herself showed me where the coney lay snared. Let us pray God by
His dear Mother to forgive us our sins and to have mercy on these
little ones."
And kneeling there in the firelight he besought the great Father
for his new-found family.
Five days passed, and despite extreme care victuals were short.
Hilarius dug up roots from the hedgerows, and went hungry, but at
last the pinch came; the woman was too weak and ill to walk, the
babe scarce in life - there could be no thought of flight - and the
little maid grew white, and wan and silent. Then it came to
Hilarius that he would once again beg food in the village where he
had sought help before.
He went slowly, for he had eaten little that his maid might be the
better fed, and he was very sad. When he reached the village he
found his errand like to be vain. News of the Plague was coming
from many parts, and each man feared for his own skin. At every
house they questioned him: "Art thou from a hamlet where the
Plague hath been?" and when he answered "Yea," the door was shut.
Very soon men, angry and afraid, came to drive him from the place.
He gained the village cross, and prayed them for love of the
Saviour and His holy Rood to give him bread for his little maid and
her mother. Let them set it in the street, he would take it and
cross no man's threshold. Surely they could not; for shame, let a
little child die of want?
"Nay, 'tis better they die, so are we safe," cried a voice; then
they fell upon him and beat him, and drove him from the village
with blows and curses.
Bruised and panting, he ran from them, and at last the chase
ceased; breathless and exhausted he flung himself under a hedge.
A hawk swooped, struck near him, and rose again with its prey.
Hilarius shuddered; but perhaps the hawk had nestlings waiting
open-mouthed for food? His little maid! His eyes filled with
tears as he thought of those who awaited him. He picked up a
stone, and watched if perchance a coney might show itself. He had
never killed, but were not his nestlings agape?
Nothing stirred, but along the road came a waggon of strange shape
and gaily painted.
He rose to his feet, praying the great Mother to send him help in
his awful need.
The waggon drew near; the driver sat asleep upon the shaft, the
horse took his own pace. It passed him before he could pluck up
heart to ask an alms, and from the back dangled a small sack and a
hen. If he begged and was refused his little maid must die. A
minute later the sack and the hen had changed owners - but not
unobserved; a clear voice called a halt; the waggon stood fast; two
figures sprang out, a girl and a boy: and Hilarius stood before
them on the white highway - a thief.
"Seize the knave!" cried the girl sharply.
Hilarius stared at her and she at him. It was his dancer, and she
knew him, ay, despite the change of dress and scene, she knew him.
"What! The worthy novice turned worldling and thief! Nay, 'tis a
rare jest. What of thy fine sermons now, good preacher?"
But Hilarius answered never a word; overcome by shame, grief, and
hunger, sudden darkness fell upon him.
When he came to himself he was sitting propped against the hedge;
the waggon was drawn up by the roadside, and the dancer and her
brother stood watching him.
"Fetch bread and wine," said the girl, and to Hilarius who tried to
speak, "Peace, 'til thou hast eaten."
Hilarius ate eagerly, and when he had made an end the dancer said:-
"Now tell thy tale. Prithee, since when didst thou leave thy
Saints and thy nursery for such an ill trade as this?"
Hilarius told her all, and when he had finished he wept because of
his little maid, and his were not the only tears.
The dancer went to the waggon and came back with much food taken
from her store, to which she added the hen; the sack held but
"But, Gia," grumbled her brother, "there will be naught for us tonight."
"Thou canst eat bread, or else go hungry," she retorted, and filled
a small sack with the victuals.
Hilarius watched her, hardly daring to hope. She held it out to
him: "Now up and off to thy little maid."
Hilarius took the sack, but only to lay it down again. Kneeling,
he took both her little brown hands, and his tears fell fast as he
kissed them.
"Maid, maid, canst forgive my theft, ay, and my hard words in the
forest? God help me for a poor, blind fool!"
"Nay," she answered, "there is naught to forgive; and see, thou
hast learnt to hunger and to love! Farewell, little brother, we
pass here again a fortnight hence, and I would fain have word of
thy little maid. Ay, and shouldst thou need a home for her, bring
her to us; my old grandam is in the other waggon and she will care
for her."
Hilarius ran across the fields, full of sorrow for his sin, and yet
greatly glad because of the wonderful goodness of God.
When he got back his little maid sat alone by the fire. He
hastened to make food ready, but the child was far spent and would
scarcely eat. Then he went out to find the woman.
He saw her standing in the doorway of an empty hovel, and she cried
to him to keep back.
"My babe is dead, and I feel the sickness on me. I went to the
houses seeking meal, even to Gammer Harden's; and I must die. As
for thee, thou shalt not come near me, but bide with the child; so
maybe God will spare the innocent."
Hilarius besought her long that she would at least suffer him to
bring her food, but she would not.
"Nay, I could not eat, the fever burns in my bones; let me alone
that I may die the sooner."
Hilarius went back with a heavy heart, and lay that night with the
little maid in his arms on the settle by the hearth. Despite his
fear he slept heavily and late: when he rose the sun was high and
the child awake.
He fed her, and, bidding her bide within, went out to gain tidings
of the poor mother. He called, but no one answered; and the door
of the hovel in which she had taken shelter stood wide. Then, as
he searched the fields, fearing the fever had driven her abroad, he
saw the flutter of garments in a ditch; and lo! there lay the
woman, dead, with her dead babe on her breast. She had lain down
to die alone with God in the silence, that haply the living might
escape; and on her face was peace.
Later, Hilarius laid green boughs tenderly over mother and babe,
and covered them with earth, saying many prayers. Then he went
back to his fatherless, motherless maid.
She ailed naught that he could see, and there was food and to
spare; but each day saw her paler and thinner, until at last she
could not even sit, but lay white and silent in Hilarius' tender
arms; and he fought with death for his little maid.
Then on a day she would take no food, and when Hilarius put tiny
morsels in her mouth she could not swallow; and so he sat through
the long hours, his little maid in his arms, with no thought
beside. The darkness came, and he waited wide-eyed, praying for
the dawn. When the new day broke and the east was pale with light
he carried the child out that he might see her, for a dreadful fear
possessed him. And it came to pass that when the light kissed her
little white face she opened her eyes and smiled at Hilarius, and
so smiling, died.
The dancer, true to her promise, scanned the road as the waggon
drew near the place of Hilarius' first and last theft: he was
standing by the wayside alone. The waggon passed on carrying him
with it; and the dancer looked but once on his face and asked no
THE Monastery by the forest pursued an even existence, with no
great event to trouble its serenity, for it lay too far west for
the Plague to be more than a terrible name.
True, there had been dissension when Prior Stephen, summoned to
Cluny by the Abbat, had perforce left the dominion to the Sub-
Prior. For lo! the Sub-Prior, a mild and most amiable man in his
own estate, had proved harsh and overbearing in government. Ay,
and in an irate mood he had fallen upon Brother William, the
Sacrist, in the Frater, plucked out his hair and beaten him sore;
whereat the Convent was no little scandalized, and counselled
Brother William to resign his office. He flouted the Chamberlain
also, and Brother Roger the Hospitaller, and so affronted the
Brethren that when he began to sing the Verba mea on leaving the
chapter, the Convent - yea, even the novices - were silent, to show
their displeasure.
When Prior Stephen returned he was exceeding wroth, but said
little; only he took from the Sub-Prior his office, and all that
appertained thereto, and made him as one of the other monks; and
Brother William, who was a gentle and devout servant of God, he
made Sub-Prior in his stead; and the Convent was at peace.
Brother Ambrose, he to whom the vision was vouchsafed, had slipped
through the grey veil which once hid Jerusalem from his longing
gaze; Brother Richard was now in the land where the blind receive
their sight; and Brother Thomas the Cellarer - but of him let us
say little and think with charity; for 'tis to be feared that he
greatly abused his office and is come to judgment.
Two of the older monks, Brother Anselm and Brother Paul, who had
spent fifty years in the sheltered peace of the Monastery walls,
sat warming their tired old limbs in the south cloister, for the
summer sunshine was very pleasant to them.
"Since Brother Thomas died - " began Brother Paul.
"The Lord have mercy on his soul!" ejaculated Brother Anselm.
"Since Brother Thomas died," said Brother Paul again - a little
impatiently, though he crossed himself piously enough - "methinks
the provisions have oft been scanty and far from tempting,
"Ay, and the wine," said Brother Anselm. "Methinks our Cellarer
draws the half of it from the Convent's well."
They shook their heads sadly.
"No doubt," said Brother Anselm after a short silence, "our
Cellarer is most worthy, strict, and honest in the performance of
his office - while Brother Thomas, alack - "
"Methinks Brother Edmund is somewhat remiss also in his duties,"
said Brother Paul. "The Prior, holy man, perceives nothing of
these things. On Sunday's feast one served him with a most
unsavoury mess in the refectory, the dish thereof being black and
broken; yet he ate the meat in great content, and seemingly with
"He is but young, he is but young - sixty come Michaelmas - sixty,
and twenty-two years Prior - 'tis a long term," and Brother Anselm
nodded his head.
"Ay, he is still young, and of sound teeth," said Brother Paul,
"whereas thou and I, Brother, are as babes needing pap-meat.
Brother Thomas - God rest his soul! - was wont to give savoury mess
easy of eating to the elder Brethren."
"Ay, he was a kind man with all his faults," said Brother Anselm,
fingering his toothless gums. "Think you 'twould be well to speak
of this matter to the Prior?"
"Nay, nay," said the other, "he is ever against any store being set
on the things of this world - ''tis well for the greater discipline
of the flesh,' so saith he ever. Still he hath forbidden the
blood-letting to us elder Brethren."
"Methinks there is little to let, since Brother Thomas died," said
Brother Anselm ruefully.
"Nay, then, let us seek out the Cellarer and admonish him - maybe
he will hear a word in season," and the two old monks moved slowly
away to the Cellarer's office as Prior Stephen came down the
cloister walk.
He looked little older, his carriage was upright as ever, but
government sat heavy upon him; the keen, ascetic face was weary,
and the line of the lips showed care. His thoughts were busy with
Hilarius. It was now full six years that the lad had left the
Monastery, and since the Christmas after his going no news had come
of him, save that he never reached St Alban's. Had the Plague
gathered him as it gathered many another well-beloved son? Or had
the awakening proved too sudden for the lad set blind-eyed without
the gate?
He passed from the cloister into the garth where bloomed the lilies
that Hilarius had loved so well. He looked at the row of nameless
graves with the great Rood for their common memorial; last but one
lay the resting-place of Brother Richard, and the blind monk's
dying speech had been of the lad whose face he had strained his
eyes to see.
Prior Stephen stood by the farmery door, and the scent of Mary's
flowers came to him as it had come to Hilarius at the gate. He
stretched out his hands with the strange pathetic gesture of a
strong man helpless. It was all passing fair: the fields of pale
young corn trembling in the gentle breeze; the orchards and
vineyards with fast maturing fruit; the meadows where the sleek
kine browsed languidly in the warm summer sunshine. Peace and
prosperity everywhere; the old Church springing into new beauty as
the spire rose slowly skywards; peace and prosperity, new glories
for the House of the Lord; and yet, and yet, his heart ached for
his own helplessness, and for the exceeding longing that he had for
the boy whose mother once held that heart in the hollow of her
little hand.
Ah well, blessed be God who had called him from the things of this
world to the service of Christ and the Church! Once again he
offered himself in the flame of his desires: he would fast and
pray and wait.
The Office bell sounded sharp and clear across the still summer air
calling to Vespers, and the Prior hasted to his place.
"Qui seminant in lachrymis in exultatione metent," chanted the deep
voices of the monks, and Prior Stephen's voice trembled as he
joined in the Psalmody.
"Euntes ibant et flebant mittentes semina sua. Venientes autem
venient cum exultatione portantes manipulos suos."
He had sown in tears, ay, and was weary of the sowing; but the
harvesting was not yet.
IT came to pass upon a certain day scarce a se'nnight later, that
Prior Stephen was troubled in his mind by reason of a dream which
came to him.
It happened on this wise. He was sitting by his window after the
noon repast, musing, as he was wont, on his dear son. The song of
the bees busy in the herb-garden was very pleasant to his ear, the
warm, still air overcame him, and he slept. Suddenly he heard a
voice calling - a voice he knew in every fibre of his being and yet
could set no name to, for it was the voice of God. He arose in
haste and went out into the garth, and lo! under the lilies
Hilarius lay sleeping. The Prior stood fast in great wonder, his
heart leaping for joy; yet he could not cross the little piece of
grass that lay between the cloister and the farmery door.
As he watched, a woman, light of foot and of great beauty, came
swiftly from the gate to where Hilarius slept; and the Prior was
grieved, and marvelled that the porter had opened to such an one;
for it was a grave scandal that a woman should set foot within the
Monastery precincts. He strove to cry, but his voice died on his
lips, and his feet were as lead.
The woman stayed when she came to the sleeping lad, and stooped to
arouse him, but he slept on. She called him, and her voice was as
the calling of the summer sea on a shelving beach; but Hilarius
gave no heed. Then, in great impatience, she caught at the white
lilies under which he lay; and, as she broke the flower-crowned
stems, Hilarius stirred and cried out in his sleep, whereat she
plucked the faster. Of a sudden Prior Stephen was as one set free.
He strode to the woman's side: there was but one lily left. He
laid his hand on her shoulder, for speech was still far from him:
and she fell back from the one remaining blossom with a cry of fear
- and Prior Stephen awoke, for behold! it was a dream; but he was
sore troubled.
"Maybe," said he, "evil threatens the lad, such evil as slew his
mother, on whom God have mercy!" And sighing heavily he took his
way to the great Rood and made supplication for his son.
Far away, under a southern sky, in one of the great palaces of
Florence, there stood a woman of fair stature, with tight-clenched
hands, whose many jewels bit the tender flesh. Her russet eyes
flashed under threatening brows, her teeth held fast the curling
upper lip. Great, alack! was her fame: men crept to her knee like
spaniels craving favour. Great was her wealth: a golden piece for
every ruddy strand that hung a shimmering mantle to her knee. Her
beauty - nay, men had slain themselves gladly to escape the torment
of her look. She stood in the curtained doorway, a heavy purple
hanging at her back; and the man who awaited her paled as he saw
her vengeful face.
It was Hilarius. He drew himself up to the full of his slender
height, and bowed.
Panting a little, the woman came towards him across the many-hued
marble floors; and, as she passed, a vase of great white lilies
caught in her draperies of cramoisie and fell. She gave no heed,
but swept on, and faced him in the sunny silence. Across the pause
the Angelus sounded from a church hard by: Hilarius crossed
himself devoutly; and the stillness fled before a woman's scornful
"Nay, then, Signor," she cried mockingly, "is ours to be a war of
signs and silence? I have heard thy lips were ready enough with
judgment, though they halt at a love-phrase. By Our Lady, if all
that is said of thee be true, I will e'en have thee whipped at the
gibbet for thy gibes! Speak, fool, while thy tongue is left thee;
'tis a last asking. Wilt thou paint this face of mine that is, it
seems, so little to thy liking? Strain not my patience over much -
'tis a slender cord at best, and somewhat tried already. Speak, is
it yea or nay?"
Hilarius looked away to where Mary's flowers lay bruised and
scattered on the flag of blood-red marble; his answer came low and
"'It is nay.'"
She thrust her head forward, and looked at him wondering; there was
a stain where her teeth had been busy.
"'It is nay,'" she repeated after him, and her eyes mocked him.
"May a poor Princess ask the Signor's reason?"
Hilarius pointed past her to the fallen lilies.
"It lies there."
For an instant the hot colour splashed the angry whiteness of her
cheek; then, pale to the lips, she turned on him; and she stammered
in her wrath:-
"And dost thou - dost thou dare, say this to my face - to me, who
stooped to ask when I had but to command? I, with my unmatched
beauty; I, who hold the hearts of men in thrall to the lifting of
my eyes; I, to whom men kneel as to their God! Art thou mad, mad,
that thou canst set aside such a behest as mine? 'Tis small wonder
men say thy doublet hides a monkish dress; of a truth the tale they
brought savoured of little else. Hear me, thou prating, milk-faced
Modesty, I choose that thou shalt limn this face of mine: say me
nay, and I will teach thee a lesson hard of forgetting; for I will
silence thy preaching for aye, and lend my serving-men to whip thee
through the streets. Men, said I? Nay, thou art too much a cur to
make fit sport for men: rather my maids shall wield the rod and
lace thy shoulders."
She flung herself on a low couch by the open window, where the
peacocks on the terrace strutted in the sun; and Hilarius waited,
dumb as the dog to which she had likened him, for he had no word.
There was silence a while.
Then the Princess spoke, and her voice cut Hilarius like the sting
of a lash:-
"Bring me yon flowers."
He obeyed.
"Set them at my feet."
He bent his knee and did so, wondering.
A moment, and she trod them under; their dying fragrance filled the
air, as their living breath had flooded the senses of the blindeyed
lad at the Monastery gate.
One by one she set her heel upon the blossoms, and the marble was
yellow with stolen gold.
Hilarius held his breath; it was as if she did to death some living
thing, and yet he dared not bid her stay her insolent feet.
It was done; and she looked at him under questioning brows.
"So much for thy lilies! Dost still think that it will soil thy
brush to limn such an one as I? I, whom men call the Queen of Love
- but thy lips, say they, burnt with another name! Bethink thee,
faint heart, there is not a man in all this city but would count
death a small price to pay for my favours; and I ask of thee one
little service, and thou shalt name thine own reward. Surely 'tis
churlish to gainsay!"
Her voice was suddenly sweet.
Stooping, she gathered to her the destruction she had wrought,
fingering the fallen petals tenderly, with a little sigh. She
glanced up at Hilarius through her lashes' net. "Maybe I was over
hasty," she said softly, and a sob swelled the round of her
wonderful throat - "and yet how couldst thou call me wanton?" Her
mouth drooped a little - she was very fair.
"Art thou still minded to set these poor pale flowers against the
roses in love's garden? For I love thee," she added, and then
suddenly she was still.
Hilarius looked from the dead flowers to the woman in her overmastering
beauty, and all at once the passion that lies hid in the
heart of every man leapt to his lips. He desired this woman as he
had never before desired aught in all the world, and he knew, to
his shame, that she was his for the asking. The blood thudded and
rang in his veins; he feasted his eyes on the curve of her neck and
the radiance of her sun-swept hair. He stretched out his hands,
but ere he could speak she raised a white, terrified face, and
glanced over her shoulder.
"Who touched me?" she gasped, her voice shrill with fear, "who
touched me?" And she sprang to her feet.
There was no one: the two shared a common pallor as they stared
into each other's eyes across the dying lilies. Hilarius shrank
back and covered his face with his hands. Clear and distinct he
heard the Prior's voice: "A light woman - a light woman."
Then the Princess said hoarsely, "Go, go;" and without word or look
Hilarius went.
The Prior rose from his knees comforted. He had wrestled with the
devil for his son's soul, and knew that he had prevailed.
ANOTHER year wrote its record on forest and field. The weeks
passed; summer sped to autumn, the ripe corn bowed to the sickle.
The Convent's lands were rich and heavy, virgin soil reclaimed; and
the Prior, watching the last great wain piled high with wealth of
golden treasure, saw the porter coming to him.
Now the porter was stout, short of breath, and of a hasty spirit;
and the Prior knew something was amiss by reason of his hurried
gait and wrathful countenance.
"Domine," he gasped, "Domine, there is a ragged man at the gate, a
vagabond by his own showing, and he craves speech of thee. I bade
him go to the guest-house, but he will not budge, and hath waited
already an hour despite my - "
The porter stayed, staring; he spoke to the wind; the Prior was
already halfway to the gate.
"This my son was dead and is alive again," sang his heart. The
porter, afraid, hasted after him with the keys, and had scarce time
to do his office ere the sunburnt vagabond was clasped in the
Prior's arms. It was a harvesting indeed.
That night Hilarius went across to the Prior's house to tell the
tale of his journeyings. He found him seated in a great oak chair
by the open window; the sky was ablaze with stars, and the flame of
the oil lamp jarred like a splash of yellow paint on the moonlight
which flooded the room; the Prior's eyes smiled measureless
content, and the murmured "Laus Deo" of his lips voiced the
gladness of his heart. Thus, in the shelter of peace and a great
love, Hilarius told his tale, while the forest waved a welcome to
him over the Monastery wall, and the late lilies burned white in
the garth below.
The Prior sat with his chin in his hand, his eyes fixed on the
lad's face, pale against the dark wainscot; and Hilarius told of
his journeyings, and all that befell, even as it hath been recorded
in this chronicle; and the Prior's eyes were wet as he heard of the
little maid.
"And then, my son?" said the Prior.
"Then, my Father, I companied with the caravan folk as far as the
sea-coast; and, leaving them there, went overseas in the train of
my lord Bishop Robert Walter of Norwich, who was hasting to Rome.
He knew thee, my Father, and bade his people supply my needs."
"Ay, he knows me," said the Prior briefly. "The Lord reward him
according to his works, but show him mercy forasmuch as he had
compassion on my son!"
"Then saw I Rome, my Father, that great and beauteous city full of
treasure and many wonders; only the Holy Father I did not see,
being let. Methinks life in that country is as one long pageant;
but I marked that great holiness and an evil life, much riches and
much penury, dwelt there side by side, and men reeked little of
death but much of pleasure. Then one bade me go to Florence an I
would be a limner; therefore I hasted thither, and gave my last
coin for bread as I entered the city."
The Prior's brows contracted; the lad had seen some schooling.
"But thou didst learn to be a limner, my son?"
"Ay, my Father, in God's time: at first I must herd goats and sell
melons in the market-place for a lump of bread. Day by day I
strove to gain enough to buy colours, but could not, for the Lord
sent me ever a neighbour poorer than myself. Nevertheless I was of
good courage, knowing the Lord's ways are not as ours; and mindful
how Brother Ambrose held that inasmuch as the Heavenly City is laid
with fair colours 'twere no sin to deem that a man may limn perfect
pictures there, for the gift is from the Lord."
"My son, 'tis a great lesson thou hast learnt," said the Prior,
"for the Word was made Flesh; and as Blessed John hath it, a man
cannot love God unseen, if he love not the brother whom He hath
given him. What next, dear lad?"
"My Father, the Lord Himself sent a messenger to me. One day a
great limner, the Signor Andrea di Cione, whom men call d'Orcagna,
stayed by me where I stood with my melons in the shadow of the
Shepherd's Tower, and bade me follow him to his house, for he would
fain use me for an angel's head in the great Altar-piece he was
e'en then concerned with for the Church of the White Friars. Later
he heard my story; and when he found I had some small skill with
the brush, he kept me with him, and taught me as only such an one
can teach: him I served five years. And many times Satan desired
my soul; nay, once I was in peril of hell-fire, but the Lord was
with me, and plucked my feet out of the pit. But of that I will
speak anon, at my shriving, as is meet."
The Prior remembered his dream, but he said no word, and Hilarius
took up his tale.
"Then one day my master cried there was an end to teaching;
nevertheless he would have me bide with him in honour for the work.
But my heart was full of longing for home and the scent of the
forest; and, above all, for thee, my Father; therefore I set my
face north, that I might bring back my gift to St Benedict and our
Church; and should have been here long ere this, but I was let by
the way."
The Prior looked up a little anxiously, and Hilarius smiled at the
question in his face.
"Tis a lawless tract, my Father, under the shadow of the great
mountains beyond Florence; and I was taken by robbers, who bore me
and others of our company to their fastness in the hills: there I
lay in a little cave many days; but what befell the rest I know
not. The robbers brought me forth to serve them, and by God's
mercy handled me kindly, though they thought little of
"Then one of them was troubled in his spirit, and minded to forsake
this evil manner of life. Therefore one night he fled, carrying me
with him, when the others had gone forth; and we made good our way
to Mantua. There Pietro, for so was the robber called, left me
that he might give himself to the service of God and men, inasmuch
as he had formerly abused them. Never saw I man so changed, my
Father; his speech, formerly profane, was all of God and the
Saints; he did penance and confessed his sins publicly; ay, by the
Justice's order he received one hundred lashes in the market-place,
and at every lash he cried with upturned face, 'Deo Gratias!' And
I was there, because he besought of me to stand in the crowd and
pray for him that his courage failed not. But it came to pass that
even the people marvelled at his joyful endurance; and indeed 'twas
more like a scourging of one of the blessed martyrs than of a poor
sinful robber. After this the Brothers of the Poor took him, for
such was his desire; and so I bade him farewell, and craved his
"The Lord fulfil all his mind!" said the Prior with clasped hands.
"Amen," said Hilarius.
"Didst thou not fear to journey further alone, my son?"
"Nay, my Father, I found for the most part good and kindly men by
the way, despite their somewhat evil seeming; but at Genoa I took
service with a merchant then beginning his journey, and travelled
with him through Flanders, a strange, flat country with many canals
and tall poplar trees; and so we came to Bruges in safety, after a
most prosperous course. There he commended me to a good friend of
his, a wool merchant travelling to Salisbury; and at first all
things went well with us; but later the winds proved contrary, and
we were driven hither and thither in great peril of our lives, but
at last made the Bristol Channel, and so came safe into port.
Thence I have come hither afoot begging my bread."
When Hilarius had made an end, the Prior took him in his arms and
blessed him for his dear son; praising God that the lad had come
back a child at heart, but hungering, loving, open-eyed.
Next morning, being shriven, Hilarius ate the bread and drank the
wine of the "wayfaring man," his heart merry for the joy of his
home-coming. When the Lady-Mass was ended he knelt on in her
"Great Light of Love, all praise and thanks be thine from thy poor
son," sang his heart; and then he prayed for his little maid.
THE Convent welcomed Hilarius gladly, and on the Feast of St
Michael he made his profession, for the Prior deemed that he had
served his noviciate and been found faithful; and the Brethren
assented eagerly, for they were fain to keep this wondrous limner
for the service of their own Church.
Then, by the Prior's command, Hilarius set himself to limn a great
picture for the High Altar. It was a Crucifixion, and all his
heart and all his love were in it. When the Brethren first saw the
fair proportion and fine colours that Hilarius brought to the work,
they rejoiced in that their Church should be glorified above other
Churches of the Order; but when the picture was near completing,
and they gazed up into the wondrous face of the Great King who
looked down from the throne of His triumphant suffering, with a
world of hunger and love in His eyes for those who had so enthroned
Him, they hung their heads for shame because of the emulation in
their hearts; and lo! the Cellarer, for very love, was careful for
the needs of the elder Brethren; and the monks, for very love, laid
hold gladly of suffering, and so the Convent was blessed, and lived
together in unity.
In one of the groups very near the Cross, Hilarius set a grey-eyed
girl, a woman with a babe at the breast, and clinging to her
skirts, a little flaxen-headed maid. None but the Prior knew the
meaning of these three, and their names, with that of a poor lighto'-
love, were ever on his lips when he offered the Holy Sacrifice.
Gentle Brother Hilarius painted and loved, and was beloved of all
his world. The years sped, and he became in turn Almoner, Novicemaster,
and Sub-Prior: and no man envied him, for he reckoned
himself ever as least of all and servant of all.
Prior Stephen attained his fourscore years, ruling the Convent
wisely and well to the very end: ay, and never ailed aught, his
call coming as it might be straight from the mouth of the Lord.
On the Feast of Blessed Stephen he went into the chapter and said
as always: "The souls of the deceased brethren and believers rest
in peace!" to which the Convent replied, "Amen." Then with his
hands raised to bless he cried, "Benedicite," and again with loud
and joyful voice "Domine," and again, "Domine!" as of one who
answers to his name - and so passed to his place in the Kingdom of
The Convent elected Hilarius to be Prior in his stead, which
election the Abbat of Cluny confirmed with good grace.
Time passed, and the fame of the Monastery grew because of the
exceeding beauty of the Church, for Hilarius, with those whom he
taught, set fair pictures on the walls, and blazoned the roof with
the blue of heaven and gold of the wakeful stars. In the span over
the High Altar he set Blessed Benedict himself with the face of
Prior Stephen, and round him the angel virtues; even as one Giotto,
a shepherd lad, had limned them in the Church of the Little
Now Prior Hilarius desired greatly to set a picture of Our Lady
above the Altar in her Chapel. Long did he pray with everincreasing
fervour and much fasting that this boon might be
vouchsafed him for her glory and the Convent's greater good. And
one day - 'twas her Nativity - he set his hand to the work, for it
seemed to him that she would have it so; and he was greatly humbled
that such heavenly kindness should attend so vile a sinner. Day by
day he set apart some hours for this service; and he limned a face
so fair and radiant, with woman's love and light of heaven, that it
was whispered in the cloister walks that the Prior had surely been
blessed by a vision, else had he never pictured the Maid-Mother in
so wondrous a fashion: and of a truth a man might well give
credence to such a story, for the joy that shone in the Prior's
eyes and might not be hid.
Many other tales did the Brethren tell of Hilarius, but softly, for
he would hear no word of his own deeds or the favours vouchsafed
When he walked in the garth the pigeons circled round him crooning
their peace-note; and it was told that the kine in the meadows
ceased browsing when he passed, and needs must company with him a
little way.
Once it befell that a lay-brother was afflicted with heavy sickness
by reason of the sun's great heat; and Satan strove with him for
his undoing, so that the poor soul foamed at the mouth and roared
out blasphemy; yea, verily, and must be held with cords also, lest
he do himself or his fellows some grievous hurt. But when the
Prior laid his hand between the man's troubled eyes sweet sleep
came upon him, and his madness forsook him.
The poor also crowded to the Monastery gate and were fed, ay, even
if the Brethren went hungry; and if any man in all the villages
round had aught against his neighbour he would come to the Prior
for a just hearing.
Nevertheless, despite these things the Convent's peace began to be
troubled. Men sought the Monastery for its famous name, caring but
little for religion; there were many young novices within its
walls, and the strong hand of Prior Stephen was lacking. Hilarius
was of gentler build; he would speak ever in love, thinking no
evil, whereas it is not given to all men to understand that tongue.
So it came to pass that the younger Brethren waxed fat and kicked,
and the elder Brethren murmured.
DAN. viii. 16.
ONE day the Novice-master, Brother Adam, a most worthy man, came in
sore trouble to the Prior and would resign his office.
"Surely never before did such an ill-conditioned brood find shelter
in a monastery!" he cried. "They grow fat, idle, insolent,
quarrelsome-never at peace among themselves; never a Pater or an
Ave too many, or a task fulfilled, save for fear of stripes. I
would that the time of blood-letting were here that their high
stomachs might be brought low. I am no longer young, my Father,
and this burden tries me sorely. Prithee, let it be shifted to
another and a stronger back."
The Prior listened with many an inward mea culpa. "'Tis a sad
hearing, Brother Adam, but young blood is hard of mastering; maybe
this ill mood will pass. The lad Robert is surely ever gentle and
decorous? He hath a most beauteous voice."
The Novice-master threw up his hands.
"Nay, Father, nay, he hath indeed the voice of an angel, but
methinks his body is surely the habitation of Satan. He will sing
an it please him - or when thou art by, my Father, - but, an it
please him not, he is silent; ay, even under grievous stripes. The
Precentor giveth him as negligent and ill-conditioned; and in
choir, when he looketh most like to one of God's Saints, he is but
plotting mischief for the day."
The Prior heard him sadly.
"And Hubert?" he said. "Hubert methinks hath a great love of
colour and a fine hand with the brush."
Brother Adam was almost speechless.
"Hubert! Nay Father, forgive me, Father, but even this very Hubert
but yesterday slipped a handful of pebbles into Brother Edmund's
mess, whereby he was like to break his teeth or take some more
grievous hurt. And indeed the peace of the Brethren is much
troubled, wherefore they complain bitterly."
"Young blood, young blood, but not of necessity evil," said the
Prior. Then, seeing the Novice-master's aggrieved face, he bade
him have patience yet a little, for he himself would speak to the
novices; and with this Brother Adam must fain be content.
The next day in the Chapter the Prior spoke.
It comes to pass oftentimes that men seeing a sign are made curious
by it; and then forgetting, find the clue thereto, it may be, long
after. Even thus it happened on this day in the Chapter; and when
Prior Hilarius was gathered to his rest the Brethren remembered how
they had marked and marvelled at the strange beauty of his face,
the beauty as of one who sees the face of the Lord.
"My children," he cried - "for my children ye are, though I see
among you many it were more fitting I should hail as father, but
that the ruling of the Lord cannot be gainsaid - my children, I am
minded to think that I have this day a message on my lips that is
not mine own.
"Last night a vision came to me as I slept. Blessed Benedict, our
Father, stood at my side, and his face was troubled.
"'Arise, my son,' he cried, 'arise, for the Lord is at hand and
hath need of thee.'
"And I, deeming it was of judgment that he spake, sprang up in
shame and fear that the Master should find me sleeping.
"Then cried Blessed Benedict again:-
"'If thou wilt serve the Lord, make haste, for He hath called thee
these many times,' and so saying passed from my sight.
"Brethren, I went forth as one bewildered, and made haste to the
Church lest peradventure I should find Him; but the lamps burnt dim
and all was silent. Then I turned aside and went out into the
night, and it was very dark, with no sound but the wind in the
forest trees.
"My heart was a-hungered, and I sought in cloister and garth; and
as I hasted to the gate I cried aloud, even as she cried who sought
Him in a garden - 'They have taken away my Lord.'
"At the gate I stayed me, and besought the Lord for a sign; and lo,
in the darkness one came and led me by the hand away from the gate,
across the garth and up the dormitory stair, nor loosed me until I
passed within where the Brethren lay sleeping, and the chamber was
bright with exceeding radiance.
"I found myself by the pallet of my dear son Robert: his face was
wet with tears; and as he lay I saw upon his shoulder the mark of
many stripes.
"Again, one took my hand and led me from one to another of our
Brethren, and on every face lay the shadow of a great need, but in
every face there was somewhat of the Christ; and the lesson burnt
in my heart.
"Then One came swiftly and laid healing hands on the boy Robert;
but I fled, for I might not see Him; and I awoke sore troubled -
ay, and the trouble is on me still.
"My Brethren, I can but tell the vision as it came to me. Great is
the rule of Benedict, our Father, and in it stripes, grievous and
many as our sins, have their rightful place; but mayhap we forget
that love, and love alone, should strike. Ay, and I mind me how
Prior Stephen, my Father, said that to be monk a man must learn
before all things to hunger and to love. Love should draw the
water and build the fire, till the field and attend the sanctuary;
and hunger we should cherish in our hearts, hunger for
righteousness and for the souls of our brethren, for this is the
hunger of God.
"Men come over lightly to the Lord's work; and lo! pride and
emulation, jealousy and discontent, spring up and thrive, and the
end is shame and confusion.
"I speak as to my children; it is in my heart that the Lord is at
hand: let us see that we love while there is yet time."
Then he turned to the novices and stretched out his hands to where
they stood amazed, and it may be ashamed - not after this manner
was Brother Adam wont to rebuke them.
"And ye, who are, as it were, the babes of our Order, give heed to
your ways, neither bring unwilling hands to this service. Better
far go forth, yea, even to death, than mock the Lord with froward
feet and a heart that is full of vanity. Remember the sacrifice
which Cain offered and the Lord rejected, for he gainsayed the
voice of the Lord and disobeyed His Commandment; wherefore the
wrath of God fell upon him.
"I who speak now, speak in love; give ear to my words, and let fear
befriend you; for the coming of the Lord is as a thief in the
night, and lo! stripes bitter and many await that servant whom the
Master finds sleeping."
Then the Prior, having made an end of speaking, raised his hand to
bless, and went forth in silence; and no man stirred in his place,
for they knew that the Lord had spoken and were afraid.
JUNE was at an end, and men cried aloud for rain. The hedges were
white, the fields scorched and brown; the leaves fell from the
trees as at autumn's touch; the fruits scarce formed hung wry and
twisted on the bough; the heavens burnt pitiless, without a cloud.
Dickon, the woodman, sat by the wayside gnawing a crust and a scrap
of mouldy bacon. There was no sound but the howl of a dog from
some neighbouring farmstead, and he sat in sullen mood, his billhook
beside him, brooding over his wrongs; for the world had gone
contrary with him.
His wife was dead; she had died in childbed a month gone, leaving
six hungry, naked brats on his shoulders; and now a worse thing had
befallen him; his gold was gone - his gold to which he had no
right, for 'twas blood-money, the food of his children, ay, and
something beside; but Dickon loved that gold piece above all the
world - above Heaven and his own soul - and it was gone.
A neighbour had surely done it; marked the hiding-place which he
had deemed so safe, and made off with the prize; and i' faith 'twas
easy carrying. There was but one piece, and Dickon minded how he
had changed his petty hoard to gold scarce a month back at the
fair. Maybe it was Thomas the charcoal burner had served him this
ill turn; or William Crookleg, the miller's man; he was a sly,
prying fellow, and there had been ill blood between them.
He was fain to seek the Monastery that lay the other side the
forest, and crave justice of the Prior, but that the Prior might
say 'twas ill-got gain and well rid of.
Dickon rose to his feet and shambled homewards; he was ragged, illfed,
unkempt. The day's work was done, and on the village green he
found men and women, for the most part as ill-clad as himself,
standing about in groups gossiping. The innkeeper lounged at the
ale-house door, thin and peaked as his fellows; there was no good
living for any man in those parts, by reason of the over-lord who
sore oppressed them.
A little man, keen-eyed and restless, holding a lean and sorry
horse by the bridle, was talking eagerly.
"Nay, 'tis true eno', and three crows saw I this very day on the
churchyard wall - it bodes ill to some of us."
"Well, well," said the innkeeper, "have it thine own way. Methinks
the ill hath outrun the omen, for there will be naught for man or
beast shortly - but fine pickings for thy three crows."
The little man scowled at him: Dickon came up.
"What's to do?" he said curtly.
"Nay," said mine host, "Robin will have it that some further evil
is upon us - tho' methinks we have got our fill and to spare with
this drought - ay, and 'twas at thy house, Dickon, he saw the
"Better a corpse-light than six open mouths, and naught to fill
them," said Dickon surlily. "Whither away, Robin? 'Tis not far
this beast will travel."
"Right thou art, but my master will turn an honest penny with the
carcass," answered the little man; "give me my reckoning, friend
John. I must needs haste if I would see the Forester's ere
He pulled out a few small coins and a gold piece. When Dickon saw
it his eyes gleamed. Robin paid the reckoning and put the piece in
his cheek.
"Hard-earned money - 'tis blood out of a stone to draw wages from
my master. Better it should light in my belly than in a rogue's
pocket. 'Tis as well for me that John o' th' Swift-foot swings at
the cross-roads. Godden, my masters!" And leading his weary
beast, he took the road that skirted the forest.
The moon was at full, and he had yet a good stretch of lonely way
before him, when the horse stumbled and fell and would not rise.
"A murrain on the beast!" muttered Robin angrily, tugging in vain
at the creature on whom death had taken pity. "I must e'en leave
him by the wayside and tell Richard what hath befallen."
He stooped to loose the halter, and as he bent to his task a man
slipped from the shadow of the hedge into the quiet moonlight.
There was a thud, a dull cry, and Robin fell prone across the
horse's neck - a pace beyond him in the moonlight shone the gleam
of gold.
Next day Dickon's child died, ay, and the other five followed with
scant time between the buryings. Another had fathered them and
filled the gaping mouths; but men shuddered at his care, for it was
the Black Death that they had deemed far from them.
Pale and woebegone they clustered on the green. News had come of
Robin - he was dead when they found him - but no man gave heed.
Death was in the air, death held them safe in walls they might not
scale. The heavens were brass, food failed for man and beast, God
and man alike had forsaken them. The forest lay one side, the
river, now but a shallow sluggish stream, lay the other; 'twas a
cleft stick and the springe tightened.
No evil had as yet befallen Dickon. He stood with the rest and
murmured, cursing. All at once he made for the ale-house.
"Fools that we are to stand like helpless brats when there is
liquor enough and to spare in yon cellars. He who is minded to go
dry throat to Heaven had best make haste; for me I will e'en swill
a bucket to the devil's health, and so to hell."
Half-a-dozen men followed him, pushing aside mine host who strove
to bar the door. Some of the women fell on their knees and
clamoured in half delirious prayer; the rest slunk dismayed to
their pestilent homes.
MEANWHILE, news came to the Monastery of the ill case of the
village, for it lay scarce a league away across the forest; but the
pine-trees stood as guardian angels in between.
The Prior summoned the whole Convent, according to the ruling of
Blessed Benedict when the matter is a grave one, and told the
Then he went on to give reason for their assembling.
"My Brethren, it is in my heart that we dare not leave these poor,
stricken sheep to die alone without shepherding; moreover, in their
fear and desolation, they may flee to other villages, and so the
terror and pest spread ever further. And I deem that, inasmuch as
Charity is greater than Faith or Hope, so it is greater than
obedience also. Wherefore I purpose to set aside the Rule of our
Order in the letter that I may hold to it in the spirit, and go
forth to serve these perishing brethren; and I will take with me
whosoever hears the call of God in this visitation."
When he had made an end, there was silence in the Chapter. Break
cloister, the Prior himself urging them thereto? The Convent might
scarce credit its ears.
Prior Hilarius watched his children with a tender smile on his
white face, and a prayer on his lips that love might have its
Five monks stood up, among them the Sub-Prior, and seven novices
sprang also to their feet.
"Nay, Brother Walter," said Hilarius, turning to the Sub-Prior,
"this flock must have its shepherd also; thy place is here. But I
will take with me Brother Simon and Brother Leo, who will doubtless
suffice at first for the ministry, and - " smiling at the novices -
"all these dear lads to tend the sick and bury the dead."
The Sub-Prior ventured on a remonstrance.
"Good Father, it is not fitting that thou should'st go on such an
errand; send me in thy stead, for my life is a small thing as
compared with thine. Moreover these novices, 'tis but the other
day the Master gave them as lazy and ill-conditioned, and - "
The Prior held up his hand.
"Dear Brother, I thank thee for thy love and care for me; but my
call has come. As for these - " he stretched out his hand towards
the waiting novices - "maybe they are in the wrong school, and the
Lord hath even opened the door that they may serve Him, perchance
die for Him, elsewhere. And shall I count myself wiser than Prior
Stephen, who set me without the gate to learn my lesson? Let us go
in peace, my children, for we are about the Lord's business."
Very early next day, having eaten of Heavenly manna, the little
band embraced their brethren and set out, laden with food and wine
and herbs from the farmery; and the Prior appointed a place to
which the Convent should send daily all things needed.
The shade of the forest was very welcome in the hot, breathless
sunshine, and the scent of the pine-needles, odorous, pungent, rose
at each footfall from the silent path. The Brethren chanted the
Gradual Psalms as they paced two and two through the sun-lit
aisles, full of the Prior's memories; and he looked up again to see
Our Lady's robe across the tree-tops. Then all at once the Psalm
broke, and Brother Simon, who was leading, stayed suddenly.
Under a bush beside the track lay a man, naked save for filthy
rags; his hair and beard matted with moss and leaves; his eyes
sunk, his lips drawn apart in a ghastly grin. Hilarius made haste
to kneel beside him, and lo! sudden remembrance lighted the fastglazing
eyes, but his own answered not.
"My son, my son," said the Prior, and his voice was very pitiful,
"thou art indeed in evil case; let me shrive thee ere it be too
He motioned the others to stand back, and raising the heavy head
upon his shoulder, bent close to catch the whisper of the parched
At first no sound came, and then a hoarse word reached him.
"The Convent's hens!"
The Prior stared amazed; then once more the laboured voice -
"Hast forgot thy theft, and the dancer?"
Hilarius needed no further word; in a moment the years were wiped
"Lad, lad, to find thee again, and in such sorry plight! But see,
stay not thy shriving, for the time is short, and the Lord ever
ready to pardon."
The man strove in vain to speak. At last he said quite clearly:
"I hunger," and so saying died.
The Prior was greatly moved, and for a while he knelt in prayer,
while the Brethren, amazed, waited his pleasure. Then he rose, and
lo! before him lay the open glade where his schooling had begun,
and he had seen a flower incarnate dance in the wind.
He bade them lift the dead, and lay him in the hollow of the glade
under fallen branches until they could return and give him burial.
Then, as they went on their way, he told the tale of his little
maid; and when the telling was ended, the village they had come to
succour was in sight, and lo! they saw it through a mist.
THE Prior's heart was ready, and it seemed to him as he passed up
the village and saw the huddled, helpless people, that his little
maid led him by the hand.
Brother Simon, Brother Leo, and the novices turned aside to speak
comfort and carry succour to the sick and fearful, and to bury the
dead; for three unshriven souls had passed to judgment and mercy.
Hilarius made straight for the ale-house.
As he crossed the green, the door opened and Dickon stumbled
blindly down the steps. At sight of a monk he cried out, and
suddenly sobered, dropped on his knees, while the topers and
roysterers staring from the open doorway fell into silence.
Hilarius pushed back his cowl and stood bareheaded in the scorching
sun of that windless day; it came to his mind that he was very
"Hear, O my children, the Lord hath sent me to succour you, lest ye
go down quick into the pit. Return, every one of you, for the arms
of His love are still stretched wide upon the Rood, and the very
hairs of your head are numbered. Repent ye, therefore, and confess
each one of you his sins, that I may prepare him for the work of
the Lord; and take comfort also, for they that are with us are
One by one the men, sobered by the shock of great surprise,
confessed and were shriven under the summer sun: only the man
Dickon was not among them. Then the Prior bade them get to work as
he should direct; and he set a watch that no man should flee the
village; and all obeyed him.
Early and late the Prior toiled with the Brethren and his band of
workers, nursing the sick, burying the dead, and destroying the
pestilent dwellings.
Brother Leo was the first to whom the call came: he answered it
like a soldier at his post.
As the Prior rose from the pallet of his dead son, one bade him
come quickly, for a dying man had need of him. It was Dickon.
The Prior, bearing with him the Body of the Lord, made haste to the
hovel where he lay, and shrived him though he scarce could hear his
muttered words; but lo! when he would place the Host he could not,
for a gold piece lay on the man's tongue. The Prior drew back
dismayed, and behold, the Lord's hand struck swiftly, and Dickon
died with a barren shriving - on whom may Christ take pity!
Next day great grey clouds curtained the arid, staring sky; and at
even came the rain. All through the night it fell; and one of the
novices, who lay a-dying in the Prioir's arms, heard it as he
passed, and fell back, joy on his lips and a radiant smile on his
young face.
"'Esurientes implevit bonis,'" said the Prior, as he laid him down,
blessing God.
A second novice died, then a third, and yet another; but there was
no need to call further help from the Monastery, for the Plague was
stayed. Never had cloistered monks spent such a strange season;
rarely such a blessed one.
The Feast of the Transfiguration was nigh at hand, and the Prior
was minded to return on that day to the waiting, anxious Convent,
for his work was done.
Great was the joy and preparation at the Monastery when the tidings
reached them; joy too for those who lay not in the shelter of the
cloister garth, but, as it were, on the battlefield where they had
given their lives for their brethren.
The holy day dawned without a cloud. A strong west wind bowed the
pines in the forest, and they worshipped and sang for joy, because
of the face of the Lord. The sun burnt bright in the great blue
dome, and earth shone with pale reflection of his glory.
The monks paced the cloister walks, and waited and watched to catch
the signal from the lay-brother posted without. At last the word
came that voices were heard in the distance; and monks and novices
hastened two and two to the gate. On the wind was borne the sound
of a chant.
"'Tis a dirge for those that are gone," said Brother Anselm; and
crossing themselves, the Brothers chanted out the sonorous
"Et lux perpetua luceat eis."
As they reached the open gate, the little band they waited for came
slowly down the forest pathway.
Four Brothers, only four; and lo! on their shoulders they bore a
rude bier of pine-branches.
This was the gathering of Brother Hilarius. Sweet-scented boughs
for his last bed; Mary's lilies aglow for tapers tall; the censer
of the forest swung by sun and wind; and the glory of the face of
the Lord.
He had called his children to him in the late night-watches, and
having kissed and blessed them, he bade them turn him to the east,
for his time had come; and they obeyed in sore grief and perplexed.
Prior Hilarius lay and watched for the light, and as dawn parted
night's veil with the long foregleam of the coming day, he shut his
eyes like a tired child and went home.
It was his heart, Brother Simon thought; but the Sub-Prior cried
through his tears:-
"Nay, nay, it was God a-hungered for His dear son."
They bore the Prior into the white-clad Church, and laid him on his
forest-bed under the great Christ; and the novices, seeing the
tender smile on the beautiful face, whispered one to another, "The
Prior hath found his little maid." And the Convent made Hilarius a
wondrous fair tomb of alabaster inlaid with gold, and carved him
lying thereon with Mary's lilies across his breast.

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