The Forest Lovers (Chapter 2)

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Chapter 2

Leaving the high road on his right hand, Prosper struck over the heath
towards a solemn beech-wood, which he took to be the very threshold of
Morgraunt. As a fact it was no more than an outstretched finger of its
hand, by name Cadnam Thicket. He skirted this place, seeking an entry,
but found nothing to suit him for an hour or more. Then at last he
came to a gap in the sandy bank, and saw that a little mossy ride ran
straight in among the trees. He put his horse at the gap, and was soon
cantering happily through the wood. Thus he came short upon an
adventure. The path ran ahead of him in a tapering vista, but just
where it should meet in a point it broadened out suddenly so as to
make a double bay. The light fell splashing upon this cleared space,
and he saw what he saw.

This was a tall lady, richly dressed in some gauzy purple stuff,
dragging a dead man by the heels, and making a very bad business of
it. She was dainty to view, her hands and arms shone like white
marble; but apart from all this it was clear to Prosper that she
lacked the mere strength for the office she had proposed herself. The
dead man was not very tall, but he was too tall for the lady. The
roughness of the ground, the resistance of the underwood, the
incapacity of the performers, made the procession unseemly.

Prosper, forgetting Brother Bonaccord, quickened his horse to a
gallop, and was soon up with the toiling lady. She stopped when she
heard him coming, stood up to wait for him, quick-breathing and a
little flushed, and never took her eyes off him.

It was clearly a time for discretion: so much she signalled from her
brown eyes, which were watchful, but by no means timid. He remembered
afterwards that they had been apt to fall easily into set stares, and
thus to give her a bold look which seemed to invite you to be bold
also. But though he could not see this now, and though he had no taste
for women, it was certain she was handsome in a profuse way. She had a
broad full bust; her skin, dazzling white at the neck, ran into golden
russet before it reached the burnt splendour of her cheeks; her mouth,
rather long and curved up at the corners, had lips rich and crimson;
of which, however, the upper was short to a fault, and so curled back
as to give her, a pettish or fretful look. Her dark hair, which was
plentiful and drawn low over her ears into a heavy knot at the nape of
her neck, was dressed within a fine gold net. Her arms were bare to
the elbow, large and snowy white; from her fingers gems and gold
flashed at him. Prosper, who knew nothing whatever about it, judged
her midway between thirty and forty. Such was the lady; the man he had
no chance of overlooking, for the other had dropped her handkerchief
upon his face before she left him. "Sir," she now said, in a smooth
and distinguishable voice, when Prosper had saluted her, "you may do
me a great service if you will, which is to carry this dead man to his
grave in the wood."

"By the faith I have," Prosper replied, "I will help you all I can.
But when we have buried him you shall tell me how he came by his
death, and how it is that his grave is waiting for him."

"I can tell you that at once," she said quickly; "I have but just dug
it with a mattock I was so lucky as to find by a stopped earth on the
bank yonder. The rest I will gladly acquaint you with by and by. But
first let us be rid of him."

Prosper dismounted and went to take up his burden. First of all,
however, he deliberately removed the handkerchief and looked it in the
face. The dead man lay stiff and staring, with open eyes and a wry
mouth. Hands and face were livid, a light froth had gathered on his
lips. He looked to have suffered horribly--as much in mind as body:
the agony must have bitten deep into him for the final peace of death
never to have come. Now Prosper knew very little of death as yet, save
that he had an idea that he himself would never come to endure it; but
he knew enough to be sure that neither battle nor honour had had any
part here. The man had been well-dressed in brown and tawny velvet,
was probably handsome in a sharp, foreign sort. There was a ring upon
his finger, a torn badge upon his left breast, with traces of a device
in white threads which could not be well made out. Puzzling over it,
Prosper thought to read three white forms on it--water-bougets,
perhaps, or billets--he could not be sure. The whole affair seemed to
him to hold some shameful secret behind: he thought of poison, or the
just visitation of God; but then he thought of the handsome lady, and
was ashamed to see that such a conclusion must involve her in the
mess. Pitying, since he could not judge, he lifted the body in his
arms and followed the lady's lead through the brushwood. At the end of
some two hundred yards or more of battling with the boughs, she
stopped, and pointed to a pit, with a mattock lying on the heaped
earth close by. "There is the grave," she said.

"The grave is a shallow grave," said Prosper.

"It is deeper than he was," quoth the lady. There was a ring in this
rather ugly to hear, as all scorn is out of tune with a dead presence.
You might as well be contemptuous of a baby. But Prosper was no fool,
to think at the wrong time. He laid the body down in the grave, and
busied himself to compose it into some semblance of the rest there
should be in that bed at least. This was hard to be done, since it was
as stiff as a board, and took time. The lady grew impatient, fidgeted
about, walked up and down, could not stand for a moment: but she said
nothing. At last Prosper stood up by the side of the grave, having
done his best.

"I am no priest," says he, "God knows; but I cannot put a man's body
into the earth without in some sort commending his soul. I must do
what I can, and you must pardon an indifferent advocate, as God will."

"If you are advised by me," said the lady, "you will leave that affair
where it is. The man was worthless."

"We cannot measure his worth, madam: we have no tools for that. The
utmost we can do is to bury part of him, and pray for the other part."

"You speak as a priest whom I had thought a soldier," said she with
some asperity. "If you are what you now seem, I will remind you of a
saying which should be familiar--Let the dead bury their dead."

"As I live by bread," Prosper cried out, "I will commend this man's
soul whither it is going."

"Then I will not listen to you, sir," she answered in a pale fume. "I
cannot listen to you."

Prosper grew extremely polite. "Madam, there is surely no need," he
said. "If you cannot you will not. Moreover, I should in any case
address myself elsewhere."

He had folded the dead man's arms over his breast, and shut his eyes.
He had wiped his lips. The thing seemed more at peace. So he crossed
himself and began, In nomine patris, etc., and then recited the
Paternoster. This almost exhausted his stock, though it did not
satisfy his aspirations. His words burst from him. "O thou pitiful
dead!" he cried out, "go thou where Pity is, in the hope some morsels
may be justly thine. Rest thou there, who wast not restful in thine
end, and quitted not willingly thy tenement; rest thou there till thou
art called. And when thou art called to give an account of thyself and
thine own works, may that which men owe thee be remembered with that
which thou dost owe! Per Christum dominum," etc.

He bowed his head, crossed himself very piously; then stood still,
smiling gently upon the man he knew nothing of, save that he had been
young and had lost his race. He did not see the lady; she was,
however, near by, not looking at the man at the grave, but first at
Prosper and then at the ground. Her fingers were twisting and tangling
together, and her bosom, restless as the sea, rose and fell fitfully.
She was pale, save at the lips; like Prosper she smiled, but the smile
was stiff. Prosper set to work with the shovel and soon filled up the
grave. Then he turned to the lady.

"And now, madam, we will talk a little, if you please." He had a cool
and level voice; yet it came upon her as if it could have but one

She looked at him for some seconds without reply. For his part,
Prosper had kept his eyes fixed equally on her; hers fell first.

She coloured a little as she said-"Very willingly. You have done me a
service for which I am very much in your debt. You shall command me as
you will, and find me ready to recompense you with what I have." She
stopped as if to judge the weight of her words, then went on slowly--
"I know not, indeed, how could I deny you anything."

Prosper could have seen, if he would, the quickened play of her

"Let us go into the open," said he, "and find my horse. Then you shall
tell me whence you are, and whither I may speed you, and how
safeliest--with other things proper to be known."

They went together. "My lord," said she then, "my lodging is far from
here and ill to come by. Nevertheless, I know of a hermitage hard at
hand where we could rest a little, and thereafter we could find the
way to my house. Will you come with me thither?"

"Whither?" asked Prosper.

"Ah, the hermitage, or wheresoever you will."

Prosper looked steadily at her.

"Tell me the name and condition of the dead man," said he.

"Ranulf de Genlis, a knight of Brittany."

"The badge on his breast was of our blazonry," said Prosper, half to
himself, "and he looked to have been of this side the Southern Sea."

"Do you doubt my word, Sir Knight?"

"Madam, I do not question it. Will you tell, me how he came by his

"I was hunting very early in the morning with my esquires and ladies,
and by ill-hap lost them and my way. After many wanderings in search
of either, I encountered this man now dead, and inquired news of him.
He held me some time in talk, delayed me with sham diligence, and at
last and, suddenly professed an ardent love for me. I was frightened,
for I was alone in the wood with him, in a glade not far from here.
And it seemed that I had reason, since from words he went on to force
and clamour and violence. I had almost succumbed--I know not how to
hint at the fate which threatened me, or guess how long I could have
struggled against it. He had closed with me, he held me in a vice;
then all at once he loosed hold of me and shuddered. Some seizure or
sudden stroke of judgment overtook him, I suppose, so that he fell and
lay writhing, with a foam on his lips, as you saw. You may judge," she
added, after waiting for some comment from Prosper, which did not
come, "you may judge whether this is a pleasant tale for me to tell,
and whether I should tell it willingly to any man. For what one
attempted against me another might also try--and not fail."

She stopped and glanced at her companion. The manner in each of them
was changed; the lady was not the scornful beauty she had seemed,
while Prosper's youth was dry within him. She seemed a suppliant, he a
judge, deliberate. Such a story from such an one would have set him on
fire an hour ago; but now his words came sharply from him, whistling
like a shrill wind.

"The grave was dug overnight," was what he said.

The lady started and paled. Then she drew a deep breath, and said--"Do
you again doubt my word, sir?"

"I do not question it," he replied as before. It is a fact that he had
noticed the turned earth by the pit. There was gossamer upon it, but
that said little. Rabbits had been there also, and that said

The lady said nothing more, and in silence they went on until they
reached a fork in the path. Prosper stopped here. One path led north,
the other west.

"Here is my road," said he, pointing to the west.

"The hermitage is close by, my lord," urged the lady in a low voice.
"I pray my lord to rest him there."

"That I cannot do," says he.

She affected indignation. "Is it then in the honour of a knight to
desert a lonely lady? I am learning strange doctrine, strange
chivalry! Farewell, sir. You are young. Maybe you will learn with
years that when a lady stoops to beg it is more courtly to forestall

Prosper stood leaning on his shield. "The knight's honour," he said,
"is in divers holds--in his lady's, in God's, and in the king's. These
three fly not always the same flag, but two at least of them should be
in pact."

"Ah," said she slyly, "ah, Sir Discreet, I see that you have the lady

Prosper grew graver. "I said 'his lady,'" he repeated.

"And could not I, for such service as yours, be your lady, fair sir?"
she asked in a very low and troubled voice. "At least I am here--
alone--in the wood--and at your mercy."

Prosper looked straight in front of him, grave, working his mouth.
Those who knew him would have gone by the set of his chin. He may have
been thinking of Brother Bonaccord's prediction, or of the not very
veiled provocation of the lady's remarkable candour. There grew to be
a rather bleak look in his face, something blenched his blue eyes. He
turned sharply upon the woman, and his voice was like a frost.

"Having slain one man this day," he said, "I should recommend you to
be wary how you tread with another."

She stared open-mouthed at him for a full minute and a half. Then,
seeing he never winked or budged, she grew frightened and piteous,
threw her arms up, turned, and fled up the north path, squealing like
a wounded rabbit.

Prosper clapped-to his spurs and made after her with his teeth
grinding together. Very soon, however, he pulled up short. "The man is
dead. Let her go for this present. And I am not quite sure. I will
bide my time."

That was the motto of the Gais--"I bide my time." He was,
nevertheless, perfectly sure in his private mind; but then he was
always perfectly sure, and recognized that it was a weakness of his.
So the woman went her way, and he his for that turn...

Riding forward carelessly, with a loose rein, he slept that night in
the woods. Next day he rode fast and long without meeting a living
soul, and so came at last into Morgraunt Forest, where the trees shut
out the light of the day, and very few birds sing. He entered the east
purlieus in the evening of his fifth day from Starning, and slept in a
rocky valley. Tall black trees stood all round him, the vanguards of
the forest host.

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Rate This Book

Current Rating: 2.6/5 (182 votes cast)

Review This Book or Post a Comment