The Dragon of Wantley (3 of 3)


Uploaded by The16thCavern on 15.11.2012

Transcript:
CHAPTER VIII
Contains a Dilemma with two simply egregious Horns.
"Run instantly into the house," said Geoffrey to Elaine, and he
dragged out his sword.
But she stared at him, and nothing further.
"Or no. Stay here and see me kill him," the boy added, pridefully.
"Kill him!" said she, in amazement. "Do you suppose that papa, with
all his experience, couldn't tell it was an imitation dragon? And you
talk of strategy! I have thought much about to-night,—and, Geoffrey,
you must do just the thing that I bid you, and nothing else. Promise."
"I think we'll hear first what your wisdom is," said he, shaking his
head like the sage youth that he was.
"Promise!" she repeated, "else I go away at once, and leave you. Now!
One—two—thrrr——"
"I promise!" he shouted.
"'Sh! Papa's window is just round the tower. Now, sir, you must go
over yonder within those trees."
"Where?"
"There where the snow has dipped the branches low down. And leave me
alone in the cellar with the Dragon."
"With the Dragon? Alone? I did not know you counted me a lunatic,"
replied Geoffrey. Then, after a look over the fields where the storm
was swirling, he gave attention to the point of his sword.
"Where's your promise?" said she. "Will you break your word so soon?"
A big gust of wind flung the snow sharp against their faces.
"Did you expect——" began the young knight, and then said some words
that I suppose gentlemen in those old times were more prone to use
before ladies than they are to-day. Which shows the optimists are
right.
Then, still distant, but not so distant, came another roar.
"Geoffrey!" Elaine said, laying a hand upon his arm; "indeed, you must
hear me now, and make no delay with contrary notions. There is no
danger for me. Look. He will first be by himself to clear the way of
watchers. No one peeps out of windows when the Dragon's howling. Next,
the rest will come and all go into papa's cellar for the wine. But we
must get these others away, and that's for you." She paused.
"Well? Well?" he said.
"It will go thus: the passage shall hide me, and the door of it be
shut. You'll watch over by the trees, and when you see all have come
inside here, make some sort of noise at the edge of the wood."
"What sort of noise?"
"Oh,—not as if you suspected. Seem to be passing by. Play you are a
villager going home late. When they hear that, they'll run away for
fear of their secret. The Dragon will surely stay behind."
"Why will he stay behind? Why will they run away?"
"Dear Geoffrey, don't you see that if these men were to be seen in
company with the Dragon by one who till now knew them as monks, where
would their living be gone to? Of course, they will get themselves out
of sight, and the Dragon will remain as a sort of human scarecrow.
Then I'll come out from the passage-door."
"One would almost think you desired that villain to kill you," said
Geoffrey. "No, indeed. I'll not consent to that part."
"How shall he kill me here?" Elaine replied. "Do you not see the
Dragon of Wantley would have to carry a maiden away? He would not dare
to put me to the sword. When I come, I shall speak three words to him.
Before there is time for him to think what to do, you will hear me say
(for you must have now run up from the wood) 'the legend has come
true!' Then, when I tell him that, do you walk in ready with your
sword to keep him polite. Oh, indeed," said the lady, with her eyes
sparkling on Geoffrey, "we must keep his manners good for him. For I
think he's one of those persons who might turn out very rude in a
trying situation."
All this was far from pleasing to young Geoffrey. But Elaine showed
him how no other way was to be found by which Sir Francis could be
trapped red-handed and distant from help. While the knight was bending
his brows down with trying to set his thoughts into some order that
should work out a better device, a glare shone over the next hill
against the falling flakes.
"Quick!" said Elaine.
She withdrew into the cellar on the instant, and the great door closed
between them. Geoffrey stood looking at it very anxiously, and then
walked backwards, keeping close to the walls, and so round the tower
and into the court, whence he turned and ploughed as fast as he could
through the deep drifts till he was inside the trees. "If they spy my
steps," he thought, "it will seem as though some one of the house had
gone in there to secure the door."
Once more the glare flashed against the swiftly-descending curtains of
the storm. Slowly it approached, sometimes illuminating a tree-trunk
for a moment, then suddenly gleaming on the white mounds where rocks
lay deeply cloaked.
"He is pretty slow," said Geoffrey, shifting the leg he was leaning
on.
A black mass moved into sight, and from it came spoutings of fire that
showed dark, jagged wings heavily flapping. It walked a little and
stopped; then walked again. Geoffrey could see a great snout and head
rocking and turning. Dismal and unspeakable sounds proceeded from the
creature as it made towards the cellar-door. After it had got close
and leaned against the panels in a toppling, swaying fashion, came a
noise of creaking and fumbling, and then the door rolled aside upon
its hinges. Next, the blurred white ridge towards Oyster-le-Main was
darkened with moving specks that came steadily near; and man by man of
the Guild reached the open door crouching, whispered a word or two,
and crept inside. They made no sound that could be heard above the
hissing of the downward flakes and the wind that moaned always, but
louder sometimes. Only Elaine, with her ear to the cold iron key-hole
of the passage-door, could mark the clink of armour, and shivered as
she stood in the dark. And now the cellar is full,—but not of gray
gowns. The candle flames show little glistening sparks in the black
coats of mail, and the sight of themselves cased in steel, and each
bearing an empty keg, stirred a laughter among them. Then the kegs
were set down without noise on the earthy floor among the bins. The
Dragon was standing on his crooked scaly hind-legs; and to see the
grim, changeless jaw and eyes brought a dead feeling around the
heart. But the two bungling fore-paws moved upwards, shaking like a
machine, and out of a slit in the hide came two white hands that
lifted to one side the brown knarled mask of the crocodile. There was
the black head of Sir Francis Almoign. "'Tis hot in there," he said;
and with two fingers he slung the drops of sweat from his forehead.
"Wet thy whistle before we begin," said Hubert, filling a jug for him.
Sir Francis took it in both hands, and then clutched it tightly as a
sudden singing was set up out in the night.
"Come, take a wife, Come, take a wife,
Ere thou learnest age's treasons!"
The tune came clear and jolly, cutting through the muffled noises of
the tempest.
"Blood and death!" muttered Hubert.
Each figure had sprung into a stiff position of listening.
"Quit thy roving; Shalt by loving
Not wax lean in stormy seasons. Ho! ho! oh,—ho!
Not wax lean in——"
Here the strain snapped off short. Then a whining voice said, "Oh, I
have fallen again! A curse on these roots. Lucifer fell only once, and
'twas enough for him. I have looked on the wine when it was red, and
my dame Jeanie will know it soon, oh, soon! But my sober curse on
these roots."
"That's nothing," said Hubert. "There's a band of Christmas singers
has strolled into these parts to chant carols. One of them has stopped
too long at the tavern."
"Do I see a light?" said the voice. "Help! Give me a light, and let me
go home.
"Quit thy roving; Shalt by loving——"
"Shall I open his throat, that he may sing the next verse in heaven?"
Hubert inquired.
"No, fool!" said Sir Francis. "Who knows if his brother sots are not
behind him to wake the house? This is too dangerous to-night. Away
with you, every one. Stoop low till ye are well among the fields, and
then to Oyster-le-Main! I'll be Dragon for a while, and follow
after."
Quickly catching up his keg, each man left the cellar like a shadow.
Geoffrey, from the edge of the wood, saw them come out and dissolve
away into the night. With the tube of the torch at his lips, Sir
Francis blew a blast of fire out at the door, then covered his head
once more with the grinning crocodile. He roared twice, and heard
something creak behind him, so turned to see what had made it. There
was Miss Elaine on the passage-steps. Her lips moved to speak, but for
a short instant fear put a silence upon her that she found no voice to
break. He, with a notion she was there for the sake of the legend,
waved his great paws and trundled towards where she was standing.
"Do not forget to roar, sir," said the young lady, managing her voice
so there was scarce any tremble to be heard in it.
At this the Dragon stood still.
"You perceive," she said to him, "after all, a dragon, like a mouse,
comes to the trap."
"Not quite yet," cried Sir Francis, in a terrible voice, and rushed
upon her, meaning death.
"The legend has come true!" she loudly said.
A gleaming shaft of steel whistled across the sight of Sir Francis.
"Halt there!" thundered Geoffrey, leaping between the two, and posing
his sword for a lunge.
"My hour has come," Sir Francis thought. For he was cased in the stiff
hide, and could do nothing in defence.
"Now shalt thou lick the earth with thy lying tongue," said Geoffrey.
A sneer came through the gaping teeth of the crocodile.
"Valiant, indeed!" the voice said. "Very valiant and knightly, oh son
of Bertram of Poictiers! Frenchmen know when to be bold. Ha! ha!"
"Crawl out of that nut, thou maggot," answered Geoffrey, "and taste
thy doom."
Here was a chance, the gift of a fool. The two white hands appeared
and shifted the mask aside, letting them see a cunning hope on his
face.
"Do not go further, sir," said Elaine. "It is for the good of us all
that you abide where you are. As I shall explain."
"What is this, Elaine?" said Geoffrey.
"Your promise!" she answered, lifting a finger at him.
There was a dry crack from the crocodile's hide.
"Villain!" cried Geoffrey, seizing the half-extricated body by the
throat. "Thy false skin is honester than thyself, and warned us. Back
inside!"
The robber's eyes shrivelled to the size of a snake's, as, with no
tenderness, the youth grappled with him still entangled, and with
hands, feet, and knees drove him into his shell as a hasty traveller
tramples his effects into a packing-case.
"See," said Elaine, "how pleasantly we two have you at our disposal.
Shall the neighbours be called to have a sight of the Dragon?"
"What do you want with me?" said Sir Francis, quietly. For he was a
philosopher.
"In the first place," answered Geoffrey, "know that thou art caught.
And if I shall spare thee this night, it may well be they'll set thy
carcase swinging on the gallows-tree to-morrow morning,—or, being
Christmas, the day after."
"I can see my case without thy help," Sir Francis replied. "What
next?"
At this, Elaine came to Geoffrey and they whispered together.
"Thy trade is done for," said the youth, at length. "There'll be no
more monks of Oyster-le-Main, and no more Dragon of Wantley. But thou
and the other curs may live, if ye so choose."
"Through what do I buy my choice?"
"Through a further exhibition of thine art. Thou must play Dragon
to-night once again for the last time. This, that I may show thee
captive to Sir Godfrey Disseisin."
"And in chains, I think," added Elaine. "There is one behind the
post." It had belonged in the bear-pit during the lives of Orlando
Crumb and Furioso Bun, two bears trapped expressly for the Baron near
Roncevaux.
"After which?" inquired Sir Francis.
"Thou shalt go free, and I will claim this lady's hand from her
father, who promised her to any man that brought the Dragon to him
dead or alive."
"Papa shall be kept at a distance from you," said Elaine, "and will
never suspect in this dimness, if you roar at him thoroughly."
"Then," continued Geoffrey, "I shall lead thee away as my spoil, and
the people shall see the lizard-skin after a little while. But thou
must journey far from Wantley, and never show face again."
"And go from Oyster-le-Main and the tithings?" exclaimed Sir Francis.
"My house and my sustenance?"
"Sustain thyself elsewhere," said Geoffrey; "I care not how."
"No!" said Sir Francis. "I'll not do this."
"Then we call Sir Godfrey. The Baron will not love thee very much,
seeing how well he loves his Burgundy thou hast drank. Thou gavest him
sermons on cold spring-water. He'll remember that. I think thou'lt be
soon hanging. So choose."
The Knight of the Voracious Stomach was silent.
"This is a pretty scheme thou hast," he presently said. "And not thine
own. She has taught thee this wit, I'll be bound. Mated to her,
thou'lt prosper, I fear."
"Come, thy choice," said Geoffrey, sternly.
A sour smile moved the lips of Sir Francis. "Well," he said, "it has
been good while it lasted. Yes, I consent. Our interests lie together.
See how Necessity is the mother of Friendship, also."
The mask was drawn over his face, and they wound the chain about the
great body.
"There must be sounds of fighting," said Elaine. "Make them when I am
gone into the house."
"If I had strangled thee in thy prison, which was in my mind," said
the voice of the hidden speaker, "this folly we—but there. Let it go,
and begin."
Then they fell to making a wonderful disturbance. The Dragon's voice
was lifted in horrid howlings; and the young knight continually bawled
with all his lungs. They chased as children in a game do: forward,
back, and across to nowhere, knocking the barrels, clanking and
clashing, up between the rows and around corners; and the dry earth
was ground under their feet and swept from the floor upward in a fine
floating yellow powder that they sucked down into their windpipes,
while still they hustled and jangled and banged and coughed and grew
dripping wet, so the dust and the water mingled and ran black streams
along their bodies from the neck downwards, tickling their backs and
stomachs mightily. When the breath was no longer inside them, they
stopped to listen.
The house was stone still, and no noise came, save always the wind's
same cheerless blowing.
"How much more of this before they will awaken?" exclaimed Geoffrey,
in indignation. "'Tis a scandal people should sleep so."
"They are saying their prayers," said Sir Francis.
"It is a pity thou art such a miscreant," Geoffrey said, heartily;
"otherwise I could sweat myself into a good-humour with thee."
But Sir Francis replied with coldness, "It is easy for the upper hand
to laugh."
"We must at it again," said Geoffrey; "and this time I will let them
hear thou art conquered." The din and hubbub recommenced. And
Mistletoe could hear it where she quaked inside her closet holding the
door with both hands. And the Baron could hear it. He was locked in
the bath-room, dreadfully sorry he had not gone to the Crusade. Quite
unknowingly in his alarm he had laid hold of a cord that set going the
shower-bath; but he gave no heed at all to this trifle. And every man
and woman in the house heard the riot, from the scullion up through
the cook to Popham, who had unstrapped his calves before retiring, so
that now his lean shanks knocked together like hockey-sticks. Little
Whelpdale, freezing in his shirt-tail under the bed, was crying
piteously upon all Saints to forget about his sins and deliver him.
Only Miss Elaine standing in her room listened with calm; and she with
not much, being on the threshold of a chance that might turn untoward
so readily. Presently a victorious shouting came from far down through
the dark.
"He is mine!" the voice bellowed. "I have laid him low. The Dragon is
taken." At this she hastened to summon Sir Godfrey.
"Why, where can he be?" she exclaimed, stopping in astonishment at his
room, empty and the door open wide.
Down in the cellar the voice continued to call on all people to come
and see the Dragon of Wantley. Also Elaine heard a splashing and
dripping that sounded in the bath-room. So she ran to the door and
knocked.
"You can't come in!" said the Baron angrily.
"Papa! They've caught the Dragon. Oh why are you taking your bath at
such a time?"
"Taking my grandmother!" Sir Godfrey retorted in great dudgeon. But he
let the rope go, and the shower stopped running. "Go to your room," he
added. "I told you to lock your door. This Dragon——"
"But he's caught, papa," cried Elaine through the key-hole. "Don't you
hear me? Geoff——somebody has got him."
"How now?" said the Baron, unlocking the door and peering out. "What's
all this?"
His dressing-gown was extremely damp, for stray spouts from the
shower-bath had squirted over him. Fortunately, the breast-plate
underneath had kept him dry as far as it went.
"Hum," he said, after he had listened to the voice in the cellar.
"This is something to be cautious over."
"If the people of this house do not come soon to bear witness of my
conquest," said the voice in tones of thunder, "I'll lead this Dragon
through every chamber of it myself."
"Damnum absque injuria!" shrieked Sir Godfrey, and uttered much more
horrible language entirely unfit for general use. "What the Jeofailes
does the varlet mean by threatening an Englishman in his own house? I
should like to know who lives here? I should like to know who I am?"
The Baron flew down the entry in a rage. He ran to his bedside and
pulled his sword from under the pillows where he always kept it at
night with his sun-dial.
"We shall see who is master of this house," he said. "I am not going
to—does he suppose anybody that pleases can come carting their
dragons through my premises? Get up! Get up! Every one!" he shouted,
hurrying along the hall with the sword in his right hand and a lantern
in his left. His slippers were only half on, so they made a slithering
and slapping over the floor; and his speed was such that the quilted
red dressing-gown filled with the wind and spread behind him till he
looked like a huge new sort of bird or an eccentric balloon. Up and
down in all quarters of the house went Sir Godfrey, pounding against
every shut door. Out they came. Mistletoe from her closet, squeaking.
Whelpdale from under his bed. The Baron allowed him time to put on a
pair of breeches wrong side out. The cook came, and you could hear her
panting all the way down from the attic. Out came the nine house-maids
with hair in curl-papers. The seven footmen followed. Meeson and
Welsby had forgotten their wigs. The coachman and grooms and
stable-boys came in horse-blankets and boots. And last in the
procession, old Popham, one calf securely strapped on, and the other
dangling disgracefully. Breathless they huddled behind the Baron, who
strode to the cellar, where he flung the door open. Over in a corner
was a hideous monster, and every man fell against his neighbour and
shrieked. At which the monster roared most alarmingly, and all fell
together again. Young Geoffrey stood in the middle of the cellar, and
said not a word. One end of a chain was in his hand, and he waited
mighty stiff for the Baron to speak. But when he saw Miss Elaine come
stealing in after the rest so quiet and with her eyes fixed upon him,
his own eyes shone wonderfully.
At the sight of the Dragon, Sir Godfrey forgot his late excitement,
and muttered "Bless my soul!" Then he stared at the beast for some
time.
"Can—can't he do anything?" he inquired.
"No," said Geoffrey shortly; "he can't."
"Not fly up at one, for instance?"
"I have broken his wing," replied the youth.
"I—I'd like to look at him. Never saw one before," said the Baron;
and he took two steps. Then gingerly he moved another step.
"Take care!" Geoffrey cried, with rapid alarm.
The monster moved, and from his nostrils (as it seemed) shot a plume
of flame.
Popham clutched the cook, and the nine house-maids sank instantly into
the arms of the seven footmen without the slightest regard to how
unsatisfactorily nine goes into seven.
"Good heavens!" said the Baron, getting behind a hogshead, "what a
brute!"
"Perhaps it might be useful if I excommunicated him," said the Rev.
Hucbald, who had come in rather late, with his clerical frock-coat
buttoned over his pyjamas.
"Pooh!" said the Baron. "As if he'd care for that."
"Very few men can handle a dragon," said Geoffrey, unconcernedly, and
stroked his upper lip, where a kindly-disposed person might see there
was going to be a moustache some day.
"I don't know exactly what you mean to imply by that, young man," said
the Baron, coming out from behind the hogshead and puffing somewhat
pompously.
"Why, zounds!" he exclaimed, "I left you locked up this afternoon,
and securely. How came you here?"
Geoffrey coughed, for it was an awkward inquiry.
"Answer me without so much throat-clearing," said the Baron.
"I'll clear my throat as it pleases me," replied Geoffrey hotly. "How
I came here is no affair of yours that I can see. But ask Father
Anselm himself, and he will tell you." This was a happy thought, and
the youth threw a look at the Dragon, who nodded slightly. "I have a
question to ask you, sir," Geoffrey continued, taking a tone and
manner more polite. Then he pointed to the Dragon with his sword, and
was silent.
"Well?" said Sir Godfrey, "don't keep me waiting."
"I fear your memory's short, sir. By your word proclaimed this morning
the man who brought you this Dragon should have your daughter to wife
if she—if she——"
"Ha!" said the Baron. "To be sure. Though it was hasty. Hum! Had I
foreseen the matter would be so immediately settled—she's a great
prize for any lad—and you're not hurt either. One should be hurt for
such a reward. You seem entirely sound of limb and without a scratch.
A great prize."
"There's the Dragon," replied Geoffrey, "and here am I."
Now Sir Godfrey was an honourable man. When he once had given his
word, you could hold him to it. That is very uncommon to-day,
particularly in the matter of contracts. He gathered his dressing-gown
about him, and looked every inch a parent. "Elaine," he said, "my
dear?"
"Oh, papa!" murmured that young woman in a die-away voice.
Geoffrey had just time to see the look in her brown eye as she turned
her head away. And his senses reeled blissfully, and his brain blew
out like a candle, and he ceased to be a man who could utter speech.
He stood stock-still with his gaze fixed upon Elaine. The nine
house-maids looked at the young couple with many sympathetic though
respectful sighings, and the seven footmen looked comprehensively at
the nine house-maids.
Sir Godfrey smiled, and very kindly. "Ah, well," he said, "once I—but
tush! You're a brave lad, and I knew your father well. I'll consent,
of course. But if you don't mind, I'll give you rather a quick
blessing this evening. 'Tis growing colder. Come here, Elaine. Come
here, sir. There! Now, I hate delay in these matters. You shall be
married to-morrow. Hey? What? You don't object, I suppose? Then why
did you jump? To-morrow, Christmas Day, and every church-bell in the
county shall ring three times more than usual. Once for the holy
Feast, and may the Lord bless it always! and once for my girl's
wedding. And once for the death and destruction of the Dragon of
Wantley."
"Hurrah!" said the united household.
"We'll have a nuptials that shall be the talk of our grandchildren's
children, and after them. We'll have all the people to see. And we'll
build the biggest pile of fagots that can be cut from my timber, and
the Dragon shall be chained on the top of it, and we'll cremate him
like an Ancient,—only alive! We'll cremate the monster alive!"
Elaine jumped. Geoffrey jumped. The chain round the Dragon loudly
clanked.
"Why—do you not find this a pleasant plan?" asked the Baron,
surprised.
"It seems to me, sir," stuttered Geoffrey, beating his brains for
every next word, "it seems to me a monstrous pity to destroy this
Dragon so. He is a rare curiosity."
"Did you expect me to clap him in a box-stall and feed him?" inquired
the Baron with scorn.
"Why, no, sir. But since it is I who have tracked, stalked, and taken
him with the help of no other huntsman," said Geoffrey, "I make bold
to think the laws of sport vest the title to him in me."
"No such thing," said Sir Godfrey. "You have captured him in my
cellar. I know a little law, I hope."
"The law about wild beasts in Poictiers——" Geoffrey began.
"What care I for your knavish and perverted foreign legalities over
the sea?" snorted Sir Godfrey. "This is England. And our Common Law
says you have trespassed."
"My dear sir," said Geoffrey, "this wild beast came into your premises
after I had marked him."
"Don't dear sir me!" shouted the Baron. "Will you hear the law for
what I say? I tell you this Dragon's my dragon. Don't I remember how
trespass was brought against Ralph de Coventry, over in Warwickshire?
Who did no more than you have done. And they held him. And there it
was but a little pheasant his hawk had chased into another's
warren—and you've chased a dragon, so the offence is greater."
"But if—" remonstrated the youth, "if a fox——"
"Fox me no foxes! Here is the case of Ralph de Coventry," replied Sir
Godfrey, looking learned, and seating himself on a barrel of beer.
"Ralph pleaded before the Judge saying, 'et nous lessamus nostre
faucon voler à luy, et il le pursuy en le garrein,'—'tis just your
position, only 'twas you that pursued and not your falcon, which does
not in the least distinguish the cases."
"But," said Geoffrey again, "the Dragon started not on your premises."
"No matter for that; for you have pursued him into my warren, that is,
my cellar, my enclosed cellar, where you had no business to be. And
the Court told Ralph no matter 'que le feisant leva hors de le
garrein, vostre faucon luy pursuy en le garrein.' So there's good
sound English law, and none of your foppish outlandishries in Latin,"
finished the Baron, vastly delighted at being able to display the
little learning that he had. For you see, very few gentlemen in those
benighted days knew how to speak the beautiful language of the law so
fluently as that.
"And besides," continued Sir Godfrey suddenly, "there is a contract."
"What contract?" asked Geoffrey.
"A good and valid one. When I said this morning that I would give my
daughter to the man who brought me the Dragon alive or dead, did I say
I would give him the Dragon too? So choose which you will take, for
both you cannot have."
At this Elaine turned pale as death, and Geoffrey stood dumb.
Had anybody looked at the Dragon, it was easy to see the beast was
much agitated.
"Choose!" said Sir Godfrey. "'Tis getting too cold to stay here. What?
You hesitate between my daughter and a miserable reptile? I thought
the lads of France were more gallant. Come, sir! which shall it be?
The lady or the Dragon?"
"Well," said Geoffrey, and his blood and heart stood still (and so did
Elaine's, and so did another person's), "I—I—think I will choose the
l—lady."
"Hurrah!" cheered the household once more.
"Oh, Lord!" said the Dragon, but nobody heard him.
"Indeed!" observed Sir Godfrey. "And now we'll chain him in my
bear-pit till morning, and at noon he shall be burned alive by the
blazing fagots. Let us get some sleep now."
The cloud of slimly-clad domestics departed with slow steps, and many
a look of fear cast backward at the captured monster.
"This Dragon, sir," said Geoffrey, wondering at his own voice, "will
die of thirst in that pit. Bethink you how deep is his habit of
drinking."
"Ha! I have often bethought me," retorted Sir Godfrey, rolling his
eyes over the empty barrels. "But here! I am a man of some heart, I
hope."
He seized up a bucket and ran to the hogshead containing his
daughter's native cowslip wine.
"There!" he observed when the bucket was pretty well filled. "Put that
in to moisten his last hours."
Then the Baron led the way round the Manor to the court-yard where the
bear-pit was. His daughter kept pace with him not easily, for the
excellent gentleman desired to be a decent distance away from the
Dragon, whom young Geoffrey dragged along in the rear.
Thus ends Chapter VIII CHAPTER IX
Leaves much Room for guessing about Ch. X
As they proceeded towards the bear-pit, having some distance to go,
good-humour and benevolence began to rise up in the heart of Sir
Godfrey.
"This is a great thing!" he said to Miss Elaine. "Ha! an important and
joyful occurrence. The news of it will fly far."
"Yes," the young lady replied, but without enthusiasm. "The cattle
will be safe now."
"The cattle, child! my Burgundy! Think of that!"
"Yes, papa."
"The people will come," continued the Baron, "from all sides
to-morrow—why, it's to-morrow now!" he cried. "From all sides they
will come to my house to see my Dragon. And I shall permit them to see
him. They shall see him cooked alive, if they wish. It is a very
proper curiosity. The brute had a wide reputation."
To hear himself spoken of in the past tense, as we speak of the dead,
was not pleasant to Sir Francis, walking behind Geoffrey on all fours.
"I shall send for Father Anselm and his monks," the Baron went on.
Hearing this Geoffrey started.
"What need have we of them, sir?" he inquired. To send for Father
Anselm! It was getting worse and worse.
"Need of Father Anselm?" repeated Sir Godfrey. "Of course I shall need
him. I want the parson to tell me how he came to change his mind and
let you out."
"Oh, to be sure," said Geoffrey, mechanically. His thoughts were
reeling helplessly together, with no one thing uppermost.
"Not that I disapprove it. I have changed my own mind upon occasions.
But 'twas sudden, after his bundle of sagacity about Crusades and
visions of my ancestor and what not over there in the morning. Ha! ha!
These clericals are no more consistent than another person. I'll
never let the Father forget this." And the Baron chuckled. "Besides,"
he said, "'tis suitable that these monks should be present at the
burning. This Dragon was a curse, and curses are somewhat of a church
matter."
"True," said Geoffrey, for lack of a better reply.
"Why, bless my soul!" shouted the Baron, suddenly wheeling round to
Elaine at his side, so that the cowslip wine splashed out of the
bucket he carried, "it's my girl's wedding-day too! I had clean
forgot. Bless my soul!"
"Y—yes, papa," faltered Elaine.
"And you, young fellow!" her father called out to Geoffrey with lusty
heartiness. "You're a lucky rogue, sir."
"Yes, sir," said Geoffrey, but not gayly. He was wondering how it felt
to be going mad. Amid his whirling thoughts burned the one longing to
hide Elaine safe in his arms and tell her it would all come right
somehow. A silence fell on the group as they walked. Even to the
Baron, who was not a close observer, the present reticence of these
two newly-betrothed lovers was apparent. He looked from one to the
other, but in the face of neither could he see beaming any of the soft
transports which he considered were traditionally appropriate to the
hour. "Umph!" he exclaimed; "it was never like this in my day." Then
his thoughts went back some forty years, and his eyes mellowed from
within.
"We'll cook the Dragon first," continued the old gentleman, "and then,
sir, you and my girl shall be married. Ha! ha! a great day for
Wantley!" The Baron swung his bucket, and another jet of its contents
slid out. He was growing more and more delighted with himself and his
daughter and her lover and everybody in the world. "And you're a stout
rogue, too, sir," he said. "Built near as well as an Englishman, I
think. And that's an excellent thing in a husband."
The Baron continued to talk, now and then almost falling in the snow,
but not permitting such slight mishaps to interrupt his discourse,
which was addressed to nobody and had a general nature, touching upon
dragons, marriages, Crusades, and Burgundy. Could he have seen
Geoffrey's more and more woe-begone and distracted expression, he
would have concluded his future son-in-law was suffering from some
sudden and momentous bodily ill.
The young man drew near the Dragon. "What shall we do?" he said in a
whisper. "Can I steal the keys of the pit? Can we say the Dragon
escaped?" The words came in nervous haste, wholly unlike the bold
deliberateness with which the youth usually spoke. It was plain he was
at the end of his wits.
"Why, what ails thee?" inquired Sir Francis in a calm and unmoved
voice. "This is a simple matter."
His tone was so quiet that Geoffrey stared in amazement.
"But yonder pit!" he said. "We are ruined!"
"Not at all," Sir Francis replied. "Truly thou art a deep thinker!
First a woman and now thine enemy has to assist thy distress."
He put so much hatred and scorn into his tones that Geoffrey flamed
up. "Take care!" he muttered angrily.
"That's right!" the prisoner said, laughing dryly. "Draw thy sword
and split our secret open. It will be a fine wedding-day thou'lt have
then. Our way out of this is plain enough. Did not the Baron say that
Father Anselm was to be present at the burning? He shall be present."
"Yes," said the youth. "But how to get out of the pit? And how can
there be a dragon to burn if thou art to be Father Anselm? And
how——" he stopped.
"I am full of pity for thy brains," said Sir Francis.
"Here's the pit!" said the voice of Sir Godfrey. "Bring him along."
"Hark!" said Sir Francis to Geoffrey. "Thou must go to Oyster-le-Main
with a message. Darest thou go alone?"
"If I dare?" retorted Geoffrey, proudly.
"It is well. Come to the pit when the Baron is safe in the house."
Now they were at the iron door. Here the ground was on a level with
the bottom of the pit, but sloped steeply up to the top of its walls
elsewhere, so that one could look down inside. The Baron unlocked the
door and entered with his cowslip wine, which (not being a very
potent decoction) began to be covered with threads of ice as soon as
it was set down. The night was growing more bitter as its frosty hours
wore on; for the storm was departed, and the wind fallen to silence,
and the immense sky clean and cold with the shivering glitter of the
stars.
Then Geoffrey led the Dragon into the pit. This was a rude and
desolate hole, and its furniture of that extreme simplicity common to
bear-pits in those barbarous times. From the middle of the stone floor
rose the trunk of a tree, ragged with lopped boughs and at its top
forking into sundry limbs possible to sit among. An iron trough was
there near a heap of stale greasy straw, and both were shapeless white
lumps beneath the snow. The chiselled and cemented walls rose round in
a circle and showed no crevice for the nails of either man or bear to
climb by. Many times had Orlando Crumb and Furioso Bun observed this
with sadness, and now Sir Francis observed it also. He took into his
chest a big swallow of air, and drove it out again between his teeth
with a weary hissing.
"I will return at once," Geoffrey whispered as he was leaving.
Then the door was shut to, and Sir Francis heard the lock grinding as
the key was turned. Then he heard the Baron speaking to Geoffrey.
"I shall take this key away," he said; "there's no telling what
wandering fool might let the monster out. And now there's but little
time before dawn. Elaine, child, go to your bed. This excitement has
plainly tired you. I cannot have my girl look like that when she's a
bride to-day. And you too, sir," he added, surveying Geoffrey, "look a
trifle out of sorts. Well, I am not surprised. A dragon is no joke.
Come to my study." And he took Geoffrey's arm.
"Oh, no!" said the youth. "I cannot. I—I must change my dress."
"Pooh, sir! I shall send to the tavern for your kit. Come to my study.
You are pale. We'll have a little something hot. Aha! Something hot!"
"But I think——" Geoffrey began.
"Tush!" said the Baron. "You shall help me with the wedding
invitations."
"Sir!" said Geoffrey haughtily, "I know nothing of writing and such
low habits."
"Why no more do I, of course," replied Sir Godfrey; "nor would I
suspect you or any good gentleman of the practice, though I have made
my mark upon an indenture in the presence of witnesses."
"A man may do that with propriety," assented the youth. "But I cannot
come with you now, sir. 'Tis not possible."
"But I say that you shall!" cried the Baron in high good-humour. "I
can mull Malvoisie famously, and will presently do so for you. 'Tis to
help me seal the invitations that I want you. My Chaplain shall write
them. Come."
He locked Geoffrey's arm in his own, and strode quickly forward.
Feeling himself dragged away, Geoffrey turned his head despairingly
back towards the pit.
"Oh, he's safe enough in there," said Sir Godfrey. "No need to watch
him."
Sir Francis had listened to this conversation with rising dismay. And
now he quickly threw off the crocodile hide and climbed up the tree as
the bears had often done before him. It came almost to a level with
the wall's rim, but the radius was too great a distance for jumping.
"I should break my leg," he said, and came down the tree again, as the
bears had likewise often descended.
The others were now inside the house. Elaine with a sinking heart
retired to her room, and her father after summoning the Rev. Hucbald
took Geoffrey into his study. The Chaplain followed with a bunch of
goose-quills and a large ink-horn, and seated himself at a table,
while the Baron mixed some savoury stuff, going down his private
staircase into the buttery to get the spice and honey necessary.
"Here's to the health of all, and luck to-day," said the Baron; and
Geoffrey would have been quite happy if an earthquake had come and
altered all plans for the morning. Still he went through the form of
clinking goblets. But his heart ached, and his eyes grew hot as he sat
dismal and lonely away from his girl.
"Whom shall we ask to the wedding?" queried the Rev. Hucbald, rubbing
his hands and looking at the pitcher in which Sir Godfrey had mixed
the beverage.
"Ask the whole county," said Sir Godfrey. "The more the merrier. My
boy Roland will be here to-morrow. He'll find his sister has got ahead
of him. Have some," he added, holding the pitcher to the Rev. Hucbald.
"I do believe I will take just a little sip," returned the divine.
"Thanks! ah—most delicious, Baron! A marriage on Christmas Day," he
added, "is—ahem!—highly irregular. But under the unusual, indeed the
truly remarkable, circumstances, I make no doubt that the Pope——"
"Drat him!" said Sir Godfrey; at which the Chaplain smiled
reproachfully, and shook a long transparent taper finger at his
patron in a very playful manner, saying, "Baron! now, Baron!"
"My boy Roland's learning to be a knight over at my uncle Mortmain's,"
continued Sir Godfrey, pouring Geoffrey another goblet. "You'll like
him."
But Geoffrey's thoughts were breeding more anxiety in him every
moment.
"I'll get the sealing-wax," observed the Baron, and went to a cabinet.
"This room is stifling," cried Geoffrey. "I shall burst soon, I
think."
"It's my mulled Malvoisie you're not accustomed to," Sir Godfrey said,
as he rummaged in the cabinet. "Open the window and get some fresh
air, my lad. Now where the deuce is my family seal?"
As Geoffrey opened the window, a soft piece of snow flew through the
air and dropped lightly on his foot. He looked quickly and perceived a
man's shadow jutting into the moonlight from an angle in the wall.
Immediately he plunged out through the casement, which was not very
high.
"Merciful powers!" said the Rev. Hucbald, letting fall his quill and
spoiling the first invitation, "what an impulsive young man! Why, he
has run clean round the corner."
"'Tis all my Malvoisie," said the Baron, hugely delighted, and
hurrying to the window. "Come back when you're sober!" he shouted
after Geoffrey with much mirth. Then he shut the window.
"These French heads never can weather English brews," he remarked to
the Chaplain. "But I'll train the boy in time. He is a rare good lad.
Now, to work."
Out in the snow, Geoffrey with his sword drawn came upon Hubert.
"Thou mayest sheathe that knife," said the latter.
"And be thy quarry?" retorted Geoffrey.
"I have come too late for that!" Hubert answered.
"Thou hast been to the bear-pit, then?"
"Oh, aye!"
"There's big quarry there!" observed Geoffrey, tauntingly. "Quite a
royal bird."
"So royal the male hawk could not bring it down by himself, I hear,"
Hubert replied. "Nay, there's no use in waxing wroth, friend! My
death now would clap thee in a tighter puzzle than thou art in
already—and I should be able to laugh down at thee from a better
world," he added, mimicking the priestly cadence, and looking at
Geoffrey half fierce and half laughing.
He was but an apprentice at robbery and violence, and in the bottom of
his heart, where some honesty still was, he liked Geoffrey well. "Time
presses," he continued. "I must go. One thing thou must do. Let not
that pit be opened till the monks of Oyster-le-Main come here. We
shall come before noon."
"I do not understand," said Geoffrey.
"That's unimportant," answered Hubert. "Only play thy part. 'Tis a
simple thing to keep a door shut. Fail, and the whole of us are
undone. Farewell."
"Nay, this is some foul trick," Geoffrey declared, and laid his hand
on Hubert.
But the other shook his head sadly. "Dost suppose," he said, "that we
should have abstained from any trick that's known to the accumulated
wisdom of man? Our sport is up."
"'Tis true," Geoffrey said, musingly, "we hold all of you in the
hollow of one hand."
"Thou canst make a present of us to the hangman in twenty minutes if
thou choosest," said Hubert.
"Though 'twould put me in quite as evil case."
"Ho! what's the loss of a woman compared with death?" Hubert
exclaimed.
"Thou'lt know some day," the young knight said, eying Hubert with a
certain pity; "that is, if ever thou art lucky to love truly."
"And is it so much as that?" murmured Hubert wistfully. "'Twas good
fortune for thee and thy sweetheart I did not return to look for my
master while he was being taken to the pit," he continued; "we could
have stopped all your mouths till the Day of Judgment at least."
"Wouldst thou have slain a girl?" asked Geoffrey, stepping back.
"Not I, indeed! But for my master I would not be so sure. And he says
I'll come as far as that in time," added the apprentice with a shade
of bitterness.
"Thou art a singular villain," said Geoffrey, "and wonderfully frank
spoken."
"And so thou'rt to be married?" Hubert said gently.
"By this next noon, if all goes well!" exclaimed the lover with
ardour.
"Heigho!" sighed Hubert, turning to go, "'twill be a merry Christmas
for somebody."
"Give me thy hand," cried Geoffrey, feeling universally hearty.
"No," replied the freebooter; "what meaning would there be in that? I
would sever thy jugular vein in a moment if that would mend the broken
fortunes of my chief. Farewell, however. Good luck attend thee."
The eyes of both young men met, and without unkindness in them.
"But I am satisfied with my calling," Hubert asserted, repudiating
some thought that he imagined was lurking in Geoffrey's look. "Quite
content! It's very dull to be respectable. Look! the dawn will
discover us."
"But this plan?" cried Geoffrey, hastening after him; "I know
nothing."
"Thou needest know nothing. Keep the door of the pit shut. Farewell."
And Geoffrey found himself watching the black form of Hubert dwindle
against the white rises of the ground. He walked towards the tavern in
miserable uncertainty, for the brief gust of elation had passed from
his heart. Then he returned irresolute, and looked into the pit. There
was Sir Francis, dressed in the crocodile.
"Come in, come in, young fellow! Ha! ha! how's thy head?" The Baron
was at the window, calling out and beckoning with vigour.
Geoffrey returned to the study. There was no help for it.
"We have written fifty-nine already!" said the Rev. Hucbald.
But the youth cast a dull eye upon the growing heap, and sealed them
very badly. What pleasure was it to send out invitations to his own
wedding that might never be coming off?
As for Hubert out in the night, he walked slowly through the wide
white country. And as he went across the cold fields and saw how the
stars were paling out, and cast long looks at the moon setting across
the smooth snow, the lad's eyes filled so that the moon twinkled and
shot rays askew in his sight. He thought how the good times of
Oyster-le-Main were ended, and he thought of Miss Elaine so far beyond
the reach of such as he, and it seemed to him that he was outside the
comfortable world.
Thus ends Chapter IX
CHAPTER X
The Great White Christmas at Wantley.
Now are all the people long awake and out of their beds. Wantley Manor
is stirring busily in each quarter of the house and court, and the
whole county likewise is agog. By seven o'clock this morning it was
noised in every thatched cottage and in every gabled hall that the
great Dragon had been captured. Some said by Saint George in person,
who appeared riding upon a miraculous white horse and speaking a
tongue that nobody could understand, wherefore it was held to be the
language common in Paradise. Some declared Saint George had nothing to
do with it, and that this was the pious achievement of Father Anselm.
Others were sure Miss Elaine had fulfilled the legend and conquered
the monster entirely by herself. One or two, hearing the event had
taken place in Sir Godfrey's wine-cellar, said they thought the Baron
had done it,—and were immediately set down as persons of unsound
mind. But nobody mentioned Geoffrey at all, until the Baron's
invitations, requesting the honour of various people's presence at the
marriage of his daughter Elaine to that young man, were received; and
that was about ten o'clock, the ceremony being named for twelve that
day in the family chapel. Sir Godfrey intended the burning of the
Dragon to take place not one minute later than half-past eleven.
Accordingly, besides the invitation to the chapel, all friends and
neighbours whose position in the county or whose intimacy with the
family entitled them to a recognition less formal and more personal,
received a second card which ran as follows: "Sir Godfrey Disseisin at
home Wednesday morning, December the twenty-fifth, from half after
eleven until the following day. Dancing; also a Dragon will be
roasted. R. S. V. P." The Disseisin crest with its spirited motto,
"Saute qui peult," originated by the venerable Primer Disseisin,
followed by his son Tortious Disseisin, and borne with so much renown
in and out of a hundred battles by a thousand subsequent Disseisins,
ornamented the top left-hand corner.
"I think we shall have but few refusals," said the Rev. Hucbald to Sir
Godfrey. "Not many will be prevented by previous engagements, I
opine." And the Chaplain smiled benignly, rubbing his hands. He had
published the banns of matrimony three times in a lump before
breakfast. "Which is rather unusual," he said; "but under the
circumstances we shall easily obtain a dispensation."
"In providing such an entertainment for the county as this will be,"
remarked the Baron, "I feel I have performed my duty towards society
for some time to come. No one has had a dragon at a private house
before me, I believe."
"Oh, surely not," simpered the sleek Hucbald. "Not even Lady Jumping
Jack."
"Fiddle!" grunted the Baron. "She indeed! Fandangoes!"
"She's very pious," protested the Rev. Hucbald, whom the lady
sometimes asked to fish lunches in Lent.
"Fandangoes!" repeated the Baron. He had once known her exceedingly
well, but she pursued variety at all expense, even his. As for
refusals, the Chaplain was quite right. There were none. Nobody had a
previous engagement—or kept it, if they had.
"Good gracious, Rupert!" (or Cecil, or Chandos, as it might be,) each
dame in the county had exclaimed to her lord on opening the envelope
brought by private hand from Wantley, "we're asked to the Disseisins
to see a dragon,—and his daughter married."
"By heaven, Muriel, we'll go!" the gentleman invariably replied, under
the impression that Elaine was to marry the Dragon, which would be a
show worth seeing. The answers came flying back to Wantley every
minute or two, most of them written in such haste that you could only
guess they were acceptances. And those individuals who lived so far
away across the county that the invitations reached them too late to
be answered, immediately rang every bell in the house and ordered the
carriage in frantic tones.
Of course nobody kept any engagement. Sir Guy Vol-au-Vent (and none
but a most abandoned desperado or advanced thinker would be willing to
do such a thing on Christmas) had accepted an invitation to an ambush
at three for the slaying of Sir Percy de Résistance. But the ambush
was put off till a more convenient day. Sir Thomas de Brie had been
going to spend his Christmas at a cock-fight in the Count de
Gorgonzola's barn. But he remarked to his man Edward, who brought the
trap to the door, that the Count de Gorgonzola might go —— Never
mind what he remarked. It was not nice; though oddly enough it was
exactly the same remark that the Count had made about Sir Thomas on
telling his own man James to drive to Wantley and drop the cock-fight.
All these gentlemen, as soon as they heard the great news, started for
the Manor with the utmost speed.
Nor was it the quality alone who were so unanimous in their feelings.
The Tenantry (to whom Sir Godfrey had extended a very hospitable
bidding to come and they should find standing-room and good meat and
beer in the court-yard) went nearly mad. From every quarter of the
horizon they came plunging and ploughing along. The sun blazed down
out of a sky whence a universal radiance seemed to beat upon the
blinding white. Could you have mounted up bird-fashion over the
country, you would have seen the Manor like the centre of some great
wheel, with narrow tracks pointing in to it from the invisible rim of
a circle, paths wide and narrow, converging at the gate, trodden
across the new snow from anywhere and everywhere; and moving along
these like ants, all the inhabitants for miles around. And through
the wide splendour of winter no wind blowing, but the sound of chiming
bells far and near, clear frozen drops of music in the brittle air.
Old Gaffer Piers, the ploughman, stumped along, "pretty well for
eighty, thanky," as he somewhat snappishly answered to the neighbours
who out-walked him on the road. They would get there first.
"Wonderful old man," they said as they went on their way, and quickly
resumed their speculations upon the Dragon's capture. Farmer John
Stiles came driving his ox-team and snuffling, for it was pretty cold,
and his handkerchief at home. Upon his wagon on every part, like
swallows, hung as many of his relations as could get on. His mother,
who had been Lucy Baker, and grandmother Cecilia Kempe, and a litter
of cousin Thorpes. But his step-father Lewis Gay and the children of
the half-blood were not asked to ride; farmer Stiles had bitterly
resented the second marriage. This family knew all the particulars
concerning the Dragon, for they had them from the cook's second cousin
who was courting Bridget Stiles. They knew how Saint George had waked
Father Anselm up and put him on a white horse, and how the Abbot had
thus been able to catch the Dragon by his tail in the air just as he
was flying away with Miss Elaine, and how at that the white horse had
turned into a young man who had been bewitched by the Dragon, and was
going to marry Miss Elaine immediately.
On the front steps, shaking hands with each person who came, was Sir
Godfrey. He had dressed himself excellently for the occasion;
something between a heavy father and an old beau, with a beautiful
part down the back of his head where the hair was. Geoffrey stood
beside him.
"My son-in-law that's to be," Sir Godfrey would say. And the gentry
welcomed the young man, while the tenants bobbed him respectful
salutations.
"You're one of us. Glad to know you," said Sir Thomas de Brie,
surveying the lad with approval.
Lady Jumping Jack held his hand for a vanishing moment you could
hardly make sure of. "I had made up my mind to hate you for robbing me
of my dearest girl," she said, smiling gayly, and fixing him with her
odd-looking eyes. "But I see we're to be friends." Then she murmured a
choice nothing to the Baron, who snarled politely.
"Don't let her play you," said he to Geoffrey when the lady had moved
on. And he tapped the youth's shoulder familiarly.
"Oh, I've been through all that sort of thing over in Poictiers,"
Geoffrey answered with indifference.
"You're a rogue, sir, as I've told you before. Ha! Uncle Mortmain, how
d'ye do? Yes, this is Geoffrey. Where's my boy Roland? Coming, is he?
Well, he had better look sharp. It's after eleven, and I'll wait for
nobody. How d'ye do, John Stiles? That bull you sold me 's costing
thirty shillings a year in fences. You'll find something ready down by
those tables, I think."
Hark to that roar! The crowd jostled together in the court-yard, for
it sounded terribly close.
"The Dragon's quite safe in the pit, good people," shouted Sir
Godfrey. "A few more minutes and you'll all see him."
The old gentleman continued welcoming the new arrivals, chatting
heartily, with a joke for this one and a kind inquiry for the other.
But wretched Geoffrey! So the Dragon was to be seen in a few minutes!
And where were the monks of Oyster-le-Main? Still, a bold face must be
kept. He was thankful that Elaine, after the custom of brides, was
invisible. The youth's left hand rested upon the hilt of his sword; he
was in rich attire, and the curly hair that surrounded his forehead
had been carefully groomed. Half-way up the stone steps as he stood,
his blue eyes watching keenly for the monks, he was a figure that made
many a humble nymph turn tender glances upon him. Old Piers, the
ploughman, remained beside a barrel of running ale and drank his
health all day. For he was a wonderful old man.
Hither and thither the domestics scurried swiftly, making
preparations. Some were cooking rare pasties of grouse and ptarmigan,
goslings and dough-birds; some were setting great tables in-doors and
out; and some were piling fagots for the Dragon's funeral pyre.
Popham, with magnificent solemnity and a pair of new calves, gave
orders to Meeson and Welsby, and kept little Whelpdale panting for
breath with errands; while in and out, between everybody's legs, and
over or under all obstacles, stalked the two ravens Croak James and
Croak Elizabeth, a big white wedding-favour tied round the neck of
each. To see these grave birds, none would have suspected how
frequently they had been in the mince-pies that morning, though Popham
had expressly ruled (in somewhat stilted language) that they should
"take nothink by their bills."
"Geoffrey," said the Baron, "I think we'll begin. Popham, tell them to
light that fire there."
"The guests are still coming, sir," said Geoffrey.
"No matter. It is half after eleven." The Baron showed his sun-dial,
and there was no doubt of it. "Here, take the keys," he said, "and
bring the monster out for us."
"I'll go and put on my armour," suggested the young man. That would
take time; perhaps the monks might arrive.
"Why, the brute's chained. You need no armour. Nonsense!"
"But think of my clothes in that pit, sir,—on my wedding-day."
"Pooh! That's the first sign of a Frenchman I've seen in you. Take the
keys, sir."
The crackle of the kindling fagots came to Geoffrey's ears. He saw the
forty men with chains that were to haul the Dragon into the fire.
"But there's Father Anselm yet to come," he protested. "Surely we wait
for him."
"I'll wait for nobody. He with his Crusades and rubbish! Haven't I got
this Dragon, and there's no Crusade?—Ah, Cousin Modus, glad you
could come over. Just in time. The sherry's to your left. Yes, it's a
very fine day. Yes, yes, this is Geoffrey my girl's to marry and all
that.—What do I care about Father Anselm?" the old gentleman resumed
testily, when his cousin Modus had shuffled off. "Come, sir."
He gave the keys into Geoffrey's unwilling hand, and ordered silence
proclaimed.
"Hearken, good friends!" said he, and all talk and going to and fro
ceased. The tenantry stood down in the court-yard, a mass of
motionless russet and yellow, every face watching the Baron. The
gentry swarmed noiselessly out upon the steps behind him, their
handsome dresses bright against the Manor walls. There was a short
pause. Old Gaffer Piers made a slight disturbance falling over with
his cup of ale, but was quickly set on his feet by his neighbours. The
sun blazed down, and the growling of the Dragon came from the pit.
"Yonder noise," pursued Sir Godfrey, "speaks more to the point than I
could. I'll give you no speech." All loudly cheered at this.
"Don't you think," whispered the Rev. Hucbald in the Baron's ear,
"that a little something serious should be said on such an occasion? I
should like our brethren to be reminded——"
"Fudge!" said the Baron. "For thirteen years," he continued, raising
his voice again, "this Dragon has been speaking for himself. You all
know and I know how that has been. And now we are going to speak for
ourselves. And when he is on top of that fire he'll know how that is.
Geoffrey, open the pit and get him out."
Again there was a cheer, but a short one, for the spell of expectancy
was on all. The young man descended into the court, and the air seemed
to turn to a wavering mist as he looked up at the Manor windows
seeking to spy Elaine's face at one of them. Was this to be the end?
Could he kiss her one last good-by if disaster was in store for them
after all? Alas! no glimpse of her was to be seen as he moved along,
hardly aware of his own steps, and the keys jingling lightly as he
moved. Through the crowd he passed, and a whispering ran in his wake
followed by deeper silence than before. He reached the edge of the
people and crossed the open space beyond, passing the leaping blaze of
the fagots, and so drew near the iron door of the pit. The key went
slowly into the lock. All shrank with dismay at the roar which rent
the air. Geoffrey paused with his hand gripping the key, and there
came a sound of solemn singing over the fields.
"The monks!" murmured a few under their breath; and silence fell
again, each listening.
Men's voices it was, and their chanting rose by one sudden step to a
high note that was held for a moment, and then sank again, mellow like
the harmony of horns in a wood. Then over the ridge from
Oyster-le-Main the length of a slow procession began to grow. The gray
gowns hung to the earth straight with scarce any waving as the men
walked. The heavy hoods reached over each face so there was no telling
its features. None in the court-yard spoke at all, as the brooding
figures passed in under the gateway and proceeded to the door of the
bear-pit, singing always. Howlings that seemed born of terror now rose
from the imprisoned monster; and many thought, "evidently the evil
beast cannot endure the sound of holy words."
Elaine in her white dress now gazed from an upper window, seeing her
lover with his enemies drawing continually closer around him.
Perhaps it was well for him that his death alone would not have served
to lock their secret up again; that the white maiden in the window is
ready to speak the word and direct instant vengeance on them and their
dragon if any ill befall that young man who stands by the iron door.
The song of the monks ended. Sir Godfrey on the steps was wondering
why Father Anselm did not stand out from the rest of the gray people
and explain his wishes. "Though he shall not interrupt the sport,
whatever he says," thought the Baron, and cast on the group of holy
men a less hospitable eye than had beamed on his other guests.
Geoffrey over at the iron door, surrounded by the motionless figures,
scanned each hood narrowly and soon met the familiar eyes of Hubert.
Hubert's gown, he noticed, bulged out in a manner ungainly and
mysterious. "Open the door," whispered that youth. At once Geoffrey
began to turn the key. And at its grinding all held their breath, and
a quivering silence hung over the court. The hasty drops pattered down
from the eaves from the snow that was melting on the roof. Then some
strip of metal inside the lock sprung suddenly, making a sharp song,
and ceased. The crowd of monks pressed closer together as the iron
door swung open.
What did Geoffrey see? None but the monks could tell. Instantly a
single roar more terrible than any burst out, and the huge horrible
black head and jaws of the monster reared into the view of Sir Godfrey
and his guests. One instant the fearful vision in the door-way swayed
with a stiff strange movement over the knot of monks that surrounded
it, then sank out of sight among them. There was a sound of jerking
and fierce clanking of chains, mingled with loud chanting of pious
sentences. Then a plume of spitting flame flared upward with a mighty
roar, and the gray figures scattered right and left. There along the
ground lay the monster, shrivelled, twisted in dismal coils, and dead.
Close beside his black body towered Father Anselm, smoothing the folds
of his gray gown. Geoffrey was sheathing his sword and looking at
Hubert, whose dress bulged out no longer, but fitted him as usual.
"We have been vouchsafed a miracle," said Father Anselm quietly, to
the gaping spectators.
"There'll be no burning," said Geoffrey, pointing to the shrunken
skin. But though he spoke so coolly, and repelled all besieging
disturbance from the fortress of his calm visage and bearing, as a
bold and haughty youth should do, yet he could scarcely hold his
finger steady as it pointed to the blackened carcase. Then all at once
his eyes met those of Elaine where she watched from her window, and
relief and joy rushed through him. He stretched his arms towards her,
not caring who saw, and the look she sent him with a smile drove all
surrounding things to an immeasurable distance away.
"Here indeed," Father Anselm repeated, "is a miracle. Lo, the empty
shell! The snake hath shed his skin."
"This is very disappointing," said Sir Godfrey, bewildered. "Is there
no dragon to roast?"
"The roasting," replied the Abbot, impressively, "is even now begun
for all eternity." He stretched out an arm and pointed downward
through the earth. "The evil spirit has fled. The Church hath taken
this matter into her own hands, and claims yon barren hide as a
relic."
"Well,—I don't see why the Church can't let good sport alone,"
retorted Sir Godfrey.
"Hope she'll not take to breaking up my cock-fights this way,"
muttered the Count de Gorgonzola, sulkily.
"The Church cares nothing for such profane frivolities," observed
Father Anselm with cold dignity.
"At all events, friends," said Sir Godfrey, cheering up, "the country
is rid of the Dragon of Wantley, and we've got a wedding and a
breakfast left."
Just at this moment a young horseman rode furiously into the
court-yard.
It was Roland, Sir Godfrey's son. "Great news!" he began at once.
"Another Crusade has been declared—and I am going. Merry Christmas!
Where's Elaine? Where's the Dragon?"
Father Anselm's quick brain seized this chance. He and his monks
should make a more stately exit than he had planned.
"See," he said in a clear voice to his monks, "how all is coming true
that was revealed to me this night! My son," he continued, turning to
young Roland, "thy brave resolve reached me ere thou hadst made it.
Know it has been through thee that the Dragon has gone!"
Upon this there was profound silence.
"And now," he added solemnly, "farewell. The monks of Oyster-le-Main
go hence to the Holy Land also, to battle for the true Faith. Behold!
we have made us ready to meet the toil."
His haughty tones ceased, and he made a sign. The gray gowns fell to
the snow, and revealed a stalwart, fierce-looking crew in black
armour. But the Abbot kept his gray gown.
"You'll stay for the wedding?" inquired Sir Godfrey of him.
"Our duty lies to the sea. Farewell, for I shall never see thy face
again."
He turned. Hubert gathered up the hide of the crocodile and threw a
friendly glance back at Geoffrey. Then again raising their song, the
black band slowly marched out under the gate and away over the snow
until the ridge hid them from sight, and only their singing could be
heard in the distant fields.
"Well," exclaimed Sir Godfrey, "it's no use to stand staring. Now for
the wedding! Mistletoe, go up and tell Miss Elaine. Hucbald, tell the
organist to pipe up his music. And as soon as it's over we'll drink
the bride's health and health to the bridegroom. 'Tis a lucky thing
that between us all the Dragon is gone, for there's still enough of my
Burgundy to last us till midnight. Come, friends, come in, for
everything waits your pleasure!"
L'ENVOI
Reader, if thou hast found thy Way thus far, Sure then I've writ beneath a lucky Star;
And Nothing so becomes all Journeys' Ends As that the Travellers should part as Friends.
Thus ends Chapter X Thus ends The Dragon of Wantley