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The Armourer's Prentices

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"All Itchen's valley lay, Saint Catherine's breezy side and the woodlands far away, The huge Cathedral sleeping in venerable gloom, The modest College tower, and the bedesmen's Norman home."

Lord Selborne.

Very early in the morning, even according to the habits of the time,were Stephen and Ambrose Birkenholt astir. They were full of ardour toenter on the new and unknown world beyond the Forest, and much as theyloved it, any change that kept them still to their altered life wouldhave been distasteful.

Nurse Joan, asking no questions, folded up their fardels on their backs,and packed the wallets for their day's journey with ample provision.She charged them to be good lads, to say their Pater, Credo, and Avedaily, and never omit Mass on a Sunday. They kissed her like theirmother and promised heartily--and Stephen took his crossbow. They hadhad some hope of setting forth so early as to avoid all other _human_farewells, except that Ambrose wished to begin by going to Beaulieu totake leave of the Father who had been his kind master, and get hisblessing and counsel. But Beaulieu was three miles out of their way,and Stephen had not the same desire, being less attached to hisschoolmaster and more afraid of hindrances being thrown in their way.

Moreover, contrary to their expectation, their elder brother came forth,and declared his intention of setting them forth on their way, bestowinga great amount of good advice, to the same purport as that of nurseJoan, namely, that they should let their uncle Richard Birkenholt findthem some employment at Winchester, where they, or at least Ambrose,might even obtain admission into the famous college of Saint Mary.

In fact, this excellent elder brother persuaded himself that it would bedoing them an absolute wrong to keep such promising youths hidden in theForest.

The purpose of his going thus far with them made itself evident. It wasto see them past the turning to Beaulieu. No doubt he wished to tellthe story in his own way, and that they should not present themselvesthere as orphans expelled from their father's house. It would soundmuch better that he had sent them to ask counsel of their uncle atWinchester, the fit person to take charge of them. And as herepresented that to go to Beaulieu would lengthen their day's journey somuch that they might hardly reach Winchester that night, while allStephen's wishes were to go forward, Ambrose could only send hisgreetings. There was another debate over Spring, who had followed hismaster as usual. John uttered an exclamation of vexation at perceivingit, and bade Stephen drive the dog back. "Or give me the leash to draghim. He will never follow me."

"He goes with us," said Stephen.

"He! Thou'lt never have the folly! The old hound is half blind andpast use. No man will take thee in with him after thee."

"Then they shall not take me in," said Stephen. "I'll not leave him tobe hanged by thee."

"Who spoke of hanging him!"

"Thy wife will soon, if she hath not already."

"Thou wilt be for hanging him thyself ere thou have made a day's journeywith him on the king's highway, which is not like these forest paths, Iwould have thee to know. Why, he limps already."

"Then I'll carry him," said Stephen, doggedly.

"What hast thou to say to that device, Ambrose?" asked John, appealingto the elder and wiser.

But Ambrose only answered "I'll help," and as John had no particulardesire to retain the superannuated hound, and preferred on the whole tobe spared sentencing him, no more was said on the subject as they wentalong, until all John's stock of good counsel had been lavished on hisbrothers' impatient ears. He bade them farewell, and turned back to thelodge, and they struck away along the woodland pathway which they hadbeen told led to Winchester, though they had never been thither, norseen any town save Southampton and Romsey at long intervals. On theywent, sometimes through beech and oak woods of noble, almost primeval,trees, but more often across tracts of holly underwood, illuminated hereand there with the snowy garlands of the wild cherry, and beneath withwide spaces covered with young green bracken, whose soft irregularmasses on the undulating ground had somewhat the effect of the waves ofthe sea. These alternated with stretches of yellow gorse and brownheather, sheets of cotton-grass, and pools of white crowfoot, and allthe vegetation of a mountain side, only that the mountain was not there.

The brothers looked with eyes untaught to care for beauty, but with acertain love of the home scenes, tempered by youth's impatience forsomething new. The nightingales sang, the thrushes flew out beforethem, the wild duck and moorhen glanced on the pools. Here and therethey came on the furrows left by the snout of the wild swine, and in theopen tracts rose the graceful heads of the deer, but of inhabitants ortravellers they scarce saw any, save when they halted at the littlehamlet of Minestead, where a small alehouse was kept by one WillPurkiss, who claimed descent from the charcoal-burner who had carriedWilliam Rufus's corpse to burial at Winchester--the one fact in historyknown to all New Foresters, though perhaps Ambrose and John were theonly persons beyond the walls of Beaulieu who did not suppose the affairto have taken place in the last generation.

A draught of ale and a short rest were welcome as the heat of the daycame on, making the old dog plod wearily on with his tongue out, so thatStephen began to consider whether he should indeed have to be hisbearer--a serious matter, for the creature at full length measurednearly as much as he did. They met hardly any one, and they and Springwere alike too well known and trained, for difficulties to arise as toleading a dog through the Forest. Should they ever come to the term ofthe Forest? It was not easy to tell when they were really beyond it,for the ground was much of the same kind. Only the smooth, treelesshills, where they had always been told Winchester lay, seemed moredefined, and they saw no more deer, but here and there were inclosureswhere wheat and barley were growing, and black timbered farmhouses beganto show themselves at intervals. Herd boys, as rough and unkempt astheir charges, could be seen looking after little tawny cows, black-faced sheep, or spotted pigs, with curs which barked fiercely at poorweary Spring, even as their masters were more disposed to throw stonesthan to answer questions.

By and by, on the further side of a green valley, could be seenbuildings with an encircling wall of flint and mortar faced with ruddybrick, the dark red-tiled roofs rising among walnut-trees, and anorchard in full bloom spreading into a long green field.

"Winchester must be nigh. The sun is getting low," said Stephen.

"We will ask. The good folk will at least give us an answer," saidAmbrose wearily.

As they reached the gate, a team of plough horses was passing in led bya peasant lad, while a lay brother, with his gown tucked up, rodesideways on one, whistling. An Augustinian monk, ruddy, burly, andsunburnt, stood in the farm-yard, to receive an account of the day'swork, and doffing his cap, Ambrose asked whether Winchester were near.

"Three mile or thereaway, my good lad," said the monk; "thou'lt see thetowers an ye mount the hill. Whence art thou?" he added, looking at thetwo young strangers. "Scholars? The College elects not yet a while."

"We be from the Forest, so please your reverence, and are bound for HydeAbbey, where our uncle, Master Richard Birkenholt, dwells."

"And oh, sir," added Stephen, "may we crave a drop of water for ourdog?"

The monk smiled as he looked at Spring, who had flung himself down totake advantage of the halt, hanging out his tongue, and pantingspasmodically. "A noble beast," he said, "of the Windsor breed, is'tnot?" Then laying his hand on the graceful head, "Poor old hound, thouart o'er travelled. He is aged for such a Journey, if you came from theForest since morn. Twelve years at the least, I should say, by hismuzzle."

"Your reverence is right," said Stephen, "he is twelve years old. He istwo years younger than I am, and my father gave him to me when he was alittle whelp."

"So thou must needs take him to seek thy fortune with thee," said thegood-natured Augustinian, not knowing how truly he spoke. "Come in, mylads, here's a drink for him. What said you was

your uncle's name?" andas Ambrose repeated it, "Birkenholt! Living on a corrody at Hyde! Ay!ay! My lads, I have a call to Winchester to-morrow, you'd best tarrythe night here at Silkstede Grange, and fare forward with me."

The tired boys were heartily glad to accept the invitation, moreespecially as Spring, happy as he was with the trough of water beforehim, seemed almost too tired to stand over it, and after the first,tried to lap, lying down. Silkstede was not a regular convent, only agrange or farmhouse, presided over by one of the monks, with three orfour lay brethren under him, and a little colony of hinds, in thesurrounding cottages, to cultivate the farm, and tend a few cattle andnumerous sheep, the special care of the Augustinians.

Father Shoveller, as the good-natured monk who had received thetravellers was called, took them into the spacious but homely chamberwhich served as refectory, kitchen, and hall. He called to the laybrother who was busy over the open hearth to fry a few more rashers ofbacon; and after they had washed away the dust of their Journey at thetrough where Spring had slaked his thirst, they sat down with him to ahearty supper, which smacked more of the grange than of the monastery,spread on a large solid oak table, and washed down with good ale. Therepast was shared by the lay brethren and farm servants, and also by twoor three big sheep-dogs, who had to be taught their manners towardsSpring.

There was none of the formality that Ambrose was accustomed to atBeaulieu in the great refectory, where no one spoke, but one of thebrethren read aloud some theological book from a stone pulpit in thewall. Here Brother Shoveller conversed without stint, chiefly with thebrother who seemed to be a kind of bailiff, with whom he discussed thesheep that were to be taken into market the next day, and the prices tobe given for them by either the college, the castle, or the butchers ofBoucher Row. He however found time to talk to the two guests, and beingsprung from a family in the immediate neighbourhood, he knew theverdurer's name, and ere he was a monk, had joined in the chase in theForest.

There was a little oratory attached to the hall, where he and the laybrethren kept the hours, to a certain degree, putting two or threeservices into one, on a liberal interpretation of _laborare est orare_.Ambrose's responses made their host observe as they went out, "Thou hastthy Latin pat, my son, there's the making of a scholar in thee."

Then they took their first night's rest away from home, in a smallguest-chamber, with a good bed, though bare in all other respects.Brother Shoveller likewise had a cell to himself but the lay brethrenslept promiscuously among their sheep-dogs on the floor of therefectory.

All were afoot in the early morning, and Stephen and Ambrose wereawakened by the tumultuous bleatings of the flock of sheep that werebeing driven from their fold to meet their fate at Winchester market.They heard Brother Shoveller shouting his orders to the shepherds intones a great deal more like those of a farmer than of a monk, and theymade haste to dress themselves and join him as he was muttering amorning abbreviation of his obligatory devotions in the oratory,observing that they might be in time to hear mass at one of the citychurches, but the sheep might delay them, and they had best break theirfast ere starting.

It was Wednesday, a day usually kept as a moderate fast, so thebreakfast was of oatmeal porridge, flavoured with honey, and washed downwith mead, after which Brother Shoveller mounted his mule, a sleekcreature, whose long ears had an air of great contentment, and rode off,accommodating his pace to that of his young companions up a stony cart-track which soon led them to the top of a chalk down, whence, as in amap, they could see Winchester, surrounded by its walls, lying in ahollow between the smooth green hills. At one end rose the castle, itsfortifications covering its own hill, beneath, in the valley, the long,low massive Cathedral, the college buildings and tower with itspinnacles, and nearer at hand, among the trees, the Almshouse of NoblePoverty at Saint Cross, beneath the round hill of Saint Catherine.Churches and monastic buildings stood thickly in the town, and indeed,Brother Shoveller said, shaking his head, that there were well-nigh asmany churches as folk to go to them; the place was decayed since thetime he remembered when Prince Arthur was born there. Hyde Abbey hecould not show them, from where they stood, as it lay further off by theriver side, having been removed from the neighbourhood of the Minster,because the brethren of Saint Grimbald could not agree with those ofSaint Swithun's belonging to the Minster, as indeed their buildings wereso close together that it was hardly possible to pass between them, andtheir bells jangled in each other's ears.

Brother Shoveller did not seem to entertain a very high opinion of themonks of Saint Grimbald, and he asked the boys whether they wereexpected there. "No," they said; "tidings of their father's death hadbeen sent by one of the woodmen, and the only answer that had beenreturned was that Master Richard Birkenholt was ill at ease, but wouldhave masses said for his brother's soul."

"Hem?" said the Augustinian ominously; but at that moment they came upwith the sheep, and his attention was wholly absorbed by them, as hejoined the lay brothers in directing the shepherds who were driving themacross the downs, steering them over the high ground towards the archedWest Gate close to the royal castle. The street sloped rapidly down,and Brother Shoveller conducted his young companions between theoverhanging houses, with stalls between serving as shops, till theyreached the open space round the Market Cross, on the steps of whichwomen sat with baskets of eggs, butter, and poultry, raised above themotley throng of cattle and sheep, with their dogs and drivers, thevarious cries of man and beast forming an incongruous accompaniment tothe bells of the churches that surrounded the market-place.

Citizens' wives in hood and wimple were there, shrilly bargaining forprovision for their households, squires and grooms in quest of hay fortheir masters' stables, purveyors seeking food for the garrison, laybrethren and sisters for their convents, and withal, the usual margin ofbegging friars, wandering gleemen, jugglers and pedlars, though in nogreat numbers, as this was only a Wednesday market-day, not a fair.Ambrose recognised one or two who made part of the crowd at Beaulieuonly two days previously, when he had "seen through tears the jugglerleap," and the jingling tune one of them was playing on a rebeck broughtback associations of almost unbearable pain. Happily, Father Shoveller,having seen his sheep safely bestowed in a pen, bethought him of biddingthe lay brother in attendance show the young gentlemen the way to HydeAbbey, and turning up a street at right angles to the principal one,they were soon out of the throng.

It was a lonely place, with a decayed uninhabited appearance, andBrother Peter told them it had been the Jewry, whence good King Edwardhad banished all the unbelieving dogs of Jews, and where no one chose todwell after them.

Soon they came in sight of a large extent of monastic buildings, partlyof stone, but the more domestic offices of flint and brick or mortar.Large meadows stretched away to the banks of the Itchen, with cattlegrazing in them, but in one was a set of figures to whom the lay brotherpointed with a laugh of exulting censure.

"Long bows!" exclaimed Stephen. "Who be they?"

"Brethren of Saint Grimbald, sir. Such rule doth my Lord of Hyde keep,mitred abbot though he be. They say the good bishop hath called him toorder, but what recks he of bishops? Good-day, Brother Bulpett, here betwo young kinsmen of Master Birkenholt to visit him; and so_benedicite_, fair sirs. Saint Austin's grace be with you!"

Through a gate between two little red octagonal towers, Brother Bulpettled the two visitors, and called to another of the monks, "_Benedicite_,Father Segrim, here be two striplings wanting speech of old Birkenholt."

"Looking after dead men's shoes, I trow," muttered Father Segrim, with asour look at the lads, as he led them through the outer court, wheresome fine horses were being groomed, and then across a second courtsurrounded with a beautiful cloister, with flower beds in front of it.Here, on a stone bench, in the sun, clad in a gown furred with rabbitskin, sat a decrepit old man, both his hands clasped over his staff.Into his deaf ears their guide shouted, "These boys say they are yourkindred, Master Birkenholt."

"Anan?" said the old man, trembling with palsy. The lads knew him to beolder than their father, but they were taken by surprise at suchfeebleness, and the monk did not aid them, only saying roughly, "Therehe is. Tell your errand."

"How fares it with you, uncle?" ventured Ambrose.

"Who be ye? I know none of you," muttered the old man, shaking his headstill more.

"We are Ambrose and Stephen from the Forest," shouted Ambrose.

"Ah Steve! poor Stevie! The accursed boar has rent his goodly face soas I would never have known him. Poor Steve! Rest his soul!"

The old man began to weep, while his nephews recollected that they hadheard that another uncle had been slain by the tusk of a wild boar inearly manhood. Then to their surprise, his eyes fell on Spring, andcalling the hound by name, he caressed the creature's head--"Spring,poor Spring! Stevie's faithful old dog. Hast lost thy master? Wiltfollow me now?"

He was thinking of a Spring as well as of a Stevie of sixty years ago,and he babbled on of how many fawns were in the Queen's Bower thissummer, and who had best shot at the butts at Lyndhurst, as if he wereexcited by the breath of his native Forest, but there was no making himunderstand that he was speaking with his nephews. The name of hisbrother John only set him repeating that John loved the greenwood, andwould be content to take poor Stevie's place and dwell in the verdurer'slodge; but that he himself ought to be abroad, he had seen brave LordTalbot's ships ready at Southampton, John might stay at home, but hewould win fame and honour in Gascony.

And while he thus wandered, and the boys stood by perplexed anddistressed, Brother Segrim came back, and said, "So, young sirs, haveyou seen enough of your doting kinsman? The sub-prior bids me say thatwe harbour no strange, idling, lubber lads nor strange dogs here. 'Tisenough for us to be saddled with dissolute old men-at-arms without alltheir idle kin making an excuse to come and pay their devoirs. Thesecorrodies are a heavy charge and a weighty abuse, and if there be thevisitation the king's majesty speaks of they will be one of the firstmatters to be amended."

Wherewith Stephen and Ambrose found themselves walked out of thecloister of Saint Grimbald, and the gates shut behind them.