Child Christopher - Chapter 8
VIII. CHRISTOPHER COMES TO THE TOFTS
When they arose in the sunshine, Simon went straightway to see to the horses, while Christopher stayed by the fire to dight their victuals; he was merry enough, and sang to himself the while; but when Simon came back again, Christopher looked on him sharply, but for a while Simon would not meet his eye, though he asked divers questions of him concerning little matters, as though he were fain to hear Christopher's voice; at last he raised his eyes, and looked on him steadily, and then Christopher said: "Well, wayfarer mine, and whither away this morning?"
Said Simon: "As thou wottest, to the Long Pools."
Said the lad: "Well, thou keepest thy tidings so close, that I will ask thee no more till we come to the Long Pools; since there, forsooth, thou must needs tell me; unless we sunder company there, whereof I were nought grieving."
"Mayhappen thou shalt fare a long way to-day," muttered Simon.
But the lad cried out aloud, while his eye glittered and his cheek flushed: "Belike thou hadst well-nigh opened the door thereto last night!" And therewith he leapt to his feet and drew his short-sword, and with three deft strokes sheared asunder an overhanging beech-bough as thick as a man's wrist, that it fell crashing down, and caught Simon amongst the fall of its leafy twigs, while Christopher stood laughing on him, but with a dangerous lofty look in his eyes: then he turned away quietly toward the horses and mounted his nag, and Simon followed and did the like, silently; crestfallen he looked, with brooding fierceness in his face.
So they rode their ways, and spake but little each to each till they came to where the trees of the wood thinned speedily, and gave out at last at the foot of a low stony slope but little grassed; and when they had ridden up to the brow and could see below, Christopher stretched out his hand, and said: "Lo thou the Long Pools, fellow wayfarer! and lo some of the tramping; horses that woke thee and not me last night."
Forsooth there lay below them a great stretch of grass, which whiles ran into mere quagmire, and whiles was sound and better grassed; and the said plain was seamed by three long shallow pools, with, as it were, grassy causeways between them, grown over here and there with ancient alder trees; but the stony slope whereon they had reined up bent round the plain mostly to the east, as though it were the shore of a great water; and far away to the south the hills of the forest rose up blue, and not so low at the most, but that they were somewhat higher than the crest of the White Horse as ye may see it from the little Berkshire hills above the Thames. Down on the firm greensward there was indeed a herd of wild horses feeding; mallard and coot swam about the waters; the whimbrel laughed from the bent-sides, and three herons stood on the side of the causeway seeking a good fishing-stead.
Simon sat a-horseback looking askance from the marish to Christopher, and said nothing a while; then he spake in a low croaking voice, and said: "So, little King, we have come to the Long Pools; now I will ask thee, hast thou been further southward than this marish land?"
"That have I," said the lad, "a day's journey further; but according to the tales of men it was at the peril of my life."
Simon seemed as if he had not noted his last word; he said: "Well then, since thou knowest the wild and the wood, knowest thou amidst of the thickets there, two lumps of bare hills, like bowls turned bottom up, that rise above the trees, and on each a tower, and betwixt them a long house."
"Save us, Allhallows!" quoth Christopher, "but thou wilt mean the Tofts! Is it so, sir squire?"
"Even so," said Simon.
"And thou knowest what dwellest there, and wouldst have me lead thee thither?" said the lad.
"I am so bidden," said Simon; "if thou wilt not do my bidding, seek thou some place to hide thee in from the hand of the Earl Marshal."
Said the youngling: "Knowest thou not Jack of the Tofts and his seven sons, and what he is, and that he dwelleth there?"
Said Simon: "I know of him; yea, and himself I know, and that he dwelleth there; and I wot that men call him an outlaw, and that many rich men shall lack ere he lacks. What then?"
"This," said Christopher, "that, as all tales tell, he will take my life if I ride thither. And," said he, turning to Simon, "this is belike what thou wouldest with me?" And therewith he drew out his sword, for his bow was unstrung.
But Simon sat still and let his sword abide, and said, sourly enough: "Thou art a fool to think I am training thee to thy death by him; for I have no will to die, and why shall he not slay me also? Now again I say unto thee, thou hast the choice, either to lead me to the Tofts, where shall be the deed for thee to do, or to hide thee in some hole, as I said afore, from the vengeance of the Lord of Oakenrealm. But as for thy sword, thou mayst put it up, for I will not fight with thee, but rather let thee go with a string to thy leg, if thou wilt not be wise and do as thy lords ordain for thee."
Christopher sheathed his sword, and a smile came into his face, as if some new thought were stirring in him, and he said: "Well, since thou wilt not fight with me, and I but a lad, I will e'en do thy will and thine errand to Jack of the Tofts. Maybe he is not so black as he is painted, and not all tales told of him are true. But some of them I will tell thee as we ride along."
"And some thereof I know already, O woodland knight," said Simon, as they rode down the bent, and Christopher led on toward the green causeway betwixt the waters. "Tell me," quoth he, when they had ridden awhile, "is this one of thy tales, how Jack of the Tofts went to the Yule feast of a great baron in the guise of a minstrel, and, even as they bore in the boar's head, smote the said baron on the neck, so that his head lay by the head of the swine on the Christmas board?"
"Yea," said Christopher, "and how Jack cried out: 'Two heads of swine, one good to eat, one good to burn.' But, my master, thou shalt know that this manslaying was not for nought: whereas the Baron of Greenlake had erewhile slain Jack's father in felon wise, where he could strike no stroke for life; and two of his brethren also had he slain, and made the said Jack an outlaw, and he all sackless. In the Uttermost March we deem that he had a case against the baron."
"Hah!" said Simon. "Is this next tale true, that this Jack o' the Tofts slew a good knight before the altar, so that the priest's mass-hackle was all wet with his blood, whereas the said priest was in the act of putting the holy body into the open mouth of the said knight?"
Christopher said eagerly: "True was it, by the Rood! and well was it done, for that same Sir Raoul was an ugly traitor, who had knelt down where he died to wed the Body of the Lord to a foul lie in his mouth; whereas the man who knelt beside him he had trained to his destruction, and was even then doing the first deal of his treason by forswearing him there."
"And that man who knelt with him there," said Simon, "what betid to him?"
Said Christopher: "He went out of the church with Jack of the Tofts that minute of the stroke; and to the Tofts he went with him, and abode with him freely: and a valiant man he was...and is."
"Hah!" said Simon again. "And then there is this: that the seven sons of Jack of the Tofts bore off perforce four fair maidens of gentle blood from the castle wherein they dwelt, serving a high dame in all honour; and that moreover, they hanged the said dame over the battlements of her own castle. Is this true, fair sir?"
"True is it as the gospel," said Christopher: "yet many say that the hanged dame had somewhat less than her deserts; for a foul & cruel whore had she been; and had done many to be done to death, and stood by while they were pined. And the like had she done with those four damsels, had there not been the stout sons of Jack of the Tofts; so that the dear maidens were somewhat more than willing to be borne away."
Simon grinned: "Well, lad," said he, "I see that thou knowest Jack of the Tofts even better than I do; so why in the devil's name thou art loth to lead me to him, I wot not."
Christopher reddened, and held his peace awhile; then he said: "Well fellow-farer, at least I shall know something of him ere next midnight."
"Yea," said Simon, "and shall we not come to the Tofts before nightfall?"
"Let us essay it," said Christopher, "and do our best, it yet lacketh three hours of noon." Therewith he spurred on, for the greensward was hard under the hooves, and they had yet some way to go before they should come amongst the trees and thickets.
Into the said wood they came, and rode all day diligently, but night fell on them before they saw either house or man or devil; then said Simon: "Why should we go any further before dawn? Will it not be best to come to this perilous house by daylight?"
Said Christopher: "There be perils in the wood as well as in the house. If we lie down here, maybe Jack's folk may come upon us sleeping, and some mischance may befall us. Withal, hereabout be no wild horses to wake thee and warn thee of thy foeman anigh. Let us press on; there is a moon, though she be somewhat hidden by clouds, and meseemeth the way lieth clear before me; neither are we a great way from the Tofts."
Then Simon rode close up to Christopher, and took his rein and stayed him, and said to him, as one who prayeth: "Young man, willest thou my death?"
"That is as it may be," said Christopher; "willest thou mine?"
Simon held his peace awhile, and Christopher might not see what was in his face amidst the gathering dusk; but he twitched his rein out of the squire's hand, as if he would hasten onward; then the squire said: "Nay, I pray thee abide and hear a word of me."
"Speak then," said Christopher, "but hasten, for I hunger, and I would we were in the hall." And therewith he laughed.
Said Simon: "Thus it is: if I go back to my lord and bear no token of having done his errand to Jack of the Tofts, then am I in evil case; and if I come to the Tofts, I wot well that Jack is a man fierce of heart, and ready of hand: now, therefore, I pray thee give me thy word to be my warrant, so far as thou mayst be, with this woodman and his sons."
At that word Christopher brake out a-laughing loudly, till all the dusk wood rang with the merry sound of his fresh voice; at last he said: "Well, well, thou art but a craven to be a secret murderer: the Lord God would have had an easy bargain of Cain, had he been such as thou. Come on, and do thine errand to Jack of the Tofts, and I will hold thee harmless, so far as I may. Though, sooth to say, I guessed what thine errand was, after the horses waked thee and put a naked sword in thine hand last night. Marry! I had no inkling of it when we left the Castle yesterday morning, but deemed thy lord needed me to do him some service. Come on then! or rather go thou on before me a pace; there, where thou seest the glimmer betwixt the beech-trees yonder; if thou goest astray, I am anigh thee for a guide. And I say that we shall not go far without tidings."
Simon went on perforce, as he was bidden, and they rode thus a while slowly, Christopher now and then crying, as they went: "To the right, squire! To the left! Straight on now!" and so on. But suddenly they heard voices, and it was as if the wood had all burst out into fire, so bright a light shone out. Christopher shouted, and hastened on to pass Simon, going quite close to his right side thereby, and as he did so, he saw steel flashing in his hand, and turned sidling to guard him, but ere he could do aught Simon drave a broad dagger into his side, and then turned about and fled the way they had come, so far as he knew how.
Christopher fell from his horse at once as the stroke came home, but straightway therewith were there men with torches round about him, a dozen of them; men tall and wild-looking in the firelight; and one of them, a slim young man with long red hair falling all about his shoulders, knelt down by him, while the others held his horse and gat his feet out of the stirrups.
The red-head laid his hand on his breast, and raised his head up till the light of a torch fell on it, and then he cried out: "Masters, here hath been a felon; the man hath been sticked, and the deed hath to do with us; for lo you, this is none other than little Christopher of the Uttermost March, who stumbled on the Tofts last Yule, and with whom we were so merry together. Here, thou Robert of Maisey, do thy leechdom on him if he be yet living; but if he be dead, or dieth of his hurt, then do I take the feud on me, to follow it to the utmost against the slayer; even I, David the Red, though I be the youngest of the sons of Jack of the Tofts. For this man I meant should be my fellow in field and fell, ganging and galloping, in hall and high-place, in cot and in choir, before woman and warrior, and priest and proud-prince. Now thou Robert, how does he?"
Said the man who had looked to Christopher's wound, and had put aside his coat and shirt: "He is sore hurt, but meseemeth not deadly. Nay, belike he may live as long as thou, or longer, whereas thou wilt ever be shoving thy red head and lank body wheresoever knocks are going."
David rose with a sigh of one who is lightened of a load, and said: "Well Robert, when thou hast bound his wound let us have him into the house: Ho lads! there is light enough to cut some boughs and make a litter for him. But, ho again! has no one gone after the felon to take him?"
Robert grinned up from his job with the hurt man: "Nay, King David," said he, "it is mostly thy business; mayhappen thou wilt lay thy heels on thy neck and after him."
The red-head stamped on the ground, and half drew his sax, and shoved it back again unto the sheath, and then said angrily: "I marvel at thee, Robert, that thou didst not send a man or two at once after the felon: how may I leave my comrade and sweet board-fellow lying hurt in the wild-wood? Art thou growing over old for our woodland ways, wherein loitering bringeth louting?"
Robert chuckled and said: "I thought thou wouldst take the fly in thy mouth, foster-son: if the felon escape Ralph Longshanks and Anthony Green, then hath he the devil's luck; and they be after him."
"That is well," said the young man, "though I would I were with them." And therewith he walked up and down impatiently, while the others were getting ready the litter of boughs.
At last it was done, and Christopher laid thereon, and they all went on together through the woodland path, the torches still flaring about them. Presently they came out into a clearing of the wood, and lo, looming great and black before them against the sky, where the moon had now broken out of the clouds somewhat, the masses of the tofts, and at the top of the northernmost of them a light in the upper window of a tall square tower. Withal the yellow-litten windows of a long house showed on the plain below the tofts; but little else of the house might be seen, save that, as they drew near, the walls brake out in doubtful light here and there as the torches smote them.
So came they to a deep porch, where they quenched all the torches save one, and entered a great hall through it, David and two other tall young men going first, and Robert Maisey going beside the bier. The said hall was lighted with candles, but not very brightly, save at the upper end; but amidmost a flickering heap of logs sent a thin line of blue smoke up to the luffer. There were some sixty folk in the hall, scattered about the end-long tables, a good few of whom were women, well grown and comely enough, so far as could be seen under the scanty candle-light. At the high-table, withal, were sitting both men and women, and as they drew near to the greater light of it, there could be seen in the chief seat a man, past middle age, tall, wide-shouldered and thin-flanked, with a short peaked beard and close-cut grizzled hair; he was high of cheekbones, thin-faced, with grey eyes, both big and gentle-looking; he was clad in a green coat welted with gold. Beside him sat a woman, tall and big-made, but very fair of face, though she were little younger, belike, than the man. Out from these two sat four men and four women, man by man and woman by woman, on either side of the high-seat. Of the said men, one was of long red hair as David, and like to him in all wise, but older; the others were of like fashion to him in the high-seat. Shortly to say it, his sons they were, as David and the two young men with him. The four women who sat with these men were all fair and young, and one of them, she who drank out of the red-head's cup, so fair, and with such a pleasant slim grace, that her like were not easy to be found.
Again, to shorten the tale, there in the hall before Christopher, who lay unwotting, were Jack of the Tofts and his seven sons, and the four wives of four of the same, whom they had won from the Wailful Castle, when they, with their father, put an end to the evil woman, and the great she-tyrant of the Land betwixt the Wood and the River.
Now when David and his were come up to the dais, they stayed them, and their father spake from his high-seat and said: "What is to do, ye three? and what catch have ye?"
Said David: "I would fain hope 'tis the catch of a life that or I love; for here is come thy guest of last Yule, even little Christopher, who wrestled with thee and threw thee after thou hadst thrown all of us, and he lying along and hurt, smitten down by a felon hard on our very doors. What will ye do with him?"
"What," said Jack of the Tofts, "but tend him and heal him and cherish him. And when he is well, then we shall see. But where is the felon who smote him?"
Said David: "He fled away a-horseback ere we came to the field of deed, and Anthony Green and Ralph Longshanks are gone after him, and belike, will take him."
"Mayhappen not," said the master. "Now, forsooth, I have an inkling of what this may mean; whereas there can be but one man whose business may be the taking of our little guest's life. But let all be till he be healed and may tell us his tale; and, if he telleth it as I deem he will, then shall we seek further tidings. Meanwhile, if ye take the felon, keep him heedfully till I may see him; for then may I have a true tale out of him, even before Christopher is hale again."
So therewith David and Robert, with two or three others, brought Christopher to a chamber, and did what leechdoms to him they might; but Jack of the Tofts, and his sons and their fair wives, and his other folk, made merry in the hall of the Tofts.