When autumn nights were long and drear,
And forest walks were dark and dim,
How sweetly on the pilgrim's ear
Was wont to steal the hermit's hymn Devotion borrows Music's tone,
And Music took Devotion's wing;
And, like the bird that hails the sun,
They soar to heaven, and soaring sing.
The Hermit of St Clement's Well
It was after three hours' good walking that the servants of Cedric, with their mysterious guide, arrived at a small opening in the forest, in the centre of which grew an oak-tree of enormous magnitude, throwing its twisted branches in every direction. Beneath this tree four or five yeomen lay stretched on the ground, while another, as sentinel, walked to and fro in the moonlight shade.
Upon hearing the sound of feet approaching, the watch instantly gave the alarm, and the sleepers as suddenly started up and bent their bows. Six arrows placed on the string were pointed towards the quarter from which the travellers approached, when their guide, being recognised, was welcomed with every token of respect and attachment, and all signs and fears of a rough reception at once subsided.
"Where is the Miller?" was his first question.
"On the road towards Rotherham."
"With how many?" demanded the leader, for such he seemed to be.
"With six men, and good hope of booty, if it please St Nicholas."
"Devoutly spoken," said Locksley; "and where is Allan-a-Dale?"
"Walked up towards the Watling-street, to watch for the Prior of Jorvaulx."
"That is well thought on also," replied the Captain; — "and where is the Friar?"
"In his cell."
"Thither will I go," said Locksley. "Disperse and seek your companions. Collect what force you can, for there's game afoot that must be hunted hard, and will turn to bay. Meet me here by daybreak. — And stay," he added, "I have forgotten what is most necessary of the whole — Two of you take the road quickly towards Torquilstone, the Castle of Front-de-Boeuf. A set of gallants, who have been masquerading in such guise as our own, are carrying a band of prisoners thither — Watch them closely, for even if they reach the castle before we collect our force, our honour is concerned to punish them, and we will find means to do so. Keep a close watch on them therefore; and dispatch one of your comrades, the lightest of foot, to bring the news of the yeomen thereabout."
They promised implicit obedience, and departed with alacrity on their different errands. In the meanwhile, their leader and his two companions, who now looked upon him with great respect, as well as some fear, pursued their way to the Chapel of Copmanhurst.
When they had reached the little moonlight glade, having in front the reverend, though ruinous chapel, and the rude hermitage, so well suited to ascetic devotion, Wamba whispered to Gurth, "If this be the habitation of a thief, it makes good the old proverb, The nearer the church the farther from God. — And by my coxcomb," he added, "I think it be even so — Hearken but to the black sanctus which they are singing in the hermitage!"
In fact the anchorite and his guest were performing, at the full extent of their very powerful lungs, an old drinking song, of which this was the burden: — "Come, trowl the brown bowl to me,
Bully boy, bully boy,
Come, trowl the brown bowl to me:
Ho! jolly Jenkin, I spy a knave in drinking,
Come, trowl the brown bowl to me."
"Now, that is not ill sung," said Wamba, who had thrown in a few of his own flourishes to help out the chorus. "But who, in the saint's name, ever expected to have heard such a jolly chant come from out a hermit's cell at midnight!"
"Marry, that should I," said Gurth, "for the jolly Clerk of Copmanhurst is a known man, and kills half the deer that are stolen in this walk. Men say that the keeper has complained to his official, and that he will be stripped of his cowl and cope altogether, if he keeps not better order."
While they were thus speaking, Locksley's loud and repeated knocks had at length disturbed the anchorite and his guest. "By my beads," said the hermit, stopping short in a grand flourish, "here come more benighted guests. I would not for my cowl that they found us in this goodly exercise. All men have their enemies, good Sir Sluggard; and there be those malignant enough to construe the hospitable refreshment which I have been offering to you, a weary traveller, for the matter of three short hours, into sheer drunkenness and debauchery, vices alike alien to my profession and my disposition."
"Base calumniators!" replied the knight; "I would I had the chastising of them. Nevertheless, Holy Clerk, it is true that all have their enemies; and there be those in this very land whom I would rather speak to through the bars of my helmet than barefaced."
"Get thine iron pot on thy head then, friend Sluggard, as quickly as thy nature will permit," said the hermit, "while I remove these pewter flagons, whose late contents run strangely in mine own pate; and to drown the clatter — for, in faith, I feel somewhat unsteady — strike into the tune which thou hearest me sing; it is no matter for the words — I scarce know them myself."
So saying, he struck up a thundering "De profundis clamavi", under cover of which he removed the apparatus of their banquet: while the knight, laughing heartily, and arming himself all the while, assisted his host with his voice from time to time as his mirth permitted.
"What devil's matins are you after at this hour?" said a voice from without.
"Heaven forgive you, Sir Traveller!" said the hermit, whose own noise, and perhaps his nocturnal potations, prevented from recognising accents which were tolerably familiar to him — "Wend on your way, in the name of God and Saint Dunstan, and disturb not the devotions of me and my holy brother."
"Mad priest," answered the voice from without, "open to Locksley!"
"All's safe — all's right," said the hermit to his companion.
"But who is he?" said the Black Knight; "it imports me much to know."
"Who is he?" answered the hermit; "I tell thee he is a friend."
"But what friend?" answered the knight; "for he may be friend to thee and none of mine?"
"What friend?" replied the hermit; "that, now, is one of the questions that is more easily asked than answered. What friend? — why, he is, now that I bethink me a little, the very same honest keeper I told thee of a while since."
"Ay, as honest a keeper as thou art a pious hermit," replied the knight, "I doubt it not. But undo the door to him before he beat it from its hinges."
The dogs, in the meantime, which had made a dreadful baying at the commencement of the disturbance, seemed now to recognise the voice of him who stood without; for, totally changing their manner, they scratched and whined at the door, as if interceding for his admission. The hermit speedily unbolted his portal, and admitted Locksley, with his two companions.
"Why, hermit," was the yeoman's first question as soon as he beheld the knight, "what boon companion hast thou here?"
"A brother of our order," replied the friar, shaking his head; "we have been at our orisons all night."
"He is a monk of the church militant, I think," answered Locksley; "and there be more of them abroad. I tell thee, friar, thou must lay down the rosary and take up the quarter-staff; we shall need every one of our merry men, whether clerk or layman. — But," he added, taking him a step aside, "art thou mad? to give admittance to a knight thou dost not know? Hast thou forgot our articles?"
"Not know him!" replied the friar, boldly, "I know him as well as the beggar knows his dish."
"And what is his name, then?" demanded Locksley.
"His name," said the hermit — "his name is Sir Anthony of Scrabelstone — as if I would drink with a man, and did not know his name!"