HOW A FRIAR AND A LOLLARD MET ON THE HIGHWAY

In a few moments the lads had donned their cloaks, girded on their
swords—since none of quality ever ventured upon the highway save with a
weapon ready to hand—and given orders for their horses to be saddled and
brought to the gate.

“Have I to bear a letter?” asked Geoffrey, as he came to announce his
departure.

“Nay, my son; word of mouth will suffice. Now, get thee gone, and the
saints preserve thee.”

Swinging easily into the saddle, the lads applied spur; and at a steady
trot they crossed the drawbridge and gained the open country.

It was but a distance of some seven miles ‘twixt the Castles of
Warblington and Portchester, while, being part of the great southern
highway between the populous borough of Southampton and the coast towns
of Sussex, there was generally a small number of travellers to be met.

For a while the two lads chatted eagerly, Geoffrey questioning his
companion concerning his adventures beyond the seas, and of the events
that led up to Sir Oliver’s captivity. And as they talked Geoffrey’s
resolution was rapidly becoming stronger. Gaining confidence from
Oswald’s unassuming self-reliance, he realized that with a good heart
youth is capable of overcoming many obstacles.

At length, hard by the hamlet of Bedhampton, the road began to ascend a
spur of chalk down. From the summit a splendid view greeted the lads. As
far as the eye could see was a flat plain, intersected by two large
harbours, while away on the left, beyond a silver streak of sea, rose
the rolling down of the Isle of Wight. Ahead, at a distance of over four
miles, a massive square tower proudly reared itself hard by the head of
the furthermost harbour. It was the Castle of Portchester.

Barely had the two riders gained the foot of the ridge when they
suddenly came upon a grey-cloaked figure bending over a heap of rubbish
by the wayside. Evidently it had been thrown there from a neighbouring
smithy, for scraps of old iron horseshoes predominated.

“‘Tis a friar,” exclaimed Oswald, as the man, hearing the sound of
horses’ hoofs, drew himself up and began to amble along the chalky road.

Doffing reverentially as they passed, the two lads cast a furtive glance
at the cloaked and hooded friar, as he fumbled beneath his garments as
if to conceal something. The man’s face was far from pleasant. Shifty
eyes, sharp pointed nose, loose lip, and flabby jowl gave him a crafty,
foxlike appearance, yet to the two unworldly lads a friar could be
nought else but a holy member of the Church.

Ere they had ridden another quarter of a mile something prompted the
lads to look over their shoulders, and to their surprise they perceived
that the friar had returned to the rubbish heap.

“‘Tis a strange occupation for a holy man,” observed Oswald. “To what
purpose doth he tarry at yonder spot?”

“Nay, I know not,” replied Geoffrey. “Perchance he finds it a fitting
place for meditation.”

With this the subject was dismissed, and the two riders urged their
steeds to a brisker pace.

At length they arrived at the castle of Sir Thomas Carberry, where, on
being announced, they were ushered into the knight’s presence.

“Yves of Malevereux, dost say?” exclaimed Sir Thomas. “Alack-a-day that
Sir Oliver should fall into the toils of such a caitiff. I know the
Tyrant well, having had a slight bickering with him, not once nor
twice.”

“Is there indeed no means of securing my father’s release save by
ransom? The payment of ransom he hath forbidden,” said Geoffrey.

“Perchance, should war ensue and an English army again set foot on
French soil, the King might see fit to send a troop of lances and a body
of archers to rid the world of the pest. Would that I could adventure
myself on Sir Oliver’s behalf, yet I fear that affairs of the realm will
prevent my so doing. Nevertheless, I’ll do my devoirs to the Lady
Bertha. Convey her my most humble regards, and say that I will ride over
to Warblington to-morrow morn.”

“I have asked my mother to give me leave to journey to France,” said
Geoffrey. “Couldst thou not throw in thy weighty word for me, Sir
Thomas?”

“Certes! How canst thou hope to overcome the Lord of Malevereux,
Geoffrey? Nevertheless, ’tis right and meet that the son of Sir Oliver
should see to his affairs at Taillemartel. There thou couldst be of
service. Say no more now, but on the morrow I’ll broach the matter.”

“Sir, I crave your pardon and your opinion,” said Oswald. “Dost think
that the King will advance his claim to the French throne?”

“Without a doubt.”

“I am right glad to hear of it,” replied Oswald. “There is much
advancement to be made in such matters.”

“Not without losses, hunger, and discomforts,” added the knight, smiling
at the youth’s ardent words. “Young men are apt to look upon only the
bright side of war. Such views I myself have held, but as time runs on
we elders know more of the dark side of the picture. Nevertheless, at
the first call to arms I, amongst many, will not be found wanting.”

“What think ye of our new King?” asked Geoffrey, more bluntly than he
intended.

The knight shook his head.

“‘Tis not meet that a soldier should offer an opinion of his liege
lord,” he replied. “Henry V is my King, and to me that is sufficient
reasoning for unswerving loyalty. A true Englishman’s duty is to serve
loyally, be he knight or commoner; therefore, I counsel you, reject all
reports to the belittlement of King Harry, strive to live upright and
true to those set in authority, and all will go well.”

With this advice Sir Thomas dismissed his visitors, renewing his
assurance that on the morrow he would journey to see the Châtelaine of
Warblington in person.

“Since Sir Thomas hath promised to speak in my favour my hopes are
raised,” remarked Geoffrey. “Who knows but that ere the Feast of St.
Mark I may be upon French soil.”

“Since the Lady Bertha hath charged me to convey her reply to Malevereux
we may bear one another company,” replied Oswald. “But what have we
here?”

The travellers had now reached the outskirts of the little hamlet of
Cosham. Outside a mud-and-wattle cottage a large crowd, comprising
nearly all the inhabitants and a sprinkling of strangers, had collected.
That something was amiss was apparent by the low murmur that reached the
lads’ ears as they approached.

“If ’tis some slight affray ’tis our duty to aid the weaker side,” said
Oswald, his right hand flying to his sword-hilt. “See to it that thou
dost strike yarely should occasion arise.”

Urging their horses through the fringe of the crowd, the two youthful
champions of oppressed right came upon a scene they had not bargained
for.

Standing in the doorway was a woman, middle-aged and comely, whose face
was a study of mingled perplexity, indignation, and fright.

In the middle of a semicircle formed by the crowd towered a powerfully
made man of commanding and noble aspect, dressed in plain yet rich
garments of sober russet cloth tipped with fur. Save for a short dagger
he was unarmed, a vellum-bound book hanging by a steel chain occupying
the place of a sword.

Held at arm’s length by the stranger’s muscular arm was the friar whom
the lads had seen at Bedhampton that same morning. The man’s hang-dog
face was convulsed with fury, though it was evident that he was in
terror of the stranger, whose anger was as apparent as that of his
captive.

Ignoring the hurried undertone remonstrances of a merchant, the stranger
addressed the throng in a loud voice.

“My good people,” he exclaimed, “how much longer will ye suffer
yourselves to be deluded by such cloaked and cowled rascals as this? By
what authority doth the friar claim the right to sell pardons and
absolutions for every sin that besets us? Not by that of One above, I’ll
warrant. And how can a parcel of so-called relics possess the power of
imparting nameless virtues to the dupe who hath purchased them? Hold up
the trickster’s wares,” he continued, addressing a sheepish-looking
countryman. “Nay, do not hesitate; if so be a murrain falls upon the
unbeliever, on my head be it.”

Thus encouraged the peasant stooped and picked up something from the
ground.

“Hold them up,” commanded the stranger authoritatively. “Raise them high
above thy head that all may see.”

The man obeyed, and, to Geoffrey’s astonishment, displayed a piece of a
horseshoe and a bent and rusted nail.

“Now, dame,” continued the stranger, speaking in a kindlier tone. “Tell
me how named your friar this fragment of horseshoe?”

“‘Tis a piece of the shoe of the ass that bore the Blessed Virgin into
Egypt,” quavered the woman.

“Nay, say not ”tis’, but ”twas’ told me,” corrected the stranger.
“Now, once again, whence comes this twisted clout?”

“A nail from the tree on which was crucified the blessed St. Edmund,”
replied the dame.

“That savours less of the lie,” quoth her interrogator, “seeing that
’tis said that at the town of Bury the tree still stands. Answer me, did
your friar also say ’twas the very nail that pierced the martyred King’s
limbs?”

“Ay, an’ it please thee,” replied the woman.

“Then there I have him,” exclaimed the stranger. “How can a nail of this
length pierce a man’s palm and hold him to a tree? See for yourselves,
my masters, that ’tis beyond reason. Tell me, dame, what price did’st
thou pay for these baubles?”

“A silver groat.”

“Then lest it be said that I despoiled the Church, I will reimburse
thee. Now, friends, one more question; since when hath it been the
custom to shoe an ass with a horseshoe?”

A roar of laughter from the crowd greeted this hit. Then with a rapid
motion of his arm the stranger flung the fragments of iron far across an
adjoining field.

“Hence,” he thundered, relaxing his grasp on the terrified friar, and
with a tremendous buffet on the ear he sent the wretched man reeling
through a lane betwixt the amazed spectators.

“Have a care, my Lord Cobham,” whispered the merchant, plucking at the
knight’s sleeve. “Affront not the Church. Already ’tis said that my Lord
Archbishop hath applied to proceed against thee. Do not, I pray thee,
give thine enemies more cause for offence.”

“I have no quarrel with the Church, but with the Church’s flagrant
offences, Master Pearce. As for my lord the Archbishop, let him do his
worst. The King, a grandson of John of Gaunt, will see to it that
justice to the Lollards be done. Moreover, I have the honour of being a
friend of Harry Monmouth. Shall he, as King, think fit to abandon me to
mine enemies, then God’s will be done. I am not the first to suffer for
truth’s sake.

“And now, friends,” he continued, addressing the crowd once more, “I
trust that this slight bickering hath been to your souls’ advantage. Try
to use the wits that have been given you for your advancement; be not
led by the nose by such as ye have just seen. Here is the lamp that
guideth your way, though I must fain admit ’tis at present but a feeble
glimmer.” And he touched the Book that was hanging from his belt.

“Soon,” he continued, “the day will come when all men shall hear the
Word in the vulgar tongue, and to that set purpose hath Wycliffe
laboured and his followers are toiling still.”

Thereupon the Lollard proceeded to read a chapter from the English
translation of the Bible, and for the first time his listeners heard it
read in a simple and familiar language.

This done, my Lord Cobham went on his way, gravely returning the lads’
salutation as they, too, proceeded on their journey.

“This meeting hath opened my eyes,” observed Oswald. “E’en though I saw
yon friar in the rubbish heap I little thought his purpose was to trick
his listeners.”

“Yet though I felt admiration for the knight, I cannot believe that his
doctrine is wholly right,” replied Geoffrey. “Methinks it savours of
rebellion.”

“Mark well, he said not a word against the Church.”

“That I noticed. Yet it is to be hoped that the friar is but one of a
few black sheep. Father Hilarius is not of that style.”

“Nay, a more broad-minded, upright priest I do not wish to meet,”
replied Oswald. “But concerning the Lord Cobham, is he not the same as
Sir John Oldcastle? He is a sturdy Lollard and a friend of the King to
boot.”

“Methinks thou’rt right,” assented Geoffrey. “‘Tis the same Oldcastle of
whom my father hath ofttimes spoken. Now reason with thyself a space;
this knight seemeth to be a right godly man. Therefore it follows, since
he is an admitted friend of the King’s, that he would not have mentioned
the matter were the King, while Prince of Wales, the rascal—save the
term—that men would make him out to be.

“We know,” went on Geoffrey, “that Judge Gascoigne committed the Prince
to prison. That was for an offence done in the heat of anger. Lord
Cobham was angry even now, when he buffeted the friar, but I wot he is
not a man to consort with drunkards and dissolute persons. Mark well,
also, that Sir Thomas Carberry had not a word to say against the King:
therefore I shall believe that all their stories concerning him are
baseless.

“But come,” he added, “we must hasten, for already the sun is low in the
sky.”

In silence the lads proceeded on their journey. Both were thoughtful,
for the events of the day had added another perplexity to their small
store of worldly difficulties. Thus pondering, they returned to the
Castle of Warblington, where the châtelaine was eagerly awaiting to hear
the result of their fateful errand.