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HOW A STRANGE COMPANY GATHERED AT THE "PIED MERLIN."
THE night had already fallen, and the moon was shining between the rifts
of ragged, drifting clouds, before Alleyne Edricson, footsore and weary from the
unwonted exercise, found himself in front of the forest inn which stood upon the
outskirts of Lyndhurst. The
building was long and low, standing back a little from the road, with two
flambeaux blazing on either side of the door as a welcome to the traveller.
From one window there thrust forth a long pole with a bunch of greenery
tied to the end of it--a sign that liquor was to be sold within. As Alleyne walked up to it he perceived that it was rudely
fashioned out of beams of wood, with twinkling lights all over where the glow
from within shone through the chinks. The
roof was poor and thatched; but in strange contrast to it there ran all along
under the eaves a line of wooden shields, most gorgeously painted with chevron,
bend, and saltire. and every
heraldic de-vice. By the door a
horse stood tethered, the ruddy glow beating strongly upon his brown head and
patient eyes, while his body stood back in the shadow.
Alleyne stood still in the roadway for a few minutes reflecting upon what
he should do. It was, he knew, only
a few miles further to Minstead, where his brother dwelt.
On the other hand, he had never seen this brother since childhood, and
the reports which had come to his ears concerning him were seldom to his
advantage. By all accounts he was a
hard and a bitter man.
It might be an evil start to come to his door so late and claim the
shelter of his root: Better to sleep here at this inn, and then travel on to
Minstead in the morning. If his
brother would take him in, well and good.
He would bide with him for a time and do what he might to serve him.
If, on the other hand, he should have hardened his heart against him, he
could only go on his way and do the best he might by his skill as a craftsman
and a scrivener. At the end of a
year he would be free to return to the cloisters, for such had been his father's
bequest. A monkish upbringing, one
year in the world after the age of twenty, and then a free selection one way or
the other--it was a strange course which had been marked out for him.
Such as it was, however, he had no choice but to follow it, and if he
were to begin by making a friend of his brother he had best wait until morning
before he knocked at his dwelling.
The rude plank door was ajar, but as Alleyne approached it there came
from within such a gust of rough laughter and clatter of tongues that he stood
irresolute upon the threshold. Summoning
courage, however, and reflecting that it was a public dwelling, in which he had
as much right as any other man, he pushed it open and stepped into the common
Though it was an autumn evening and somewhat warm, a huge fire of heaped
billets of wood crackled and sparkled in a broad, open grate, some of the smoke
escaping up a rude chimney, but the greater part rolling out into the room, so
that the air was thick with it, and a man coming from without could scarce catch
his breath. On this fire a great
cauldron bubbled and simmered, giving forth a rich and promising smell.
Seated round it were a dozen or so folk, of all ages and conditions, who
set up such a shout as Alleyne entered that he stood peering at them through the
smoke, uncertain what this riotous greeting might portend.
"A rouse! A rouse!" cried one rough looking fellow in a tattered
jerkin. "One more round of
mead or ale and the score to the last comer."
" 'Tis the law of the 'Pied Merlin,' " shouted another.
"Ho there, Dame Eliza! Here
is fresh custom come to the house, and not a drain for the company."
"I will take your orders, gentles; I will assuredly take your
orders," the landlady answered, bustling in with her hands full of leathern
drinking-cups. "What is it
that you drink, then? Beer for the lads of the forest, mead for the gleeman,
strong waters for the tinker, and wine for the rest.
It is an old custom of the house, young sir.
It has been the use at the 'Pied Merlin' this many a year back that the
company should drink to the health of the last comer.
Is it your pleasure to humor it?"
"Why, good dame," said Alleyne, "I would not offend the
customs of your house, but it is only sooth when I say that my purse is a thin
one. As far as two pence will go,
however, I shall be right glad to do my part."
"Plainly said and bravely spoken, my sucking friar," roared a
deep voice, and a heavy hand fell upon Alleyne's shoulder. Looking up, he saw
beside him his former cloister companion the renegade monk, Hordle John.
"By the thorn of Glastonbury! ill days are coming upon
Beaulieu," said he. "Here
they have got rid in one day of the only two men within their walls--for I have
had mine eyes upon thee, youngster, and I know that for all thy baby-face there
is the making of a man in thee. Then there is the Abbot, too.
I am no friend of his, nor he of mine; but he has warm blood in his
veins. He is the only man left
among them. The others, what are
"They are holy men," Alleyne answered gravely.
"Holy men? Holy cabbages! Holy
bean-pods! What do they do but live
and suck in sustenance and grow fat? If
that be holiness, I could show you hogs in this forest who are fit to head the
calendar. Think you it was for such
a life that this good arm was fixed upon my shoulder, or that head placed upon
your neck? There is work in the world, man, and it is not by hiding behind stone
walls that we shall do it."
"Why, then, did you join the brothers?" asked Alleyne.
"A fair enough question; but it is as fairly answered.
I joined them because Margery Alspaye, of Bolder, married Crooked Thomas
of Ringwood, and left a certain John of Hordle in the cold, for that he was a
ranting, roving blade who was not to be trusted in wedlock.
That was why, being fond and hot-headed, I left the world; and that is
why, having had time to take thought, I am right glad to find myself back in it
once more. Ill betide the day that
ever I took off my yeoman's jerkin to put on the white gown!"
Whilst he was speaking the landlady came in again, bearing a broad
platter, upon which stood all the beakers and flagons charged to the brim with
the brown ale or the ruby wine. Behind
her came a maid with a high pile of wooden plates, and a great sheaf of spoons,
one of which she handed round to each of the travellers.
Two of the company, who were dressed in the weather-stained green doublet
of foresters, lifted the big pot off the fire, and a third, with a huge pewter
ladle, served out a portion of steaming collops to each guest.
Alleyne bore his share and his ale-mug away with him to a retired trestle
in the corner, where he could sup in peace and watch the strange scene, which
was so different to those silent and well-ordered meals to which he was
The room was not unlike a stable. The
low ceiling, smoke- blackened and dingy, was pierced by several square
trap-doors with rough-hewn ladders leading up to them.
The walls of bare unpainted planks were studded here and there with great
wooden pins, placed at irregular intervals and heights, from which hung
over-tunics, wallets, whips, bridles, and saddles.
Over the fireplace were suspended six or seven shields of wood, with
coats-of-arms rudely daubed upon them, which showed by their varying degrees of
smokiness and dirt that they had been placed there at different periods.
There was no furniture, save a single long dresser covered with coarse
crockery, and a number of wooden benches and trestles, the legs of which sank
deeply into the soft clay floor, while the only light, save that of the fire,
was furnished by three torches stuck in sockets on the wall, which flickered and
crackled, giving forth a strong resinous odor. All this was novel and strange to the cloister-bred youth;
but most interesting of all was the motley circle of guests who sat eating their
collops round the blaze. They were
a humble group of wayfarers, such as might have been found that night in any inn
through the length and breadth of England; but to him they represented that
vague world against which he had been so frequently and so earnestly warned.
It did not seem to him from what he could see of it to be such a very
wicked place after all.
Three or four of the men round the fire were evidently underkeepers and
verderers from the forest, sunburned and bearded, with the quick restless eye
and lithe movements of the deer among which they lived.
Close to the corner of the chimney sat a middle-aged gleeman, clad in a
faded garb of Norwich cloth, the tunic of which was so outgrown that it did not
fasten at the neck and at the waist. His
face was swollen and coarse, and his watery protruding eyes spoke of a life
which never wandered very far from the wine-pot.
A gilt harp, blotched with many stains and with two of its strings
missing, was tucked under one of his arms, while with the other he scooped
greedily at his platter. Next to him sat two other men of about the same age,
one with a trimming of fur to his coat, which gave him a dignity which was
evidently dearer to him than his comfort, for he still drew it round him in
spite of the hot glare of the faggots. The
other, clad in a dirty russet suit with a long sweeping doublet, had a cunning,
foxy face with keen, twinkling eyes and a peaky beard. Next to him sat Hordle
John, and beside him three other rough unkempt fellows with tangled beards and
matted hair-free laborers from the adjoining farms, where small patches of
freehold property had been suffered to remain scattered about in the heart of
the royal demesne. The company was
completed by a peasant in a rude dress of undyed sheepskin, with the old-
fashioned galligaskins about his legs, and a gayly dressed young man with
striped cloak jagged at the edges and parti-colored hosen, who looked about him
with high disdain upon his face, and held a blue smelling-flask to his nose with
one hand, while he brandished a busy spoon with the other.
In the corner a very fat man was lying all a-sprawl upon a truss, snoring
stertorously, and evidently in the last stage of drunkenness.
"That is Wat the limner," quoth the landlady, sitting down
beside Alleyne, and pointing with the ladle to the sleeping man.
"That is he who paints the signs and the tokens.
Alack and alas that ever I should have been fool enough to trust him!
Now, young man, what manner of a bird would you suppose a pied merlin to
be--that being the proper sign of my hostel?"
"Why," said Alleyne, "a merlin is a bird of the same form
as an eagle or a falcon. I can well
remember that learned brother Bartholomew, who is deep in all the secrets of
nature, pointed one out to me as we walked together near Vinney Ridge."
"A falcon or an eagle, quotha?
And pied, that is of two several colors.
So any man would say except this barrel of lies.
He came to me, look you, saying that if I would furnish him with a gallon
of ale, wherewith to strengthen himself as he worked, and also the pigments and
a board, he would paint for me a noble pied merlin which I might hang along with
the blazonry over my door. I, poor simple fool, gave him the ale and all that he
craved, leaving him alone too, because he said that a man's mind must be left
untroubled when he had great work to do. When
I came back the gallon jar was empty, and he lay as you see him, with the board
in front of him with this sorry device."
She raised up a panel which was leaning against the wall, and showed a
rude painting of a scraggy and angular fowl, with very long legs and a spotted
"Was that," she asked, like the bird which thou hast
Alleyne shook his head, smiling.
"No, nor any other bird that ever wagged a feather.
It is most like a plucked pullet which has died of the spotted fever. And scarlet too! What
would the gentles Sir Nicholas Boarhunte, or Sir Bernard Brocas, of Roche Court,
say if they saw such a thing- -or, perhaps, even the King's own Majesty himself,
who often has ridden past this way, and who loves his falcons as he loves his
sons? It would be the downfall of
"The matter is not past mending," said Alleyne.
"I pray you, good dame, to give me those three pigment-pots and the
brush, and I shall try whether I cannot better this painting."
Dame Eliza looked doubtfully at him, as though fearing some other
stratagem, but, as he made no demand for ale, she finally brought the paints,
and watched him as he smeared on his background, talking the while about the
folk round the fire.
"The four forest lads must be jogging soon," she said.
"They bide at Emery Down, a mile or more from here.
Yeomen prickers they are, who tend to the King's hunt.
The gleeman is called Floyting Will.
He comes from the north country, but for many years he hath gone the
round of the forest from Southampton to Christchurch.
He drinks much and pays little but it would make your ribs crackle to
hear him sing the 'Jest of Hendy Tobias.' Mayhap he will sing it when the ale
has warmed him."
"Who are those next to him?" asked Alleyne, much interested.
"He of the fur mantle has a wise and reverent face."
"He is a seller of pills and salves, very learned in humors, and
rheums, and fluxes, and all manner of ailments.
He wears, as you perceive, the vernicle of Sainted Luke, the first
physician, upon his sleeve. May
good St. Thomas of Kent grant that it may be long before either I or mine need
his help! He is here to-night for herbergage, as are the others except
the foresters. His neighbor is a
tooth-drawer. That bag at his
girdle is full of the teeth that he drew at Winchester fair. I warrant that there are more sound ones than sorry, for he
is quick at his work and a trifle dim in the eye.
The lusty man next him with the red head I have not seen before.
The four on this side are all workers, three of them in the service of
the bailiff of Sir Baldwin Redvers, and the other, he with the sheepskin, is, as
I hear, a villein from the midlands who hath run from his master.
His year and day are well-nigh up, when he will be a free man."
"And the other?" asked Alleyne in a whisper.
"He is surely some very great man, for he looks as though he scorned
those who were about him."
The landlady looked at him in a motherly way and shook her head.
"You have had no great truck with the world," she said, "or you
would have learned that it is the small men and not the great who hold their
noses in the air. Look at those
shields upon my wall and under my eaves. Each
of them is the device of some noble lord or gallant knight who hath slept under
my roof at one time or another. Yet
milder men or easier to please I have never seen: eating my bacon and drinking
my wine with a merry face, and paying my score with some courteous word or jest
which was dearer to me than my profit. Those
are the true gentles. But your
chapman or your bearward will swear that there is a lime in the wine, and water
in the ale, and fling off at the last with a curse instead of a blessing.
This youth is a scholar from Cambrig, where men are wont to be blown out
by a little knowledge, and lose the use of their hands in learning
the laws of the Romans. But
I must away to lay down the beds. So
may the saints keep you and prosper you in your undertaking!"
Thus left to himself, Alleyne drew his panel of wood where the light of
one of the torches would strike full upon it, and worked away with all the
pleasure of the trained craftsman, listening the while to the talk which went on
round the fire. The peasant in the
sheepskins, who had sat glum and silent all evening, had been so heated by his
flagon of ale that he was talking loudly and angrily with clenched hands and
"Sir Humphrey Tennant of Ashby may till his own fields for me,"
he cried. "The castle has thrown its shadow upon the cottage over
long. For three hundred years my
folk have swinked and sweated, day in and day out, to keep the wine on the
lord's table and the harness on the lord's back.
Let him take off his plates and delve himself, if delving must be
"A proper spirit, my fair son!" said one of the free laborers.
"I would that all men were of thy way of thinking."
"He would have sold me with his acres," the other cried, in a
voice which was hoarse with passion. "
'The man, the woman and their litter'--so ran the words of the dotard bailiff. Never a bullock on the farm was sold more lightly.
Ha! he may wake some black night to find the flames licking about his
ears--for fire is a good friend to the poor man, and I have seen a smoking heap
of ashes where over night there stood just such another castlewick as
"This is a lad of mettle!" shouted another of the laborers.
He dares to give tongue to what all men think.
Are we not all from Adam's loins, all with flesh and blood, and with the
same mouth that must needs have food and drink?
Where all this difference then between the ermine cloak and the leathern
tunic, if what they cover is the same?"
"Aye, Jenkin," said another, "our foeman is under the
stole and the vestment as much as under the helmet and plate of proof.
We have as much to fear from the tonsure as from the hauberk. Strike at
the noble and the priest shrieks, strike at priest and the noble lays his hand
upon glaive. They are twin thieves
who live upon our labor."
"It would take a clever man to live upon thy labor, Hugh,"
remarked one of the foresters, "seeing that the half of thy time is spent
in swilling mead at the 'Pied Merlin.' "
"Better that than stealing the deer that thou art placed to guard,
like some folk I know."
"If you dare open that swine's mouth against me," shouted the
woodman, "I'll crop your ears for you before the hangman has the doing of
it, thou long-jawed lackbrain."
"Nay, gentles, gentles!" cried Dame Eliza, in a singsong
heedless voice, which showed that such bickerings were nightly things among her
guests. "No brawling or
brabbling, gentles! Take heed to the good name of the house."
"Besides, if it comes to the cropping of ears, there are other folk
who may say their say," quoth the third laborer.
"We are all freemen, and I trow that a yeoman's cudgel is as good as
a forester's knife. By St. Anselm!
it would be an evil day if we had to bend to our master's servants as well as to
"No man is my master save the King," the woodman answered.
"Who is there, save a false traitor, who would refuse to serve the
"I know not about the English king," said the man Jenkin.
"What sort of English king is it who cannot lay his tongue to a word
of English? You mind last year when
he came down to Malwood, with his inner marshal and his outer marshal, his
justiciar, his seneschal, and his four and twenty guardsmen.
One noontide I was by Franklin Swinton's gate, when up he rides with a
yeoman pricker at his heels. 'Ouvre,'
he cried, 'ouvre,' or some such word, making signs for me to open the gate; and
then 'Merci,' as though he were adrad of me.
And you talk of an English king?"
"I do not marvel at it," cried the Cambrig scholar, speaking in
the high drawling voice which was common among his class.
"It is not a tongue for men of sweet birth and delicate upbringing.
It is a foul, snorting, snarling manner of speech.
For myself, I swear by the learned Polycarp that I have most ease with
Hebrew, and after that perchance with Arabian."
"I will not hear a word said against old King Ned," cried
Hordle John in a voice like a bull. "What
if he is fond of a bright eye and a saucy face.
I know one of his subjects who could match him at that.
If he cannot speak like an Englishman I trow that he can fight like an
Englishman, and he was hammering at the gates of Paris while alehouse topers
were grutching and grumbling at home."
This loud speech, coming from a man of so formidable an appearance,
somewhat daunted the disloyal party, and they fell into a sullen silence, which
enabled Alleyne to hear something of the talk which was going on in the further
corner between the physician, the tooth-drawer and the gleeman.
"A raw rat," the man of drugs was saying, "that is what it
is ever my use to order for the plague--a raw rat with its paunch cut
"Might it not be broiled, most learned sir?" asked the tooth-
drawer. "A raw rat sounds a
most sorry and cheerless dish."
"Not to be eaten," cried the physician, in high disdain.
"Why should any man eat such a thing?"
"Why indeed?" asked the gleeman, taking a long drain at his
"It is to be placed on the sore or swelling.
For the rat, mark you, being a foul-living creature, hath a natural
drawing or affinity for all foul things, so that the noxious humors pass from
the man into the unclean beast."
"Would that cure the black death, master?" asked Jenkin.
"Aye, truly would it, my fair son."
"Then I am right glad that there were none who knew of it.
The black death is the best friend that ever the common folk had in
"How that then?" asked Hordle John.
"Why, friend, it is easy to see that you have not worked with your
hands or you would not need to ask. When
half the folk in the country were dead it was then that the other half could
pick and choose who they would work for, and for what wage.
That is why I say that the murrain was the best friend that the borel
folk ever had."
"True, Jenkin," said another workman; "but it is not all
good that is brought by it either. We
well know that through it corn- land has been turned into pasture, so that
flocks of sheep with perchance a single shepherd wander now where once a hundred
men had work and wage."
"There is no great harm in that," remarked the tooth-drawer,
"for the sheep give many folk their living.
There is not only the herd, but the shearer and brander, and then the
dresser, the curer, the dyer, the fuller, the webster, the merchant, and a score
"If it come to that." said
one of the foresters, "the tough meat of them will wear folks teeth out,
and there is a trade for the man who can draw them."
A general laugh followed this sally at the dentist's expense, in the
midst of which the gleeman placed his battered harp upon his knee, and began to
pick out a melody upon the frayed strings,
"Elbow room for Floyting Will!" cried the woodmen.
"Twang us a merry lilt."
"Aye, aye, the 'Lasses of Lancaster,' " one suggested.
"Or 'St. Simeon and the Devil.' "
"Or the 'Jest of Hendy Tobias.' "
To all these suggestions the jongleur made no response, but sat with his
eye fixed abstractedly upon the ceiling, as one who calls words to his mind.
Then, with a sudden sweep across the strings, he broke out into a song so
gross and so foul that ere he had finished a verse the pure-minded lad sprang to
his feet with the blood tingling in his face.
"How can you sing such things?" he cried.
"You, too, an old man who should be an example to others."
The wayfarers all gazed in the utmost astonishment at the interruption.
"By the holy Dicon of Hampole! our silent clerk has found his
tongue," said one of the woodmen. "What
is amiss with the song then? How
has it offended your babyship?"
"A milder and better mannered song hath never been heard within
these walls," cried another. "What
sort of talk is this for a public inn?"
"Shall it be a litany, my good clerk?" shouted a third;
"or would a hymn be good enough to serve?"
The jongleur had put down his harp in high dudgeon.
"Am I to be preached to by a child?" he cried, staring across
at Alleyne with an inflamed and angry countenance.
"Is a hairless infant to raise his tongue against me, when I have
sung in every fair from Tweed to Trent, and have twice been named aloud by the
High Court of the Minstrels at Beverley? I
shall sing no more to-night."
"Nay, but you will so," said one of the laborers.
"Hi, Dame Eliza, bring a stoup of your best to Will to clear his
throat. Go forward with thy song, and if our girl-faced clerk does not love it
he can take to the road and go whence he came."
"Nay, but not too last," broke in Hordle John.
"There are two words in this matter.
It may be that my little comrade has been over quick in reproof, he
having gone early into the cloisters and seen little of the rough ways and words
of the world. Yet there is truth in
what he says, for, as you know well, the song was not of the cleanest. I shall stand by him, therefore, and he shall neither be put
out on the road, nor shall his ears be offended indoors."
"Indeed, your high and mighty grace," sneered one of the
yeomen, "have you in sooth so ordained?"
"By the Virgin!" said a second, "I think that you may both
chance to find yourselves upon the road before long."
"And so belabored as to be scarce able to crawl along it,"
cried a third.
"Nay, I shall go! I
shall go!" said Alleyne hurriedly, as Hordle John began to slowly roll up
his sleeve, and bare an arm like a leg of mutton.
"I would not have you brawl about me."
"Hush! lad," he whispered, "I count them not a fly.
They may find they have more tow on their distaff than they know how to
spin. Stand thou clear and give me
Both the foresters and the laborers had risen from their bench, and Dame
Eliza and the travelling doctor had flung themselves between the two parties
with soft words and soothing gestures, when the door of the "Pied
Merlin" was flung violently open, and the attention of the company was
drawn from their own quarrel to the new-comer who had burst so unceremoniously
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