A BROTHER TO DRAGONS.
In the year of grace, 1586, on the last day of the month of May, to all who may chance to read this narrative, these:
I will first be at the pains of stating that had it not been for Marian I had never indited these or any other papers, true or false. Secondly, that the facts herein set down be true facts; none the less true that they are strange. I will furthermore explain that Marian is the Christian name of my lawful wife, and that our surname is Butter.
My wife had nursed the Lady Margaret from the moment of her birth; and here I must make another digression. The Lady Margaret was the twin sister of the then Lord of Amhurste, Lord Robert, and my lady and his lordship had quarrelled—Marian saith, with a great cause, but I cannot herein forbear also expressing my opinion, which is to the effect that for that quarrel there was neither cause, justice, nor reason. Therefore, before those who may chance to read these words, I will lay bare the facts pertaining to the said quarrel.
It concerned the family ghost, which ghost was said to haunt a certain blue chamber in the east wing of the castle. Now I myself had never gainsaid these reports; for although I do not believe in ghosts, I have a certain respect for them, as they have never offered me any affront, either by appearing to me or otherwise maltreating me. But Marian, who like many of her sex seemed to consort naturally with banshees, bogies, apparitions, and the like, declared to me that at several different and equally inconvenient times this ghost had presented itself to her, startling her on two occasions to such an extent that she once let fall the contents of the broth-bowl on Herne the blood-hound, thereby causing that beast to maliciously devour two breadths of her new black taffeta Sunday gown; again, a hot iron wherewith she was pressing out the seams of Lady Margaret’s night-gown. On the second occasion, she fled along the kitchen hall, shrieking piteously, and preceded by Doll, the kitchen wench, the latter having in her seeming a certain ghostly appearance, as she was clad only in her shift, which the draughts in the hall inflated to a great size. The poor maid fled affrighted into her room and locked the door behind her; yet when I did essay to assuage the terror of Mistress Butter, identifying Doll and the blue-room ghost as one and the same, she thanked me not, but belabored me in her frenzy with the yet warm iron, which she had instinctively snatched up in her flight; demanding of me at the same time if I had ever seen Doll’s nose spout fire, and her eyes spit in her head like hot coals. I being of a necessity compelled to reply “No,” Marian further told me that it was thus that the ghost had comported itself; that, moreover, it was clad all in a livid blue flame from top to toe, and that it had a banner o’ red sarcenet that streamed out behind like forked lightning. She then said that this malevolent spirit had struck her with its blazing hand, and that, did I not believe her, I could see the burn on her wrist. Upon my suggesting that this wound might have been inflicted by the iron in its fall, she did use me in so unwifely a manner that I sought my bed in much wrath and vexation of spirit. Nay, I do fear me that I cursed the day I was wed, the day on which my wife was born, wishing all women to the d—l; and that, moreover, out loud, which put me to much shame afterwards for some days; although, be it said to my still greater shame, it was full a fortnight e’er I confessed my repentance unto the wife whom I had so abused.
But meseems I have in this digression transgressed in the matter o’ length; therefore, to return to the bare facts.
It was on the subject of this ghost that my lord and the Lady Margaret had disagreed. My lord, being a flighty lad, although a marvellous fine scholar and well-disposed, did agree with my wife in the matter of the ghost; while my lady was of a like mind with myself.
It doth seem but yesterday that she came to me as I was training the woodbine o’er the arbor that led to her little garden, and put her white hand on my shoulder. (My lady was never one for wearing gloves, yet the sun seemed no more to think o’ scorching her fair hands than the leaves of a day-lily.) She comes to me and lays her hand on my shoulder, and her long eyes they laugh at me out of the shadow of her hat; but her mouth is grave as though I were a corse.
“Butter, dost thou believe in this ghost?”
“Nay, my lady,” answered I, hoping to shift her to better soil; “I ne’er meddle with ghosts or goblins. Why, an there be such things, should they wish me harm? O’ my word, my brain is no more troubled with ghosts, black or white, than our gracious Queen’s”—here I doffed my cap—”is with snails and slugs;” and here I plucked a slug from a vine-leaf and set my heel on’t.
“Nay, nay!” quoth she, a-shutting of her white eyelids so tight that all the long black hairs on them stood straight out, like the fringe on Marian’s Sunday mantle in a high wind. “Butter! thou nasty man!”
“Why—for how dost thou mean, my lady?” quoth I.
“Dead?” asked I, for I was somewhat puzzled in my mind.
“Ay, the slug; is he dead?”
“That he is, verily,” said I; for in truth he was naught but a jelly, and therewith I drew a pebble over him with my foot, that the sight o’ his misfortune should not disturb her tender heart.
“How if I were to crush you ‘neath my heel, Master Butter?” quoth she at last, having peered about for the sight she dreaded, and, not seeing it, returning to her discourse. “How wouldst thou like that, excellent Master Butter?” But somehow, as I looked at her foot, my mouth, for all I could do, went into a smile. For though she was as fine a maiden as any in all Warwickshire, her foot, methinks, was of so dainty a make ‘twould scarce have dealt death to a rose.
“But truly, my lady,” continued I, seeing that she was making up a face at me, “thou knowest I’ve naught in common with ghosts.”
“Ay,” quoth she. “And thou knowest the like of me. But”—and here stops she, with the slyest tip of her frowzed curls towards the house—”thou knowest also this, Butter, that his lordship, my brother, thinks as doth Marian, thy wife, and that therein we four cannot agree.”
So I look at my hoe-handle, and say I, “My lady, it is known to me.”
“Well, now, Butter,” she goes on, “thou most wise, most excellent, most cunning, most delectable of Butters, I have concocted a plan. I’ fecks, Butter” (for my lady, like her Majesty the Queen, was somewhat given to swearing, though more modest oaths, as should become a subject)—”I’ fecks, Butter,” saith she, “’tis a most lustick plot. But I would not thy mome heard us;” and with that she makes me send away Joe, the under-gardener. He being gone, she whispers in my ear how she hath plotted to fright his lordship and Marian into very convulsions of further conviction, by appearing to them at the door o’ the blue room in her night-gown, with a taper in her hand and her face chalked. What she desired o’ me was, that I should come to the blue room with her, and there remain while she played off this pretty fantasy on my lord and Marian.
To be truthful in these my last days o’ earth, I liked not my proffered office o’er-well. Howbeit, that night did I do the bidding o’ my young mistress, and—loath am I to speak of it, even at this late day—’twas the cause of my young master’s leaving his home and going to bide in foreign countries.
Ah, bitter tears did his sister weep, and with mine own eyes I saw her, on the day he set forth, cling to his neck, and when he shook her thence, hang about his loins, and when at last he pushed her to the ground, she laid her hands about his feet and wept; and between every sob it was, “Go not, brother, for my fault! Go not, brother, for my fault!” or else, “Robin, Robin, dost not love me enough to forgive me so little?” and then, “If thou didst but love me a little, thou couldst forgive me much.” But he stepped free of her hands and went his ways, and my lady lay with her head where his feet had been, and was still.
Then Marian, who was very wroth with me for my part in the matter, did up with her nursling in her own proper strong arms (for she was aye a strong lass, that being one o’ the chief reasons for which I had sought her in marriage—having had, as should all men, an eye to my posterity. It was a great cross to me, as may be thought, to find that all my forethought had been in vain, and that while Turnip, the farrier, had eight as fine lads as one would care to father, of a puny wench that my Marian could have slipped in her pocket, Mistress Butter presented me with no children, weakly or healthy). But, as I have said, Marian, in her own arms, did carry my lady up-stairs to her chamber, and laid her on the day-bed.
And by-and-by she opes her eyes (for Marian agreed that I sate on the threshold), and says she, putting out her hand half-fearful-like, “Is’t thou, brother?”
“Nay, honey,” saith Marian; “it is I, thy Marian, thy nurse.”
Then said my lady, “Ay, nurse; but my brother, he is below—is’t not so?” But when Marian shook her head, my lady sate up on the day-bed and caught hold of her short curls, and cried out, “I have banished him! I have made him an outlaw! I have banished him!” And for days she lay like one whose soul was sped.
Well, the young lord came not back, nor would he write; so we knew not whether he were alive or dead. Yet were Marian and myself not unhopeful, for full oft did the heady boy find some such cause of disagreement with his sister to abide apart from her. But when we saw that in truth he came not back, and that week sped after week, and month did follow month, and still no tidings, we had perforce to acknowledge that the young lord was indeed gone to return no more.
The Lady Margaret, in her loneliness, grew into many strange ways. She did outride any man in the county, and she had a blue-roan by the name of Robin Hood; which same, methinks, no man in or out o’ th’ county would ‘a’ cared to bestride. She would walk over to Pebworth (‘piping Pebworth,’ as Master Shakespeare hath dubbed it) and back again, a distance o’ some six miles; and afterwards set forth for a gallop on Robin Hood, and be no more a-weary, come eventide, than myself from a trip ’round the gardens. She swam like a sea-maid, she had fenced even better than her brother, and methinks she was the bonniest shot with a long-bow of any woman in all England. She was but fifteen when my lord left Amhurste for aye, and in the years since she had grown mightily, and was waxed as strong as Marian, and full a head taller. But she had long, curved flanks that saved her from buxomness; and her head was set high and light on her shoulders, like a bird that floats on a wave, and o’er it ran her bright curls, the one o’er the other, like little wavelets. Her eyes were as gray as a sword, and as keen, and she had broad lids as white as satin-flowers, and there was a fine black ring around them, made by her long lashes.
My lady was courted by many a fine lord, and more than three youngsters have I seen weep because of her coldness towards them; speeding them away out o’ the sight o’ mankind (as they thought), and casting themselves along the lush grass in my lady’s garden, there to bleat and bleat, like moon-calves for the moon.
For one lad did my heart bleed, verily. ‘Twas for the young Lord of Mallow—but a lad with buttercup curls and speedwell eyes, and a smile to win the love o’ any maid in her reason (though, to be sure, my lady was in her reason). He comes to me and gets between my knees, like any little eanling that might ‘a’ been mine own, and quoth he:
“Butter, Butter, she loves thee! Wilt thou not speak to her, and tell her that she shall be the richest lady in all England, and maid of honor to the Queen, and have more jewels than the Queen herself? Oh, Butter!” cried he.
Then said I, a-stroking of the yellow gossamer that bestrewed his shoulders, as he knelt, head bowed, between my knees, “Nay, my lord, ’tis not so that thou shalt win the Lady Margaret. She careth no more for jewels than she doth for the beads in a rainbow; nor doth she care for riches. And methinks a maid who would marry just to be maid of honor to a queen would not be an honorable maid either to herself or to her sovereign;” for so indeed I thought.
Then saith he, “Butter, dost thou believe in love-philters?”
And I asked his meaning, for verily I was ignorant of ‘t, albeit I was not ignorant in all matters. And he explained to me that it was a drink or potion to cause love.
Then I answered, and said, “Calamint doth make a good brew, likewise sage, and some flax is soothing, but methinks none o’ these would cause love.”
On this he wept again, but said that I was a good old man, and that on his return to Mallow he would send me a gift; and so he did—a pair o’ silk hose, such as my lady and the Queen do wear; but being mindful of my station, I laid them aside for the sake o’ th’ poor lad, and yesterday Marian did bring them to me, with her ten fingers through as many moth-holes. Whereupon I was minded o’ th’ text concerning that we lay not up treasures where moth and rust do corrupt, and at my behest Marian read me the whole of that chapter. But to return to bare facts.
It was on a certain night in March that there occurred the conversation which was the cause of this narrative. There had been news of the return of one Lord Denbeigh to Warwickshire—by report as wild a cavalier as ever fought, and a godless body to boot. Marian, who, as I have said, had always a certain knack for ghost stories and the like, froze me with her accounts o’ this wild lord’s doings. Quoth she:
“Fire-brace is a suiting name for him, inasmuch as ’tis a family name, and he a fire-brand to peace wheresome’er he shall go.”
“Peace—peace thyself!” quoth I, hearing my lady’s foot along the hall. And, o’ my word, Marian had but just ceased, and given her attention to the fire, when in clatters my lady, with her riding-whip stuck in her glove, and her blood-hound Hearn in a leash. She was much wrought, either with riding or rage, for there was a quick red in her cheek, and she had set her red lips until they were white. Then took she the hound between her knees, and plucked off her gloves. Here I did find it my duty to speak.
“My lady,” cried I, “’tis not in your mind to baste the dog?”
“Ay, that it is,” quoth she, and her lips went tighter, and she jerked at her glove.
Then said I, “How if he leap at thy throat?” And she answered, “Nay, he knows better;” and with that she gripped his collar, and let swing her whip. Then did I bid Marian that she leave the room. As for me, it was my duty to stay, though, as I have given an oath to tell but the truth in this narrative, I must confess that I was in a sweat from head to foot with fear.
But the great hound crouched as though he knew he got but what he deserved, and when my lady had given him ten or twenty lashes she flung wide the door, and said she, “Get thee gone, coward! Go fare as fares the poor beggar thou sought’st to bite!” and the hound slunk out. Then turned my mistress to me, and—”Butter,” saith she, “yon beast sought to bite an old beggar as we came through the park, so I whipped him. But for naught save cruelty or disobedience will I ever whip a dog; so, Butter, the next time that thou seest me about to lash one, keep thy counsel.” (This was the harshest that my lady e’er spoke, either to me or to Marian.) Then went she to the door and called Marian.
“Come, nurse,” quoth she, “I am a-weary. Fling me some skins on the settle, and I will lie down, and thou shalt card out my locks with thy fingers.” So we heaped the settle with the skins o’ white bears, and thereon my lady cast herself, like a flower blown down upon a snow-bank; and by-and-by, what with the warmth and Marian’s strokings, she fell into a deep sleep. But we two sate and gazed on her.
She was all clad in a tight riding-dress of green velour cloth, and her white face seemed to come from the close collar like a white lily from its sheath. She was e’er flower-like, asleep or waking, as I have said, and her pretty head was sleek and yellow, like a butterfly’s wing. She was so sound that it appeared to me and Marian as though one longer breath might transform the mimicry into the actual thing—death. But by-and-by awe fell from us, as it doth ever fall, even in the presence of that which hath awed us, and my wife and I did return to our discourse concerning my Lord Denbeigh.
“Nay, nay,” said she, shaking her head; “as bloody a rogue as ever lived—as bloody a rogue as ever lived. They do say as how he’ll set a whole tavern in a broil ere he be entered in for three minutes.”
“But,” quoth I, “may he not be provoked?”
“Nay, I tell thee,” said she; “but he’ll jump at a body’s head, and cleave ‘t open ere a body can say ‘Jesus.'”
At this I said, firmly, “I doubt not but what the poor man is most surely maligned.” Whereupon Mistress Butter did wax exceeding wroth.
“Why wilt thou e’er be seeking to plead the cause o’ villains?” cried she. “First that bloody beast o’ my lady’s, now this bloody villain o’ th’ devil’s. I do wonder at thee, Anthony Butter.” Whereat I did put in that I sometimes wondered at myself.
“For why?” quoth she.
“Why, that I ever married to be worded by a wench,” said I. And at this I am most entirely sure that she would have cast her joint-stool at me, had she not been sitting on ‘t, and my lady’s head against her knee. So she called me a “zany,” and then after a little a “toad,” but went on stroking my lady’s hair.
And, by-and-by, back we come to his lordship.
“‘Tis not alone his bloody tricks and murderous ways,” quoth my wife, “that causes all Christian folk to abhor him, but he consorts with no other women than drabs and callets. Dost excuse that?”
“Nay,” said I, with sufficient gravity, “then is this earl no longer a man, but a swine, and not fit for men’s discussion, much less that of women.”
At this reproof I saw anger again in her eye, but she was so pleased withal at having got me to call Lord Denbeigh a swine that she forebore any further personal affront.
“And yet,” she went on, “they do say he be as fine a man as a wench will walk through the rain to glimpse at, and a brave and a learned; but that he wed a Spanish maid, and she betrayed him, and so he hath vowed to hate women, one and all.”
“Hast thou seen him?”
“Nay, but I’ve had him itemized to me by the wife o’ Humfrey Lemon. A blue eye, a hooked nose, a—”
“Well, well, wife,” quoth I, “if a blue eye and a hooked nose be as bad signs in a man as they be in a horse, methinks this thy villain is a very round villain.”
“And so he is,” affirmed she.
“Yet,” said I, “there is somewhere in me a something that doth pity him.”
“By my troth!” cried my wife. “I do believe, Master Butter, that thou’dst pity the Devil’s wife in childbirth.”
“Well, do not bellow,” blurted she, “for my mistress is as sound as a gold-piece.”
Then quoth my lady, a-rising up on her elbow,
“Nay, that she is not. And, moreover, she would hear all the stories concerning this bad and bloody Lord of Denbeigh!”
Categories: English Literature