Read THE BOOK OF NAY - CHAPTER XVII of The Life and Death of Richard Yea-and-Nay, free online book, by Maurice Hewlett, on ReadCentral.com.

THE KEENING

In the wan hours left to him came three women, one after another, and spoke the truth so far as they knew it each.

The first was Alois of France in the habit of a grey lady of Fontevrault, with a face more dead than her cowl, and hair like wet weed, but in her hollow eyes the fire of her mystery; who said to the watchers by the door:  ‘Let me in.  I am the voice of old sorrow.’  So they held back the curtains of the tent, and she came shuffling forward to the long body on the bed.  At the sound of her skirts the King turned his altered face her way, then rolled his head back to the dark.

‘Take her away,’ he said in a whisper; so Des Barres stood up between him and the woman.

But Alois put her hands out, as a blind man does.

‘Soul’s health, Des Barres; I purge old sins.  Avoid, all of you,’ she said, ’and leave me with him.  Save only his confessor.  What I have to say must be said in secret, as it was done secretly.’

Richard sighed.  ‘Let her stay; and let Milo stay,’ he said.  The rest went out on tip-toe.  Alois came and knelt at the head of the bed.

‘Listen now, Richard,’ said she; ’for thy last hour is near, and mine also.  Twice over I have sought to tell thee, but was denied.  Each time I might have done thee a service; now I will do thee good service.  Thou art not guilty of thy father’s death, nor he of my despair.’

The King did not turn his head, but looked up sideways, so that she saw his eye shining.  His lips moved, then stuck together; so Milo put a sponge with wine upon them.  Then he whispered, ’Tell me, Alois, who was guilty with thee?’

She said, ‘Thy brother John of Mortain was that man.  A villain is he.’

A moaning sigh escaped the King, long-drawn, shuddering, very piteous.  ‘Eh, Alois, Alois!  Which of us four was not a villain?’

Said Alois, ’What is past is past, and I have told thee.  What is to come I cannot tell thee, for the past swallows me up.  Yet I say again, thy brother John is a sick villain, a secret villain, and a thief.’

‘God help him, God judge him,’ said Richard with another sigh.  ’I can do neither, nor will not.’  He moaned again, but so hopelessly, as being so weary and fordone, that Abbot Milo began to blubber out loud.  Alois lifted up her drawn face, and struck her breast.

‘Ah, would to God, Richard,’ she cried, ’would to God I had come to thee clean!  I had saved thee then from this most bitter death.  For if I love thee now, judge how I had loved thee then.’

He said, with shut eyes, ’None could love me long, since none could trust me, and not I myself.’  Then he said fretfully to the abbot, ’Take her away, Milo; I am tired.’

Alois, kneeling, kissed his dry forehead.  ‘Farewell,’ she said, ’King Richard, most a king when most in bonds, and most merciful when most in need of mercy.  My work is done.  Remains to pray and prepare.’  She went out noiselessly, as she had come in, and no man of them saw her again.

Next came Queen Berengere, about the time of sunset.  She came stiffly, as if holding herself in a trap, with much formal bowing to Death; quite white, like ivory, in a black robe; in her hands a great crucifix.  At the door she paused for a minute, the Earl of Leicester being with her.

‘Grief is quick in me, Leicester,’ she said; then to the ushers of the door, ’Does he live?  Will he know me?  Does he wake?  Does he not cry for me now?’

‘Madame, the King sleeps,’ they told her.

‘I go to pray for him,’ said the Queen, and went in.

Stiffly she knelt at his bedhead, and with both hands held up the crucifix to her face.  She began to talk to it in a low worn voice, as though she were asking the Christ to reckon her misery.

‘Thou Christ,’ she complained, ’Thou Christ, look upon me, the daughter of a king, crucified terribly with Thee.  This dying man is the King my husband, who denied me as Thou, Christ, wert denied; who sought to put me by, and yet is loved.  Yet I love him, Christ; yet I have worked for him against my honour, holding it as cheap as he did.  When he was in prison I humbled myself to set him loose; when he was loosed I held his enemies back, while he, cruelly, held me back.  I have prayed for him, and pray now, while he lies there, struck secretly, and dies not knowing me; and leaves me alone, careless whether I live or die.  Ah, Saviour of the world, do I suffer or not?’

She awoke the sick man, who opened his eyes and stared about him.  He signed to Milo to draw nigh, which the snuffling old man did.

‘Who is here?’ he whispered.  ‘Not ?’

‘No, no, dearest lord,’ said Milo quickly.  ‘But the Queen is here.’

‘Ah,’ said he, ‘poor wretch!’ And he sighed.  Then he said, ’Turn me over, Milo.’  It was done, with a flux of blood to the mouth.  They stayed that and brought him round with aqua vitae.

The Queen was terribly moved to see his ravaged face.  No doubt she loved him.  But she had nothing to say.  For some time their eyes were fixed, each on the other; the Queen’s misty, the King’s fever-bright, terribly searching, terribly intelligent.  He read her soul.

‘Madame,’ he said, but she could scarcely hear him, ’I have done you great wrong, yet greater wrong elsewhere.  I cannot die in comfort without your pardon; but I cannot ask it of you, for if I still had years to live, I should do as I have done.’  A sob of injury shook the Queen.

‘Richard!  Richard!  Richard!’ she wailed, ’I suffer!  You have my heart; you have always had it.  And what have I?  Nothing, O God!  Nothing at all.’

‘Madame,’ said he, ’the wrong I did you was that I gave you the right to anything.  That was the first and greatest wrong.  To give it you I thieved, and in taking it again I thieved again.  God knoweth — ’ He shut his eyes, and kept them shut.  She called to him more urgently, ’Richard, Richard!’ but he made no answer, and appeared to sleep.  The Queen shivered and sniffed, turned to her Christ, and so spent the night.

The last to come was Jehane in a white gown; and she came with the dawn.  Eager and flushed she was, with dawn-colour in her face; and stepped lightly over the dewy grass, her lips parted and hair blown back.  She came in exalted with grief, so that no wardens of the door, nor queens, nor college of queens, could have stayed her.  She was as tall as any there, and went past the guard at the door without question or word said, and so lightly and fiercely to the bed.  There she stood, dilating and glowing, looking not back on her spent life, but on to the glory of the dying.

The Queen knew that she was there, but went on with her prayers, or seemed to go on.  Jehane knelt suddenly, put her arms out over Richard, stooped and kissed his cheek.  Then she looked up, desperately triumphing, for any one to question her right.  None did.  Berengere prayed incessantly, and Jehane panted.  The words broke from her at last.  ‘Dost thou question my right, Berengere,’ she said fiercely, ’to kiss a dead man, to love the dead and speak greatly of the dead?  Which of us three women, thinkest thou, knoweth best what report to make concerning this beloved, thou, or Alois, or I?  Alois came, speaking of old sins; and you are here, plaining of new sins:  what shall I do, now I am here?  Am I to speak of sin to come?  Thou dear knight,’ and she touched his head, ’there is no more room for thy great sins, alas!  But I think thou shalt leave behind thee some spark of a fire.’  She looked again at Berengere, who saw the glint of her green eyes and the old proud discontent twisting her lip, but did nothing.  ‘Look, Berengere,’ said Jehane, ’I speak as mother of his child Fulke of Anjou.  I had rather my son Fulke sinned as his fathers have sinned, so that he sinned greatly like them, than that he should grow pale, scheming safety in a cloister, and make the Man in our Saviour ashamed of His choice.  I had rather the bad blood stay, so it stay great blood, than that it should be thin like thine.  What is there to fear, girl?  A sword?  I have had a sword in my heart eight years, and made no sound.  Let the son pierce what the father pierced before.  I am a lover, saying not to my beloved, “Stroke my heart, dearest lord”; but instead, “Stab if thou wilt, my King, and let me bleed for thee.”  So I have bled, sweet Lord Jesus, and so shall bleed again!’ She stooped and kissed his head, saying, ’Amen.  Let the poor bleed if the King ask.’  The Queen went on praying; but Richard opened his eyes without start or quiver, looked at Jehane leaning over him, and smiled.

‘Well, my girl, well,’ he said, ’thou art in good time.  What of the lad?’

‘He is here, Richard.’

‘Bring him to me,’ says the King.  So Des Barres stole out to the Moslems at the door, and came back leading Fulke by the hand, a slim, tall boy, fair-haired, and frank in the face, with his father’s delicate mouth and bold grey eyes.  Jehane turned to take him.

‘This is thy father, boy.’

‘I know it, ma’am,’ says young Fulke, and knelt down by the bed.  King Richard put his hand on his head.

‘What a rough pelt, Fulke,’ he says, ’like thy father’s.  God send thee a better inside to it, my boy.  God make a man of thee.’

‘He will never make me a great king, sire,’ says Fulke.

‘He can make thee better than that,’ said his father.

‘I think not,’ answered Fulke.  ’You are the greatest king in the whole world, sire.  The Old Man of Musse said it.’

‘Kiss me, Fulke,’ said Richard.  The boy put his face up quickly and kissed his father’s lips.  ‘What a lover!’ the King laughed; and Jehane said, ‘He always kisses on the lips.’  Richard sighed, suddenly tired; Fulke looked about, frightened at all the solemnity, and took his mother’s hand.  She gave him over to Des Barres, who led him away.

The King signed to Jehane to bend down her head.  So she did, and even thus could barely hear him.

‘I must die in peace if I can, sweet soul,’ he muttered.  They all saw that the end was not far off.  ’Tell me what will become of thee when I am gone.’  She stroked his cheek.

’I shall go back to my husband and children, dear one.  I have left three behind me, all sons.’

‘Are they good to thee?  Art thou happy?’

’I am at peace with myself, wife of a wise old man; I love my children, and have the memory of thee, Richard.  These will suffice me.’

‘There is one more thing for thee to give me, my Jehane.’  She smiled pityingly.

‘Why, what is left to give, Richard?’ He said in her ear, ’Our boy Fulke.’

‘Ah,’ said Jehane.  The Queen was now watching her intently between her hands.

‘Jehane, Jehane,’ said King Richard, sweating with the effort to be heard, ’all our life together thou hast been giving and I spending, thou miser that I might play the prodigal.  For the last time I ask of thee:  deny me not.  Wilt thou stay here with Fulke our son?’

Jehane could not speak; she shook her head, and showed him her eyes all blind with tears.  The tears came freely, from more eyes than hers.  Richard’s head dropped back, and for a full minute they thought him gone.  But no.  He opened his eyes again and moved his lips.  They strained to hear him.  ‘The sponge, the sponge,’ he said:  then, ’Bring me in Saint-Pol.’  The cold light began to steal in through the crannies of the tent.

The young man was brought in by Des Barres, in chains.  Jehane, now behind Richard’s head, lifted him up in her arms.

‘Knock off those fetters,’ says the King.  Saint-Pol was free.

‘Eustace,’ says Richard, ’you and I have bandied hard words enough, and blows enough.  My chains will be off before sunrise, and yours are off already.  Answer me, is Gurdun dead?’

Saint-Pol dropped to his knees.  ’Oh, my lord, he died where he fell.  But as God knows, he had no hand in this, nor had I.’

‘If I know it, I suppose God knows it too,’ said Richard, smiling rather thinly.  ’Now, Eustace, I have a word to say.  I have done much against your name; to your brother because he spoke against a great lady and ill of my house; to your sister here, because I loved her not well enough and myself too well.  Eustace, you shall kiss her before I go.’

Saint-Pol got up and went to her.  Brother and sister kissed each other above the King’s head.  Then said Richard, ’Now I will tell you that I had nothing to do with the death of your cousin Montferrat.’

‘Oh, sire! oh, sire!’ cried Saint-Pol; but Jehane looked at her brother.

‘I had to do with that, Eustace,’ she said.  ’He laid the death of the King, and I laid his death at the price of my marriage.  He deserved it.’

‘Sister,’ said Saint-Pol, ’he did deserve it; and I deserve what he had.  Oh, sire,’ he urged with tears, ’take my life, as your right is, but forgive me first.’

‘What have I to forgive you, brother?’ said Richard.  ’Come, kiss me.  We were good friends in the old days.’  Saint-Pol, with tears, kissed him.  Richard sat up.

’I require you now, Saint-Pol and Des Barres, that between you you defend my son Fulke.  Milo has the deeds of his lands of Cuigny.  Bring him up a good knight, and let him think gentlier of his father than that father ever did of his.  Will you do this?  Make haste, make haste!’

The Queen broke in with a cry.  ’Oh, sire! oh, sire!  Is there nothing for me?  Madame!’ she turned to Jehane and held her fast by the knees, ’have pity, spare me a little, a very little work!  O Christ!  O Christ!’ — she rocked herself about — ’Can I do nothing in the world for my King?’

Jehane stooped to take her up.  ’Madame, watch over my little Fulke, when his father is gone, and I am gone.’  The Queen was crying bitterly.

‘I will never leave him if you will trust me,’ she began to say.  Richard put his band out.  ’Let it be so.  My lords, serve the Queen and me in this matter.’  The two lords bowed their heads, and the Queen tumbled to her sobbed prayers again.

The King’s eyes were almost gone; certainly he could not see out of them.  They understood his moving lips, ‘A sponge, quick.’

Jehane brought it and wiped his mouth; she could not see either for tears.  He gave a strong movement, wrenched his head up from her arm, then gave a great gasp, ‘Christ!  I am done!’ There followed on this a rush of blood which made all hearts stand still.  They wiped it away.  But Jehane saw that with that hot blood had gone his spirit.  She lifted high her head and let them read the truth from her eyes.  Then she put her lips upon his, and so stayed, and felt him grow cold below her warmth.  The fire was out.

They buried him at Fontevrault as he had directed, at the feet of his father.  King John was there with the peers of England, Normandy, and Anjou.  The Queen was there; but not Alois (unless behind the grille), and not King Philip, because he hated King John much worse than he ever hated Richard.  And Jehane was not there, nor Fulke of Anjou with his governors, because they had another business to perform.

Not all of King Richard was buried there, where the great effigy still marks the place of great dust.  Jehane had his heart in a casket, and with Fulke her son, Des Barres, her brother Saint-Pol, Gaston of Béarn, and the Abbot Milo, took it to the church of Rouen and saw it laid among the dead Dukes of Normandy; fitting sepulture for a heart as bold as any of theirs, and capable of more gentle music when the fine hand plucked the chords.  After this Jehane kissed Fulke and left him with the Queen, his uncle, and Guilhem des Barres.  Then she went back to her ship.

In the white palace in the green valley of Lebanon the Old Man of Musse embraced his wife.  ‘Moon of my soul, my Garden, my Treasure-house!’ he called her, and kissed her all over.

‘The King died in peace, my lord,’ she said, ’and I have peace because of that.’

‘Thy children shall call thee blessed, my beloved, as I call thee.’

‘The prophecy of the leper was not fulfilled, sir,’ says Jehane.

Ah,’ replied the Old Man of Musse, all these things are in the hands of the Supreme Disposer, Who with His forefinger points us the determined road.’

Then Jehane went in to her children, and other duties which her station required of her.