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It has been several decades since Yale University Press last published a romance novel. But then, it has been several decades since H. F. M. Prescott produced her academically acclaimed—yet spellbinding and best-selling—volumes of historical fiction. She has had no successor.
Most of her novels, like this one, Son of Dust, are indeed romances. They’re against-all-odds love stories, with nail-biting and page-turning plots, ample feats of derring-do, caddish treachery, heroic fidelity, and a constant and powerful undertow of sexual desire.
Three things, however, set Prescott’s novels apart from the bodice rippers arrayed in the drugstore: (1) their historical precision, (2) their spiritual and philosophical depth, and (3) their literary artistry. She did not write costume pageants or steamy melodramas. She produced imaginative histories. Yet she wrote them with such simplicity and sensuality that the consumers of popular fiction kept her works on the charts.
Hilda Frances Margaret Prescott was born in Cheshire, England, in 1896, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman. She studied at Oxford and Manchester and held master’s degrees from both. She taught briefly at the high school and college levels before turning full-time to writing in 1923. Her first three novels are set in medieval France, the third being Son of Dust, published in 1932.
Her novels often revolve around questions of religious, political, and romantic allegiance—and these categories are inseparably intertwined, making for high drama. Characters measure their duty to God against fidelity to a difficult lover or a demanding duke. For Prescott, erotic desire drives much of human history, whether personal or international. Yet it is a providential force; God made the world that way.
In religion, Prescott’s sympathies were decidedly Anglo-Catholic, and these set her apart from other historians. Mainstream English authors, both academic historians and historical novelists, tended to read Protestantism back into pre-Reformation events. Their heroes were proto-Protestants, their villains venal “papists.” The Mass was shown to be idolatrous; “Romish” doctrines, customs, and traditions, such as relics and monks, shown to be superstitious. The church, starting with the pope, was held to oppress its people and keep them in ignorance. With the Middle Ages read this way, the anti-Roman revolt of the Reformation was seen not only as inevitable and necessary, but also as a grand victory for human freedom and enlightenment against popish tyranny and ignorance.
But Prescott would have none of that. She respected medieval civilization and recognized its profound sacral foundations. As an Anglo-Catholic, she believed that the Church of England had lost something at the Reformation, however “necessary” that event was. Her characters are Catholic believers who go to Mass, pray for the dead, venerate the saints, and don’t begrudge any bit of it. Roman Catholic critics and readers felt at home in her pages, as they will today. And so will many of today’s leading academic historians. Prescott anticipated, by fifty years, the historical reconsiderations of the late twentieth century, especially the work of J. J. Scarisbrick, Eamon Duffy, Christopher Haigh, and others. Since Prescott died in 1972, she did not live to see this movement’s triumph at the close of the twentieth century.
Son of Dust draws from the chronicles of noble families in Norman France in the eleventh century. The action takes place in the years just before the Norman invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings (1066). Indeed, William the Conqueror (Guillelm of Normandy) plays an important role in the drama. The novel’s plot, however, concerns quite another battle, one that is certainly not confined to any period in history: the ever-present conflict between spirit and flesh (see chapter 5 of St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians). Traditional Christian doctrine holds that the sexual drive is powerful and good, but it is not simply benign. Original sin has left us with a San Andreas–sized fault line running through our sexuality. In no other area of life are we so prone to self-deception. Yet, like nothing else in life, erotic desire holds out the promise of love, happiness, companionship, and fulfillment. Eros, says Pope Benedict XVI, is “that love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings.”
Prescott’s characters represent a variety of approaches to the problem. Robert of Saint Ceneri and his wife, Aelis, enjoy a satisfying, natural happiness in their love. Raol Malacorona aspires to be pure spirit and reject the flesh as something beastly. Geroy is content to indulge the beastly, committing adultery and casual rape over the course of the story. Fulcun longs for pure love yet lives by all the wrongheaded clichés of courtly romance—that true love should be spontaneous, forbidden, perilous, desperate, and adventuresome. As he and Alde consummate their sinful love, they cover over the true nature of their deed with sweet euphemisms and rationalizations.
But God is not fooled. Prescott’s universe turns on the principle of sacramental realism. There is nothing merely symbolic about her portrayal of the mysteries of faith. The cleric Herfast is “dirty, ignorant, drunken, but a priest,” and dire consequences follow upon his decree of excommunication. At Holy Communion, a priest “laid God . . . upon Mauger’s tongue.” The sacraments are more real than anything in creation, and any breach of their discipline, any impiety, can bring on horrific consequences, in both the natural and supernatural orders. The marital bond is no less real than the character of holy orders, no less sacramental than the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist—and the marriage bond is just as intolerant of compromise.
Thus, Fulcun and Alde’s illicit union, though gilded in their own fevered imaginations, is a mortal sin. Committed in a state of nature, it evokes Eden and creation’s primal couple, Adam and Eve. And within the novel their adultery functions as a sort of original sin—bringing death, devastation, and disenfranchisement to the entire Geroy clan and its lands.
Sin leads to further sin, and to a darkened intellect that cannot choose well or wisely. Conflicting loyalties and a warped sense of duty almost always follow in the wake of adultery. It takes the entire novel for Fulcun and Alde to extricate themselves (by God’s persistent grace) from their tangled bonds.
The artistic miracle is that they do, and rather believably. They ascend from eros to a higher love, a diviner love—agape—climbing a difficult path of renunciation, purification, and healing. It is not spoiling the ending to say that over the course of the story, they grow in self-knowledge, discipline, repentance—and they achieve a full, and dramatically surprising, redemption.
H. F. M. Prescott’s novels are great acts of restoration—not only for her characters, but for her readers, too. The chronicles of medieval Europe, especially England, were for many centuries distorted by partisanship. History is always written by the victors, and in England the Protestant regime prevailed. From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, historians committed to a cause, both religious and patriotic, perpetually ground the old axes of the English Reformation. And literary artists were no less to blame. Alfred Tennyson removed the sacramental character from the Holy Grail legends and recast them as Broad Church Anglican quests for the world’s most prized antique—but nothing more.
As academic history grew more agnostic, it actually gained a greater degree of objectivity. It rose above the controversies swirling about the Reformation—or at least it stood apart from them. Hilda Prescott, as an Anglo-Catholic, also stood above the fray, though she kept her profoundly Christian convictions and sensibilities.
In spite of the work of Eamon Duffy and the art of Hilda Prescott, pop culture is still dominated by what some scholars call “the Monty Python school of history”—that is, the certain knowledge that the Middle Ages were irredeemably bad times, because ordinary people bathed little, read less, lived in serfdom, and sometimes died of plague. In Son of Dust, we see that those times—though surely flawed—were about as civilized as our own. If the medievals lived with social injustices, sexual depravities, and ignorance, well—we should read the newspapers—so do we.
You need not be a habitual reader of romances to get caught up in this powerful love story. You need only be human. Nor need you be a scholar of history to become rapt in scenes from many centuries ago. But by the book’s end, you might be able to pass a history exam, in spite of yourself. Learning should always be so enjoyable, and so good for the soul.
Mike Aquilina is coauthor of The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence and author of many other books on Christian history, doctrine, and devotion. He is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and has been cohost of five popular television series.
Hernaut the Fat, Hernaut the Breton as they called him in Mayenne, was the first of that house to come out of Brittany. He prospered, and before he died he was lord of lands that lay close along the Norman border. His son was Geroy, a short, sturdy, resolute man, so cheerful and quiet in his ways as to seem peaceable. He was not, though; he loved trouble, and he found it both pleasant and profitable to play a game between Mayenne and Normandy. Guillelm of Belesme was doing just the same, and he and Geroy grew fast friends. It was with Guillelm that Geroy went to one of Duke Richart of Normandy’s Christmas courts.
Richart the Fearless knew a good fighter when he saw him, and he always wanted to make friends in Mayenne, so, as they rode back one day in the snow after hunting wolves in the woods near Fécamp, he says to Geroy, “Heugo of Echauffour will give you his daughter if you like. She’ll have Echauffour and Montreuil when he dies, for she’s the only one he has.” He looked at Geroy, and then said, “And he won’t live long.” Geroy said he’d take the girl.
But he did not. He saw her once, and that was when they were betrothed, and he thought, “Poor stock! I wouldn’t breed from a mare that looked so ramshackle!” He did not see her again because she died two months after, and a week after she died Heugo her father died too.
Geroy swore when he heard it. He thought they might have waited a while till he had married her. But he cheered up when Duke Richart said he should not miss his lands for that. And so on the day after Easter Day the duke put into Geroy’s hands a gray-green ash stave and then a chunk of moist sod that had one daisy just opening in it. The stave was for Montreuil and the sod for Echauffour.
So there was Geroy with the Mayenne lands—Courcerault and Montaigu, Gandelain and la Pooté and the rest, and with Montreuil and Echauffour that held of Normandy. He was a great man now; he married one of Turstin of Bastembourg’s girls; he saw her pass through a slant of sunshine in Turstin’s hall at Bastembourg, and he wanted her, and did not rest till he had all her tall, splendid, fresh strength for his own. That was how the Norse height and the Norse red-gold hair came into the family, for of all the sons that Gisla bore him (and she bore him seven, as well as four daughters), only Robert was a low man like his father, and he had flaming hair when he was a lad, all curls.
The first child they had was born the year that folk feared would be the last of the world, the year 1000. They called him Hernaut. Next it was another boy, Guillelm; then a girl, Avice; then, one after another, three lads, Fulcun, Raol, and Robert. After those came three girls, Eremburge, Emma, and Aelis, and then another boy, Hue, and last of all Geroy, that they called Red Geroy.
But though the house had prospered, it had not much luck. Geroy died before his time, and within ten years of his death Gisla was dead too, and of all their sons only three lived—Guillelm, Raol, and Robert. The girls were all alive, and married, and Fulcun, who was dead, had left two sons, Fulcun and Geroy, bastards by a Breton wench that Fulcun had brought back from Caharel—the hold looking over the Breton sands toward St. Michael in Peril, from which Hernaut the Fat, the first Geroy’s father, had come. Fulcun brought her to Montgaudri, willing enough, for anyone could see that she loved the ground he went on, but she ran away from him before three years were at an end, and before he had quite tired of her. He was very angry when she went; he always swore that she went with a Norman horse coper. But he was wrong. She had gone back to Brittany on foot and glad of the pain that put something between her and the sin of love that had so hurt her and must therefore be so black.
She came to the house of nuns at Dol and sat on the side of the road by the gate with her long black hair trailing over her hands as they lay in her lap. She did not ask to go in, but when they brought her in she did not refuse. Only she turned her head to watch them shut the door behind her, because she knew that it was shutting her away from Fulcun. She lived there for six years and then died; she did not even know that Fulcun was dead already. Of the two little lads she did not think; it was enough to have to keep Fulcun out of her mind. As for loving—she must try to love God and his Christ, who were kind; Fulcun had not been kind.
After his eldest brother’s death Guillelm Geroy was head of the house. He was the wisest of them all; not so ready for a quarrel as his father, but as good a fighter when he was in it. His one unwisdom was to trust other men to be as honest as he was. He was a broad, tall man with a brown, plain face; he stooped a little when he walked and had a way of standing leaning against the wall with his arms folded and his chin on his chest. He married Fulbert Beina’s girl from l’Aigle, but she died in bearing him Hernaut, so he married again and had two sons more, but as soon as they were grown those two went into Italy where the Normans were swarming; but Hernaut stayed in Normandy.
The first Geroy had been friends with Guillelm of Belesme, but that Guillelm was dead now, and his three eldest sons died soon after; one of them, men said, was strangled by a devil in his sleep for his wickedness, but he was not worse than his brother Guillelm Talvas, who lived.
This Guillelm Talvas and Guillelm Geroy had never been friends; as time went on they had more than one score against each other. Once they were accorded and gave each other the kiss of peace, and after that Guillelm Geroy ceased to think about Talvas; he was a coward, a liar, and a trichard, and he had murdered his wife pretty surely, but it was the devil’s business, not Guillelm Geroy’s.
Talvas did not cease to think about Guillelm Geroy; he could not forget him; and he thought that someday he would so deal with Guillelm Geroy that Guillelm Geroy would never be able to forget him either.
So, when Talvas made a great feast for his second wedding, he bade to it, among all his neighbors and the friends of Belesme, Guillelm Geroy, but none of the other Geroys.
Guillelm Geroy was at Saint-Céneri when he got the message, and Raol Geroy was with him. It was Raol who read out the writing, for he was as learned as any clerk, and that was why he was called always Malacorona, as it were “spoiled priest,” because there was nothing else clerkly about him, that anyone could see, but his learning. Raol said neither good nor bad that night about Talvas’s wedding feast, but next morning he says to Guillelm in his ear, “Do not go to Alençon.”
Says Guillelm, “What, have you been asking your devils what will be?”
Raol told him not to mind whom he had asked, only take the counsel. Everyone knew that Raol could look through time into tomorrow and that he had secrets of healing; and when they were angry with him they would say it was devils who told him what would come.
Guillelm would not listen. He said he was not afraid of Guillelm Talvas. He went, on a shining June day, with twelve knights only; he would not have Raol with him, but he took for his esquire that time young Fulcun, Fulcun of Montgaudri’s son by the Breton girl, a lad of fifteen.
It was three days later that one of the house wenches came screaming to Raol as he sat in the tower. As he went down he did not rightly know what was her news, but he knew soon enough. At the gate there was a little crowd, and when Raol pushed into the midst of it he found Guillelm Geroy leaning heavily over young Fulcun of Montgaudri, who had him round the waist; Guillelm Geroy with his face all bloody, and bloody pits for eyes. That was Talvas’s work.
They brought him up to the tower, and there Raol saw to him. He bathed the raw sockets and laid ointment on. Guillelm lay as stiff and still as a log while he did it, but Fulcun, holding the water in a wooden bowl, shook so much that the water lapped over, and Raol swore at him.
It took a week to send round to all the Geroy kin and bring them to Saint-Céneri. Robert Geroy and Hernaut, Guillelm’s own son, were the last to come in, for they had been to Courville, near Chartres, where there were Geroy cousins. They rode in one noon, and all rode out the next, a hundred men, and thirty of them knights.
Young Fulcun of Montgaudri went with them, this time as Robert Geroy’s esquire. It was Robert who had brought up the two lads that dead Fulcun had left. They came, after burning two villages, in sight of Alençon through the last trees of the wood. Robert turned in his saddle because he heard a strange small sound behind him. Young Fulcun was grinding his teeth. He said, suddenly, as though he were very glad to speak, “It was here. I came out of the wood, riding back from hunting with the first of Talvas’s people. I saw . . . him . . . coming along the grass at the edge of the road, feeling with his feet, and his hands out, groping . . . and the sun shining. Talvas laughed.”
Robert swore. Fulcun cried out, “Oh, sir, kill Talvas!”
They could not do that because Guillelm Talvas of Belesme shut the gates of Alençon and would for no burning nor wasting of his lands open them and come out. The Geroys, when they had done all the harm they could, must needs go home. It was on the way back that Robert said to Raol Geroy that Fulcun would make a good fighter. “He’s slow,” says Raol. “Hernaut is far the better.”
“Hernaut is almost a man grown,” says Robert. “And when Fulcun’s angry . . . They call him ‘the heron,’ you know.”
Raol said that that was because he was such a long lad.
“Well,” said Robert, “he hits like a heron too when he’s angry, straight and hard.”
“He’s a bastard,” says Raol. Robert said that so was the duke, and they left it at that.
Blind men have little place in the world; Guillelm Geroy, after three black years, went from it into the abbey at Bec, and from there came to Saint-Évroult, when Avice Geroy’s two sons, Robert and Hue of Grandmesnil, built the abbey in the woods near Echauffour, and they and Raol and Robert Geroy gave to the monks plow lands and mills and wood and water. But though he was with his own kin there—Robert of Grandmesnil was prior—Guillelm Geroy could not stay. Once, he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and then at last, when there was talk of sending some of the monks to beg for gifts for the new stone cloister from the Normans who were gone to Apulia, blind Guillelm Geroy made the abbot send him. That was the spring of 1053.
Robert, now Robert of Saint-Céneri, and Raol Geroy said him farewell at the crossroads below Echauffour. They watched him out of sight, tall and stooping, and heard the clack of his staff on the stony road die away to nothing. He had gone with two young monks to lead him, but he was in the dark. Robert Geroy sat on his horse in the sunny road and did not care that the tears were running down his face. He began to curse Talvas and all the Belesme.
Raol, thin and dark-faced more than any other of the Geroys, turned on him suddenly and bade him be silent. “It’s the will of God,” he cried in a strange hard voice.
Robert of Saint-Céneri stared at him. He was too simple to understand what was in Raol’s mind. He only said, “You’re mad.”
Raol stared back almost as wild as if Robert spoke the truth.
“Would I not lose my eyes to save my soul?” he said, and swung his horse about, and left Robert to follow his reckless gallop.
Before even they heard the news that Guillelm was dead in Gaeta, Raol had gone away one evening from Saint-Céneri without a word. He went to Marmoutier, the abbey that looks over the wide shallows and gold sand shelves of the Loire, and there his crown was rightly shaved at last.
So Robert of Saint-Céneri was the only one of Geroy’s sons left in the world. He kept Saint-Céneri and the Mayenne lands; Fulcun son of Fulcun, a grown man now, held Montgaudri from Mayenne too, though the Normans always said that Montgaudri should hold of Normandy. His younger brother, Geroy, the other son of the Breton girl, lived at Montgaudri with him; Geroy had a wife Alianor, Baudri of Boquenci’s second girl, and she had borne him one child, a boy, Baudri.
Hernaut, Guillelm Geroy’s eldest son, held the Norman lands of the house, Montreuil and Echauffour. He had married Emma, Turstin Halduc’s daughter, and had two sons already and was like to have more. The Geroys were a great house still. Robert Geroy had even married the duke’s cousin Aelis—though she brought little dowry with her he trusted that she would bring him friendship with Normandy.
But sometimes Robert, whose fiery hair was graying to gold, would forget his cheerful carelessness and sit biting on his fingers and frowning under his big fair eyebrows at nothing. Then Aelis, who was fond of him, would cry out at him to stop scowling, and he would look up and laugh.
But he wished that he had by him even one of his own brothers. They had used to ride out seven, and a man is strong in his kin.
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust . . .
Fulcun stood at one of the windows of the tower at Montgaudri; it was the window that looked out over the castle yard where the hens were picking, and where the washing hung from the line between the two old thorn bushes, for it was Monday. Beyond the castle yard was the little town, mud-and-wattle houses, yellowish-colored and thatched with every shade between the fresh brown-gold of last year’s work and the dead gray of twenty years back, huddled anyhow among orchards and patches of ground where the peas and beans grew in fresh rows. Beyond the houses and the orchards and around it all ran the wooden pale of the township.
Behind him in the room, Dame Alianor, Geroy’s wife, who had just finished setting up the warp of a new length of linen, settled herself on the bench and began to work the loom with a quick, sharp clack. Dame Alianor was a thin, frail, bitter woman, hardy and reckless in her heart but weak in body. She was the daughter of that untamed old quarreler Baudri of Boquenci; she had run away from Boquenci with Geroy one night in spring close on ten years ago. Before that, when they used to meet secretly in the dim flour store of the mill at Boquenci, where the air was dusty and full of the deep measured beat of the rushing water and the turning wheel, she had worshipped Geroy. Now she did not.
Down below in the yard one of the men was driving in a fresh stake behind the castle pale; Fulcun had found yesterday that some of the old wood was rotted. It was not bad enough to shift yet, but he had told Osmunt the steward it must be strengthened. The pale was made of stout oak and beech trunks cut in half lengthwise and rammed deep into the earth with the rounded side out and the flat within to the yard.
Fulcun watched the man swinging up the heavy mallet and bringing it down on the wood—the sound came to him just a fraction of time after he saw the mallet fall. But though he watched the man intently he was not thinking of the work; only the regular shock of the blows seemed to mark the time of the pulses that beat in his brain and through him, till he felt he was himself the smitten vibrating wood.
Fulcun stood a moment longer, but he was not now watching the man at the pale. His eyes had been caught by someone crossing the strip of green between Osmunt’s orchard and the alehouse. It was Custance; she had a bag slung at her back and a stout long stick in her hand; she must be going along Montgaudri hill to Johan, her father, who had the sheep in the valley end.
It was Custance, who was in his mind day long and night long. This morning he had known when he got up that today he would come upon her—somehow. He often did know at the beginning of a day that he would certainly find her before evening. And standing at the window just now he had known something more, though he had not cared to think about it too much—he had known that today was the day, come at last, almost against his will, when he must find her. He could not let her keep him off any longer with her fierceness and her silence and with the straight stare of her cold yet stormy eyes. After all, she was only his serf’s girl; her father Johan wore Fulcun’s iron collar about his neck.
And yet for ten minutes and more he stood there still, his fingers gripping the sill of the window as if someone might tear him from it. Custance had gone out of sight and now appeared again on the open hillside beyond the town. He could see her clear; she was half a mile away by this time, walking steadily.
He turned sharply from the window and went across the room and down the stairs into the hall and out to the door of the tower. Dame Alianor had started at his suddenness, and the servants in the hall stared as he went past them; he did not look back. He took the outer stairs two at a time with his sword held up in his hand.
In four minutes he was riding out of the gate of the castle; in six he was beyond the pale of the town and out on the open, warm hillside. The hill was empty, but he knew his way. He remembered now that he must not hurry while he was in sight of the tower. He settled down in his saddle and rode soberly, but his fingers were sweating on the bridle.
It was high summer, and the sun so great in his afternoon strength that the cloudless sky was drained of all color but a faint, languid blue. It was very hot on the hillside, but now and again a little wayward wind brought with it a puff of clean coolness and then died, and the warm air closed again. There was no sound but for the grasshoppers, and no movement but the swallows’ long, delicate, gliding lapse, as they skimmed the slope below the level of his feet.
He pulled up and looked back. Montgaudri had sunk behind a lift of the hill. He turned and for one second sat still in his saddle staring at nothing, feeling nothing but the thundering shake of his heart in his chest. Then he was riding with the wind going by his ears, and the soft thunder of the hooves to listen to instead of the other that had made him almost afraid.
He saw Custance before him; he passed her at a gallop as though he did not see her, and then, a quarter of a mile beyond (he could not tell why he went so far), he pulled up and sat on his horse, waiting for her to come up.
As she came he watched her bare brown feet on the warm grass; her black hair gleamed in the sun like a crow’s wing, her eyes were on the ground. He knew well enough that she had seen him, but he guessed that she would not look up till she saw the shadow of his horse; he was not sorry for that, for he could look at her the better when he had not to meet her eyes. He wanted to look at her mouth, red and stubborn with a sulky droop, and at her brown neck, and at a tear in her old yellowish-white woolen gown that let him see her knee as she moved.
She looked up, and he jerked his head back, and next minute he was out of the saddle and by her. She stood still and looked no higher than his throat that was on a level with her eyes. He stretched out his hand and laid it on her shoulder and clutched it hard. She did not wince, but she lifted her eyes and said, “What do you want?” She did not call him “master” or “lord,” and she looked at him without a change of the dark color in her face.
He said, dropping his eyes from hers to the little hollow at the base of her throat, “Where are you going?” though he had meant to say something quite different.
She told him. “To my father. He’s with the sheep away there,” and she nodded beyond him over the hill. “I’ve bread for him.” She had a goatskin bag slung across her back.
Fulcun, staring down at her, shifted his hand from her shoulder to her arm and moved closer. He had hold now of both her arms, but she stood still.
“What do you want?” she said, and her voice was more angry than afraid.
She could feel Fulcun shaking. He told her, “You.” He snatched at the stick, tore it from her hand, and threw it away, then he dragged her against him.
She fought herself off with a sudden surprising fierce strength, and as they stood for a second she cried at him, “Like as your father had your mother!”
Fulcun’s chin went up as if she had struck him. He was not glad to be a bastard, though many men those days thought little of it.
He said through his teeth, “I do not care,” and put out his strength again, and held her, struggling, for a moment glad to know that he must be hurting her. But he thought she would never stop fighting to get free
She was tiring. He tightened his arms and heard her give a sharp breathless cry. He bent to get at her mouth, but she wrenched her face away. She had no strength for more than that; yet he could see how even now the muscles of her throat were all straining against him.
For a long second he was quite still, only holding her desperately close with all his strength and staring down into her face. Her eyes came up to his, glaring, wild with the terror and frantic impotent hate of an animal taken in a snare.
He knew that he could have her body now if he chose. He knew suddenly, and with a great rush of blind pain, that it was no use, since she hated him like this.
He cried out, “Custance, won’t you let me . . . let me? . . . Can’t you see I love you, Custance!” And then lifting his head, “Oh! I can’t force you . . . Let me!”
She did not answer, only she struggled faintly against him. He held her a second longer because it was so hard to let her go, and then he loosed his arms about her—it was no use to keep her. She pulled away from him as far as she could.
He said again, “Can’t you understand? I love you. I only want—” He stopped because he did not know himself what it was he only wanted. It was a great deal. It was more than the thing his body wanted. “I love you,” he said.
But she had never learned what love was. She grew fierce as she felt herself safe, and she did not know at all what it was that had kept her safe.
“No,” says she. “I want none of that,” and suddenly broke away from him and ran. As she went by his horse she clouted it on the shoulder, and when the animal bolted he heard her shrill laugh.
Left standing there, Fulcun had to choose between catching her or catching the horse. He went for the horse, but it was a young wild stallion and it had been scared, so it got away.
By that time it was too late to catch her. She was gone, and she had made a fool of him. There was little forbearance in his mind when he gave up chasing the horse. He came back, hot and angry, and sat down on the grass. He would wait. She must come back this way, and she should not leave him laughing again. As he sat there he tugged up handfuls of the wiry, fine grass and flung them from him.
But as he waited, his anger died. What took its place was first a great soreness. He lay full length and buried his face in the grass and longed for kindness from her—just that, kindness and gentleness. And then, because he was young enough still not to believe in any final denial, he began to hope. He rolled over and lay at ease on his side, seeing the world very great because his eyes were on a level with the smallest creatures—he could see no more than a multitude of grass blades close by, and beyond, the great green shoulder of the hill, and beyond that again, a steep of sky.
He thought, “But I’ll teach her to love me. They say a woman always loves a man afterward. And I’ll be as gentle as I can.” He let his mind slip into sweet imaginings, part of pure passion, part of something that should be afterward. She would open her eyes from the languor of past delight and he would be waiting for them. He would look down into her solemn, wide, unsmiling eyes and find that she was glad of him, as he was of her. And they would walk home together in the dusk, very close; but while he was thinking of the touch of her along his side, something in him, deep down in his unknown mind, was craving for a contact that was not of the body, but something closer yet.
He lay there long, dreaming with his eyes open, and a sound—a small, distant, regular beat—came to his ears for a long time before it reached his mind. But he heard it at last, and raised his head, and then sat upright. Cortilly church bell was ringing for Vespers.
He listened to it for a minute, frowning. Herfast was ringing it, that rascal old priest with gray bristles all over his face and a dirty, half-grown tonsure on his head. Herfast spent most of his time digging in the croft round his cottage. When he had to go to church (and he did not trouble the church much, but today must be some feast) he would spit on the ground and wipe his hands on his gown and go with no more care than that. He was an ignorant old fool too. He knew no more than a few prayers, and no one could hear them, he gabbled so fast; so they might be right or wrong. And besides, for as long as Fulcun could remember, he had kept a wife, if you liked to call her so, a gray-haired woman now, with watery eyes, but she had been plump and almost comely once.
It was only old Herfast ringing the bell in the dusty, dim tower of the church. Fulcun tried to keep his mind on that. Why should he care though Herfast rang all night? The faint, cracked voice of the bell meant nothing to him. He clapped his hands over his ears to shut it out. He shut out the sound, but he shut himself in with his thought.
Here he was on the hill, in the warm-breathing world, where the sun would soon go down and color everything with evening, and he was waiting here for Custance for his body’s fierce delight. And there, in the wattle church in the valley, where it would be twilight now, God sat. It was God who spoke in the hoarse discordant voice of the bell. God forbade him.
Fulcun jumped up and began to tramp about, hasty and aimless, through the low-growing, trim whin bushes and back along the smooth sheep tracks. God forbade him his delight because it was sin. God forbade it, and Custance must soon be here. But why need he listen? He stood still once in his roaming and lifted his head. The sun had gone down behind the high slopes of Perseigne forest that rose opposite the bare flank of Montgaudri hill, but above, the sky was full yet of colored light, and very high up there were some small fine clouds, warm with the sun, and softly cruddled like the wool of a sheep’s fell.
Fulcun thought, “God is up there too!” and because the sky was full of gentleness, and peace, and the remote but tender beauty of the evening, his thoughts ran suddenly aside. If God was . . . like that at all . . . would he not allow it because of the tenderness there was in love?
He stood there staring up, and then he muttered, in case God should not understand, “I love her—it’s not all lust.”
The bell rang on and then stopped. He turned, listening to the silence, and it was a rebuke. He had wanted an answer, but now he knew that no answer would have made any difference. Presumably God had known it too.
He flung himself down on the grass, his face hot, and his heart too, with a dogged, uneasy rebellion. The light in the sky was changing and fading to something more chill and pure. Soon Custance would be here.
He sat up with a shock of all the blood in his body. Someone was coming along the hill top.
But it was not Custance. It was a man. He saw that it was Geroy.
Geroy came near. Fulcun fixed his eyes on the iron shoe of his scabbard that lay beside his leg on the grass. He only looked up when Geroy stood over against him, looking down.
“It is hot,” says Geroy. He looked hot.
“Where is your horse?” asked Fulcun, because he must say something, and then he wished he had said anything else, for where, at that rate, was his own?
“It went from me.” Geroy looked back the way he had come. “I got down to—to see to one of the sheep and the brute bolted. It will be at Montgaudri by now very like.” He did not want to stay and talk, but as he moved on he thought he must say something.
“What are you doing here?” he says over his shoulder.
“Nothing,” says Fulcun, and then, because he did not want Geroy to ask more, he nodded toward him. “What have you been doing to your hand?”
Geroy snatched it up and looked at it and put it behind him.
He said, “A dog bit it,” and moved on. He wanted to get away from Fulcun. Not that he cared what Fulcun might say. He went off with a swing of his shoulders, whistling, and then, when he was a little bit away from Fulcun, smiling to himself.
Fulcun did not watch him go. He was only glad that he had gone so easily and without question. For the sun was down, and Custance must come very soon. He had thought she would have been here before this.
Then he saw her coming and stood up. She came very slowly. He felt the blood going up to his face and his hand was so hard on his sword hilt that it shook. He had a thought then. He slipped his cloak from his shoulder ring and laid it down on the grass. There would be dew soon. He put the silver ring into his pouch. He was surprised as he did it that he could think of such small things.
He took two strides toward her and then stopped. Custance had stopped too.
She stood there with her hands at her mouth and her knuckles crushed against her teeth. He knew that she was biting her own fingers. He saw that; he saw her rent gown that showed the curve of one breast; he saw a green grass stain all down her side from shoulder to knee; he saw a bright red bruise on her cheek; and he knew that she shook so that she could hardly stand.
He said “Custance!”
She turned her head aside as if she wanted to find a place to run to, but she did not run.
“Custance, what has happened?” he asked her, but he knew, and she would not tell him.
“Who?” he said after a minute, and went a step toward her. He meant no harm—he had forgotten that he had ever meant it, but she went back with a strangled cry. When he stood still again she dropped her hands from her mouth and suddenly huddled the gown together across her breast.
“Lord Geroy,” she told him, and her eyes came up to his and he saw loathing in them, ugly and agonized. She loathed him, with Geroy, because he was a man.
When she had gone on, stumbling stiffly along the road, her hands again at her mouth, Fulcun stood there very still for a long time. He moved at last, but only to sit down, his knees drawn up, his head down on them, and one wrist clenched in the other hand. Twilight came and the dark, but he dared not move because of the thoughts that went round and again round in his head.
This afternoon she had gone away from him. He had not taken her by his strength as he might. She had gone away. And while he had sat here waiting, Geroy— He gripped his wrist tighter and heard himself give a strange grunt of pain. But in the blackness of his mind there was not only pain; there was shame and loathing too. Geroy had done what Fulcun had waited to do. Fulcun knew now the vile face of it—this was the work of the flesh.
Sitting there as the dusk turned to dark, and as the stars came out and wheeled slowly over the dim crowns of the hills, he hated himself, and Geroy; he hated the whole of humankind. He knew now, he thought once with a kind of drunken clarity, how God must hate the vile and shameful flesh.
He got up at last, his hair dank with dew, and dew beads all over the iron of his scabbard. A nightjar screamed as it hunted somewhere over toward Belesme. As he went he heard a fox barking down in the valley, but they were small sounds in a great loneliness. He came, without any satisfaction, in sight of the lights in Montgaudri tower. He was not glad to leave the empty hills; there at least he was only one man moving in a great space of clean air, but in Montgaudri there were men like a herd of cattle, men doing the shameful work of the flesh even now in the dark. And Geroy was there—Geroy. He hated Geroy—a vile hate it was.
And Custance was there too, in that little cottage near the gate. He wanted her still—and that was vile. His thoughts, sharpened by weariness, would not be controlled. He could not keep the crowding imaginations from his mind, and yet he sickened at them.