THOMAS ERPINGHAM was knighted by Henry the Fourth for good and valiant service.
This Sir Thomas Erpingham, Knight of the Garter, afterward fought by the side of Henry the Fifth in his French wars, and was made Warden of the Cinque Ports, but retired to Norwich, his native place. He married a beautiful, pious lady, and after a turbulent career and the horrors of war, desired to end his days in charity. Being wealthy, and of one mind, he and Lady Erpingham built a goodly church in the city, and also erected and endowed a religious house for twelve monks and a prior close to the knight's house, and parted only by a high wall.
But though the retired soldier wished to be at peace with all men, two of his friars were of another mind: Friar John and Friar Richard hated each other, and could by no means be reconciled; neither had ever a good word for t'other; and at last Friar John gave Friar Richard a fair excuse for his invectives. Lady Erpingham came ever to matins in the convent, and Friar John would always await her coming, and attend her through the cloister, with ducks and cringes and open adulation; whereat she smiled, being, in truth, a most innocent lady, affable to all, and slow to think ill of any man.
But Richard denounced John as a licentious monk; and some watched and whispered; others rebuked Richard; for it was against the monastic rule to put an ill construction where the matter might be innocent.
But Richard stood his ground; and, unfortunately, Richard was right. Misunderstanding the lady's courtesy and charity, Brother John thought his fawning advances were encouraged, and this bred in him such impudence that one day he sent her a fulsome love-letter; and had the hardihood to beg for a private interview.
The lady, when she opened this letter, could hardly believe her senses; and at last, as gentlewomen will be both unsuspicious and suspicious in the wrong place, she made up her mind that the poor, good, ridiculous friar could never have been so wicked as to write this; nay, but it was her husband's doing, and a trial of her virtue: he was older than herself, and great love is oft tainted with jealousy.
This brought tears into her eyes, to think she should be doubted; but soon anger dried them, and she took occasion to put the letter suddenly into Sir Thomas's hand, and fixed her eyes on him so keenly that if there had been a flaw in his conjugal armor, no doubt those eyes had pierced it.
The knight read the letter, and turned black and white with rage; his eyes sparkled with fury, and he looked so fearful that the lady was very sorry she had shown him the letter, and begged him not to take a madman's folly to heart.
"Not take it to heart!" said he. "What! these beggarly shavelings that I have housed and fed, and so lessened my estate and thine--they shall corrupt thee, and rob me of my one earthly treasure! Sit thou down and write."
"Do as I bid thee, dame," said he, sternly, "and no more words."
Those were days when husbands commanded and wives obeyed; so she sat down, trembling, and took the pen.
Then he made her write a letter back to the friar, and say she compassionated his love, and her husband was to ride toward London that night, and her servant, on whom she could depend, should admit him to her by a side door of the house.
Friar John, at the appointed time, took care to be in the town, for he knew the lay brother who kept the gate of the priory would not let him out so late. He came to the side door, and was admitted by a servant of the knight, a reckless old soldier, who cared for neither man nor devil, as the saying is, but only for his master. This man took him into a room and left him, then went for the knight: he was not far off. Now the unlucky monk, being come to the conquest of a beautiful lady, as he vainly thought, had fine linen on, and perfumed like a civet. The knight smelled these perfumes, and rushed in upon him with his man, like dogs upon the odoriferous fox, and, in a fury, without giving him time to call for help or to say one prayer, strangled him, and left him dead.
But Death breeds calm; the knight's rage abated that moment, and he saw he had done a foul and remorseless deed. He would have given half his estate to bring the offender back to life. Half his estate? His whole estate, ay, and his life, were now gone from him: they were forfeited to the law. So did he pass from rage to remorse, and from remorse to fear. The rough soldier, seeing him so stricken, made light of all, except the danger of discovery. "Come, noble sir," said he, "let us bestir ourselves and take him back to the priory, and there bestow him; so shall we ne'er be known in it."
Thus urged, the knight roused himself, and he and his man brought the body out, and got it as far as the wall that did part the house from the monastery. Here they were puzzled a while, but the man remembered a short ladder in the back yard, that was high enough for this job. So they set the ladder, and, with much ado, got the body up it, and then drew the ladder up and set it again on the other side and so, with infinite trouble, the soldier got him into the priory.
The next thing was to make it appear Friar John had died a natural death. Accordingly, he set him upon a rickety chair he found in the yard, balanced him, and left him; mounted the wall again, let himself down, and then dropped into the knight's premises.
He found the knight walking in great perturbation, and they went into the house.
"Now, good master," said this stout soldier, "go you to bed, and think no more on't."
"To bed!" groaned the knight, in agony. "Why should I go there? I cannot sleep. Methinks I shall never sleep again."
"Then give me the cellar key, good sir. I'll draw a stoup of Canary."
"Ay, wine!" said the knight; "for my blood runs cold in my veins."
The servant lighted a rousing fire in the dining-hall, and warmed and spiced some generous wine, after the fashion of the day, and there sat these two over the fire awaiting daylight and its revelations.
But, meantime, the night was fruitful in events. The prior, informed of Friar Richard's uncharitable interpretations, had condemned him to vigil and prayer on the bare pebbles of the yard, from midnight until three of the clock. But the sly Richard, at dusk, had conveyed a chair into the yard to keep his knees off the cold hard stones.
At midnight, when he came to his enforced devotions, lo, there sat a figure in the chair. He started, and took it for the prior, seated there to lecture him for luxury; but peeping, he soon discovered it was Friar John.
He walked round and round him, talking at him. "Is it Brother John or Brother Richard who is to keep vigil to-night? I know but one friar in all this house would sit star-gazing in his brother's chair, when that brother wants it to pray in," etc.
Brother John vouchsafed no reply; and this stung Brother Richard, and he burned for revenge. "So be it, then," said he; "since my place is taken, I will tell the prior, and keep vigil some other night." With this he retired, and slammed the door. But having thus disarmed, as he conceived, Brother John's suspicion, he took up an enormous pebble, and slipped back on tiptoe, and getting near the angle of a wall, he flung his great pebble at Brother John, and slipped hastily behind the wall; nevertheless, as he hid, he had the satisfaction of seeing his pebble, which weighed about a stone, strike Brother John on the nape of the neck, and then there was a lumping noise and a great clatter, and Friar Richard chuckled with pride and delight at the success of his throw. However, he waited some minutes before he emerged, and then walked briskly out, like a new-comer. There lay John flat, and the chair upset. Brother Richard ran to him, charged with hypocritical sympathy, and found his enemy's face very white. He got alarmed, and felt his heart; he was stone-dead.
The poor monk, whose hatred was of a mere feminine sort, and had never been deadly, was seized with remorse, and he beat his breast, and prayed in earnest, instead of repeating Paternosters, "preces sine mente dictas," as the great Erasmus calls them.
But other feelings soon succeeded: his enmity to the deceased was well known, and this would be called murder, if the body was found in that yard; and his own life would pay the forfeit.
Casting his eyes round for a place where he might hide the body, he saw a ladder standing against the wall. This surprised him; but he was in no condition to puzzle over small riddles. Terror gave him force: he lifted the body, crawled up the ladder, and placed the body on the wall--it was wider than they build now--then he drew up the ladder, set it on the other side, and took his ghastly load down safely. Then being naturally cunning and having his neck to save, he went and hid the ladder, took up the body, staggered with it as far as the porch of the knight's house, and set it there bolt-upright against one of the pillars.
As he carried it out of the yard he heard a window in the knight's house open. He could not see where the window was, nor whether he was watched and recognized; but he feared the worst, and such was his terror, he resolved to fly the place and bury himself in some distant monastery under another name.
But how? He was lame, and could not go ten miles in a day, whereas a hundred miles was little enough to make him secure.
After homicide, theft is no great matter: he resolved to borrow the maltster's mare, and turn her adrift when she had carried him beyond the hue and cry. So he went and knocked up the maltster, and told him the convent wanted flour, and he was to go betimes to the miller for a sack thereof. Now the convent was a good customer to the maltster; so he lent Friar Richard the mare at a word, and told him where to find the saddle and bridle.
Richard fed the mare for a journey and saddled her; then he mounted and rode at a foot-pace past the convent, meaning to go quietly through the town, making no stir, then away like the wind.
But as he paced by the knight's house he cast a look ascaunt to see if that ghastly object still sat in the porch.
No, the porch was empty.
What might that mean? Had he come to life? Had the murder been discovered? He began to wonder and tremble.
While he was in this mood there was a great clatter behind him of horse's feet and clashing armor, and he felt he was pursued.
The knight and his man sat together, drinking hot spiced wine and awaiting daylight. The knight would not go to bed, yet he wanted a change. "Will daylight never come?" said he.
"'Twill be here anon," said the soldier; "in half an hour."
The knight said no, it would never come.
The soldier said he would go and look at the sky, and tell him for certain.
"Be not long away," said the knight, with a shiver, "or the dead friar will be taking thy place here and pledging me."
"Stuff!" said the soldier; "he'll never trouble you more."
With this he marched out to consult the night, and almost ran against the dead friar seated in the porch, white and glaring; this was too much even for the iron soldier; he uttered a sharp yell, staggered back, and burst into the room, gasping for breath. He got close to his master, and stammered out, "The dead man!--sitting in the porch!"--and crossed himself energetically, the first time these thirty years.
The knight stared and trembled: and so they drew close together, with their eyes over their shoulders.
"Wine!" cried the knight.
"Ay," said the soldier; "but I go not alone. He'll be squatting on the cask else."
So they went together to the cellar, often looking round, and fetched two bottles.
They drank them out, and the good wine, falling upon more of the sort, made them madder and bolder. They rolled along, holding on by one another, to the porch, and there they stood and looked at the dead friar, and shuddered.
But the soldier swore a great oath, and vowed he should not stay there to get them hanged. Thereupon a furious fit of recklessness succeeded to their terror: they got a suit of rusty armor and fastened it on the body; then they saddled an old war-horse that was kept in the stable only as a reminiscence, and tied the friar's body on to him with many cords; they opened the stable door and pricked the old war-horse with their daggers that he clattered out into the road with a bound and a great rattling of rusty armor.
Now as ill luck would have it, Friar Richard and his borrowed mare were pacing demurely through the town scarce fifty yards ahead. The old horse nosed the mare, and, being left to choose his road, took very naturally after her; but when he got near her the monk looked round and saw the ghastly rider. He gave a yell so piercing it waked the whole street, and, for lack of spurs, drove his bare heels into the mare's side: she cantered down the street at an easy pace, the fearful pageant cantered after, the friar kept turning and yelling, and the windows kept opening and heads popped out to see, and by-and-by doors opened and a few early risers joined in the pursuit, wondering and curious.
The cavalcade never cleared the town of Norwich; the friar, in the wildness of despair, turned his mare up what seemed to him an open lane; but there was no exit; his dead pursuer came up with him, and he threw himself off, and cried, "Mercy! mercy! mea culpa!--I confess it! I confess it! only take that horrible face from me!" and in his despair he owned that he had slain Brother John.
Then some led the horse and his ghastly load away, and wondered sore; but others hauled Friar Richard to justice; and he, believing it was a miracle, and Heaven's hand upon him, persisted in his confession, and was cast into prison to abide his trial.
He had not to wait long. In those days the law did not tarry for judges of assize to come round the country now and then. Each town had its mayor and its aldermen, any one of whom could try and hang a man if need was. So Friar Richard was tried next week.
By this time he had somewhat recovered his spirits and his love of life: he defended himself, and said that indeed he had slain his brother, but it was by misadventure; he had thrown a stone at him in some anger, but not to do him deadly harm. This he said with many tears. But, on the other hand, it was proved that he had long hated Brother John; that he had got out of the priory without passing the door, and had borrowed the maltster's mare on a false pretense; and finally, marks of strangulation had been found on the dead man's throat. All this amazed and overpowered the poor friar, and although his terror at the apparition was not easily to be reconciled with his having been the person who tied the body on the horse, and though one alderman, shrewder than the rest, said he thought a great deal lay behind that, yet, upon the whole, it was thought the safest and most usual course to hang him. So he was condemned to die--in three days' time.
The friar, seeing his end so near, struggled no more against his fate. He sent for the prior to confess him, and told the truth with deep sorrow and humility: "Mea culpa! mea culpa!" he cried. "If I had not hated my brother and broken our rule, then this had not come upon me!"
Then the prior gave him full absolution, and went away exceeding sorrowful, and doubting the wisdom and justice of laymen, and in particular of those who were about to hang Brother Richard for willful murder. This preyed upon his mind, and he went to Sir Thomas Erpingham to utter his misgivings, and pray the good knight to work upon the sheriff, who was his friend, for a respite until the matter could be looked into more closely.
The knight was not at home, but my lady saw the prior, and learned his errand. "Alas, good father," said she, "Sir Thomas is not here; he is gone to London. this two days."
The prior went home sick at heart.
Even so long ago as this they hanged from Norwich Castle. So the rude gallows was put up at seven o'clock, and at eight Brother Richard must hang and turn in the wind like a weather-cock.
But before that fatal hour a king's messenger galloped into the city and spurred into the courtyard of the castle. Very soon the sheriff was reading a parchment signed by the king's own hand: the gallows was taken down, and the people dispersed by degrees. Some felt ill used. They thought appointments should be kept, or else not made.
At night Friar Richard, not reprieved, but, to the amazement of smaller functionaries, freely pardoned by his sovereign, in a handwriting a house-maid of this day would blush for, but with a glorious seal the size of an apple fritter, crept forth into the night, and, gliding along the streets with his head down, slipped into the priory, and was lost to the world for many a long day. Indeed, he was confined to his cell for a month by order of the prior, and ordered to pray thrice a day for the soul of Brother John.
When Brother Richard emerged from his cell he was a changed man. He had gathered, amid the thorns of tribulation, the wholesome fruit of humility, and the immortal flower of charity. Henceforth no bitter word ever fell from his lips, though for a time he had many provocations, and "Honi soit qui mal y pense" was the rule of his heart. He made himself of little account, and outlived all enmities. He lived much in his cell, and prayed so often for the soul of Brother John that at last he got to love him dead whom he had hated living.
Time rolled on. The knight's hair turned gray, and the good prior died.
Then there was a great commotion in the little priory, and three or four of the leading friars each hoped to be prior.
That appointment lay with Sir Thomas Erpingham. He attended the funeral of the late prior, and then desired the sub-prior to convene the monks. "Good brothers," said he, "your prior is Brother Richard. I pray you to invest him forthwith, and yield him due love and obedience."
The knight retired, and the monks stared at each other a while, and then obeyed, since there was no help for it: they invested Brother Richard in due form; and such is the magic of station that, in one moment, they began to look on him with different eyes.
The new prior bore his dignity so meekly that he disarmed all hostility. His great rule of life was still "Honi soit qui mal y pense," and there is no course more apt to conciliate respect and good-will. The knight showed him favor and esteem; the monks learned to respect and by-and-by to revere him; but he never ceased to reproach himself, and say masses for the soul of Brother John.
The years rolled on. The knight's gray hair turned white; and one day he sent for the prior, and said to him, "Good father, I have grave matter to entertain you withal."
"Speak, worshipful sir," said the prior. The knight looked at him awhile, but seemed ill at ease, and as one that hath resolved to speak, but is loath to begin. At last he said, "Sir, there be men that waste their goods in sin, or meanly hoard them till their last hour, yet leave them freely to Mother Church after their death, when they can no longer enjoy them. Others there be whose breasts are laden with a secret crime they ought to confess, and clear some worthy man suspected falsely; yet they will not tell till they come to die. Methinks this is to be charitable too late, and just when justice can neither cost a man aught nor profit his neighbor. Therefore, not to be one of these, I will reveal to you now a deed that sits heavy on my conscience."
"You would confess to me, my son?"
"As man to man, sir, but not as penitent to his confessor; for that were no merit in me: it would be no more than bury my secret in a fleshly grave. Nay, what I tell to you, you shall tell to all the world, if good may come of it."
Here the knight sighed, and seemed much distempered, like one who wrestleth with himself. Then he cast about how he should begin, and to conclude he opened the matter thus: "Sir, please you read that letter; it was writ by Brother John unto my wife."
The prior read it, but said never a word. "Sir," said the knight, "do you remember a sad time when you lay in Norwich jail accused of murder and cast for death?"
"I do remember it well, sir, and the uncharitable heart that brought me to that pass."
"While you lay there, sir, something befell elsewhere, which I will hide no longer from you. The king being at his palace in London, a knight who had fought by his side in France sought an audience in private. It was granted him at once. Then the knight fell on his knees to the king, and begged that his life and lands might be spared, though he had slain a man in heat of blood. The king was grave but gentle, and then I showed him that letter, and owned the truth, that I and my servant, in our fury, had strangled that hapless monk."
"Alas! sir, did you take my guilt upon yourself to save my life, so fully forfeit? 'Twas I who hated him; 'twas I who flung the stone."
"At a dead body. I tell thee, man, we strangled him, and set his body up where you saw it: hand in his death you had none."
The prior uttered a strange cry, and was silent. The knight continued, in a low voice:
"We set him in the yard; and when we found him in the porch, being half mad with terror and drink together, we bound him on the horse and launched him. All this I told the king, and he, considering the provocation, and pitying too much his old companion in arms, gave me my life and lands, and gave me thine, which, indeed, was but bare justice. So now, sir, you know that you are innocent of bloodshed, and 'tis I am guilty."
The knight looked at the churchman, and thought to see him break forth into thanksgivings. But it was not so. The prior was deeply moved, but not exultant. "Sir," said he, like a man that is near choking, "let me go to my cell and think over this strange tidings."
"And pray for me, I do implore you," said the knight.
"Ay, sir, and with all my heart."
Some days passed, and the knight looked to hear his own tale come round again. But no; the prior was silent as the grave. Then after a while the knight sent for him again, and said, "Good father, what I told you was not under seal of confession."
"I know it, sir," said the prior. "Yet will it go no further, unless I should out-live you by God's will. Alas! sir, you have taken from me that which was the health of my soul, my belief that I had slain him I hated so unchristian-like. This belief it made humility easy to me, and even charity not difficult. What engine of wholesome mortification would be left me now, were I to go a-prating that I slew not the brother I hated? Nay, I will never tell the truth, but carry my precious burden of humility all my days."
"Oh, saint upon earth!" cried the knight. "Outlive me, and then tell the truth."
The monk replied not, but pondered these words.
And it fell out so that the knight died three years after, and the prior closed his eyes, and said masses for his soul; and a good while afterward he did, for the honor of the convent, reveal this true story to two young monks, but bound them by a solemn vow not to spread it during his life. After his death the truth got abroad, and among churchmen the prior was much revered, for that he had cured himself of an uncharitable heart, and had enforced on himself the penalty of unjust shame so many years.
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