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looking long and fixedly at his host, "were it not to interrupt your devout meditations, I would pray to know three things of your holiness; first, where I am to put my horse?—secondly, what I can have for supper?—thirdly, where I am to take up my couch for the night f
"I will reply to you," said the hermit, "with my finger, it being against my rule to speak by words, where signs can answer the purpose." So saying, he pointed successively to two corners of the hut. "Your stable," said he, "is there; your bed there; and," reaching down a platter, with two handsful of parched peas upon it, from the neighbouring shelf, and placing it upon the table, he added, "your supper is there."
The knight shrugged his shoulders, and, leaving the hut, brought in his horse (which in the interim he had fastened to a tree), unsaddled him with much attention, and spread upon the steed's weary back his own mantle.
The hermit was apparently somewhat moved to compassion by the anxiety as well as address which the stranger displayed in tending his horse; for, muttering something about provender left for the keeper's palfrey, he dragged out of a recess a bundle of forage, which he spread before the knight's charger, and immediately afterwards shook down a quantity of dried fern in the corner which he had assigned for the rider's couch. The knight returned him thanks for his courtesy; and, this duty done, both resumed their seats by the table, whereon stood the trencher of peas placed between them. The hermit after a long grace, which had once been Latin, but of which. original language few traces remained, excepting here and there the long rolling termination of some word or phrase, set example to his guest, by modestly putting into a very large mouth, furnished with teeth which might have ranked with those of a boar both in sharpness and whiteness, some three or four dried peas; a miserable grist as it seemed for so large and able a mill.
The knight in order to follow so laudable an example, laid aside his helmet, his corslet, and the greater part of his armour, and showed to the hermit a head thick-curled with yellow hair, high features, blue eyes, remarkably bright and sparkling, a mouth well formed, having an upper lip clothed with mustacheos darker than his hair, and bearing altogether the look of a bold, daring, and enterprising man, with which his strong form well corresponded.
The hermit, as if willing to answer to the confidence of his guest, threw back his cowl, and showed a round bullet-head belonging to a man in the prime of life. His close-shaven crown, surrounded by a circle of stiff curled black hair, had something the appearance of a parish pinfold begirt by its high hedge. The features expressed nothing of monastic austerity, or of ascetic privations; on the contrary, it was a bold bluff countenance, with broad black eyebrows, and well turned forehead, and cheeks as round and vermilion as those of a trumpeter, from which descended a long and curly black beard. Such a visage, joined to the brawny form of the holy man, spoke rather of sirloins and haunches than of peas and pulse. This incongruity did not escape the guest. After he had with great difficulty accomplished the mastication of a mouthful of the dried peas, he found it absolutely necessary to request his pious entertainer to furnish him with some liquors; who replied to his request by placing before him a large can of the purest water from the fountain."It is from the well of St. Dunstan," said he, "in which, betwixt sun and sun, he baptized five hundred heathen Danes and Britons—blessed be his name I" And applying his black beard to the pitcher, he took a draught much more moderate in quantity than his encomium seemed to warrant.
"It seems to me, reverend father," said the knight, " that the small morsels which you eat, together with this holy, but somewhat thin beverage, have thriven with you marvelously. You appear a man more fit to win the ram at a wrestling match, or the ring at a bout at quarter-staff, or the bucklers at a sword-play, than to linger out your time in this desolate wilderness, saying masses and living upon parched peas and cold water."
"Sir knight," answered the hermit, "your thoughts, like those of the ignorant laity, are according to the flesh. It has pleased Our Lady and my patron saint to bless the pittance to which I restrain myself, even as the pulse and water was blessed to the children Shadrach, Mesheck, and Abednego, who drank the same rather than defile themselves with the wine and meats which were appointed them by the king of the Saracens."
"Holy father," said the knight, "upon whose countenance it hath pleased heaven to work such a miracle, permit a sinful layman to crave thy name 1"
"Thou mayst call me," answered the hermit, "the Clerk of Copmanhurst, for so am I termed in these parts: they add, it is true, the epithet holy; but I stand not upon that, as being unworthy of such addition. And now, valiant knight, may I pray ye for the name of my honourable guest?"
"Truly," said the knight; "Holy Clerk of Copmanhurst, men call me in these parts the Black Knight; many, sir, add to it the epithet of Sluggard, whereby I am no way ambitious of being distinguished."
The hermit could scarcely forbear from smiling at his guest's reply.
"I see," said he, "Sir Sluggard Knight, "that thou art a man of prudence and of counsel; and moreover, I see that my poor monastic face likes thee not, accustomed, perhaps, as thou hast been, to the license of courts and of camps, and the luxuries of cities; and now I bethink me, Sir Sluggard, that when the charitable keeper of this forest-walk left these dogs for my protection, and also those bundles of forage, he left me also some food, which, being unfit for my use, the very recollection of it had escaped me amid my more weighty meditations."
"I dare be sworn he did so," said the knight; "I was convinced that there was better food in the cell, holy clerk, since you first doffed your cowl. Your keeper is ever a jovial fellow; and none who beheld thy grinders contending with these peas, and thy throat flooded with this ungenial element, could see thee doomed to such horse provender and horse beverage (pointing to the provisions upon the table), and refrain from mending thy cheer. Let us see the keeper's bounty, therefore, without delay."
The hermit cast a wistful look upon the knight, in which there was a sort of comic expression of hesitation, as if uncertain how far he should act prudently in trusting his guest. There was, however, as much of bold frankness in the knight's countenance as was possible to be expressed by features. His smile too had something in it irresistibly comic, and gave an assurance of faith and loyalty, with which his host could not refrain from sympathising.
After exchanging a mute glance or two, the hermit went to the furtherside of the hut, and opened a hutch, which was concealed with great care and some ingenuity. Out of the recesses of a dark closet, into which this aperture gave admittance, he brought a large pasty, baked in a pewter platter of unusual dimensions. This mighty dish he placed before his guest, who, using his poniard to cut it open, lost no time in making himself acquainted with its contents.
"How long is it since the good keeper has been here?" said the knight to his host, after having swallowed several hasty morsels of this reinforcement to the hermit's good cheer. -.>
"About two months," answered the father hastily.
"By the true Lord," answered the knight, VOL. III. X