|The Sword of Wood by G.K. Chesterton|
On the contrary, by the theory of the thing, the old world had returned. Christmas could be kept again; the terrible army was disbanded; the
swarthy young man with the sour, humorous face, who had been cheered from Dover to Whitehall, brought back in him the blood of kings. Every one was saying (especially in Grayling-Abbot) that now it would be Merry England again. But the swarthy young man knew better. The Merry Monarch knew he was not meant to make Merry England. If he treated his own life as a comedy, it was for a philosophical reason; because comedy is the only poetry of compromise. And he was a compromise; and he knew it. Therefore he turned, like Prince Rupert, to the chemicals; and played with the little toys that were to become the terrible engines of modern science. So he might have played with tiger-cubs, so long as they were as small as his spaniels.
But down in Grayling-Abbot it was much easier to believe that old England had been restored, because it had never, in any serious sense, been disturbed. The fierce religious quarrels of the seventeenth century had only stirred that rustic neighbourhood to occasional panics of witch-burning. And these, though much rarer in the medieval society, were not inconsistent with it. The squire, Sir Guy Griffin, was famous as a fighter quite in the medieval style. Though he had commanded a troop under Newcastle in the Civil Wars with conspicuous success, the local legend of his bodily prowess eclipsed any national chronicle of his military capacity. Through two or three counties round Grayling-Abbot, his reputation for swordsmanship had quite eclipsed his reputation for generalship. So, in the Middle Ages, it happened that Coeur-de-Lion's hand could keep his head: it happened that Bruce's hand could keep his head. And in both cases the head has suffered unfairly from the glorification of the hand.
The same almost unbroken medieval tradition even clung round the young schoolmaster, Dennis Tryon, who was just locking up his little school
for the last time; having been transferred to a private post at Sir Guy's own house, to teach Sir Guy's six hulking sons, who had learned their father's skill with the sword, and hitherto declined to learn anything else. In numberless and nameless ways, Tryon expressed the old traditions. He was not a Puritan, yet he wore black clothes because he might have been a priest. Though he had learned to fence and dance at College, like Milton, he was plainly dressed and weaponless; because the vague legend remained that a student was a sort of clerk, and a clerk was a sort of clergyman. He wore his brown hair long, like a Cavalier. But as it was his own hair, it was long and straight: while the Cavaliers were already beginning to wear other people's hair, which was long and curly. In that strict brown frame, his face had the boyish, frank, rather round appearance that may be seen in old miniatures of Falkland or the Duke of Monmouth. His favourite authors were George Herbert and Sir Thomas Browne; and he was very young.
He was addressing a last word to a last pupil, who happened to be lingering outside the school ─ a minute boy of seven, playing with one of those wooden swords, made of two lengths of lath nailed across each other, which boys have played with in all centuries.
'Jeremy Bunt,' said Tryon, with a rather melancholy playfulness, 'your sword is, as it seems to me, much an improvement on most we have lately looked on. I observe its end is something blunt; doubtless for that gallant reason that led Orlando to blunt his sword when fighting the lady, whose name, in the ingenious romance, escapes me. Let it suffice you, little one. It will kill the Giants, like Master Jack's sword of sharpness, at least as well as the swords of a standing army ever will. If you be minded to save the Lady Angelica from the ogre, it will turn the dragon to stone as quick as any sword of steel would do. And, oh, Jeremy, if the fable be false, the moral is not false. If a little boy
be good and brave, he should be great, and he may be. If he be bad and base, he should be beaten with a staff' ─ here Tryon tapped him very softly on the shoulders with a long black walking-cane that was commonly his only ferule ─ 'but in either way, to my thinking, your sword is as good as any other. Only, dear Jeremy' ─ and he bent over the child swiftly, with a sudden tenderness ─ 'always remember your kind of sword is stronger if one holds it by the wrong end.'
He reversed the little sword in the child's hand, making it a wooden cross, and then went striding up the road like the wind, leaving the staring boy behind.
When he became conscious that human feet were following him, he knew they could not possibly be the feet of the boy. He looked round; and
Jeremy was still hovering in the distance; but the rush of feet came from a far different cause.
A young lady was hurrying by close under the high hedge that was nearly as old as the Plantagenets. Her costume was like his own, in the sense that it had the quietude of the Puritan with the cut of the Cavalier. Her dress was as dark as Barebones could have asked; but the ringlets under her hood were yellow and curly, for the same reason that his own hair was brown and straight: because they were her own. Nothing else was notable about her, except that she was pretty and seemed rather in a hurry; and that her delicate profile was pointed resolutely up the road. The face was a little pale.
Tryon turned again to look back on his tracks; and this time saw another figure more formidable than Jeremy with the wooden sword. A tall, swaggering figure, almost black against the sunlight, was coming down the road with a rapidity that almost amounted to a run. He had a wide hat with feathers, and long, luxuriant hair, in the latest London manner; but it was not any such feathers or flourishes that arrested Tryon's attention. He had seen old Sir Guy Griffin, who still wore his wild, white hair half-way down his back, to show (very unnecessarily) that he was not a Puritan. He had seen Sir Guy stick in his hat the most startling cock's feathers, but that was because he had no other feathers. But Tryon knew at a glance that Sir Guy would never have come forward in such extraordinary attitudes. The tall, fantastic man actually drew his sword as he rushed forward; and offered it like a lance to be splintered as from the end of a long tilting-yard. Such frolics may have happened a hundred times round the 'Cock' of Buckingham and Dorset. But it was an action utterly unknown to the gentry round Grayling-Abbot, when they settled affairs of honour.
While he was still looking up the road at the advancing figure, he found himself breathlessly addressed by the escaping girl.
'You must not fight him,' she said, 'he has beaten everybody. He has beaten even Sir Guy, and all his sons.' She cast her eyes about him and cried out in horror: 'And where is your sword?'
'With my spurs, mistress,' replied the schoolmaster, in the best style of Ariosto. 'I have to win them both.'
She looked at him rather wildly and said: 'But he has never been beaten in swordsmanship.'
Tryon, with a smile, made a salute with his black walking-stick. 'A man with no sword,' he said, 'can never be beaten in swordsmanship.'
The girl stood for one moment staring at him as if, even in that scene of scurry and chase, time were suspended for a flash. Then she seemed to leap again like a hunted thing and plunged on: and it was only some hundred yards higher up the road that she again halted, hesitated, and looked back. In much the same manner Master Jeremy Bunt, who had not the faintest intention of deserting the delightful school in which he was no longer required to do any work, actually ran forward. Perhaps their curiosity ought to be excused. For they were certainly looking at the most astounding duel the world had ever seen. It was the duel of the naked sword and the walking-stick: probably the only merely defensive battle ever fought on this earth.
The day was full of sun and wind, the two chief ingredients of a glorious day; but till that moment even Mr. Tryon, though of a pastoral and poetical turn, had not noticed anything specially splendid in the sky or landscape. Now the beauty of this world came upon him with the violence of a supernatural vision; for he was very certain it was a vision that he soon must lose. He was a good fencer with the foil in the Collegiate manner. But it was not to be expected that any human being could emerge victorious from a prolonged fight in which he had no means of retaliation; and especially as his opponent, whether from drink or devilry, was clearly fighting to the death. Tryon could not be certain
that the wild creature even knew that his sword only struck against wood.
Dennis Tryon took in every glory of the good English land, and the still more glorious English climate, with the corner of his eye; he took it in with that same swift, indirect and casual, yet absolutely substantial way in which Nature is noticed in the old English poets that he loved. For the great poets of England, from Chaucer to Dryden, had a trick that has since been lost, the trick of implying the nature of a scene without apparently even attempting to describe it. Thus, any one reading the line 'Pack, clouds, away,' knows at once it is the kind of clouds called cumuli, and could not possibly be meant for level or streaky clouds. Or any one reading Milton's line about the princess's turret 'bosomed high in tufted trees' knows it means partly leafless trees, as in early spring or autumn, when the edge of the forest shows soft against the sky, like a brush or broom, sweeping heaven. With the same sort of subconscious solidity, Tryon realized the rounded and half-rosy morning clouds that curled or huddled in the blue above the downs; and the mute mercy of the forests, that faded from grey to purple before they mixed with heaven. Death, in a hat with black plumes, was shooting a thousand shining arrows at him every instant; and he had never loved the world so much before.
For indeed that one streak of white steel came at him like a shower of shining arrows. He had to make a new parry for every new lunge; and, with each, perversely remembered some episode of College fencing. When the bright point of death missed his heart and slid past his elbow, he saw suddenly a meadow beside the Thames. When he seemed blinded, by the very light on that lightning blade, leaping at his eyes, but passing over his shoulder, he saw the old lawn at Merton as if its grass had sprung out of the road around him. But he began more and more to realize something else. He realized that if he had held a real sword, he could have killed his enemy six times over with the riposte. When the heart-thrust was turned, he could have put his sword like a carving-knife into a pudding─if it had been a sword. When the parry protected his eyes, nothing else could have protected his opponent, except the unpenetrating quality of a walking-stick. His brain was of the very clear kind that can play two games of chess at once. While still whirling his black walking-stick in a complicated but impromptu clockwork of fence, he saw quite clearly a logical alternative. Either the man thought he was fighting someone with a sword: in which case he was a very bad fencer. Or else he knew he was fighting someone with a stick, in which case he was a very bad man: or (as the more timid modern phrase goes) a very bad sportsman.
He acted suddenly in a way adapted to either case. He introduced into his swordplay a stroke of single-stick, also learned at College, jerking his stick up so as to strike and jar the man's elbow; and then, before the arm could recover its nerve, smote the sword clean out of the hand. A look at the man's black, bewildered expression was enough. Tryon was now quite certain the man's advantage had only been in his sword. He was also quite certain the man knew it. With all the rush of his released romanticism, which roared like the wind, and rolled like the clouds, and blazed like the sun which he had thought to see no more, he sprang forward and pinned the man by the throat, with a shout of laughter. Then he said, with more restrained humour, what he had said to the little boy up the road.
'If he be bad and base,' said Tryon, 'he should be beaten with a staff.' And whirling the walking-stick round his head, he laid three thundering and echoing thwacks across the shoulders of his disarmed enemy, and walked off up the road again like the wind.
He did not notice further what his murderous enemy might attempt, but he was honestly puzzled about the conduct of the crowd. For, by this time, there was a very considerable crowd. The sword-bearing Jeremy was quite prominent in the throng behind him; the lady with the golden curls and the sensitive profile was herself pausing a moment on the outskirts of the throng in front.
As he started up the road again, the mob set up a roar, redoubled and quadrupled, and several gentlemen present whirled their plumed hats and shouted observations he could not hear. What was even more extraordinary, a great part of the crowd (including the young lady, who vanished early) appeared to be disappearing up the road, as if bringing news of some great victory like Agincourt.
By the time he came from Grayling-Abbot to Grayling-le-Griffin, the next village, there were ten heads at every cottage window; and girls threw flowers, that missed him and fell on the road. By the time he came to the outskirts of the Park, with the stone griffins, there were triumphal arches.
'It seems that I was not a little hasty with Master Bunt,' said Tryon to himself, with a puzzled smile. 'It is plain I have fallen into the Kingdom of Queen Mab. It is I, and not Master Jeremy, who have, in some sense, saved Angelica from the dragon. I was rather more embarrassed in the matter of arms, and she rather less embarrassed in the matter of attire, and there, truly, the difference seems to end. But the strangest thing of all is that, whatever I have done, I have done it with a sword of wood, like little Jeremy's.'
In his academic reflections, he lifted his long black stick to look at it; and, as he did so, the cry of many crowds broke about him like a cannonade. For he had come to the very doors of Griffin Grange, to which he had been summoned on his much milder tutorial errand. And the great Sir Guy himself came out at the entrance. He might even have justified his mythic name, allowing for certain alterations of accident. For a griffin was supposed to be a mixture of the lion and the eagle; and certainly Sir Guy's mane might have been a lion's, but that it was largely white; and his nose might have been an eagle's, but that it was partly red.
His face had at first a dangerous and even dissipated look, and Tryon had one momentary doubt about the reason of his defeat. But when he looked again at Sir Guy's erect figure and animated eye; when he rather timidly accepted his decisive handshake and received congratulations in his clear and comfortable voice, the doubt vanished. And the young schoolmaster felt even more bewildered in receiving the equally adoring, though rather more gaping, congratulations of the six strenuous sons. At the first glance, Tryon felt something like despair about their Greek and Latin. But he also felt an increasing conviction that any of them could have knocked him anywhere with a cudgel. His own triumph began to seem as fantastic and incredible as his triumphal arches.
'Assuredly it is a strange matter,' he said to himself in his simplicity. 'I was a tolerable good fencer at Merton, but not excellent. Not so good as Wilton or Smith or old King of Christ Church. It is not to be believed that men like these could not beat him with their great swords, when I could beat him with a stick. This is some jest of the great gentry, as in the ingenious tale of Master Cervantes.'
He therefore received the uproarious plaudits of old Griffin and his sons with some reserve; but, after a little time, it was hard for one so simple not to perceive their simplicity. They really did regard him, as little Jeremy would have regarded him, as a fairy-tale hero who had freed their valley from an ogre. The people at the windows had not been conspirators. The triumphal arches had not been practical jokes. He was really the god of the countryside and he had not a notion why.
Three things convinced him finally of the reality of his reputation. One was the mysterious fact that the young Griffins (that brood of mythic monsters) really made some attempt to learn. Humphrey, the eldest and biggest, got the genitive of quis right the third time, though wrong again the fourth, fifth, and sixth. The attempts of Geoffrey to distinguish between fingo and figo would have moved a heart of stone: and Miles, the youngest, was really interested in the verb ferre; though (being a waterside character) he had some tendency to end it with a 'y.' Underneath all this exceptional mental ambition, Tryon could see the huge, silent respect which savages and schoolboys feel everywhere for one who has 'done' something in the bodily way. The old rural and real aristocracy of England had not that rather cold and clumsy class-consciousness we now call the public-school spirit; and they enjoyed sports instead of worshipping them. But boys are the same in all ages, and one of their sports is hero-worship.
The next and yet more fascinating fact was Sir Guy. He was not, it was clear, in the common sense an amiable man. Just as the slash he had at the battle of Newbury made his eagle face almost as ugly as it was handsome, so the neglects and disappointments of his once promising military career had made his tongue and temper as bitter as they were sincere. Yet Tryon felt he owed the very knowledge of such an attitude to a confidence the old man would not have reposed in other people.
'The King hath his own again,' old Griffin would say gloomily. 'But I think it is too late. Indeed it might nigh as well be the King of France come to rule us as the King of England. He hath brought back with him French women that act in stage plays as if they were boys; and tricks fit for pothecaries or conjurers at a fair, and tricks like this fellow's that twitched away my sword, and every one else's ─ till he met his master, thank God.' And he smiled at Tryon, sourly, but with respect.
'Is the gentleman I met,' asked Tryon, rather timidly, one from the Court?'
'Yes,' answered the old man. 'Did you look at his face?'
'Only his eyes,' said the fencer, smiling; 'they are black.'
'His face is painted,' said Griffin. 'That is the sort of thing they do in London. And he wears a pile of false hair out of a barber's; and walks about in it, like the house of a Jack-in-the Green. But his was the best sword, as old Noll's was the best army. And what could we do?'
The third fact, which affected Dennis Tryon most deeply of all, was a glimpse or two of the girl he had saved from the obstreperous courtier. It appeared she was the parson's daughter, one Dorothy Hood, who was often in and out of the Grange, but always avoided him. He had every sort of delicacy himself; and a comprehension of her attitude made him finally certain of his own inexplicable importance. If this had been, as he first thought, a trick played on him in the style of the Duke and the Tinker, so charming a girl (and he thought her more charming every time she flashed down a corridor or disappeared through a door) would certainly have been set to draw him on. If there was a conspiracy, she must be in it; and her part in it would be plain. But she was not playing the part. He caught himself rather wishing she were.
The last stroke came when he heard her saying to Sir Guy, by the accident of two open doors: 'All say, 'twas witchcraft; and that God helped the young gentleman only because he was good, and ─'
He walked wildly away. He was the kind of academic cavalier, who had learnt all worldly manners in an unworldly cloister. To him, therefore, eavesdropping was in all cases, horrible; in her case, damnable.
On one occasion he plucked up his courage to stop and thank her for having warned him of the danger of the duel.
Her delicate, pale face, always tremulous, became positively troubled. 'But then I did not know,' she said. 'I knew you were not afraid. But I did not know then you were fighting the devils.'
'Truly, and I do not know it now,' he answered. 'By my thinking, I was fighting one man, and no such great fighting at that.'
'Everybody says it was the devils,' she said with a beautiful simplicity. 'My father says so.'
When she had slipped away, Dennis was left meditating: and a new and rather grim impression grew stronger and stronger upon him. The more he heard from servants or strangers, the clearer it was that the local legend was hardening into a tale of himself as exorcist breaking the spell of a warlock.
The youngest boy, Miles, who had been (as usual) down by the river, said the villagers were walking along the bank, looking for the old pool where witches were drowned. Humphrey said it would be no good if they found it, for the tall man with the painted face had gone back to London. But an hour later, Geoffrey came in with other news: the wicked wizard had gone out of Grayling, but the mob had stopped him on the road to Salisbury.
When Tryon bestirred himself with curiosity and alarm and looked out of the Grange gates he found fearful confirmation, almost in the image of a place of pestilence or a city of the dead. The whole population of the two villages of Grayling (save for such non-combatants as the wooden-sworded Bunt) had vanished from their streets and houses. They returned in the dark hour before dawn; and they brought with them the man with the magic sword.
Men in modern England, who have never seen a revolution, who have never seen even a real mob, cannot imagine what the capture of a witch was like. It was for all the populace of that valley a vast rising against an emperor and oppressor, a being taller, more terrible, more universal, than any one would have called either Charles I or Cromwell, even in jest. It was not, as the modern people say, the worrying of some silly old woman. It was for them a revolt against Kehama, the Almighty Man. It was for them a rebellion of the good angels after the victory of Satan. Dorothy Hood was sufficiently frightened of the mob to take Tryon's hand in the crowd, and hold it in a way that made them understand each other with an intimate tenderness never afterwards dissolved. But it never occurred to her to be sorry for the warlock.
He was standing on the river bank, with his hands tied behind him, but the sword still at his side; no one feeling disposed to meddle with it.
His peruke had been torn off; and his cropped head seemed to make more glaring and horrible the unnatural colours of his face. It was like some painted demon mask. But he was quite composed, and even contemptuous. Every now and then people threw things at him, as at one in the pillory; even little Jeremy Bunt flinging his wooden sword, with all the enthusiasm of the Children's Crusade. But most things missed him and fell into the flowing river behind, into which (there could be little doubt) he himself was to be flung at last.
Then stood up for an instant in the stormy light, that rare but real spirit, for whose sake alone men have endured aristocracy, or the division of man from man. Sir Guy's scarred face looked rather unusually sulky, or even spiteful; but he turned to his bodyguard of sons. 'We must get him back safe to the Grange,' he said sourly; 'you boys have all your swords, I think. You had best draw them.'
'Why?' asked the staring Humphrey.
'Why,' answered his father, 'because they are conquered swords, like my own.' And he drew his long blade, that took the white light of the
'Boys,' he said, 'it is in the hand of God if he be warlock or no. But is it to be said of our blood that we brought crowds and clubs to kill a man who had whipped each one of us fairly with the sword? Shall men say that when Griffins met their match they whined about magic? Make a ring round him, and we will bring him alive through a thousand witch-smellers.'
Already a half-ring of naked swords had swung round the victim like a spiked necklace. In those days mobs were much bolder against their masters than they are to-day. But even that mob gave to the Griffins a military reputation beyond their mere territorial rank; and the parties were thus the more equal. There was no sword in that crowd better than a Griffin sword; except the sword that hung useless at the hip of a pinioned man.
Before the next moment, which must have been blood and destruction, the man with the useless sword spoke. 'If some gentleman,' he said with marmoreal calm, 'will but put a hand in the pocket of my doublet, I think bloodshed will be spared.'
There was a long silence; and every one looked at Dennis Tryon: the man who had not feared the wizard. Every one included Dorothy; and Dennis stepped forward. He found a folded piece of paper in the doublet, opened it and read it with more and more wonder on his round young face. At the third sentence he took his hat off. At this the crowd stared more and more: it had fallen suddenly silent and all were conscious of a change and a cooling in that intense air.
'It would appear,' he said at last, 'that this is a privy letter from His Majesty, which I will not read in entirety. But it advises and permits Sir Godfrey Skene to practise with the new Magnetic Sword which the Royal Society has for some little time attempted to manufacture in pursuance of a suggestion of Lord Verulam, the founder of our Natural Philosophy. The whole blade is magnetized; and it is thought it may even pull any other iron weapon out of the hand.'
He paused a moment, in some embarrassment, and then said: 'It is added that only a weapon of wood or such other material could be used against it.'
Sir Guy turned to him suddenly and said: 'Is that what you call Natural Philosophy?'
'Yes,' replied Tryon.
'I thank you,' said Griffin. 'You need not teach it to my sons.'
Then he strode towards the prisoner, and rent the sword away, bursting the belt that held it.
'If it were not His Majesty's own hand,' he said, 'I would throw you with it after all.'
The next instant the Magnetic Sword of the Royal Society vanished from men's view for ever; and Tryon could see nothing but Jeremy's little cross of wood heaving with the heaving stream.
~G.K. Chesterton (1928)