One Moonlit Night
"Can the man whom God made good be made wicked by man?"
- Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
Nestled deep within the green forests of England stood an ancient fortalice that rose high above the treetops, its towers standing proudly against the night sky wherein gleamed the cold white moon. None of its inhabitants stirred, save one who moved silently within an eastern chamber: a small, huddled figure clothed in the darkness of the night. A modest fire burned in the stone fireplace, sending quivering darts of light into the room's shadowy corners. By this means a spectator might be enabled to discern the huddled form as that of a woman, young and shapely, seated at the windowsill. Clad in a faded gown, she held in her arms a boy child of perhaps four years of age, wrapped loosely in a blanket. He tossed fretfully, throwing back his covering. A breeze gently slipped through the casements of the window, running itself in all its delicious coolness through the child's dark curls, damp with perspiration. His gentle nurse shifted his position, soothing his cries with her own mellow contralto voice lifted in a haunting melody. The little body in her arms at length grew limp as the boy's thickly-lashed eyelids drooped shut. In a moment, all was silent again, save for the steady pulse of the woman's song blending in harmony with the gentle stir of the evening wind.
The child that lay in such peaceful slumber was the only son of the castle's possessor, the wealthy Saxon lord. Years ago, his wife, sickly with the plague, had borne him a son and died but an hour afterwards. So weak had she become that she was scarcely able to hold her child in her arms before expiring. The child, wanting a nurse, was immediately given to the only local woman capable of fulfilling such a need: the wife of the young serf who tended the lord's goats. Her own infant child had died within the same week of her lady's death, and her breasts being as yet full of milk, she was pressed into the service of caring wholly for the child. Thus, as soon as her arms had cause to ache for the precious bundle that had nestled so lately in them, they were filled with another. In time, she grew to love the little child as her own, and lavished upon it the affection she felt for her child's memory.
Now as she sat by the window, the moon, enshrouded thickly by clouds, shed its light across her bent head, revealing a pale complexion and candid features framed by wisps of light hair pulled back into a kerchief. Her face, though betraying extreme youth in its freshness, was moderated by an expression of matronly patience, giving witness that its bearer had seen much suffering. Her vigil was due to the fact that the child was restless, and she came to this tower to quiet his cries in solitude. The lord of the castle was absent; he had gone to meet with his fellow Saxon Danes who had taken arms against their Norman neighbors, who carried on a bloody feud with them. His return was to be soon - perchance on the morrow morn.
Shifting her position, the young woman looked out into the night sky. The world seemed enveloped in darkness. This evening, the hopeful shimmering of the stars was blotted out, and naught but the white, white moon shone through its misty veil, spreading a mystical sheen over the dank earth beneath. The woman's face gleamed in the scant light as her grey eyes wandered over the regions below. Her glance caught a movement in the shadows below – had the master returned? But it could not be him, for the horse-astride figure stopped not at the gate. Instead he raised his lance before the manservant standing sentinel before it. Behind him hoof beats sounded, and more shadowy riders appeared. The nurse, alarmed at these proceedings, retired to the corner of the sill, in order to hide her face from their sight. She steadily watched them as they poured through the pathways, and her heart flew to her throat, for, in the light of the torches they wielded as they approached the fortress, she could see that they bore the banners of the Norman duke, her master's greatest enemy. A bitter feud caused them to scarce be able to pass each other in the streets without a brawl. This feud was based upon the duke's claim of ownership upon the Saxon's land, due to his superior power. The Saxon revolted against the overbearing pressure of the Normans which grew greater every day. Indeed, this was the same motive that called him away to a council that very night. What business, then, might the Normans have with his house at such an hour?
These questions, which spun inside the woman's head, were given speedy reply as cries upon cries mounted the gloomy walls of the castle, mingled with thuds and footsteps. Heavens, they were forcing their way upstairs! Her heart seemed to have fled her, and, horrified, she realized what they wanted: the little curly-headed child, asleep in her arms, his hand in his mouth. The woman trembled, for she had no protection.
The footsteps neared. Flinging the scant coverings over the peacefully sleeping infant, she pressed the baby close, and pressed herself into a shadowy corner of the room. The door was flung open, and a mail-clad yeoman appeared, others of his kind at his heel. He looked about the room, and caught sight of her.
"We have found the child," he called out into the corridor. The woman, though she could not comprehend his strange tongue, shrank all the more from the unfamiliarity of it. In answer to his call, another man strode in, seemingly their leader. At his signal, two yeomen stepped forward, brandishing swords that gleamed in the white moonlight. They neared the woman. She held the child, now squirming, closer to her breast as the shadowy figures closed upon her. Then, all in one moment, her arm was seized in a powerful grip, forcing her to lose her hold of the boy. The child was dropped onto the hard, cold floor; the second yeoman, jumping forward, raised his sword; a shriek echoed throughout the castle.
During the episode there had been heard hoof beats outside the castle. At the latter moment, pounding steps were heard on the staircase. Suddenly one of the Normans appeared in the doorway.
"Make haste and come," he cried in the Norman dialect. "The Saxon has returned!"
The yeomen, roused at the developments, hurriedly quit the chamber. Streaming out of the castle, they left as swiftly as they came, with little of their men caught by the returning Saxons.
The Saxon baron had felt his heart grow still within him when he saw the disappearing silhouettes of the Normans fast upon their steeds. He knew that his enemy would stop at nothing to gain his end, and that no help would come from the law, which was overrun with Normans. Therefore his hands were as ice as he stepped upon the hearth of his home. A spouse dear as the sunrise had already been robbed of him; now, he struggled to accept the demise of that spouse's offspring.
A page crossed him as he mounted the stairs. The page was coming downwards, an expression of horror staining his youthful face. Automatically, he halted at the baron's presence. The two met eyes. No word was exchanged between them, but the silence seemed to communicate something to the baron. Without speaking, he tore up the steps, and ran through the corridor till he reached the half-closed door of the chamber. He pushed it open.
In a dimly-lit corner of the room of stone lay the nursemaid in an unconscious heap. Crouched over, arms outstretched upon the floor, she seemed to be the only inhabitant of the room. The baron stepped closer. The moonlight from the open window fell just upon the pitiful sight: The young woman's arm was torn hideously. Blood wet the floor and stained her veil. Her body was still, and she seemed to be dead. But just as the baron averted his eyes in pain, the impatient cry of a child filled his ears. He bent down. Beneath the protection of the nursemaid's now mutilated arm, half-covered by her body, lay his son, blinking his great dark eyes as he gazed upwards.
A murmur of voices swept through the wide interior of the great castle hall. A carpet was spread forth across the floor, leading to a carved oaken chair upon which was seated a young man of some twenty-eight or thirty years. His stature was both tall and sufficiently broad, his manner stern and imposing. Rough-hewn features were softened by abundant curls of silken black that fell over a thoughtful brow.
The castle was all abuzz with excitement. The young baron had captured one of his Norman foemen as prisoner of combat, and the prisoner dwelt now in one of his very chambers, awaiting the word that would seal his fate. The menservants looked askance at the baron while affecting indifference; the maidservants trembled to look upon his fierce countenance. He now had in his hands the comrade of his father's enemy and plunderer. Surely the punishment he bestowed would be no more lenient that death, for such things oft happened in those times.
A page, being summoned to the side by a servant, suddenly approached the baron and knelt at his chair.
"What would you have, sirrah?" the young baron asked him, in evident annoyance.
"My lord," the boy said, "There is a peasant woman outside. An old
woman, sir. She begs that she be admitted into your presence."
The baron lifted his brow in astonishment. He was known among the
serfs for his justice to any Saxon peasant, but the request of an audience was quite extraordinary.
"What say you? If she wants for anything, let her bring her case to the priest," he answered carelessly.
"She insists upon seeing you. She wishes to convey something of weight, it appears."
The baron sighed.
"Bring her in," he submitted, wondering what strange thing could bring a peasant woman to his courtroom. The page left accordingly, and, in a few moments, returned, leading a veiled woman.
The tense atmosphere of the room soon gave way to curiosity as all its inhabitants craned their necks to see who had been brought before the baron. Walking slowly, the woman made her way to the baron's chair, and knelt a few paces before it. The baron spoke.
"Good matron, what is it you ask of me?" he asked. The woman lifted her veil, revealing a soft-featured, thin-lipped face, moderated by slight wrinkles.
"I requested to speak with you, my lord," she began in a faltering, soft voice, "concerning the hostage you are reported to hold here. I have come to beg his release."
A flush stole over the young man's face at being so spoken to by a serf, but, curbing his anger, he replied with but mild bitterness,
"Your speech betrays you as a Saxon through and through, matron. Why, then, do you make an effort to free the kin of Norman dogs whose king and government oppress you?"
"In spite of the ill amongst them, I beg that you will have mercy on your hostage. He has killed no one, I am told; why then should you kill him?"
The baron rose, visibly angered. He looked down upon the woman, more with resent than with wrath, for he felt an odd reverence for the strange, bold peasant. However, he was agitated, and he spoke sharply to her.
"Who are you, woman, that you dare speak to me thus?"
The woman met eyes with him for the first time in their dialogue, and kept them boldly fixed there. Her eyes were a soft, dusty blue – blue and moist, and they filled the youth with a strange sensation. He stood still and tense as she slowly cast off her veil and pulled her loosely-fitting sleeve off of her left arm.
"I am," said she, "the woman who nursed you as a child. I am she who comforted you when you wept. I am she who sang you to sleep at night. I am she who, rather than have you killed by the Norman yeomen who came for you during your father's absence, received the blows intended for you," and she revealed the ugly scar her arm still carried. The baron gazed upon it.
Perhaps the Almighty had endowed him with an extraordinary memory; all we can wager is that, at the moment she spoke, the scene of the moonlit night flashed before his mind vividly. He lifted his eyes towards heaven, and the next moment he knelt before the old woman, speaking in a choked voice.
"Most forgiving and beloved nurse," he said, "I will do as you wish. You bear for life scars inflicted by those who hate you; yet you hate them not. This day," he continued, rising up with her, "I will free my prisoner as an offering of peaceful existence between the Norman lords and myself. And you, the only mother of my infancy, will remain here in my esteem and reverence."
And he kissed her hands, and wept.