The Forest Lovers is a historical romance novel written by Maurice Hewlett. It is set in medieval France and tells the story of Prosper le Gai and his experiences in the mysterious forest of Morgraunt. The hero of the novel meets Isoult la Desireé, a poor servant girl, on his way and marries her out of pity. It soon turns out that Isoult is the missing daughter of the countess, and Prosper's feelings of pity turn into ideal and noble love.
Maurice Hewlett (1861-1923) was an English historical novelist, poet, and essayist.He was educated at the London International College, but he gave up the law after the success of The Forest Lovers.
CHAPTER II Table of Contents
MORGRAUNT, AND A DEAD KNIGHT
Leaving the high road on his right hand, Prosper struck over the heath towards a solemn beech-wood, which he took to be the very threshold of Morgraunt. As a fact it was no more than an outstretched finger of its hand, by name Cadnam Thicket. He skirted this place, seeking an entry, but found nothing to suit him for an hour or more. Then at last he came to a gap in the sandy bank, and saw that a little mossy ride ran straight in among the trees. He put his horse at the gap, and was soon cantering happily through the wood. Thus he came short upon an adventure. The path ran ahead of him in a tapering vista, but just where it should meet in a point it broadened out suddenly so as to make a double bay. The light fell splashing upon this cleared space, and he saw what he saw.
This was a tall lady, richly dressed in some gauzy purple stuff, dragging a dead man by the heels, and making a very bad business of it. She was dainty to view, her hands and arms shone like white marble; but apart from all this it was clear to Prosper that she lacked the mere strength for the office she had proposed herself. The dead man was not very tall, but he was too tall for the lady. The roughness of the ground, the resistance of the underwood, the incapacity of the performers, made the procession unseemly.
Prosper, forgetting Brother Bonaccord, quickened his horse to a gallop, and was soon up with the toiling lady. She stopped when she heard him coming, stood up to wait for him, quick-breathing and a little flushed, and never took her eyes off him.
It was clearly a time for discretion: so much she signalled from her brown eyes, which were watchful, but by no means timid. He remembered afterwards that they had been apt to fall easily into set stares, and thus to give her a bold look which seemed to invite you to be bold also. But though he could not see this now, and though he had no taste for women, it was certain she was handsome in a profuse way. She had a broad full bust; her skin, dazzling white at the neck, ran into golden russet before it reached the burnt splendour of her cheeks; her mouth, rather long and curved up at the corners, had lips rich and crimson; of which, however, the upper was short to a fault, and so curled back as to give her, a pettish or fretful look. Her dark hair, which was plentiful and drawn low over her ears into a heavy knot at the nape of her neck, was dressed within a fine gold net. Her arms were bare to the elbow, large and snowy white; from her fingers gems and gold flashed at him. Prosper, who knew nothing whatever about it, judged her midway between thirty and forty. Such was the lady; the man he had no chance of overlooking, for the other had dropped her handkerchief upon his face before she left him. "Sir," she now said, in a smooth and distinguishable voice, when Prosper had saluted her, "you may do me a great service if you will, which is to carry this dead man to his grave in the wood."
"By the faith I have," Prosper replied, "I will help you all I can. But when we have buried him you shall tell me how he came by his death, and how it is that his grave is waiting for him."
"I can tell you that at once," she said quickly; "I have but just dug it with a mattock I was so lucky as to find by a stopped earth on the bank yonder. The rest I will gladly acquaint you with by and by. But first let us be rid of him."
Prosper dismounted and went to take up his burden. First of all, however, he deliberately removed the handkerchief and looked it in the face. The dead man lay stiff and staring, with open eyes and a wry mouth. Hands and face were livid, a light froth had gathered on his lips. He looked to have suffered horribly-as much in mind as body: the agony must have bitten deep into him for the final peace of death never to have come. Now Prosper knew very little of death as yet, save that he had an idea that he himself would never come to endure it; but he knew enough to be sure that neither battle nor honour had had any part here. The man had been well-dressed in brown and tawny velvet, was probably handsome in a sharp, foreign sort. There was a ring upon his finger, a torn badge upon his left breast, with traces of a device in white threads which could not be well made out. Puzzling over it, Prosper thought to read three white forms on it-water-bougets, perhaps, or billets-he could not be sure. The whole affair seemed to him to hold some shameful secret behind: he thought of poison, or the just visitation of God; but then he thought of the handsome lady, and was ashamed to see that such a conclusion must involve her in the mess. Pitying, since he could not judge, he lifted the body in his arms and followed the lady's lead through the brushwood. At the end of some two hundred yards or more of battling with the boughs, she stopped, and pointed to a pit, with a mattock lying on the heaped earth close by. "There is the grave," she said.
"The grave is a shallow grave," said Prosper.
"It is deeper than he was," quoth the lady. There was a ring in this rather ugly to hear, as all scorn is out of tune with a dead presence. You might as well be contemptuous of a baby. But Prosper was no fool, to think at the wrong time. He laid the body down in the grave, and busied himself to compose it into some semblance of the rest there should be in that bed at least. This was hard to be done, since it was as stiff as a board, and took time. The lady grew impatient, fidgeted about, walked up and down, could not stand for a moment: but she said nothing. At last Prosper stood up by the side of the grave, having done his best.
"I am no priest," says he, "God knows; but I cannot put a man's body into the earth without in some sort commending his soul. I must do what I can, and you must pardon an indifferent advocate, as God will."
"If you are advised by me," said the lady, "you will leave that affair where it is. The man was worthless."
"We cannot measure his worth, madam: we have no tools for that. The utmost we can do is to bury part of him, and pray for the other part."
"You speak as a priest whom I had thought a soldier," said she with some asperity. "If you are what you now seem, I will remind you of a saying which should be familiar-Let the dead bury their dead."
"As I live by bread," Prosper cried out, "I will commend this man's soul whither it is going."
"Then I will not listen to you, sir," she answered in a pale fume. "I cannot listen to you."
Prosper grew extremely polite. "Madam, there is surely no need," he said. "If you cannot you will not. Moreover, I should in any case address myself elsewhere."
He had folded the dead man's arms over his breast, and shut his eyes. He had wiped his lips. The thing seemed more at peace. So he crossed himself and began, In nomine patris, etc., and then recited the Paternoster. This almost exhausted his stock, though it did not satisfy his aspirations. His words burst from him. "O thou pitiful dead!" he cried out, "go thou where Pity is, in the hope some morsels may be justly thine. Rest thou there, who wast not restful in thine end, and quitted not willingly thy tenement; rest thou there till thou art called. And when thou art called to give an account of thyself and thine own works, may that which men owe thee be remembered with that which thou dost owe! Per Christum dominum," etc.
He bowed his head, crossed himself very piously; then stood still, smiling gently upon the man he knew nothing of, save that he had been young and had lost his race. He did not see the lady; she was, however, near by, not looking at the man at the grave, but first at Prosper and then at the ground. Her fingers were twisting and tangling together, and her bosom, restless as the sea, rose and fell fitfully. She was pale, save at the lips; like Prosper she smiled, but the smile was stiff. Prosper set to work with the shovel and soon filled up the grave. Then he turned to the lady.
"And now, madam, we will talk a little, if you please." He had a cool and level voice; yet it came upon her as if it could have but one answer.
She looked at him for some seconds without reply. For his part, Prosper had kept his eyes fixed equally on her; hers fell first.
She coloured a little as she said-"Very willingly. You have done me a service for which I am very much in your debt. You shall command me as you will, and find me ready to recompense you with what I have." She stopped as if to judge the weight of her words, then went on slowly-"I know not, indeed, how could I deny you anything."
Prosper could have seen, if he would, the quickened play of her breath.
"Let us go into the open," said he, "and find my horse. Then you shall tell me whence you are, and whither I may speed you, and how safeliest-with other things proper to be known."
They went together. "My lord," said she then, "my lodging is far from here and ill to come by. Nevertheless, I know of a hermitage hard at hand where we could rest a little, and thereafter we could find the way to my house. Will you come with me thither?"
"Whither?" asked Prosper.
"Ah, the hermitage, or wheresoever you will."
Prosper looked steadily at her.
"Tell me the name and condition of the dead man," said he.
"Ranulf de Genlis, a knight of Brittany."
"The badge on his breast was of our blazonry," said Prosper, half to himself, "and he looked to have been of this side the Southern Sea."
"Do you doubt my word, Sir Knight?"
"Madam, I do not question it. Will you tell, me how he came by his death?"
"I was hunting very early in the morning with my esquires and ladies, and by ill-hap lost them and my way. After many wanderings...