Sunday, 4 February 2018

Here's the next excerpt from my 1st publication: "The Poor Preachers". Second part of Ch 2: Oxford

He had very little time to ponder over the miracles that had just occurred, for down the road from Hungerford rode a company of men.
William stepped off the road and watched as they passed by. He enjoyed observing the colourful variety of humanity going about its business. 

This group was interesting, for at its head was a man richly clad, probably a merchant. He was followed and flanked by three huge men-at-arms on magnificent white horses, which cast the merchant’s dappled palfrey in the shade.
The soldiers themselves made their charge look insignificant, for they were all abnormally large, handsome, strong and well-disciplined. Their armour reflected the sun like a mirror. The merchant himself looked nothing out of the ordinary, except he had a crooked nose in the midst of a kindly face.

The group drew nearly abreast with William, when one soldier reached over, touched the merchant’s shoulder and muttered something.
The man raised his head and pulled up his horse. His guard did the same in perfect precision.
Looking around in a puzzled way, it was as if the merchant was unaware of his cort├Ęge. Then the soldier leaned over and muttered something again.
The merchant sat up straight in his saddle and looked in William’s direction.
William bowed respectfully and made as if to pass on, but the merchant called out to him in a friendly manner.
‘Hail, good fellow! Whither away? To Hungerford?’
‘Verily do I, good sir,’ replied William, feeling surprise at being noticed by a wealthy man, many rungs up the social ladder than he. ‘But I journey beyond and beyond for many a league yet.’
He came closer, encouraged by the stranger’s friendly manner.
‘I perceive thou’rt a goodly man, for I see it in thy demeanour,’ said the kindly merchant, ‘and also that thou’rt in great need, if thy raiment speaks sooth! Thy name?’
‘William Shephard am I, kind sir,’ William replied. ‘Great has been my need, but God hath been bountiful unto me, therefore I beg not for my living. He hath strengthened mine hands for honest toil.’ 
William was anxious to show the worthy man that he was not hoping for largesse. He had a certain measure of pride, without arrogance, after all.
The other man appeared pleased with his answer.
‘Then my heart hath not misled me! God hath prospered me greatly and given me His protection where’re I go. Hence, I fear not to journey alone, nor to address strangers. Wilt thou receive of a fellow servant of God a gift? ‘Tis my joy to give when the good Lord doth so prompt mine heart.’
He reached into his saddlebag and brought out a purse full of money.
‘A worthy man thou art, Master Shephard. Pray receive this small gift of the good Lord and so fulfil the joy o’ this fat chapman. Never do I feel so rich as when I give. In return, pray thou a blessing upon mine head and upon mine house, for God heareth the prayers of the lowly in heart.’

William was overwhelmed.
‘Churlish would I be to refuse such a gift from such a generous heart, kind sir. And may God’s richest blessings be upon thee and thine house. For God’s blessings maketh rich and doth add no sorrow to it.’
‘Ha! ‘Tis the very words that good young Master Ashton uttered at Mass yestermorn,’ said the good man, bridling with pleasure. ‘Now wist I that God hath given me the gift of giving. Go forth unto good fortune and thy destiny, whatever it be, good William the Shepherd, and God speed!’

He threw the bag to William, waved farewell and passed on.
His escort bowed their heads toward William in respect, something that men-at-arms normally did not do to common folk. They also smiled at each other in deep satisfaction.

William watched the retinue trotting down the road, his mind in a whirl over the accumulated wonders he had experienced that day. But there was yet one more.
As he watched, the three soldiers faded into thin air, leaving one solitary rider diminishing into the horizon.
‘Holy angels! A day of miracles has this been, O Lord, and I thank Thee for this grace,’ he breathed.
He looked down at the purse and counted out the golden coins. It was more than twice the amount he had found in his pocket and emptied into the aspiring young hermit’s bowl one hour earlier.
‘And thou didst not fear to ride alone, nor to accost strange men?’ he muttered to the tiny dot disappearing over the horizon. ‘Yet thou wert not alone, master chapman. May God keep His warrior angels guard over thee alway, that thou mayest ever be a ready vessel of His bounty.’

Pocketing his wealth, William strode on to Hungerford, rejoicing. Now his resources could be stretched comfortably through Marlborough, Wantage and Abingdon, without the need to stop and work for his faire.
Occasionally, he even indulged himself by sleeping on a real bed, rather than a pile of hay, as was his wont. He made rapid progress, which was fortunate -- or God’s provision -- for winter was rapidly approaching.

Finally, he saw the towers of Oxford in the distance. Oxford -- the greatest centre of learning in his day, and he was to study there!
He crossed the little bridge over the river Cherwell, passed through the neglected and crumbling stone walls, and walked along the streets of Oxford town, barefoot and weary, but happy. He had no idea where he would find Nicolas Hereford, but he was sure that God would show him the way. His faith had been strengthened by the events of the week before, which still sent a tingling feeling down his spine when he thought about them.

That faith was about to be tested.
Walking up St Aldate’s Street, William saw the sign of a cosy-looking tavern called the Bull and Book, reflecting both the rural and academic nature of the town. He walked in, hoping to find information concerning his quest as well as sustenance. 
Looking around, he saw two groups of men, sitting at opposite ends of the main taproom. One group, dressed in clerical garb, was obviously made up of students.
They drank, chatted and laughed cheerily, heedless of the dark looks thrown at them by the townsmen at the other table.

William had heard rumours of the recent riots and fighting between the students and townsfolk before Merton College, and there were still simmering tensions between both parties. However, these did not concern William personally, so he bought his tankard of ale from the gruff draper and approached the student group. Surely intelligent young scholars would befriend and guide him to his goal.
‘Good morrow, good sires,’ he said, as they turned to look askance at this ragged commoner coming boldly into their midst. ‘Prithee tell me, if ye will, whither can one find Master Nicolas Hereford?’

The supposedly good sires exchanged derisive glances with each other. One bold-faced fellow, who appeared to be the peer-leader, sat back and stared at him in an insolent manner. ‘Eheu, condiscipuli,*’ he drawled at last, addressing his grinning comrades. ‘This poor specimen of  Homo sinsapiens** hath mislaid the good Doctor Hereford. ‘Twas careless of him, dreadless.’ 
Laughter greeted this sally, and also William’s confusion and embarrassment. He was made to feel rustic, uncouth and unlettered. 
Nevertheless, he was used to put-downs, so stood his ground.

One of the students, a lively yet tolerant fellow sitting on the outside of the group, took pity on him and said, ‘Good fellow, one doth not find Doctor Hereford. He hath much to do with weighty affairs and abideth not for any save the King’s messengers. A man of his position findeth thee, if he hath occasion thereto. If thou’rt a message-bearer, leave it with the porter at University College in Logic Lane.’
‘But it would avail thee not, Master Ragamuffin,’ piped in the bold-faced student.  ‘The good Master left for his home in Leicester, yea, even yester-eve. Alas and alack! Build thou thy mud-hovel against his return in the spring, but not inside the town walls, I beg of thee.’ 
More laughter and they all turned away from him, considering the interview over. They had little time for ignorant peasants in rags.

Bowing his thanks to the more helpful of his informants, William retired to an empty table, crestfallen and discouraged. God had led him this far. How could it end in apparent futility like this?
Then he remembered the other seemingly impossible situations where God had miraculously intervened. He breathed his favourite prayer, ‘Lord, aid Thou me,’ and felt peace settle on his heart.
If he had to find shelter over the winter on short commons, so be it. But God may work another miracle yet.

And God did.
A short while later, the door of the tavern opened and three men in academic gowns, proclaiming the distinction of Masterhood, strode inside.
With one glance at the newcomers, the students jumped to their feet, respect and astonishment written all over their faces. Even the townsmen at the other table turned and bowed in respect at the three men.

The tavern-keeper bustled forward obsequiously, wishing to know their Worships’ pleasure. It was seldom that such great dignitaries honoured his hovel with their presence.
The foremost Master held up his hand and looked around the room. He had an air of authority as a leader among men and accustomed to commanding respect, yet flattery was wasted on him.

Although only five summers older than William, his responsibilities made him look older. He had fine features, a broad brow and intelligent, piercing, grey eyes.

With a clear and cultured voice, accustomed to addressing crowds, he addressed the room in general.
‘Pray tell me, gentlemen all, is there one William Shephard in your midst?’
He brought his gaze around to where William hesitantly rose to his feet, and a kind of strange recognition flashed in his eyes.
For a few heartbeats, there was a pregnant silence in the room.
‘Indeed, Master, I be that same,’ William said quietly at last, feeling humbled in the presence of the great man and astonished that he was so looked for.

The great man turned around to his colleagues with a look of triumph.
‘Ha! Thanks be to God! Said I not so? “Follow thine heart’s still small voice, liefer than thine head,” quoth Doctor Ashton. Thy wager is lost, Master Parker.’
He was apparently continuing an ongoing debate with his colleague, and Master Parker smiled, bowed his head and lifted his hands in a good-natured gesture of defeat.
A true scholar admits it when he is proved wrong, and he was such a man.

The great man turned back to William and offered his hand.
‘Thou’rt right welcome to Oxenford, Master William Shephard. Strange dreams and portents have I received concerning thee, but more of this when thou hast supped with us, if thou wilt. Is the name of Nicolas Hereford aught of significance unto thee? For so I am.’
Grasping his hand gratefully, William replied, ‘Of great signification indeed, Doctor Hereford, for so have I been sent, and a strange tale do I tell, and a strange road have I walked to meet with thee.’
‘Thou’st the manner of a natural scholar, Master Shephard, rough though be thy raiment. Haply we can amend the latter.’ 

Turning, Hereford noticed the stupefied group of students.
‘And I trust that this good man hath been comely welcomed to Oxenford, as becometh worthy clerics and gentlemen?’ 
He looked sternly across the group, and many of them paled and quailed, the bold-faced one not the least. A flogging for grossly unscholarly behaviour was still in force -- also expulsion, which was a worse punishment for many impoverished students.
They waited, quaking, for William’s inevitable condemnation of his recent treatment at their hands, but it never came. William remembered how much God had forgiven him and felt, instinctively, that he had no right to condemn.
He was human enough to enjoy their discomfiture, but would not take advantage of it.
‘Indeed, indebted am I to this gentleman for information, Doctor!’ he said, bowing toward the tolerant youth. That worthy flushed with gratitude and smiled; the rest breathed an almost audible sigh of relief.

‘But no joyous feastings at thy coming, methinks,’ said Hereford dryly. ‘Very well. Be ye seated gentlemen, and be thankful for one that cometh amongst us who hath natural chivalry. Learn ye from such an one.’ 
He spread his arm out invitingly to William, and smiled.
‘Come and sup with us at our board. There is much we would speak on with thee.’

So saying, he shepherded William into his capacious carriage with the other masters.

...to be continued..

*‘Eheu, condiscipuli,’ = "Alas, fellow-students"
** Homo sinsapiens = Witless man

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