Wednesday, April 1, 2009


By John R. Neill
Illustrator of most of the Oz books, and author of The Runaway in Oz, The Wonder City of Oz, Lucky Bucky in Oz, etc.

Originally published in Boy's Life, December 1919.

The Mysterious Stranger

It was Christmas Eve in the year of Our Lord 960. A quick twilight had spent itself, and a soft flurry of the snow that had been falling all day still blew among the trees, banking itself around the roots and falling from the upper branches as they swayed in the growing gale. Trudging through the snow was the bent figure of an old man, his hood and mantle covered with snow.

Falteringly he kept on until he reached a small house with a few outbuildings enveloped, like himself, in a garb of somber white. He found the snow so banked against the door that it was not without some labor that he cleared the entrance.

Inside all was warmth and cheer; holly and evergreens draped the corners and mistletoe hung in bunches from the low rafters, rough hewn and seemingly new.

He bowed low as he put his cloak aside, trying to conceal a scroll fastened to the pouch that hung from his girdle.

"My humble respects to your gracious ladyship," he said, turning to a matron of imposing dignity who sat a little back from the hearth arranging a frame for needlework. And as he turned, his eyes lit up his face and snowwhite beard.

Though seared with years, fire still lurked there, fire fed by habits of thoughtfulness.

He was about to continue when from a passage a boy of eighteen came lightly forward and slipping his hand into the old man's said gaily, "What have you here, my precious oracle? Soothsayers are rare and, by the poker, it would seem that our ancient truth is failing. Come, now, tell me the tale, for all the night long on yesternight I spent in vigil at St. Benedict's shrine, to purge my honor and my sword as Sir Hector bade me. All these labors are as nought should I not gain my spurs at last. Please, Matholch, come and tell me what it portends." And he held the parchment to the light.

Laughing he read aloud. "As you love me, tell me of this mystery."

solemnly explained the old man. "It is a somber token; its spell is potent from All Hallow E'en till Candlemas, and, I beseech thee, do not treat too lightly of these mysteries. My gracious Lady Mortinac," he added, turning to the mistress of the house, "your Guilford has a spell of cheerfulness that from my dry bones has long departed. His heart is like the rabbit's ears, alert to hear."

Sadly the lady questioned: "But could they hear as surely as the hare's where danger lurks?"

The seer bowed his head.

"Woe, woe, woe is me," he wailed. This might have continued had not Guilford, seeing how the old man's mind was bent, tried to console him and lead his humor to more cheerful themes.

"Then do tell me a tale from your vast store for, as I have said, all last night I spent at the altar."

Slowly, as he ate and drank, the old man smiled, trying to find a thread upon which to weave a tale ; then he began:

"This story is spun of the filo-floss of fancy of dim years, of Mimi Bois and her fair sister, Guenevere, both radiant as the morn, with hair of silver and of night, who grew from the roots of the trees and there remained, set apart, but spent the time in sending messages by passing pilgrims to swains both far and wide, until their fame was noised so wide throughout all Christendom a quest was--"

"But wait! What may that be?" exclaimed Lady Mortinac, hurrying to the door, "I hear voices."

With a hurried knock a lady clad in snow-covered hood and cape rushed in and threw herself, disheveled, at the lady's feet. Her words were choked with sobs and she shuddered with terror as she spoke.

Guilford Mortinac stepped back as his mother soothed the terrified girl.

"Why, it is Mistress Enid St. Marys! My sweet young, friend, pray be calm! What brings you here this boisterous night? How say you?"

"To you, my dear, dear friend, my mother's friend, you ask aright what brings me here! Since the false usurper, Guy Howlett, in league with the Abbot of Monmouth whom he has tricked into submission, has broken into my castle by force of arms and overrun my heritage like frenzied fleas."

Still weeping, the maiden told of the assault of the castle Avedon, her home, by a band of robbers led by Howlett, a cordwainer from the north. Knowing of this retreat in the greenwood, here she had sought solace, after sending a report of her evil fortune to the Bishop of Hereford.

By wiles and petting, the Lady Morganne Mortinac soothed the distracted maiden with hope of assistance that would come to rid them all of this boor, when into the room, clad in full armor came Guilford. He stepped to his mother and, still smiling through his visor, said:

"Behold the rabbit's ears! From you, fair Mistress Enid, by the grace and favor of your mother's memory, I crave the acceptance of my sword in your defense."

The words had a hollow sound, cased as they were in a helmet of steel.

It was with a cumbrous stride that Guilford passed out the door. No sooner had he left than old Matholch, the hermit, fell into a trance, uttering incantations weird in the dim room whose silence was broken only by the sobbing of the girl and the soughing without.

Soberly Guilford went through the snow to where a score or more of faithful men at arms stood with downcast heads.

There, towering among the others, he saw Tud Gildas, who had been esquire to his father, Sir Modred Mortinac. Tud had always been a squire, for knighthood required for its maintenance funds that poor Tud lacked, though of hardihood and valor he had plenty, and under the standard of Sir Modred he had fared much better than he would have under his own.

No one spoke; all stood mute and tense.

"A sorry night methinks," said Guilford at last.

"Aye, sire," said Tud, "but Gwidd and Lucan, Caw Lawyen and Lagafuerys, and all of us here, would we were not here but back at Avedon to cut a reeking path, by heaven's grace, through Guy Howlett's churls into his black heart."

"Rightly said, and by my conscience, my pathway beckons too in that direction," returned the lad.

"At the onset," Lagafuerys explained, "our Mistress commanded us to bring her to your mother here; the time was short and our forces, many of them gone to Hereford to hold high carnival with Galwin's men, had left us to escape the havoc of the siege by secret passages, once we cut our way through the cordon of Howlett's burly varlets, our journey was without mishap, and here we are, full twenty-seven men and armed."

"Come, come," said Guilford, "you are unseemly sad! By ruth, we shall assail their ruthlessness. Bid the men prepare, they'll find me eager as any of them to return."

With the treachery that resulted in the death of Guilford's father and the pillage of his estate, and that was followed by ignoble ravages and the spoliation of the district around, and had put the country well nigh to Hereford in terror of Howlett and his band, none had suffered more than Guilford and his mother, who had been forced into exile to eke out bare existence in the greenwood.

From position and power his family had fallen until now it seemed Howlett would soon break the boy's spirit by persecution, for the king was in France and Enid's father, the Earl of Narberth, was with him, fighting the wars of his country overseas.

But time was not lost, since the issue of the night pressed hard on the young squire's patience, and shortly the cavalcade was on its way, galloping into the highway that led to Avedon, four and twenty miles beyond.

Not a word was spoken, so absorbed were they all as they rode through the silent snow until nigh to eleven miles had been covered. Then suddenly they perceived, though the night was blacker than an ugly dream, that they were not alone.

Some one was leading them.

Hard upon this discovery, some two hundred rods ahead the clatter of arms and thunder of horses' hoofs gave them warning.

They knew Howlett must be sending a detachment in pursuit along the trail left in the snow.

Quickly they prepared their formation, Guilford and Tud Gildas ahead, Gaw Norbert, Balmont and Caw Lawyen abreast, all lowering their spears as they plunged into the assault in rows of three.

Into the chaos of blackness they swept and Guilford, elated by the frenzied action, met the crash, again and again.

Straight on, past curses and surly groans mingled with breaking gear and harness and underbrush as men and horses were hurled aside, they swept; nor did they stop to see what damage had been done till, a mile ahead young Guilford brought his followers to a halt and found little need to tarry for, beyond slight wounds, the band had stood intact and in good form.

Their opponents seemed to have been unprepared, their rout was complete and the next day showed the toll they had paid in men and horses.

Elated by their first encounter Guilford and his followers rode on, compact and resolute, taking their stand with determination on the side of truth and valor.

Ahead of them the stranger still rode lightly, giving, they felt rather than knew, courage to all.

Reckless they seemed, perhaps, a mere handful and vastly outnumbered, assailing a force that was powerful and drunk with success, successes of treachery and loot, defying even the King himself, that grew from weeks into months of lawlessness and terrorizing. These reflections crowded through Guilford's mind, but instead of fear, he felt his spirit nettled into action.

On they went, trees glided past, the lodges of freemen and hamlets of serfs and villains, all sleeping under the mantle of snow, until a full hour's riding brought them to a hill from which they could see through the trees the grim towers of Avedon. And in the van still rode this stranger.

Approaching, they saw that the portcullis was drawn up and the bridge was down. The entrance gave the castle the appearance of a yawning monster with its mouth open, ready to swallow any one within its reach.

While yet somewhat off they stopped to rest and give themselves time to arrange their plan of battle. From the tallest tower they could see dimly the bodies of the former defenders of the castle strung on gibbets, swaying and turning in the wind and snow. Perhaps they had been heard from the castle, or seen, for a harsh grating sound began, and slowly, with creaking and clanking of chains, the great drawbridge began to move.

They were now on foot and, with one impulse, they went forward to find the drawbridge rising, inch by inch, until it was breast high.

Tud Gildas and Guilford cleared it and Balmont with two others followed rushing forward in a body to the passage that led to the court yard as the varlets inside ran to give the alarm.

During this short lapse the defenders turned on their assailants but it gave the attackers time to release the windlass and let the drawbridge down while the whole band crossed.

From inside the castle men sprang up everywhere and rushed into the mêlée.

Always in advance their stranger seemed to lead and Guilford for one short moment plainly saw him, a giant in stature and of kingly bearing. It was for one moment only, for they were beset on every side by Howlett's knaves, bands of thieves, surly varlets, all the rips of discord from the isles, led by Guy Howlett's son Big Gwilim, as precious a cutthroat as could be found in many leagues. Him it was young Guilford most wished to engage and each turn was bringing him nearer to his goal.

Thrice he was rushed by a dozen men, but he held his ground with his back to the wall till men in mounds lay on the flagging before him. Sword blades and maces rained on his helmet, and every blow was returned with a zeal that told well of old Sir Hector's training.

Each wave of battle was met and parried as, one by one, the enemy's forces broke. It seemed more like a prearranged show than the vital combat that it really was. So unerring was the plan of the attackers that the courtyard, which hardly a half hour since teemed with cutthroats in armor and yeomen, seemed, in the dim light of the torches, to be deserted save for a few scattered groups that held the entrances to the castle doors.

A little to the right, on a semicircular porch, was the portal leading to the tower; there at last Guilford saw Gwilim stand. He was clad in the armor of Guilford's father, Sir Modred, taken after he had been set upon and murdered by Gwilim at the command of Guy.

Tud Gildas at his side, Guilford with a tense heart, pressed forward and with his broad-sword parried at Gwilim's throat, gave him the challenge, though he was full two hands less in height.

Knowing that one of Guilford's rank need not engage with one of Gwilim's, Gwiffert and Caw would have rushed to his defense but Tud held them back.

The two youths stood a moment, their eyes upon one another, then they closed in a battle to death.

The villainy of Gwilim betrayed itself in foul strokes and passes which, as the combat grew, indicated a weakening on which Guilford was not long in playing.

Then, quick as an adder, he dropped his sword, drew his dagger and grappled with his adversary. Thrusting it at his throat he cut the laces that held the meshes of Gwilim's haubert, leaving his neck and shoulders exposed.

As quickly again he stepped back to regain his sword; in his haste he would have fallen with Gwilim's great weight crushing upon him, but balancing himself immediately he sprang to one side and was again on guard.

From the start Guilford had had in his mind this coup de grâce and, with a lightning stroke, he broke down the robber's guard and his sword, whistling back in a counter stroke, embedded itself in the foul traitor's neck, his knees gave way and he fell in a heap on the stone steps, dead.

Then without came the clear call of the mysterious stranger, "En avant" ringing through the castle. With one blow of his mace he shattered the grating in the door before him and led them up the steps into the main tower, into which Guy had retreated.

The stone stairway was spiral and dark as pitch, the steps were damp and slippery, covered with a ruck of twigs that had fallen from the narrow windows where the ravens had built their nests. The ascent was slow and labored. Half way up they stumbled over the cowering figure of the Abbot of Monmouth, blanched with fear as he held his beads before his bloodshot eyes. Dragging him up they forced the oak door that led to a balcony battlemented and carved in fantastic forms. All around were strewn pieces of armor and shields dropped by the fleeing knaves, and the attackers were saddened by the sight of many of their companions and friends that had died in the first sorry defense.

With reverence they laid them in a row in a low niche that was protected from the snow. Then Guilford, turning his attention to Guy, who was now crowding with his men the turret of the smaller and loftiest tower, commanded him to surrender.

A torrent of arrows was the only reply.

"Come down, or by the torment I will drag you hence and fit your punishment to the lying of your cloven tongue—or yet, better than sully an honest sword in any of your foul carcasses, you may stay where you are and feed the hungry vultures, your friends and brothers."

The vain efforts of the archers soon ceased, for they now realized with terror their plight, locked as they were in a tower without food or shelter from the cold, with the grim monster of hunger threatening them above and a shining array of trusty broadswords menacing them below.

Turning to address his respects to the unknown stranger Guilford saw him nowhere. He sent messengers to find him but they all returned from an unavailing search.

Removing his heavier armor, for with chain shirt only he could move more quickly, he himself began to look, hastening down the stairs.

He had scarcely disappeared when a shriek came from above through the darkness and an object fell, striking the battlement and glancing out into the abyss below, and the archers in the tower began to call for mercy. But the soldiers on the balcony below gave them no heed.

Meanwhile, not high or low could the stranger be found, and Guilford was perplexed.

Every corridor and niche, secret passage hall and gallery was searched for him whose leadership had brought them victory, but no trace was found.

So he sent for his men to clear the courtyard below and, coming himself to the stone steps, he saw there, beside the prone remains of Gwilim, the body of his father, Guy, motionless in the snow. He had been hurled by his own men from the tower above.

And as they stood in the flickering light, silent but for the clanking armor of the men coming down the stairway, a trumpet blare sounded, a troup of mounted soldiers poured through the portal from outside, and, with a cry, they distinguished the standard of the Bishop of Hereford, with old Galwin at their head.

His red beard bristling as he roared challenges to Guy Howlett to meet him, he was led to where the traitor lay.

And after he had heard the events of the night still he roared, in amazement mixed a little with a bluff soldier's spleen at not having been a part of it all; then, as he turned away, he burst forth in л carol that must have been running in his head:

Nowell! Nowell! in this halle
Make merry, I pray you alle!
On that chylde may wee calle.
Night of sadness,
Morn of gladness
Ever, Ever Evermore,
After many troubles sore
Sing out with blisse
His name is this,
As was foretolde
In days of olde,
By Gab-ri-el!

He seemed to take great satisfaction in the last line, from the lingering way he dwelt on it, and as Guilford prepared to depart he could still hear him singing.

Now, since his work was finished, Guilford left old Galwin in command and began a dreary journey back to the shelter in the green wood where his mother waited.

And as he rode his thoughts were busy over the crowded events of the night, and especially he puzzled over the strange and valiant knight; the more he thought, the more his fancy played about the unknown.

Stealing up in the east were flecks of faint color that boldly grew and when he met his mother at the door it was daylight.
Jan 3 Never had a morning seemed so bright; though he had not slept he was not tired, but made preparations in all haste to return with the women to Avedon there to make their Christmas a festal day that would be remembered as long as they lived by all who should partake.

In the confusion he had not at first missed old Matholch; then he called his name again and again without receiving any reply, and his mother told him that shortly before Guilford returned she had seen Matholch stand in the road until a horseman came up when both disappeared.

Like a flash came back to Guilford the words of the old man of King Arthur, who once was king and a king to be, whose spell was strong from All Hallow E'en till Candlemas.

"Perhaps," he mused as he went about the Christmas preparations, "perhaps, last night our strange comrade was the spirit of the King."

By Ruth Plumly Thompson 
Originally published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, December 8, 1918. 

Puzzles by the Forgetful Poet

Because he is such a forgetful fellow he says he had better answer last week's puzzles before making any new ones.

The word O.e--naughty. First verse--Chrysanthemum. Corrected verses as follows:

The wind was blowing gently
And the snow began to fall;
The moon behind a cloud, my stars,
This don't sound right at all!

The lights shone out upon the hill,
The children in their beds
Seeing the snowflakes falling,
Dreamed of skating and of sleds!

This week he wants to know: Why a sailor should never be hungry?

[Answers next time.]

Copyright © 2009 Eric Shanower and David Maxine. All rights reserved.