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Bridle the Wind

Joan Aiken



  About the Book

  Title Page



  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  About the Author

  Also by Joan Aiken


  About the Book

  A terrific tale of danger and daring

  Felix is safe in England, but he can’t help feeling restless. The spirit of adventure is calling him, and it’s time to escape from boarding school and set sail.

  Vanquishing vagabonds is all in a day’s work; but he faces a greater evil in the form of the demonic Abbot Vespasian, who seeks to destroy him. Felix must use all of his courage and wits to survive his greatest challenge yet.

  To my brother John, who asked for it

  Go saddle the sea, put a bridle on the wind,

  before you choose your place.



  In which I am shipwrecked and lose my way and my memory; am privileged to witness a miraculous healing; find myself in some sort a prisoner, and resist the temptation to escape

  How wretched and grim is the sight of a seashore when a ship has been wrecked upon it! All across the flat white sand are strewn ragged portions of woodwork, wrenched and smashed by the waves, with splinters and pegs protruding like broken fingers; snapped masts and torn sails lie tossed here and there, barrels and chests bob in the rolling surf; all the careful craft and handiwork that go to build and furnish a vessel have been spoiled and destroyed with a fearful speed, perhaps even as quickly as I can write these words.

  Such were my thoughts while I dragged myself, wet and shivering, up the slope of some strand – I knew not whether French or Spanish, for our hooker had been blown far to the east from its intended port of San Sebastian, which lies close to the frontier. A wild January gale, severe even for the Bay of Biscay, had swept down upon us with hail and thunder, breaking our mainmast like a daffodil stalk, and while the crew were struggling to make good this damage, wind and tides had carried the helpless vessel to an unsheltered stretch of coast where rocky reefs, lying some half-mile from the shore, had broken up the hull, and the furious pounding waves had soon reduced our ship to fragments. The crew and passengers were lucky that the in-rolling tide had carried them, clinging to spars, casks, and pieces of wreckage, into shallow water whence they could scramble ashore, I among them. Now the sailors were attempting to rescue what they could of the ship’s cargo.

  For myself, I had no more than I stood up in, woollen breeches, buckled shoes, shirt, and a striped fustian jacket with steel buttons. My thick boat-cloak I had cast off when the ship struck rock and I was hurled into the waves; now I much regretted its loss, for the winter wind blew keen as a razor, and there was no shelter in the wide open bay where we had been flung. Inland lay a series of ragged sand dunes, crested with rough grass; about a mile off, at the northern end of the bay, the land rose to a low cliff and broke off abruptly, to reappear in the form of an island some quarter-mile out to sea; on this island I thought I could detect buildings, though at such a distance, and in the flying rain and spume, it was hard to be sure. Otherwise there were no houses at all to be seen in this cheerless landscape which seemed hardly more welcoming than the sea from which we had escaped.

  ‘You, there – you, boy!’ bawled the captain. ‘Come here and lend a hand hauling on the rope!’

  Evidently, although I had paid good money for my passage from England to Spain, he considered that, due to my lack of years, he had a right, in the present emergency, to order me about. Indeed I was very willing to help the men with their task of salvage; hauling on the rope was a vigorous and warming activity and gave me the feeling, at least, that we were doing something to remedy our dismal state.

  By and by, I supposed, some natives of the nearest town or village would arrive to claim their share of the cargo and furnish us with beds, fires, food, and information as to where we had been cast up.

  So far none had appeared; glancing to and fro, between tugs on the rope, I could see that steep wooded slopes ran up at the southern end of the bay, and steeper mountains rose behind them, one great triangular peak shrouded in snow and cloud. Nowhere could I descry any dwellings, but any number of houses might be concealed behind those tree-covered ridges. They were some considerable distance away, though; indeed, as I later discovered, behind the bay stretched a wide, marshy, uninhabited region, which was why nobody had yet appeared to give us succour.

  An hour’s work sufficed to drag ashore a fair portion of the cargo, which consisted of woollen goods, and some of the ship’s furnishings; though most of these were thrown up by the waves themselves which came surging and pounding onto the beach like white mountains of water. Among such raging seas it seemed a miracle that we had all escaped with our lives. And, this thought coming into my mind, I found within me, all of a sudden, a most powerful and irresistible wish to kneel and thank God for allowing me to escape the fury of the ocean.

  At this juncture a large bale of woollen stuff had just been successfully hauled up above tide level; and, seizing a moment when the crew were taking breath and looking for some new object to salvage, I left them and walked swiftly away towards the rear of the beach, passing between two of the sand dunes which formed a rampart there. Nobody hindered my going; perhaps nobody noticed.

  Behind the dunes I discovered a belt of thickety woodland, sandy underfoot, formed of some dense and twisted bushes, or rather small trees, which were covered in evergreen leaves, and grew so close and tangled together that I had much ado to force my way between them. There was no path at all. The farther in I penetrated, the thicker grew the bushes, and I was beginning to believe that I must return to the beach and find some other way, when I came forth into a kind of glade, or chamber, in the very heart of the grove. That was a most mysterious place! About the size of a large room, or small chapel, walled and roofed with close-packed leaves – for the branches met and arched overhead – it seemed like a woodland crypt or shrine, even to the dim, holy light, for all that filtered through the foliage was very faint and green in colour. A more suitable spot for such a purpose as mine could not have been imagined, and my first care was to kneel down on the damp peaty sward and offer up a prayer of heartfelt gratitude to God for my deliverance from peril (also by no means the first peril from which He had delivered me, and I mentioned that I was well aware of this continuing care, and humbly obliged for it, and hoped and trusted that it would also continue to support me in future hazards).

  Sheltered in such a close thicket, with the line of dunes between me and the beach, I could still hear the ocean roar, but reduced now to a deep uninterrupted moaning sigh. Clear and quiet above the sigh came, inside my head, the voice of God: Felix, if I have preserved you, it is because there are still tasks for you to perform in this world. Be of good courage always, do not forget in danger that love is a powerful weapon and laughter a strong shield. Remember, too, that you and I have had a few jokes together in the past; it may be that in the future we shall have more.

  I was overjoyed to discover that God still held the same opinions as myself in this regard, and sent him a warm thought of friendship, as a son might to a father who shares and understands his feelings and pursuits.

  Then I rose, brushed the sand from my knees, unbuttoned my sodden jacket, and made sure of the safety of a money belt and its golden contents which I wore beneath my salt-stained cambric shirt.

  After that I began to take a careful survey of the glade, hoping to find some way out other than that through which I had made my d
ifficult entrance. Dusk had commenced falling, the light failed fast, and, had I not snapped off two or three branches in pushing through, which hung down showing the pale inner wood, I would hardly have been able to discover even the way by which I had come. There seemed no other exit, and wondering still more whether this strange spot was made by human agency or not, I was about to retreat when I heard a new sound – a voice that turned my blood to ice water and raised the hair, tingling, on my scalp.

  ‘Oh!’ it sighed in mournful, heartrending tones, barely above the sound of the sea’s murmur, and yet they thrilled through me like the tone of a silver bell, ‘Oh, but I don’t want to die!’ And then, a second time, putting the fear of death, such as I had not felt, even through the shipwreck, into my own heart, ‘Oh – but – I don’t – want – to – die!’

  Petrified, I stared all around me. From where could the voice possibly come?

  I had seen no other person in the grove, or near it. And yet the voice had sounded close at hand, as if it would be possible for me to stretch out my arm and touch whoever had spoken! Trembling uncontrollably, I looked upward, and now, just for a moment, it seemed to my dazed senses that I could see something – some body – suspended from one of the arching boughs overhead, that I could see a thin form swinging, dangling, at the end of a rope not three feet above me … It faded, melted, and was gone.

  ‘Ay! Dios mio! Ave Maria purisima!’ I gasped, falling back into the Spanish tongue, as I often do when startled or alarmed. And, with frantic, feverish haste, I plunged back through the dense, whipping branches, careless whether my face or hands were cut or scratched, my only wish, now, being to leave that haunted grove even faster than I had entered it.

  Well did I know that shadowy form had not been real; when I first entered the glade, when the light had been brighter, I had not observed it, though I had most diligently examined all that was to be seen. The thing had not been real, it had been some spectre, some phantom, not of this time or place; but why, I wondered, why, I asked myself, had it been sent to me? Why should I have been chosen to see and hear it?

  Gasping, ashiver, and (I am not ashamed to confess) almost sobbing with awestruck horror, I pushed and thrust my way through the hindering branches until I was once more out in the windswept gully between the dunes. How welcome now that cold wind seemed! Then I ran, as fast as my legs would bear me, over the sliding, yielding sand, until I came out once more onto the flat white beach, and could see the stranded sailors still working to retrieve portions of their ship and cargo. More figures, in dark garments, had, I now observed, joined the crew, and in the distance I heard the faint tolling of a bell. When I drew closer, I could see that the newcomers were short, sturdy men in sandals and black robes; it seemed there must be a monastery not too far from this desolate spot and the good fathers from it had come to help us. My joy and relief at the sight of the monks could not have been greater; one of them, perhaps, I thought, might explain to me the nature of the strange vision which had just been sent to me in the thicket behind the dunes. Still chilled to the marrow and shuddering from the shock I had received, I made my hasty way toward the main centre of activity, where monks and sailors were busy trundling casks and timbers over improvised rollers, while others shook lengths of net or sailcloth to rid them of water. One group continued hauling on a rope, the end of which was attached to a portion of the ship’s forecastle that bobbed in the breakers. I ran to help these, hoping by means of violent exertion to shake off the chill horror which had overwhelmed me. Seizing the end of the rope, I braced myself with feet dug in the ground and arms at full stretch, adding my small portion of strength to the total of the eight or nine men already pulling.

  Whether it was my final tug that did it, who can say? But next moment with a loud crack, audible even above the roar of the surf, the rope broke, and the group of men tumbled backward higgledy-piggledy over one another; I, being at the end, collapsed under a pile of falling bodies, and some hard object at the same instant striking my head a violent blow, my sight became darkened, my breathing suspended, and I lost consciousness.

  After that began a long, dreamlike period of darkness laced through and scattered with wandering lines and flashes of light; I am not able to reckon precisely how long it endured but it seemed forever; I felt that I was floating in eternity, a speck in the hugeness of night, a tadpole in the vastness of the ocean; I was no longer Felix, a human boy, but lost, nameless and formless, in the roots of all being. I had no thoughts, no fears; I had ceased to exist until it pleased God to gather the threads of my soul together and plait them into the shape He had once given me, or some new one.

  While thus suspended in the gulf of emptiness I seemed to see great patterns, and to understand them; I heard tremendous music, and was shaken by the gales of heaven; but all this, by degrees, passed away, and I lay at length, quiet and content, like a nut in its shell.

  At one point, briefly, I thought that I opened my eyes and found that I was in a small, dim, warm place, a haven of comfort and rest, deeply familiar and dear. How happy I was to find myself there! I murmured my pleasure aloud.

  ‘Why – I am here!’

  In those four words I was able to express all my joy and wonder at this great good fortune, all my feeling of sovereign privilege – for who, in the whole of humanity, could expect or deserve to come to this place a second time?

  ‘I never thought to come back here?’

  ‘Certainly, child,’ a voice with a smile in it answered me. ‘You are here; and in the best of care. Rest at ease, little sparrow. We shall not let you fall.’

  And I drowsed again, floating away with joy and trust among the mighty currents that bore me out of time and mind.

  My next return came about so quietly, and by such infinite degrees of slowness, that I am at a loss how to describe it.

  But, gradually travelling back out of eternity into time, I discovered myself, Felix, to be at work, with a hoe in my hand, loosening soil round the roots of thistle artichokes and vines, pulling up the weeds that threatened to smother them. A mild misty sun hung overhead and warmed me; I wiped my damp forehead. My back, I noticed, felt stiff; I must have been occupied in this work for some time, several hours perhaps. In the distance chimed a bell, its tone silvery and familiar. Soon, close at hand, I heard the click of a gate.

  ‘Aha!’ remarked a friendly voice. ‘Very good boy!’ The voice spoke in French, and went on: ‘Father Mathieu asked me to call you. I see you have finished the whole bed – and excellently well done, too. I had thought it would take more than one day. But now, lay down your hoe, wash your hands, and come to Vespers.’

  I straightened my back and looked at the monk who was addressing me – a thin man, with a worn, kindly face, a sprinkling of scanty gray hair round his tonsure, and two wonderfully blue eyes. Almost transparent they seemed, like the sky just before it turns green at sunset.

  He nodded to me, smiling, and beckoned me to wash my hands in a stone trough of water and follow him through the gate. I saw that we were in a walled kitchen garden, a big place well stocked with herbs and vegetables and shrubs: spinach grew there and kale and other pot-herbs; parsley and thyme and garlic, bushes of lavender and rosemary and verbena such as had grown in my grandfather’s garden in Spain; there were rows of onions, fruit trees trained against the stone wall, and vines twined on little pyramids of stakes. The plot sloped upward quite steeply, and as we passed through the entrance at the top, I turned to look back and could catch a view, over the wall at the foot, of waves breaking on a horseshoe-curved beach to my left, and the sea on both sides stretching away, whitecapped, into the distance.

  ‘Are we on an island, my father?’ I asked.

  My tongue and jaws felt stiff and strange, as if from disuse; I found that I had to clear my throat twice before I could speak.

  The blue-eyed monk turned to regard me intently.

  ‘Why, yes, my boy, this is the island of St Just de Seignanx, and you are here in the monaster
y of St Just. I am very glad that you have found your tongue at last,’ he added, smiling. ‘It has been a long time that you were off there, in a brown study!’

  ‘My father?’ I stammered. ‘Pardon me. I do not understand you.’

  ‘Never mind!’ he said quickly, and in a gentle tone. ‘We will now go in to Vespers, where you may wish to thank our Father in heaven for giving you back the power of speech. After Vespers I imagine that Father Vespasian will want to speak to you.’ As he pronounced this name a guarded, anxious expression came over his face, but he gestured me to go ahead of him, laying a finger on his lips for silence.

  We had been walking along a grassy path between stone buildings. Now we passed through a heavy wooden doorway into a spacious warm kitchen with flagged floor, brick ovens, and herbs hanging from the rafters to dry. Then, from a door on the far side of the kitchen, into a grassy cloister with a stone-arched, cobbled walkway surrounding it on all four sides. Other black-robed monks were hastening in silence round the walk of the cloister to an arched doorway on the distant side; this, I found, led us into a high-roofed chapel, where the service of Vespers was conducted.

  I stood and knelt by my friend, the blue-eyed monk, and, as he had suggested, found relief from my state of much puzzlement and confusion in thanking God very sincerely for having restored me to life and awareness, and brought me to this peaceful holy spot, though I added that I would be obliged if He would see fit to furnish me with a little more explanation as to where, exactly, I was, and how I had come here.

  When Vespers had ended the monks went to supper, which they ate seated at long bare tables in a large hall next to the kitchen. I followed my friend, sat down beside him, and received a bowl of bean soup (very good) and a hunk of brown bread. While we consumed our soup in silence a white-robed novice, standing in a pulpit, read aloud a portion of the Scriptures. Nobody paid me any special attention or behaved as if my presence there were an odd thing; indeed, they seemed to treat me as if they were well used to my being among them, and took me quite for granted. I counted about thirty monks and half a dozen novices. The service and Scriptures had been read in Latin, but at the conclusion of the meal a tall monk with iron-gray hair, deepset eyes, and a lantern-jawed, almost skull-shaped face made a number of announcements in the French language. These I was able to understand, for the tutor who taught me in my grandfather’s house had obliged me to read a portion of French daily as well as instructing me in the grammar. (Indeed, many Spanish people spoke French as readily as their own language at that time, since, when I was a small child, the French armies had been in Spain for nearly seven years until we and the English at last drove them out.)