The Herbalist's Brew
How Tomaso, the Physician of Padua, Found a Cure for a Weary Soul
T HERE was thunder in the air, one summer day in King's Barton. Dame Lavender, putting her drying herbs under cover, wondered anxiously what Mary was doing. The moods of the royal lady in the castle depended very much on the weather, and both of late had been uncertain. Strong-willed, hot-tempered, ambitious and adventurous, this Queen had no traits that were suited to a quiet existence in the country. Yet she would have been about as safe a person to have at large as a wild-cat among harriers. Whoever had the worst of it, the fight would be sensational.
When made prisoner she was on the way to the court of France, in which her rebellious sons could always find aid. Aquitaine was all but in open revolt against the Norman interloper—it was only through her that Henry had held that province at all. Scotland was ready for trouble at any time; Ireland was in tumult; the Welsh were in a permanent state of revolt. But Norman though he was, the King had won his way among his English subjects. They never forgot that he was only half Norman after all. His Saxon blood, cold and stubborn, steadied his Norman daring, and he could be alternately bold and crafty.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was more an exile in her husband's own country than she would have been in France or Italy. His people might rebel against their King themselves, but they did not sympathize with her for doing it. They were as unfeeling as their gray, calm skies.
Instead of weeping and bemoaning herself she made life difficult for her household. Oddly enough the two English girls got on with her better than the rest. Mary's even, sunny temper was never ruffled, and Barbara's North-country disposition had an iron common-sense at the core. The gentle-born damsels of the court were too yielding.
When little hot flashes lightened among the far-off hills, and a distant rumble sounded occasionally, the Queen was pacing to and fro on the top of the great keep. It was not the safest place to be in case of a storm, for the castle was the highest building in the neighborhood. Philippa, working sedately at a tapestry emblem of a tower in flames, looked up the stairway and shivered as if she were cold.
"Mary," she queried, as the still-room maid came through the bower, "where is Master Tomaso?"
"In his study, I think," Mary answered. "Shall I call him?"
"Nay—I thought—" Phillipa left the sentence unfinished and folded her work; then she climbed the narrow stair. When the Queen turned and saw her she was standing with her slim hands resting on the battlement.
"What are you doing away from your tapestry-frame, wench?" demanded her mistress. "Are you spying on me again?"
"Your Grace," Philippa answered gently, "I could never spy on you—not even if my own father wished it. I—I was talking with Master Tomaso last night, and he said strange things about the stars. I would you could have heard him."
The Queen laughed scornfully. "As if it were not enough to be prisoned in four walls, the girl wants to believe herself the puppet of the heavens! Look you, silly pigeon, if there be a Plantagenet star you may well fear it, for brother hates brother and all hate their father—and belike will hate their children. Were you asking him the day of my death?"
"I was but asking what flowers belonged to the figures of the zodiac in my tapestry," answered Philippa. "He says that a man may rule the stars."
"I wish that a woman could," mocked the Queen. "How you silly creatures can go on, sticking the needle in and out, in and out, day after day, I cannot see. One would think that you were weavers of Fate. I had rather cast myself over the battlements than look forward to thirty years of stitchery!" She swept her trailing robes about her and vanished down the stairs. Philippa, following, saw with a certain relief that she turned toward the rooms occupied by old Tomaso. The physician was equal to most situations. Yet in the Queen's present mood anything might arouse her anger.
The study was of a quaint, bare simplicity in furnishing. It had a chair, a stool, a bench under the window, a table piled with leather-bound books, a large chest and a small one, an old worm-eaten oaken dresser with some flasks and dishes. A door led into the laboratory, and another into the cell where the philosopher slept. As the Queen entered he rose and with grave courtesy offered her his chair, which she did not take. She stood looking out across the quiet hills, and pressed one hand and then the other against her cheeks—then she turned, a dark figure against the stormy sky.
"They say that you know all medicine," she flung out at him. "Have you any physic for a wasted soul?" With a fierce gesture she pointed at the half-open door. "Why do you stay in this dull sodden England—you who are free?"
"There are times, your Grace," the physician replied tranquilly, "when I forget whether this is England or Venetia."
The Queen moved restlessly about the room, and stopped to look at an herbal. "Will you teach me the properties of plants?" she asked, as she turned the pages carelessly. "With Mary's help we might make an herb-garden. It is well to know the noxious plants from the wholesome, lest—unintentionally—one should put the wrong flavor in a draught."
Tomaso had seen persons in this frame of mind before. He had taught many pupils the properties of plants, but he had his own ways of doing it. In his native city of Padua and elsewhere, there were chemists who owed their fame to the number of poisons they understood.
"I have some experiments in hand which may interest your Grace," he answered. "If you will come into my poor studio you shall see them." He led the way into the inner chamber where no one was ever allowed to come. The walls were lined with shelves on which stood jars, flasks, mortars and other utensils whose use the Queen could not guess. Tomaso did not warn her not to touch any flask. She handled, sniffed and all but tasted. She finally went so far as to pour a small quantity of an unsensational-looking fluid into a glass, and a drop fell on the edge of her mantle, in which it burned a clean hole.
Tomaso was pouring something into a bowl from a retort, and seemed not to have seen the action. Then he added a pinch of a colorless powder, and dipped a skein of silk into the bowl. It came out ruby-red. Another pinch of powder, another bath, and it was like a handful of iris petals. Other experiments gave emerald like rain-wet leaves in sunlight, gold like the pale outer petals of asphodels, ripe glowing orange, blue like the Mediterranean. Then suddenly the light in the stone-arched window was darkened and thunder crashed overhead. The little brazier in the far corner glowed like a red eye, and Tomaso had to light a horn lantern before the Queen could see her way out of the room.
"We shall have to wait, now, until after the storm," he said, as he led the way into the outer room. "I am making these experiments for the benefit of a company of weavers whom a young friend of mine has brought here. The young man—he is a wool-merchant—has an idea that we can weave tapestry here as well as they can in Damascus if we have the wherewithal, and I said that I would attend to the dyeing of the yarn."
The Queen gave a contemptuous little laugh and sank into the great chair. "These Saxons! I think they are born with paws instead of hands! They are good for nothing but to herd cattle and plow and reap. Do your stars tell you foolish tales like that, Master Tomaso?"
"I did not ask them," said the old man tranquilly. "I use my eyes when I can. The weavers are Flemish, and I see no cause why they should not weave as good cloth here as they did at home. They had English wool there, and they will have it here. There is a Spaniard among them, and I do not know what he will do when the chilly rains come, poor imp. He does not like anything in England, as it is."
"Poor imp!" the Queen repeated. "How do these weavers come here, so far from any town?"
"Well, they came like most folk, because they had to come," smiled the Paduan. "The English weavers are inclined to be jealous folk, and they took the view that these Flemings were foreigners and had no right within London Wall—or outside it either, for they were in a lane somewhere about Mile End. Jealousy fed also on their success in their work—it was far superior to anything London looms can do. And certain dealers in fine cloth saw their profits threatened, and so did the Florentine importers. What with one thing and another Cornelys Bat and his people had to leave the city, or lose all that they possessed. The reasons were as mixed as the threads of a tapestry, but that is the way with life."
"And why are you wasting time on them?" the Queen demanded.
"My motives are also mixed," answered the old man. "Being myself an alien in a strange land, I had sympathy for them—especially Cimarron, the imp. Also it is interesting to work in a new field, and I have never done much with dyestuffs. I sometimes feel like a child gathering bright pebbles on the shore; each one seems brighter than the last. But really, I think I work because I dislike to spend my time in things which will not live after me. It seemed to me that if these Flemish weavers come here in colonies, teaching their art to such English as can learn, it will bring this land independence and wealth in years to come. There is plenty of pasturage for sheep, and wool needs much labor to make it fit for human use. Edrupt, the merchant—his wife is one of your women, by the way—says that this one craft of weaving will make cities stronger than anything else. And that will disturb some people."
The Queen's eyes flashed with wicked amusement. She had heard the King rail to his barons upon the impudence of London. She knew that those who invaded London privilege came poorly out of it.
"Barbara's husband," she said thoughtfully. "I did not know that he was a merchant—I thought he was one of these clod-hopping farmers."
Tomaso did not enlighten her. Curiosity is the mother of knowledge. He peered out at his fast-filling cisterns. "This rain-water," he observed, "will be excellent for my dye-stuffs."
The Queen gave a little laugh. "The heavens roar anathema maranatha," she cried, "and the philosopher says 'I will fill my tubs.' You seem to be assured that the powers above are devoted to your service."
"It is as well," smiled the physician, "to have them to your aid if possible. Some men have a—positive genius—for being on the wrong side. The growth of a people is like the growth of a vine. It will not twine contrary to nature."
"But these are not your people," the Queen persisted. "No one will know who did the work you are doing."
"Cornelys Bat the tapissier told me," Tomaso answered, "that no one knows now who it was who set the foot at work by tipping the loom over, and separated the warp threads by two treadles. Yet that changed the whole rule of weaving."
"I have a mind to see this tapestry," announced Eleanor abruptly. "Tell your Cat, or Rat, or Bat, whatever his name is, to bring his looms here. If he works well we will have something for our walls besides this everlasting embroidery. I have watched Philippa working the histories of the saints this six months,—I believe she has all the eleven thousand virgins of Saint Ursula to march along the wall. I am ready to burn a candle to Saint Attila."
Tomaso's eyes twinkled. That friendly twinkle went far to unlock the Queen's confidence. "Here am I," she went on impetuously, "mewed up here like a clipped goose that hears the cry of the flock. If there is another Crusade I would joyfully set forth as a man-at-arms, but belike I shall never even hear of it. I warrant you Richard will lead a host to Jerusalem some day—and I shall not be there to see."
The Paduan lifted one long finger. "You fret because you are strong and see far. Your descendants may rule Europe. The Plantagenets are a building race. You can lay foundations for kings of the years to come. You have here the chance of knowing this people, whom none of your race did ever know truly. Your tiring women, the men who till these fields and live by their toil, the churchmen, the traders—knowing them you know the kingdom. Bend your wit and will to rule the stars, madam. Thus you bring wisdom out of ill-hap, and in that way only can a King be secure."
The Queen sat silent, chin in hand, her eyes searching the shadows of the room, for the storm had passed and twilight was falling. "Gramercy for your sermon, Master Tomaso," she said at last, as she rose to leave the room. "Some day Henry will see that it was not I who taught the Plantagenets to quarrel. Send for your tapissiers to-morrow, and I will study weaving for a day."
To the comfort of all, the Queen was in a gay humor that evening. The carved ivory chessmen were brought out, and as she watched Ranulph and Philippa in the mimic war-game Eleanor pondered over the recent betrothal of Princess Joan to the King of Sicily. "Women," she muttered, "are only pawns on a man's chessboard."
"Aye," laughed Ranulph, as his white knight retreated, "but your Grace may remember that the pawn when it comes to Queen may win the game."
The bulky loom of Cornelys Bat was set up next morning in the old hall, and the Queen came down to watch the strange, complex, curious task. Then she would take the shuttle herself and try it, and to the surprise of every one, kept at the task until she might well have challenged a journeyman. While the threads interlaced and shifted in a rainbow maze her mind was traveling strange pathways. The shuttle, flung to and fro in deft strong skill, was not like the needle with its maddening stitch after stitch, and there was no petty chatter in the room. The Flemish weaver might be silent, but he was not stupid, and the drawboy, the dusky youth with the coarse black hair, was like a wild panther-cub. Such a blend as these weaving-folk, brought together by one aim, could teach the arbitrary barons their place. Normandy, Aquitaine, Anjou, Brittany,—England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales—what a web of Empire they would make! And if into the dull russet and gray of this England there came a vivid young life like her Richard's—yellow hair, sea-blue eyes, gay daring, impulsive gallantry—and under all the stern fiber of the Norman—what kind of a tapestry would that be? Thus, as women have done through the centuries, Eleanor of Aquitaine let her mind play about her fingers.
After a while she left the work to the weavers and watched Mary Lavender making dyestuffs under Tomaso's direction. It was fascinating to try for a color and make it come to a shade. It was yet more so to make new combinations and see what happened. Red and green dulled each other. A touch of orange made scarlet more brilliant. Lavender might be deepened to royal violet or paled to the purple-gray of ashes. The yarns, as the skillful Flemings handled them, were better than any gold thread, and the gorgeous blossom-hues of the wools were like an Eastern carpet.
Presently the Queen began devising a set of hangings for a State bedchamber, the pictures to be scenes from the life of Charlemagne—the suggested comparison of this monarch with the King had its point. An Irish monk-bred lad with a knack at catching likenesses came by, and made the designs, under Queen Eleanor's direction; and during this undertaking she learned much concerning the state of Ireland. That ended and the weaving begun, she took to questioning Cimarron the drawboy.
"I suppose," she jibed, "men grow like that they live by, or you would never have been driven out of London like sheep. I may become lamblike myself some day."
Cimarron's white teeth gleamed. "I would not say that we went like sheep," he retorted, and he told the story of their going. "There were old folk and the little ones, your Grace," he ended. "The master cares for his own people, and his work. He does not heed other folks' opinions."
The Queen laughed gleefully. "I wish I had been at that hunting—the wolves driven by their quarry. My faith, a weaver's beam is not such a bad weapon after all."
More than ten years after, when Richard I. was crowned King of England, one of his first acts was to make his mother regent in his absence. It was she who raised the money to outbid Philip of France when Coeur de Lion was to be ransomed. As one historian has said, she displayed qualities then and later, which prove that she spent her days in something besides needlework. She did not stay long at King's Barton, but one of Cornelys Bat's tapestries was always known as the Queen's Maze. In one way and another during the sixteen years of her captivity she learned nearly all that there was to know of the temper of the people and the nature of the land.