A Toad in A Hole by Anonymous

The Friars of Fairoak were assembled in a chamber adjoining the great hall of their house: the Abbot was seated in his chair of eminence, and all eyes were turned on Father Nicodemus.

Not a word was uttered, until he who seemed to be the object of so much interest, at length ventured to speak. "It be-hoveth not one of my years, perchance," said he, "to disturb the silence of my elders and superiors; but, truly, I know not what meaneth this meeting; and surely my desire to be edified is lawful. Hath it been decided that we should follow the example of our next-door neighbours, the Arroasian Friars, and, henceforth, be tongue-tied? If not, do we come here to eat, or pray, or hold council?—Ye seem somewhat too grave for those bidden to a feast, and there lurk too many smiles about the faces of many of ye, for this your silence to be a prelude to prayers. I cannot think, we are about to consult on aught; because, with reverence be it spoken, those who pass for the wisest among us, look more silly than is their wont. But if we be here to eat—let us eat; if to pray, let us pray; and if to hold council, what is to be the knotty subject of our debate?"

"Thyself," replied the Abbot.

"On what score?" inquired Nicodemus.

"On divers scores," quoth the Abbot; "thy misdeeds have grown rank: we must even root them out of thee, or root thee out of our fraternity, on which thou art bringing contumely. I tell thee, Brother Nicodemus, thy offences are numberless as the weeds which grow by the way-side. Here be many who have much to say of thee:—speak, Brother Ulick!"

"Brother Nicodemus," said Father Ulick, "hath, truly, ever been a gross feeder."

"And a lover of deep and most frequent potations," quoth Father Edmund.

"And a roamer beyond due bounds," added Father Hugo.

"Yea, and given to the utterance of many fictions," muttered his brother.

"Very voluble also, and not altogether of so staid aspect, as becometh one of his order and mellow years," drawled Father James.

"To speak plainly—a glutton," said the first speaker.

"Ay, and a drunkard," said the second.

"Moreover, a night-walker," said the third.

"Also a liar," said the fourth.

"Finally, a babbler and a buffoon," said the fifth.

"Ye rate me roundly, brethren," cried Nicodemus; "and, truly, were ye my judges, I should speedily be convicted of these offences whereof I am accused: but not a man among you is fitted to sit in judgment on the special misfeasance with which he chargeth me. And I will reason with you, and tell you why. Now, first, to deal with Brother Ulick—who upbraideth me with gross feeding:—until he can prove that his stomach and mine are of the same quality, clamour, and power digestive, I will not, without protest, permit him to accuse me of devouring swinishly. He is of so poor and weak a frame, that he cannot eat aught but soppets, without suffering the pangs of indigestion, and the nocturnal visits of incubi, and more sprites than tempted Saint Anthony. It is no virtue in him to be abstemious; he is enforced to avoid eating the tithe of what would be needful to a man of moderate stomach; and behold, how lean he looks! Next, Brother Edmund hath twitted me with being a deep drinker:—now, it is well known, that Brother Edmund must not take a second cup after his repast; being so puny of brain, that if he do, his head is racked with myriads of pains and aches on the morrow, and it lieth like a log on his shoulder,—if perchance he be enabled to rise from his pallet. Shall he, then, pronounce dogmatically on the quantity of potation lawful to a man in good health? I say, nay. Brother Hugo, who chargeth me with roaming, is lame; and his brother, who saith that I am an utterer of fictions, hath a brain which is truly incompetent to conceive an idea, or to comprehend a fact. Brother James, who arraigneth me of volubility, passeth for a sage pillar of the church; because, having nought to say, he looks grave and holds his peace. I will be tried, if you will, by Brother James, for gross feeding; he having a good digestion and an appetite equal to mine own:—or by Brother Hugo, for drinking abundantly; inasmuch as he is wont to solace himself under his infirmity, with a full flask:—or by Brother Ulick, for the utterance of fictions; because he hath written a history of some of The Fathers, and admireth the blossoms of the brain:—or by Brother Edmund, for not being sufficiently sedate; as he is, truly, a comfortable talker himself and although forced to eschew wine, of a most cheerful countenance. By Hugo's brother I will be tried on no charge;—seeing that he is, was, and ever will be—in charity I speak it—an egregious fool. Have ye aught else to set up against me, brethren?"

"Much more, Brother Nicodemus," said the Abbot, "much more, to our sorrow. The cry of our vassals hath come up against thee; and it is now grown so loud and frequent, that we are unwillingly enforced to assume our authority, as their lord and thy Superior, to redress their grievances and correct thy errors."

"Correct me!" exclaimed Father Nicodemus; "Why, what say the rogues? Dare they throw blur, blain, or blemish on my good name? Would that I might hear one of them!"

"Thou shalt be gratified:—call in John of the Hough."

In a few moments John of the Hough appeared, with his head bound up, and looking alarmed as a recently-punished hound when brought again into the presence of him by whom he has been chastised.

"Fear not," said the Abbot; "fear not, John o' the Hough, but speak boldly; and our benison or malison be on thee, as thou speakest true or false."

"Father Nicodemus," said John o' the Hough, in a voice rendered almost inaudible by fear, "broke my head with a cudgel he weareth under his cloak."

"When did he do this?" inquired the Abbot.

"On the feast of St. James and Jude; oft before, and since, too, without provocation; and, lastly, on Monday se'nnight."

"Why, thou strangely perverse varlet, dost thou say it was I who beat thee?" demanded the accused friar.

"Ay, truly, most respected Father Nicodemus."

"Dost thou dare to repeat it? I am amazed at thy boldness;—or, rather, thy stupidity; or, perhaps, at thy loss of memory. Know, thou naughty hind, it was thyself who cudgelled thee! Didst thou not know that if thou wert to vex a dog he would snap at thee?—or hew and hack a tree, and not fly, it would fall on thee?—or grieve and wound the feelings of thy ghostly friend Father Nicodemus, he would cudgel thee?—Did I rouse myself into a rage? Did I call myself a thief?—Answer me, my son; did?"

"No, truly, Father Nicodemus."

"Did I threaten, if I were not a son of Holy Mother Church, to kick myself out of thy house? Answer me, my son; did I?"

"No, truly, Father Nicodemus."

"Am I less than a dog, or a tree? Answer me, my son; am I?"

"No, truly, Father Nicodemus; but, truly, also—"

"None of thy buts, my son; respond to me with plain ay or no. Didst thou not do all these things antecedent to my breaking thy sconce?"

"Ay, truly, Father Nicodemus."

"Then how canst thou say I beat thee? Should I have carried my staff to thy house, did I not know thee to be a churl, and an enemy to the good brotherhood of this house? Was I to go into the lion's den without my defence? Should I have demeaned myself to phlebotomize thee with my cudgel, (and doubtless the operation was salubrious,) hadst thou not aspersed me? Was it for me to stand by, tamely, with three feet of blackthorn at my belt, and hear a brother of this religious order betwitted, as I was by thee, with petty larceny? Was it not thine own breath, then, that brought the cudgel upon thy caput? Answer me, my son."

"Lead forth John of the Hough, and call in the miller of Homford," said the Abbot, before John of the Hough could reply. "Now, miller," continued he, as soon as the miller entered, "what hast thou to allege against this our good brother, Nicodemus?"

"I allege," replied the miller, "that he is naught."

"Oh! thou especial rogue!" exclaimed Father Nicodemus; "dost thou come here to bear witness against me? I will impeach thy testimony by one assertion, which thou canst not gainsay; for the evidence of it is written on thy brow, thou brawny villain! Thou bearest malice against me, because I, some six years ago, inflicted a cracked crown on thee, for robbing this holy house of its lawful meal. I deemed the punishment adequate to the offence, and spoke not of it to the Abbot, in consideration of thy promising to mend thy ways. Hadst thou not well merited that mark of my attention to the interests of my brethren, the whole lordship would have heard of it. And didst thou ever say I made the wound? Never:—thy tale was that some of thy mill-gear had done it. But I will be judged by any here, if the scar be not of my blackthorn's making. I will summon three score, at least, who shall prove it to be my mark. Let it be viewed with that on the head of thy foster-brother, John of the Hongh:—I will abide by the comparison. Thou hast hoarded malice in thy heart from that day; and now thou comest here to vomit it forth, as thou deemest, to my undoing. But, be sure, caitiff, that I shall testify upon thy sconce hereafter: for I know thou art rogue enough to rob if thou canst, and fool enough to rob with so little discretion as to be easily detected; and even if my present staff be worn out, there be others in the woods:—ergo—"

"Peace, Brother Nicodemus!" exclaimed the Abbot; "approach not a single pace nearer to the miller; neither do thou threaten nor browbeat him, I enjoin thee."

"Were it not for the reverence I owe to those who are round me, and my unwillingness to commit even so trifling a sin," said Nicodemus, "I would take this slanderous and ungrateful knave betwixt my finger and thumb, and drop him among the hungry eels of his own mill-stream. I chafe apace:—lay hands on me, brethren!—for I wax wroth, and am sure, in these moods,—so weak is man—to do mischief ere my humour subside."

"Speak on, miller," said the Abbot; "and thou, Brother Nicodemus, give way to thine inward enemy, at thy peril."

"I will tell him,—an' you will hold him back and seize his staff," said the miller,—"how he and the roystering boatman of Frampton Ferry—"

"My time is coming," exclaimed Nicodemus, interrupting the miller: "bid him withdraw, or he will have a sore head at his supper."

"They caroused and carolled," said the miller, "with two travellers, like skeldring Jacks o' the flagon, until—"

"Lay hands on Nicodemus, all!" cried the Abbot, as the enraged friar strode towards the miller;—"lay hands on the madman at once!"

"It is too late," said Nicodemus, drawing forth a cudgel from beneath his cloak; "do not hinder me now, for my blackthorn reverences not the heads of the holy fraternity of Fairoak. Hold off, I say!" exclaimed he, as several of his brethren roughly attempted to seize him; "hold off, and mar me not in this mood; or to-day will, hereafter, be called the Feast of Blows. Nay, then, if you will not, I strike:—may you be marked, but not maimed!" The friar began to level a few of the most resolute of those about him as he spoke. "I will deal lightly as my cudgel will let me," pursued he. "I strike indiscriminately, and without malice, I protest. May blessings follow these blows! Brother Ulick, I grieve that you have thrust yourself within my reach. Look to the Abbot, some of ye, for,—miserable me!—I have laid him low. Man is weak, and this must be atoned for by fasting. Where is the author of this mischief? Miller, where art thou?"

Father Nicodemus continued to lay about him very lustily for several minutes; but, before he could deal with the miller as he wished, Friar Hugo's brother, who was on the floor, caught him by the legs, and suddenly threw him prostrate. He was immediately overwhelmed by numbers, bound hand and foot, and carried to his own cell; where he was closely confined, and most vigilantly watched, until the superiors of his order could be assembled. He was tried in the chamber which had been the scene of his exploits: the charge of having rudely raised his hand against the Abbot, and belaboured the holy brotherhood, was fully proved; and, ere twenty-four hours had elapsed, Father Nicodemus found himself enclosed, with a pitcher of water and a loaf, in a niche of a stone wall, in the lowest vault of Fairoak Abbey.

He soon began to feel round him, in order to ascertain if there were any chance of escaping from the tomb to which he had been consigned: the walls were old, but tolerably sound; he considered, however, that it was his duty to break out if he could; and he immediately determined on making an attempt. Putting his back to the wall, which had been built up to enclose him for ever from the world, and his feet against the opposite side of the niche, he strained every nerve to push one of them down. The old wall at length began to move: he reversed his position, and with his feet firmly planted against the new work, he made such a tremendous effort, that the ancient stones and mortar gave way behind him: the next moment he found himself lying on his back, with a quantity of rubbish about him, on the cold pavement of a vault, into which sufficient light glimmered, through a grating, to enable him to ascertain that he was no longer in any part of Fairoak Abbey.

The tongue-tied neighbours to whom Nicodemus had alluded, when he broke silence at that meeting of his brethren which terminated so unfortunately, were monks of the same order as those of Fairoak Abbey; among whom, about a century and a half before the time of Nicodemus, such dissensions took place, that the heads of the order were compelled to interfere; and under their sanction and advice, two-and-twenty monks, who were desirous of following the fine example of the Arroasians of Saint Augustin,—who neither wore linen nor ate flesh, and observed a perpetual silence,—seceded from the community, and elected an Abbot of their own. The left-wing of Fairoak Abbey was assigned to them for a residence, and the rents of a certain portion of its lands were set apart for their support. Their first care was to separate themselves, by stout walls, from all communication with their late brethren; and up to the days of Nicodemus, no friendly communion had taken place between the Arroasian and its mother Abbey.

Nicodemus had no doubt but that he was in one of the vaults of the silent monks: in order that he might not be recognised as a brother of Fairoak, he took off his black cloak and hood, and even his cassock and rochet, and concealed them beneath a few stones, in a corner of the recess from which he had just liberated himself. With some difficulty, he reached the inhabited part of the building: after terrifying several of the Arroasians, by abruptly breaking upon their meditations, he at length found an old white cloak and hood, arrayed in which he took a seat at the table of the refectory, and, to the amazement of the monks, tacitly helped himself to a portion of their frugal repast. The Superior of the community, by signs, requested him to state who and what he was; but Nicodemus, pointing to the old Arroasian habit which he now wore, wisely held his peace. The good friars knew not how to act:—Nicodemus was suffered to enter into quiet possession of a vacant cell; he joined in their silent devotions, and acted in every respect as though he had been an Arroasian all his life.

By degrees the good monks became reconciled to his presence, and looked upon him as a brother. He behaved most discreetly for several months: but at length having grown weary of bread, water, and silence, he, one evening, stole over the garden-wall, resolving to have an eel-pie and some malmsey, spiced with a little jovial chat, in the company of his trusty friend, the boatman of Frampton Ferry. His first care, on finding himself at large, was to go to the coppice of Fairoak, and cut a yard of good blackthorn, which he slung by a hazel gad to his girdle, but beneath his cassock. Resuming his path towards the Ferry, he strode on at a brisk rate for a few minutes; when, to his great dismay, he heard the sound of the bell which summoned the Arroasians to meet in the chapel of their Abbey.

"A murrain on thy noisy tongue!" exclaimed Nicodemus, "on what emergency is thy tail tugged, to make thee yell at this unwonted hour? There is a grievous penalty attached to the offence of quitting the walls, either by day or by night; and as I am now deemed a true Arroasian, by Botolph, I stand here in jeopardy; for they will assuredly discover my absence. I will return at once, slink into my cell, and be found there afflicted with a lethargy, when they come to search for me; or, if occasion serve, join my brethren boldly in the chapel."

The bell had scarcely ceased to toll, when Nicodemus reached the garden-wall again: he clambered over it, alighted safely on a heap of manure, and was immediately seized by half a score of the stoutest among the Arroasians. Unluckily for Nicodemus, the Superior himself had seen a figure, in the costume of the Abbey, scaling the garden-wall, and had immediately ordered the bell to be rung, and a watch to be set, in order to take the offender in the fact, on his return. The mode of administering justice among the Arroasians, was much more summary than in the Abbey of Fairoak. Nicodemus was brought into the Superior's cell, and divested of his cloak; his cassock was then turned down from his belt, and a bull's-hide thong severely applied to his back, before he could recover himself from the surprise into which his sudden capture had thrown him. His wrath rose, not gradually as it did of old,—but in a moment, under the pain and indignity of the thong, it mounted to its highest pitch. Breaking from those who were holding him, he plucked the blackthorn he had cut, from beneath his cassock, and without either benediction or excuse, silently but severely belaboured all present, the Superior himself not excepted. When his rage and strength were somewhat exhausted, the prostrate brethren rallied a little, and with the aid of the remainder of the community, who came to their assistance, they contrived to despoil Nicodemus of his staff, and to secure him from doing further mischief.

The next morning, Nicodemus was stripped of his Arroasian habit; and, attired in nothing but the linen in which he had first appeared among the brethren, he was conducted, with very little ceremony, to the vaults beneath the Abbey. Every member of the community advanced to give him a parting embrace, and the Superior pointed with his finger to a recess in the wall: Nicodemus was immediately ushered into it, the wall was built up behind him, and once more he found himself entombed alive.

"But that I am not so strong as I was of yore, after the lenten fare of my late brethren," said Nicodemus, "I should not be content to die thus, in a coffin of stones and mortar. What luck hast thou here, Nicodemus?" continued the friar, as, poking about the floor of his narrow cell, he felt something like a garment, with his foot. "By rood and by rochet, mine own attire!—the cloak and cassock, or I am much mistaken, which I left behind me when I was last here;—for surely these are my old quarters! I did not think to be twice tenant of this hole; but man is weak, and I was born to be the bane of blackthorn. The lazy rogues found this niche ready-made to their hands, and, truth to say, they have walled me up like workmen. Ah, me! there is no soft place for me to bulge my back through now. Hope have I none: but I will betake me to my anthems; and perchance, in due season, I may light upon some means of making egress."

Nicodemus had, by this time, contrived to put on his cassock and cloak, which somewhat comforted his shivering body, and he forthwith began to chant his favourite anthem in such a lusty tone, that it was faintly heard by the Fairoak Abbey cellarman, and one of the friars who was in the vaults with him, selecting the ripest wines. On the alarm being given, a score of the brethren betook themselves to the vaults; and, with torches in their hands, searched every corner for the anthem-singer, but without success. At length the cellarman ventured to observe, that, in his opinion, the sounds came from the wall; and the colour left the cheeks of all as the recollection of Nicodemus flashed upon them. They gathered round the place where they had enclosed him, and soon felt satisfied that the awful anthem was there more distinctly heard, than in any other part of the vault. The whole fraternity soon assembled, and endeavoured to come to some resolution as to how they ought to act. With fear and trembling, Father Hugo's brother moved that they should at once open the wall: this proposal was at first rejected with contempt, on account of the known stupidity of the person with whom it originated; but as no one ventured to suggest anything, either better or worse, it was at last unanimously agreed to. With much solemnity, they proceeded to make a large opening in the wall. In a few minutes, Father Nicodemus appeared before them, arrayed in his cloak and cassock, and not much leaner or less rosy than when they bade him, as they thought, an eternal adieu, nearly a year before. The friars shouted, "A miracle! a miracle!" and Nicodemus did not deem it by any means necessary to contradict them. "Ho, ho! brethren," exclaimed he, "you are coming to do me justice at last, are you? By faith and troth, but you are tardy! Your consciences, methinks, might have urged you to enact this piece of good-fellowship some week or two ago. To dwell ten months and more in so dark and solitary a den, like a toad in a hole, is no child's-play. Let the man who doubts, assume my place, and judge for himself. I ask no one to believe me on my bare word. You have wronged me, brethren, much; but I forgive you freely."

"A miracle! a miracle!" again shouted the amazed monks: they most respectfully declined the proffered familiarities of Nicodemus, and still gazed on him with profound awe, even after the most incredulous among them were convinced, by the celerity with which a venison pasty, flanked by a platter of brawn, and a capacious jack of Cyprus wine vanished before him, in the refectory, that he was truly their Brother Nicodemus, and still in the flesh. Ere long, the jolly friar became Abbot of Fairoak: he was dubbed a saint after his decease; but as no miracles were ever wrought at his shrine, his name has since been struck out of the calendar.