A SENSE of injury and exclusion, inflicted in childhood and at Oxford among the pleasuresome nobility, aroused in Walter of Gurnie, illegitimate son of the Earl of Lessford, a restless dissatisfaction with his ambiguous position in medieval society. Oxford affronted his intellectual eagerness, although Roger Bacon was teaching there and making mysterious experiments with explosive powders. The beautiful Lady Engaine was betrothed to legitimacy, and disdained to marry the poor student, whose mother sat sorrowing and half-mad in a decaying castle.
It was rumored that the Orient was ahead of the West in knowledge, and its fabulous riches were whispered in every trade mart of the Continent, but no traveler to that far clime had ever returned. Because of the impossibility of further residence at home after his participation in a peasants’ attack upon a castle, Walter of Gurnie embarked on the long journey, for the double purpose of restoring his lands and fortunes and bringing back to England the scientific learning of the East.
There the fierce horsemen of Kublai Khan, led by the great general, Bayan of the Hundred Eyes, were preparing the downfall of Kinsai, the ancient capital of China, and the overthrow of its Sung rulers. The Mongolian soldiery made use of a weird instrument of battle that had never been seen on the battlefields of Europe, which bellowed fire and smoke from its metallic mouth.
Traveling in the rear of the armies, Walter discovered the principle of the magnetic needle and suffered the torture of the Rope Walk for his interest in the dark-eyed Maryam, called the Black Rose after the most precious of Oriental spices, in the harem train of the Khan. In the besieged city of Kinsai he observed the processes of paper manufacture, and inhabited for a time the abode of Everlasting Felicity.
Mr. Costain has followed the conventions of the contemporary historical novel except that his scholar-hero is somewhat more intellectual than the average romantic lover in historical fiction. Mr. Costain is unwilling to make a Roman holiday of the facts of history.