Arthur Conan Doyle
Part 5 out of 8
night the King gives a banquet ere he returns to England, and your
place is behind my chair. Be in my chamber that you may help me
to dress, and so we will to the hall together."
With satin and with samite, with velvet and with fur, the noble
Chandos was dressed for the King's feast, and Nigel too had donned
his best silk jupon, faced with the five scarlet roses, that he
might wait upon him. In the great hall of Calais Castle the
tables were set, a high table for the lords, a second one for the
less distinguished knights, and a third at which the squires might
feast when their masters were seated.
Never had Nigel in his simple life at Tilford pictured a scene of
such pomp and wondrous luxury. The grim gray walls were covered
from ceiling to floor with priceless tapestry of Arras, where
hart, hounds and huntsmen circled the great hall with one long
living image of the chase. Over the principal table drooped a
line of banners, and beneath them rows of emblazoned shields upon
the wall carried the arms of the high noblemen who sat beneath.
The red light of cressets and of torches burned upon the badges of
the great captains of England. The lions and lilies shone over
the high dorseret chair in the center, and the same august device
marked with the cadency label indicated the seat of the Prince,
while glowing to right and to left were the long lines of noble
insignia, honored in peace and terrible in war. There shone the
gold and sable of Manny, the engrailed cross of Suffolk, the red
chevron of Stafford, the scarlet and gold of Audley, the blue lion
rampant of the Percies, the silver swallows of Arundel, the red
roebuck of the Montacutes, the star of the de Veres, the silver
scallops of Russell, the purple lion of de Lacy, and the black
crosses of Clinton.
A friendly Squire at Nigel's elbow whispered the names of the
famous warriors beneath. "You are young Loring of Tilford, the
Squire of Chandos, are you not?" said he. "My name is Delves, and
I come from Doddington in Cheshire. I am the Squire of Sir James
Audley, yonder round-backed man with the dark face and close-
cropped beard, who hath the Saracen head as a crest above him."
"I have heard of him as a man of great valor," said Nigel, gazing
at him with interest.
"Indeed, you may well say so, Master Loring. He is the bravest
knight in England, and in Christendom also, as I believe. No man
hath done such deeds of valor."
Nigel looked at his new acquaintance with hope in his eyes. "You
speak as it becomes you to speak when you uphold your own master,"
said he. "For the same reason, Master Delves, and in no spirit of
ill-will to you, it behooves me to tell you that he is not to be
compared in name or fame with the noble knight on whom I wait.
Should you hold otherwise, then surely we can debate the matter in
whatever way or time may please you best."
Delves smiled good-humoredly. "Nay, be not so hot," said he.
"Had you upheld any other knight, save perhaps Sir Walter Manny, I
had taken you at your word, and your master or mine would have had
place for a new Squire. But indeed it is only truth that no
knight is second to Chandos, nor would I draw my sword to lower
his pride of place. Ha, Sir James' cup is low! I must see to
it!" He darted off, a flagon of Gascony in his hand. "The King
hath had good news to-night," he continued when he returned. "I
have not seen him in so merry a mind since the night when we took
the Frenchmen and he laid his pearl chaplet upon the head of de
Ribeaumont. See how he laughs, and the Prince also. That laugh
bodes some one little good, or I am the more mistaken. Have a
care! Sir John's plate is empty."
It was Nigel's turn to dart away; but ever in the intervals he
returned to the corner whence he could look down the hall and
listen to the words of the older Squire. Delves was a short,
thick-set man past middle age, weather-beaten and scarred, with a
rough manner and bearing which showed that he was more at his ease
in a tent than a hall. But ten years of service had taught him
much, and Nigel listened eagerly to his talk.
"Indeed the King hath some good tidings," he continued. "See now,
he has whispered it to Chandos and to Manny. Manny spreads it on
to Sir Reginald Cobham, and he to Robert Knolles, each smiling
like the Devil over a friar."
"Which is Sir Robert Knolles?" asked Nigel with interest. "I have
heard much of him and his deeds."
"He is the tall hard-faced man in yellow silk, he with the
hairless cheeks and the split lip. He is little older than
yourself, and his father was a cobbler in Chester, yet he has
already won the golden spurs. See how he dabs his great hand in
the dish and hands forth the gobbets. He is more used to a
camp-kettle than a silver plate. The big man with the black beard
is Sir Bartholomew Berghersh, whose brother is the Abbot of
Beaulieu. Haste, haste! for the boar's head is come and the
plate's to be cleaned."
The table manners of our ancestors at this period would have
furnished to the modern eye the strangest mixture of luxury and of
barbarism. Forks were still unknown, and the courtesy fingers,
the index and the middle of the left hand, took their place. To
use any others was accounted the worst of manners. A crowd of
dogs lay among the rushes growling at each other and quarreling
over the gnawed bones which were thrown to them by the feasters.
A slice of coarse bread served usually as a plate, but the King's
own high table was provided with silver platters, which were wiped
by the Squire or page after each course. On the other hand the
table-linen was costly, and the courses, served with a pomp and
dignity now unknown, comprised such a variety of dishes and such
complex marvels of cookery as no modern banquet could show.
Besides all our domestic animals and every kind of game, such
strange delicacies as hedgehogs, bustards, porpoises, squirrels,
bitterns and cranes lent variety to the feast.
Each new course, heralded by a flourish of silver trumpets, was
borne in by liveried servants walking two and two, with rubicund
marshals strutting in front and behind, bearing white wands in
their hands, not only as badges of their office, but also as
weapons with which to repel any impertinent inroad upon the dishes
in the journey from the kitchen to the hall. Boar's heads,
enarmed and endored with gilt tusks and flaming mouths, were
followed by wondrous pasties molded to the shape of ships, castles
and other devices with sugar seamen or soldiers who lost their own
bodies in their fruitless defense against the hungry attack.
Finally came the great nef, a silver vessel upon wheels laden with
fruit and sweetmeats which rolled with its luscious cargo down the
line of guests. Flagons of Gascony, of Rhine wine, of Canary and
of Rochelle were held in readiness by the attendants; but the age,
though luxurious, was not drunken, and the sober habits of the
Norman had happily prevailed over the license of those Saxon
banquets where no guest might walk from the table without a slur
upon his host. Honor and hardihood go ill with a shaking hand or
a blurred eye.
Whilst wine, fruit and spices were handed round the high tables
the squires had been served in turn at the farther end of the
hall. Meanwhile round the King there had gathered a group of
statesmen and soldiers, talking eagerly among themselves. The
Earl of Stafford, the Earl of Warwick, the Earl of Arundel, Lord
Beauchamp and Lord Neville were assembled at the back of his
chair, with Lord Percy and Lord Mowbray at either side. The
little group blazed with golden chains and jeweled chaplets, flame
colored paltocks and purple tunics.
Of a sudden the King said something over his shoulder to Sir
William de Pakyngton the herald, who advanced and stood by the
royal chair. He was a tall and noble-featured man, with long
grizzled beard which rippled down to the gold-linked belt girdling
his many-colored tabard. On his head he had placed the heraldic
barret-cap which bespoke his dignity, and he slowly raised his
white wand high in the air, while a great hush fell upon the hall.
"My lords of England," said he, "knight bannerets, knights,
squires, and all others here present of gentle birth and
coat-armor, know that your dread and sovereign lord, Edward, King
of England and of France, bids me give you greeting and commands
you to come hither that he may have speech with you."
In an instant the tables were deserted and the whole company had
clustered in front of the King's chair. Those who had sat on
either side of him crowded inward so that his tall dark figure
upreared itself amid the dense circle of his guests.
With a flush upon his olive cheeks and with pride smoldering in
his dark eyes, he looked round him at the eager faces of the men
who had been his comrades from Sluys and Cadsand to Crecy and
Calais. They caught fire from that warlike gleam in his masterful
gaze, and a sudden wild, fierce shout pealed up to the vaulted
ceiling, a soldierly thanks for what was passed and a promise for
what was to come. The King's teeth gleamed in a quick smile, and
his large white hand played with the jeweled dagger in his belt.
"By the splendor of God!" said he in a loud clear voice, "I have
little doubt that you will rejoice with me this night, for such
tidings have come to my ears as may well bring joy to everyone of
you. You know well that our ships have suffered great scathe from
the Spaniards, who for many years have slain without grace or ruth
all of my people who have fallen into their cruel hands. Of late
they have sent their ships into Flanders, and thirty great cogs
and galleys lie now at Sluys well-filled with archers and
men-at-arms and ready in all ways for battle. I have it to-day
from a sure hand that, having taken their merchandise aboard,
these ships will sail upon the next Sunday and will make their way
through our Narrow Sea. We have for a great time been
long-suffering to these people, for which they have done us many
contraries and despites, growing ever more arrogant as we grow
more patient. It is in my mind therefore that we hie us to-morrow
to Winchelsea, where we have twenty ships, and make ready to sally
out upon them as they pass. May God and Saint George defend the
A second shout, far louder and fiercer than the first, came like a
thunderclap after the King's words. It was the bay of a fierce
pack to their trusted huntsman.
Edward laughed again as he looked round at the gleaming eyes, the
waving arms and the flushed joyful faces of his liegemen. "Who
hath fought against these Spaniards?" he asked. " Is there anyone
here who can tell us what manner of men they be?"
A dozen hands went up into the air; but the King turned to the
Earl of Suffolk at his elbow.
"You have fought them, Thomas?" said he.
"Yes, sire, I was in the great sea-fight eight years ago at the
Island of Guernsey, when Lord Lewis of Spain held the sea against
the Earl of Pembroke."
"How found you them, Thomas?"
"Very excellent people, sire, and no man could ask for better. On
every ship they have a hundred crossbowmen of Genoa, the best in
the world, and their spearmen also are very hardy men. They would
throw great cantles of iron from the tops of the masts, and many
of our people met their death through it. If we can bar their way
in the Narrow Sea, then there will be much hope of honor for all
"Your words are very welcome, Thomas," said the King, "and I make
no doubt that they will show themselves to be very worthy of what
we prepare for them. To you I give a ship, that you may have the
handling of it. You also, my dear son, shall have a ship, that
evermore honor may be thine."
"I thank you, my fair and sweet father," said the Prince, with joy
flushing his handsome boyish face.
"The leading ship shall be mine. But you shall have one, Walter
Manny, and you, Stafford, and you, Arundel, and you, Audley, and
you, Sir Thomas Holland, and you, Brocas, and you, Berkeley, and
you, Reginald. The rest shall be awarded at Winchelsea, whither
we sail to-morrow. Nay, John, why do you pluck so at my sleeve?"
Chandos was leaning forward, with an anxious face. "Surely, my
honored lord, I have not served you so long and so faithfully that
you should forget me now. Is there then no ship for me?"
The King smiled, but shook his head. "Nay, John, have I not given
you two hundred archers and a hundred men-at-arms to take with you
into Brittany? I trust that your ships will be lying in Saint
Malo Bay ere the Spaniards are abreast of Winchelsea. What more
would you have, old war-dog? Wouldst be in two battles at once?"
"I would be at your side, my liege, when the lion banner is in the
wind once more. I have ever been there. Why should you cast me
now? I ask little, dear lord - a galley, a balinger, even a
pinnace, so that I may only be there."
"Nay, John, you shall come. I cannot find it in my heart to say
you nay. I will find you place in my own ship, that you may
indeed be by my side."
Chandos stooped and kissed the King's hand. "My Squire?" he
The King's brows knotted into a frown. "Nay, let him go to
Brittany with the others," said he harshly. "I wonder, John, that
you should bring back to my memory this youth whose pertness is
too fresh that I should forget it. But some one must go to
Brittany in your stead, for the matter presses and our people are
hard put to it to hold their own." He cast his eyes over the
assembly, and they rested upon the stern features of Sir Robert
"Sir Robert," he said, "though you are young in years you are
already old in war, and I have heard that you are as prudent in
council as you are valiant in the field. To you I commit the
charge of this venture to Brittany in place of Sir John Chandos,
who will follow thither when our work has been done upon the
waters. Three ships lie in Calais port and three hundred men are
ready to your hand. Sir John will tell you what our mind is in
the matter. And now, my friends and good comrades, you will haste
you each to his own quarters, and you will make swiftly such
preparations as are needful, for, as God is my aid, I will sail
with you to Winchelsea to-morrow!"
Beckoning to Chandos, Manny and a few of his chosen leaders, the
King led them away to an inner chamber, where they might discuss
the plans for the future. At the same time the assembly broke up,
the knights in silence and dignity, the squires in mirth and
noise, but all joyful at heart for the thought of the great days
which lay before them.
XVII. THE SPANIARDS ON THE SEA
Day had not yet dawned when Nigel was in the chamber of Chandos
preparing him for his departure and listening to the last cheery
words of advice and direction from his noble master. That same
morning, before the sun was half-way up the heaven, the King's
great nef Philippa, bearing within it the most of those present at
his banquet the night before, set its huge sail, adorned with the
lions and the lilies, and turned its brazen beak for England.
Behind it went five smaller cogs crammed with squires, archers and
Nigel and his companions lined the ramparts of the castle and
waved their caps as the bluff, burly vessels, with drums beating
and trumpets clanging, a hundred knightly pennons streaming from
their decks and the red cross of England over all, rolled slowly
out to the open sea. Then when they had watched them until they
were hull down they turned, with hearts heavy at being left
behind, to make ready for their own more distant venture.
It took them four days of hard work ere their preparations were
complete, for many were the needs of a small force sailing to a
strange country. Three ships had been left to them, the cog
Thomas of Romney, the Grace Dieu of Hythe, and the Basilisk of
Southampton, into each of which one hundred men were stowed,
besides the thirty seamen who formed the crew. In the hold were
forty horses, amongst them Pommers, much wearied by his long
idleness, and homesick for the slopes of Surrey where his great
limbs might find the work he craved. Then the food and the water,
the bow-staves and the sheaves of arrows, the horseshoes, the
nails, the hammers, the knives, the axes, the ropes, the vats of
hay, the green fodder and a score of other things were packed
aboard. Always by the side of the ships stood the stern young
knight Sir Robert, checking, testing, watching and controlling,
saying little, for he was a man of few words, but with his eyes,
his hands, and if need be his heavy, dog-whip, wherever they were
The seamen of the Basilisk, being from a free port, had the old
feud against the men of the Cinque Ports, who were looked upon by
the other mariners of England as being unduly favored by the King.
A ship of the West Country could scarce meet with one from the
Narrow Seas without blood flowing. Hence sprang sudden broils on
the quay side, when with yell and blow the Thomases and Grace
Dieus, Saint Leonard on their lips and murder in their hearts,
would fall upon the Basilisks. Then amid the whirl of cudgels and
the clash of knives would spring the tiger figure of the young
leader, lashing mercilessly to right and left like a tamer among
his wolves, until he had beaten them howling back to their work.
Upon the morning of the fourth day all was ready, and the ropes
being cast off the three little ships were warped down the harbor
by their own pinnaces until they were swallowed up in the swirling
folds of a Channel mist.
Though small in numbers, it was no mean force which Edward had
dispatched to succor the hard-pressed English garrisons in
Brittany. There was scarce a man among them who was not an old
soldier, and their leaders were men of note in council and in war.
Knolles flew his flag of the black raven aboard the Basilisk.
With him were Nigel and his own Squire John Hawthorn. Of his
hundred men, forty were Yorkshire Dalesmen and forty were men of
Lincoln, all noted archers, with old Wat of Carlisle, a grizzled
veteran of border warfare, to lead them.
Already Aylward by his skill and strength had won his way to an
under-officership amongst them, and shared with Long Ned
Widdington, a huge North Countryman, the reputation of coming next
to famous Wat Carlisle in all that makes an archer. The men-
at-arms too were war-hardened soldiers, with Black Simon of
Norwich, the same who had sailed from Winchelsea, to lead them.
With his heart filled with hatred for the French who had slain all
who were dear to him, he followed like a bloodhound over land and
sea to any spot where he might glut his vengeance. Such also were
the men who sailed in the other ships, Cheshire men from the Welsh
borders in the cog Thomas, and Cumberland men, used to Scottish
warfare, in the Grace Dieu.
Sir James Astley hung his shield of cinquefoil ermine over the
quarter of the Thomas. Lord Thomas Percy, a cadet of Alnwick,
famous already for the high spirit of that house which for ages
was the bar upon the landward gate of England, showed his blue
lion rampant as leader of the Grace Dieu. Such was the goodly
company Saint-Malo bound, who warped from Calais Harbor to plunge
into the thick reek of a Channel mist.
A slight breeze blew from the eastward, and the highended,
round-bodied craft rolled slowly down the Channel. The mist rose
a little at times, so that they had sight of each other dipping
and rising upon a sleek, oily sea, but again it would sink down,
settling over the top, shrouding the great yard, and finally
frothing over the deck until even the water alongside had vanished
from their view and they were afloat on a little raft in an ocean
of vapor. A thin cold rain was falling, and the archers were
crowded under the shelter of the overhanging poop and forecastle,
where some spent the hours at dice, some in sleep, and many in
trimming their arrows or polishing their weapons.
At the farther end, seated on a barrel as a throne of honor, with
trays and boxes of feathers around him, was Bartholomew the bowyer
and Fletcher, a fat, bald-headed man, whose task it was to see
that every man's tackle was as it should be, and who had the
privilege of selling such extras as they might need. A group of
archers with their staves and quivers filed before him with
complaints or requests, while half a dozen of the seniors gathered
at his back and listened with grinning faces to his comments and
"Canst not string it?" he was saying to a young bowman. "Then
surely the string is overshort or the stave overlong. It could
not by chance be the fault of thy own baby arms more fit to draw
on thy hosen than to dress a warbow. Thou lazy lurdan, thus is it
strung!" He seized the stave by the center in his right hand,
leaned the end on the inside of his right foot, and then, pulling
the upper nock down with the left hand, slid the eye of the string
easily into place. "Now I pray thee to unstring it again,"
handing it to the bowman.
The youth with an effort did so, but he was too slow in
disengaging his fingers, and the string sliding down with a snap
from the upper nock caught and pinched them sorely against the
stave. A roar of laughter, like the clap of a wave, swept down
the deck as the luckless bowman danced and wrung his hand.
"Serve thee well right, thou redeless fool!" growled the old
bowyer. "So fine a bow is wasted in such hands. How now, Samkin?
I can teach you little of your trade, I trow. Here is a bow
dressed as it should be; but it would, as you say, be the better
for a white band to mark the true nocking point in the center of
this red wrapping of silk. Leave it and I will tend to it anon.
And you, Wat? A fresh head on yonder stele? Lord, that a man
should carry four trades under one hat, and be bowyer, fletcher,
stringer and headmaker! Four men's work for old Bartholomew and
one man's pay!"
"Nay, say no more about that," growled an old wizened bowman, with
a brown-parchment skin and little beady eyes. "It is better in
these days to mend a bow than to bend one. You who never looked a
Frenchman in the face are pricked off for ninepence a day, and I,
who have fought five stricken fields, can earn but fourpence."
"It is in my mind, John of Tuxford, that you have looked in the
face more pots of mead than Frenchmen," said the old bowyer. "I
am swinking from dawn to night, while you are guzzling in an
alestake. How now, youngster? Overbowed? Put your bow in the
tiller. It draws at sixty pounds - not a pennyweight too much for
a man of your inches. Lay more body to it, lad, and it will come
to you. If your bow be not stiff, how can you hope for a twenty-
score flight. Feathers? Aye, plenty and of the best. Here,
peacock at a groat each. Surely a dandy archer like you,
Tom Beverley, with gold earrings in your ears, would have no
feathering but peacocks?"
"So the shaft fly straight, I care not of the feather," said the
bowman, a tall young Yorkshireman, counting out pennies on the
palm of his horny hand.
"Gray goose-feathers are but a farthing. These on the left are a
halfpenny, for they are of the wild goose, and the second feather
of a fenny goose is worth more than the pinion of a tame one.
These in the brass tray are dropped feathers, and a dropped
feather is better than a plucked one. Buy a score of these, lad,
and cut them saddle-backed or swine-backed, the one for a dead
shaft and the other for a smooth flyer, and no man in the company
will swing a better-fletched quiver over his shoulder."
It chanced that the opinion of the bowyer on this and other points
differed from that of Long Ned of Widdington, a surly
straw-bearded Yorkshireman, who had listened with a sneering face
to his counsel. Now he broke in suddenly upon the bowyer's talk.
"You would do better to sell bows than to try to teach others how
to use them," said he; "for indeed, Bartholomew, that head of
thine has no more sense within it than it has hairs without. If
you had drawn string for as many months as I have years you would
know that a straight-cut feather flies smoother than a swine-
backed, and pity it is that these young bowmen have none to teach
This attack upon his professional knowledge touched the old bowyer
on the raw. His fat face became suffused with blood and his eyes
glared with fury as he turned upon the archer. "You seven-foot
barrel of lies!" he cried. " All-hallows be my aid, and I will
teach you to open your slabbing mouth against me! Pluck forth
your sword and stand out on yonder deck, that we may see who is
the man of us twain. May I never twirl a shaft over my thumb nail
if I do not put Bartholomew's mark upon your thick head!"
A score of rough voices joined at once in the quarrel, some
upholding the bowyer and others taking the part of the North
Countryman. A red-headed Dalesman snatched up a sword, but was
felled by a blow from the fist of his neighbor. Instantly, with a
buzz like a swarm of angry hornets, the bowmen were out on the
deck; but ere a blow was struck Knolles was amongst them with
granite face and eyes of fire.
"Stand apart, I say! I will warrant you enough fighting to cool
your blood ere you see England once more. Loring, Hawthorn, cut
any man down who raises his hand. Have you aught to say, you
fox-haired rascal?" He thrust his face within two inches of that
of the red man who had first seized his sword. The fellow shrank
back, cowed, from his fierce eyes. " Now stint your noise, all of
you, and stretch your long ears. Trumpeter, blow once more!"
A bugle call had been sounded every quarter of an hour so as to
keep in touch with the other two vessels who were invisible in the
fog. Now the high clear note rang out once more, the call of a
fierce sea-creature to its mates, but no answer came back from the
thick wall which pent them in. Again and again they called, and
again and again with bated breath they waited for an answer.
"Where is the Shipman?" asked Knolles. " What is your name,
fellow? Do you dare call yourself master-mariner?"
"My name is Nat Dennis, fair sir," said the gray-bearded old
seaman. "It is thirty years since first I showed my cartel and
blew trumpet for a crew at the water-gate of Southampton. If any
man may call himself master-mariner, it is surely I."
"Where are our two ships?"
"Nay, sir, who can say in this fog?"
"Fellow, it was your place to hold them together."
"I have but the eyes God gave me, fair sir, and they cannot see
through a cloud."
"Had it been fair, I, who am a soldier, could have kept them in
company. Since it was foul, we looked to you, who are called a
mariner, to do so. You have not done it. You have lost two of my
ships ere the venture is begun."
"Nay, fair sir, I pray you to consider - "
"Enough words!" said Knolles sternly. "Words will not give me
back my two hundred men. Unless I find them before I come to
Saint-Malo, I swear by Saint Wilfrid of Ripon that it will be an
evil day for you! Enough! Go forth and do what you may!"
For five hours with a light breeze behind them they lurched
through the heavy fog, the cold rain still matting their beards
and shining on their faces. Sometimes they could see a circle of
tossing water for a bowshot or so in each direction, and then the
wreaths would crawl in upon them once more and bank them thickly
round. They had long ceased to blow the trumpet for their missing
comrades, but had hopes when clear weather came to find them still
in sight. By the shipman's reckoning they were now about midway
between the two shores.
Nigel was leaning against the bulwarks, his thoughts away in the
dingle at Cosford and out on the heather-clad slopes of Hindhead,
when something struck his ear. It was a thin clear clang of
metal, pealing out high above the dull murmur of the sea, the
creak of the boom and the flap of the sail. He listened, and
again it was borne to his ear.
"Hark, my lord!" said he to Sir Robert. "Is there not a sound in
the fog? "
They both listened together with sidelong heads. Then it rang
clearly forth once more, but this time in another direction. It
had been on the bow; now it was on the quarter. Again it sounded,
and again. Now it had moved to the other bow; now back to the
quarter again; now it was near; and now so far that it was but a
faint tinkle on the ear. By this time every man on board, seamen,
archers and men-at-arms, were crowding the sides of the vessel.
All round them there were noises in the darkness, and yet the wall
of fog lay wet against their very faces. And the noises were such
as were strange to their ears, always the same high musical
The old shipman shook his head and crossed himself.
"In thirty years upon the waters I have never heard the like,"
said he. "The Devil is ever loose in a fog. Well is he named the
Prince of Darkness."
A wave of panic passed over the vessel, and these rough and hardy
men who feared no mortal foe shook with terror at the shadows of
their own minds. They stared into the cloud with blanched faces
and fixed eyes, as though each instant some fearsome shape might
break in upon them. And as they stared there came a gust of wind.
For a moment the fog-bank rose and a circle of ocean lay before
It was covered with vessels. On all sides they lay thick upon its
surface. They were huge caracks, high-ended and portly, with red
sides and bulwarks carved and crusted with gold. Each had one
great sail set and was driving down channel on the same course at
the Basilisk. Their decks were thick with men, and from their
high poops came the weird clashing which filled the air. For one
moment they lay there, this wondrous fleet, surging slowly
forward, framed in gray vapor. The next the clouds closed in and
they had vanished from view. There was a long hush, and then a
buzz of excited voices.
"The Spaniards!" cried a dozen bowmen and sailors.
"I should have known it," said the shipman. "I call to mind on
the Biscay Coast how they would clash their cymbals after the
fashion of the heathen Moor with whom they fight; but what would
you have me do, fair sir? If the fog rises we are all dead men."
"There were thirty ships at the least," said Knolles, with a moody
brow. "If we have seen them I trow that they have also seen us.
They will lay us aboard."
"Nay, fair sir, it is in my mind that our, ship is lighter and
faster than theirs. If the fog hold another hour we should be
"Stand to your arms!" yelled Knolles. "Stand to your arms - !
They are on us!"
The Basilisk had indeed been spied from the Spanish Admiral's ship
before the fog closed down. With so light a breeze, and such a
fog, he could not hope to find her under sail. But by an evil
chance not a bowshot from the great Spanish carack was a low
galley, thin and swift, with oars which could speed her against
wind or tide. She also had seen the Basilisk and it was to her
that the Spanish leader shouted his orders. For a few minutes she
hunted through the fog, and then sprang out of it like a lean and
stealthy beast upon its prey. It was the sight of the long dark
shadow gliding after them which had brought that wild shout of
alarm from the lips of the English knight. In another instant the
starboard oars of the galley had been shipped, the sides of the
two vessels grated together, and a stream of swarthy, red-capped
Spaniards were swarming up the sides of the Basilisk and dropped
with yells of triumph upon her deck.
For a moment it seemed as if the vessel was captured without a
blow being struck, for the men of the English ship had run wildly
in all directions to look for their arms. Scores of archers might
be seen under the shadow of the forecastle and the poop bending
their bowstaves to string them with the cords from their
waterproof cases. Others were scrambling over saddles, barrels
and cases in wild search of their quivers. Each as he came upon
his arrows pulled out a few to lend to his less fortunate
comrades. In mad haste the men-at-arms also were feeling and
grasping in the dark corners, picking up steel caps which would
not fit them, hurling them down on the deck, and snatching eagerly
at any swords or spears that came their way.
The center of the ship was held by the Spaniards; and having slain
all who stood before them, they were pressing up to either end
before they were made to understand that it was no fat sheep but a
most fierce old wolf which they had taken by the ears.
If the lesson was late, it was the more thorough. Attacked on
both sides and hopelessly outnumbered, the Spaniards, who had
never doubted that this little craft was a merchant-ship, were cut
off to the last man. It was no fight, but a butchery. In vain
the survivors ran screaming prayers to the saints and threw
themselves down into the galley alongside. It also had been
riddled with arrows from the poop of the Basilisk, and both the
crew on the deck and the galley-slaves in the outriggers at either
side lay dead in rows under the overwhelming shower from above.
>From stem to rudder every foot of her was furred with arrows. It
was but a floating coffin piled with dead and dying men, which
wallowed in the waves behind them as the Basilisk lurched onward
and left her in the fog.
In their first rush on to the Basilisk, the Spaniards had seized
six of the crew and four unarmed archers. Their throats had been
cut and their bodies tossed overboard. Now the Spaniards who
littered the deck, wounded and dead, were thrust over the side in
the same fashion. One ran down into the hold and had to be hunted
and killed squealing under the blows like a rat in the darkness.
Within half an hour no sign was left of this grim meeting in the
fog save for the crimson splashes upon bulwarks and deck. The
archers, flushed and merry, were unstringing their bows once more,
for in spite of the water glue the damp air took the strength from
the cords. Some were hunting about for arrows which might have
stuck inboard, and some tying up small injuries received in the
scuffle. But an anxious shadow still lingered upon the face of
Sir Robert, and he peered fixedly about him through the fog.
"Go among the archers, Hawthorne," said he to his Squire. "Charge
them on their lives to make no sound! You also, Loring. Go to
the afterguard and say the same to them. We are lost if one of
these great ships should spy us."
For an hour with bated breath they stole through the fleet, still
hearing the cymbals clashing all round them, for in this way the
Spaniards held themselves together. Once the wild music came from
above their very prow, and so warned them to change their course.
Once also a huge vessel loomed for an instant upon their quarter,
but they turned two points away from her, and she blurred and
vanished. Soon the cymbals were but a distant tinkling, and at
last they died gradually away.
"It is none too soon," said the old shipman, pointing to a
yellowish tint in the haze above them. "See yonder! It is the
sun which wins through. It will be here anon. Ah! said I not
A sickly sun, no larger and far dimmer than the moon, had indeed
shown its face, with cloud-wreaths smoking across it. As they
looked up it waxed larger and brighter before their eyes - a
yellow halo spread round it, one ray broke through, and then a
funnel of golden light poured down upon them, widening swiftly at
the base. A minute later they were sailing on a clear blue sea
with an azure cloud-flecked sky above their heads, and such a
scene beneath it as each of them would carry in his memory while
They were in mid-channel. The white and green coasts of Picardy
and of Kent lay clear upon either side of them. The wide channel
stretched in front, deepening from the light blue beneath their
prow to purple on the far sky-line. Behind them was that thick
bank of cloud from which they had just burst. It lay like a gray
wall from east to west, and through it were breaking the high
shadowy forms of the ships of Spain. Four of them had already
emerged, their red bodies, gilded sides and painted sails shining
gloriously in the evening sun. Every instant a fresh golden spot
grew out of the fog, which blazed like a star for an instant, and
then surged forward to show itself as the brazen beak of the great
red vessel which bore it. Looking back, the whole bank of cloud
was broken by the widespread line of noble ships which were
bursting through it. The Basilisk lay a mile or more in front of
them and two miles clear of their wing. Five miles farther off,
in the direction of the French coast, two other small ships were
running down Channel. A cry of joy from Robert Knolles and a
hearty prayer of gratitude to the saints from the old shipman
hailed them as their missing comrades, the cog Thomas and the
But fair as was the view of their lost friends, and wondrous the
appearance of the Spanish ships, it was not on those that the eyes
of the men of the Basilisk were chiefly bent. A greater sight lay
before them-a sight which brought them clustering to the
forecastle with eager eyes and pointing fingers. The English
fleet was coming forth from the Winchelsea Coast. Already before
the fog lifted a fast galleass had brought the news down Channel
that the Spanish were on the sea, and the King's fleet was under
way. Now their long array of sails, gay with the coats and colors
of the towns which had furnished them, lay bright against the
Kentish coast from Dungeness Point to Rye. Nine and twenty ships
were there from Southampton, Shoreham, Winchelsea, Hastings, Rye,
Hythe, Romney, Folkestone, Deal, Dover and Sandwich. With their
great sails slued round to catch the wind they ran out, whilst the
Spanish, like the gallant foes that they have ever been, turned
their heads landward to meet them. With flaunting banners and
painted sails, blaring trumpets and clashing cymbals, the two
glittering fleets, dipping and rising on the long Channel swell,
drew slowly together.
King Edward had been lying all day in his great ship the Philippa,
a mile out from the Camber Sands, waiting for the coming of the
Spaniards. Above the huge sail which bore the royal arms flew the
red cross of England. Along the bulwarks were shown the shields
of forty knights, the flower of English chivalry, and as many
pennons floated from the deck. The high ends of the ship
glittered with the weapons of the men-at-arms, and the waist was
crammed with the archers. From time to time a crash of nakers and
blare of trumpets burst from the royal ship, and was answered by
her great neighbors, the Lion on which the Black Prince flew his
flag, the Christopher with the Earl of Suffolk, the Salle du Roi
of Robert of Namur, and the Grace Marie of Sir Thomas Holland.
Farther off lay the White Swan, bearing the arms of Mowbray, the
Palmer of Deal, flying the Black Head of Audley, and the Kentish
man under the Lord Beauchamp. The rest lay, anchored but ready,
at the mouth of Winchelsea Creek.
The King sat upon a keg in the fore part of his ship, with little
John of Richmond, who was no more than a schoolboy, perched upon
his knee. Edward was clad in the black velvet jacket which was
his favorite garb, and wore a small brown-beaver hat with a white
plume at the side. A rich cloak of fur turned up with miniver
drooped from his shoulders. Behind him were a score of his
knights, brilliant in silks and sarcenets, some seated on an
upturned boat and some swinging their legs from the bulwark.
In front stood John Chandos in a party-colored jupon, one foot
raised upon the anchor-stock, picking at the strings of his guitar
and singing a song which he had learned at Marienburg when last he
helped the Teutonic knights against the heathen. The King, his
knights, and even the archers in the waist below them, laughed at
the merry lilt and joined lustily in the chorus, while the men of
the neighboring ships leaned over the side to hearken to the deep
chant rolling over the waters.
But there came a sudden interruption to the song. A sharp, harsh
shout came down from the lookout stationed in the circular top at
the end of the mast. "I spy a sail-two sails!" he cried.
John Bunce the King's shipman shaded his eyes and stared at the
long fog-bank which shrouded the northern channel. Chandos, with
his fingers over the strings of his guitar, the King, the knights,
all gazed in the same direction. Two small dark shapes had burst
forth, and then after some minutes a third.
"Surely they are the Spaniards?" said the King.
"Nay, sire," the seaman answered, "the Spaniards are greater ships
and are painted red. I know not what these may be."
"But I could hazard a guess!" cried Chandos. "Surely they are the
three ships with my own men on their way to Brittany."
"You have hit it, John," said the King. "But look, I pray you!
What in the name of the Virgin is that?"
Four brilliant stars of flashing light had shone out from
different points of the cloud-bank. The neat instant as many tall
ships had swooped forth into the sunshine. A fierce shout rang
from the King's ship, and was taken up all down the line, until
the whole coast from Dungeness to Winchelsea echoed the warlike
greeting. The King sprang up with a joyous face.
"The game is afoot, my friends!" said he. "Dress, John! Dress,
Walter! Quick all of you! Squires, bring the harness! Let each
tend to himself, for the time is short."
A strange sight it was to see these forty nobles tearing off their
clothes and littering the deck with velvets and satins, whilst the
squire of each, as busy as an ostler before a race, stooped and
pulled and strained and riveted, fastening the bassinets, the
legpieces, the front and the back plates, until the silken
courtier had become the man of steel. When their work was
finished, there stood a stern group of warriors where the light
dandies had sung and jested round Sir John's guitar. Below in
orderly silence the archers were mustering under their officers
and taking their allotted stations. A dozen had swarmed up to
their hazardous post in the little tower in the tops.
"Bring wine, Nicholas!" cried the King. "Gentlemen, ere you close
your visors I pray you to take a last rouse with me. You will be
dry enough, I promise you, before your lips are free once more.
To what shall we drink, John?"
"To the men of Spain," said Chandos, his sharp face peering like a
gaunt bird through the gap in his helmet. "May their hearts be
stout and their spirits high this day!"
"Well said, John!" cried the King, and the knights laughed
joyously as they drank. "Now, fair sirs, let each to his post! I
am warden here on the forecastle. Do you, John, take charge of
the afterguard. Walter, James, William, Fitzallan, Goldesborough,
Reginald - you will stay with me! John, you may pick whom you
will and the others will bide with the archers. Now bear straight
at the center, master-shipman. Ere yonder sun sets we will bring
a red ship back as a gift to our ladies, or never look upon a
lady's face again."
The art of sailing into a wind had not yet been invented, nor was
there any fore-and-aft canvas, save for small headsails with which
a vessel could be turned. Hence the English fleet had to take a
long slant down channel to meet their enemies; but as the
Spaniards coming before the wind were equally anxious to engage
there was the less delay. With stately pomp and dignity, the two
great fleets approached.
It chanced that one fine carack had outstripped its consorts and
came sweeping along, all red and gold, with a fringe of twinkling
steel, a good half-mile before the fleet. Edward looked at her
with a kindling eye, for indeed she was a noble sight with the
blue water creaming under her gilded prow.
"This is a most worthy and debonair vessel, Master Bunce," said he
to the shipman beside him. "I would fain have a tilt with her. I
pray you to hold us straight that we may bear her down."
"If I hold her straight, then one or other must sink, and it may
be both," the seaman answered.
"I doubt not that with the help of our Lady we shall do our part,"
said the King. "Hold her straight, master-shipman, as I have told
Now the two vessels were within arrow flight, and the bolts from
the crossbowmen pattered upon the English ship. These short thick
devil's darts were everywhere humming like great wasps through the
air, crashing against the bulwarks, beating upon the deck, ringing
loudly. on the armor of the knights, or with a soft muffled thud
sinking to the socket in a victim.
The bowmen along either side of the Philippa had stood motionless
waiting for their orders, but now there was a sharp shout from
their leader, and every string twanged together. The air was full
of their harping, together with the swish of the arrows, the
long-drawn keening of the bowmen and the short deep bark of the
under-officers. "Steady, steady! Loose steady! Shoot wholly
together! Twelve score paces! Ten score! Now eight! Shoot
wholly together!" Their gruff shouts broke through the high
shrill cry like the deep roar of a wave through the howl of the
As the two great ships hurtled together the Spaniard turned away a
few points so that the blow should be a glancing one. None the
less it was terrific. A dozen men in the tops of the carack were
balancing a huge stone with the intention of dropping it over on
the English deck. With a scream of horror they saw the mast
cracking beneath them. Over it went, slowly at first, then
faster, until with a crash it came down on its side, sending them
flying like stones from a sling far out into the sea. A swath of
crushed bodies lay across the deck where the mast had fallen. But
the English ship had not escaped unscathed. Her mast held, it is
true, but the mighty shock not only stretched every man flat upon
the deck, but had shaken a score of those who lined her sides into
the sea. One bowman was hurled from the top, and his body fell
with a dreadful crash at the very side of the prostrate King upon
the forecastle. Many were thrown down with broken arms and legs
from the high castles at either end into the waist of the ship.
Worst of all, the seams had been opened by the crash and the water
was gushing in at a dozen places.
But these were men of experience and of discipline, men who had
already fought together by sea and by land, so that each knew his
place and his duty. Those who could staggered to their feet and
helped up a score or more of knights who were rolling and clashing
in the scuppers unable to rise for the weight of their armor. The
bowmen formed up as before. The seamen ran to the gaping seams
with oakum and with tar. In ten minutes order had been restored
and the Philippa, though shaken and weakened, was ready for battle
once more. The King was glaring round him like a wounded boar.
"Grapple my ship with that," he cried, pointing to the crippled
Spaniard, "for I would have possession of her!"
But already the breeze had carried them past it, and a dozen
Spanish ships were bearing down full upon them.
"We cannot win back to her, lest we show our flank to these
others," said the shipman.
"Let her go, her way!" cried the knights. "You shall have better
"By Saint George! you speak the truth," said the King, for she is
ours when we have time to take her. These also seem very worthy
ships which are drawing up to us, and I pray you, master-shipman,
that you will have a tilt with the nearest."
A great carack was within a bowshot of them and crossing their
bows. Bunce looked up at his mast, and he saw that already it was
shaken and drooping. Another blow and it would be over the side
and his ship a helpless log upon the water. He jammed his helm
round therefore, and ran his ship alongside the Spaniard, throwing
out his hooks and iron chains as he did so.
They, no less eager, grappled the Philippa both fore and aft, and
the two vessels, linked tightly together, surged slowly over the
long blue rollers. Over their bulwarks hung a cloud of men locked
together in a desperate struggle, sometimes surging forward on to
the deck of the Spaniard, sometimes recoiling back on to the
King's ship, reeling this way and that, with the swords flickering
like silver flames above them, while the long-drawn cry of rage
and agony swelled up like a wolf's howl to the calm blue heaven
But now ship after ship of the English had come up, each throwing
its iron over the nearest Spaniard and striving to board her high
red sides. Twenty ships were drifting in furious single combat
after the manner of the Philippa, until the whole surface of the
sea was covered with a succession of these desperate duels. The
dismasted carack, which the King's ship had left behind it, had
been carried by the Earl of Suffolk's Christopher, and the water
was dotted with the heads of her crew. An English ship had been
sunk by a huge stone discharged from an engine, and her men also
were struggling in the waves, none having leisure to lend them a
hand. A second English ship was caught between two of the Spanish
vessels and overwhelmed by a rush of boarders so that not a man of
her was left alive. On the other hand, Mowbray and Audley had
each taken the caracks which were opposed to them, and the battle
in the center, after swaying this way and that, was turning now in
favor of the Islanders.
The Black Prince, with the Lion, the Grace Marie and four other
ships had swept round to turn the Spanish flank; but the movement
was seen, and the Spaniards had ten ships with which to meet it,
one of them their great carack the St. Iago di Compostella. To
this ship the Prince had attached his little cog and strove
desperately to board her, but her side was so high and the defense
so desperate that his men could never get beyond her bulwarks but
were hurled down again and again with a clang and clash to the
deck beneath. Her side bristled with crossbowmen, who shot
straight down on to the packed waist of the Lion, so that the dead
lay there in heaps. But the most dangerous of all was a swarthy
black-bearded giant in the tops, who crouched so that none could
see him, but rising-every now and then with a huge lump of iron
between his hands, hurled it down with such force that nothing
would stop it. Again and again these ponderous bolts crashed
through the deck and hurtled down into the bottom of the ship,
starting the planks and shattering all that came in their way.
The Prince, clad in that dark armor which gave him his name, was
directing the attack from the poop when the shipman rushed wildly
up to him with fear on his face.
"Sire!" he cried. "The ship may not stand against these blows. A
few more will sink her! Already the water floods inboard."
The Prince looked up, and as he did so the shaggy beard showed
once more and two brawny arms swept downward. A great slug,
whizzing down, beat a gaping hole in the deck, and fell rending
and riving into the hold below. The master-mariner tore his
"Another leak!" he cried. "I pray to Saint Leonard to bear us up
this day! Twenty of my shipmen are bailing with buckets, but the
water rises on them fast. The vessel may not float another hour."
The Prince had snatched a crossbow from one of his attendants and
leveled it at the Spaniard's tops. At the very instant when the
seaman stood erect with a fresh bar in his hands, the bolt took
him full in the face, and his body fell forward over the parapet,
hanging there head downward. A howl of exultation burst from the
English at the sight, answered by a wild roar of anger from the
Spaniards. A seaman had run from the Lion's hold and whispered in
the ear of the shipman. He turned an ashen face upon the Prince.
"It is even as I say, sire. The ship is sinking beneath our
feet!" he cried.
"The more need that we should gain another," said he. "Sir Henry
Stokes, Sir Thomas Stourton, William, John of Clifton, here. lies
our road! Advance my banner, Thomas de Mohun! On, and the day is
By a desperate scramble a dozen men, the Prince at their bead,
gained a footing on the edge of the Spaniard's deck. Some slashed
furiously to clear a space, others hung over, clutching the rail
with one hand and pulling up their comrades from below. Every
instant that they could hold their own their strength increased,
till twenty had become thirty and thirty forty, when of a sudden
the newcomers, still reaching forth to their comrades below, saw
the deck beneath them reel and vanish in a swirling sheet of foam.
The Prince's ship had foundered.
A yell went up from the Spaniards as they turned furiously upon
the small band who had reached their deck. Already the Prince and
his men had carried the poop, and from that high station they beat
back their swarming enemies. But crossbow darts pelted and
thudded among their ranks till a third of their number were
stretched upon the planks. Lined across the deck they could
hardly keep an unbroken front to the leaping, surging crowd who
pressed upon them. Another rush, or another after that, must
assuredly break them, for these dark men of Spain, hardened by an
endless struggle with the Moors, were fierce and stubborn
fighters. But hark to this sudden roar upon the farther side of
"Saint George! Saint George! A Knolles to the rescue!" A small
craft had run alongside and sixty men had swarmed on the deck of
the St. Iago. Caught between two fires, the Spaniards wavered and
broke. The fight became a massacre. Down from the poop sprang
the Prince's men. Up from the waist rushed the new-corners.
There were five dreadful minutes of blows and screams and prayers
with struggling figures clinging to the bulwarks and sullen
splashes into the water below. Then it was over, and a crowd of
weary, overstrained men leaned panting upon their weapons, or lay
breathless and exhausted upon the deck of the captured carack.
The Prince had pulled up his visor and lowered his beaver. He
smiled proudly as he gazed around him and wiped his streaming
face. "Where is the shipman? he asked. "Let him lead us against
"Nay, sire, the shipman and all his men have stink in the Lion,"
said Thomas de Mohun, a young knight of the West Country, who
carried the standard. "We have lost our ship and the half of our
following. I fear that we can fight no more."
"It matters the less since the day is already ours," said the
Prince, looking over the sea. "My noble father's royal banner
flies upon yonder Spaniard. Mowbray, Audley, Suffolk, Beauchamp,
Namur, Tracey, Stafford, Arundel, each has his flag over a scarlet
carack, even as mine floats over this. See, yonder squadron is
already far beyond our reach. But surely we owe thanks to you who
came at so perilous a moment to our aid. Your face I have seen,
and your coat-armor also, young sir, though I cannot lay my tongue
to your name. Let me know that I may thank you."
He had turned to Nigel, who stood flushed and joyous at the head
of the boarders from the Basilisk.
"I am but a Squire, sire, and can claim no thanks, for there is
nothing that I have done. Here is our leader."
The Prince's eyes fell upon the shield charged with the Black
Raven and the stern young face of him who bore it. "Sir Robert
Knolles," said he, "I had thought you were on your way to
"I was so, sire, when I had the fortune to see this battle as I
The Prince laughed. "It would indeed be to ask too much, Robert,
that you should keep on your course when much honor was to be
gathered so close to you. But now I pray you that you will come
back with us to Winchelsea, for well I know that my father would
fain thank you for what you have done this day."
But Robert Knolles shook his head. "I have your father's command,
sire, and without his order I may not go against it. Our people
are hard-pressed in Brittany, and it is not for me to linger on
the way. I pray you, sire, if you must needs mention me to the
King, to crave his pardon that I should have broken my journey
"You are right, Robert. God-speed you on your way! And I would
that I were sailing under your banner, for I see clearly that you
will take your people where they may worshipfully win worship.
Perchance I also maybe in Brittany before the year is past."
The Prince turned to the task of gathering his weary people
together, and the Basilisks passed over the side once more and
dropped down on to their own little ship. They poled her off from
the captured Spaniard and set their sail with their prow for the
south. Far ahead of them were their two consorts, beating towards
them in the hope of giving help, while down Channel were a score
of Spanish ships with a few of the English vessels hanging upon
their skirts. The sun lay low on the water, and its level beams
glowed upon the scarlet and gold of fourteen great caracks, each
flying the cross of Saint George, and towering high above the
cluster of English ships which, with brave waving of flags and
blaring of music, were moving slowly towards the Kentish coast.
XVIII. HOW BLACK SIMON CLAIMED FORFEIT FROM THE KING OF SARK
For a day and a half the small fleet made good progress, but on
the second morning, after sighting Cape de la Hague, there came a
brisk land wind which blew them out to sea. It grew into a squall
with rain and fog so that they were two more days beating back.
Next morning they found themselves in a dangerous rock studded sea
with a small island upon their starboard quarter. It was girdled
with high granite cliffs of a reddish hue, and slopes of bright
green grassland lay above them. A second smaller island lay
beside it. Dennis the shipman shook his head as he looked.
"That is Brechou," said he, "and the larger one is the Island of
Sark. If ever I be cast away, I pray the saints that I may not be
upon yonder coast!"
Knolles gazed across at it. "You say well, master-shipman," said
he. "It does appear to be a rocky and perilous spot."
"Nay, it is the rocky hearts of those who dwell upon it that I had
in my mind," the old sailor answered. "We are well safe in three
goodly vessels, but had we been here in a small craft I make no
doubt that they would have already had their boats out against
"Who then are these people, and how do they live upon so small and
windswept an island?" asked the soldier.
"They do not live from the island, fair sir, but from what they
can gather upon the sea around it. They are broken folk from all
countries, justice-fliers, prison-breakers, reavers, escaped
bondsmen, murderers and staff-strikers who have made their way to
this outland place and hold it against all comers. There is one
here who could tell you of them and of their ways, for he was long
time prisoner amongst them." The seaman pointed to Black Simon,
the dark man from Norwich, who was leaning against the side lost
in moody thought and staring with a brooding eye at the distant
"How now, fellow?" asked Knolles. "What is this I hear? Is it
indeed sooth that you have been a captive upon this island?"
"It is true, fair sir. For eight months I have been servant to
the man whom they call their King. His name is La Muette, and he
comes from Jersey nor is there under God's sky a man whom I have
more desire to see."
"Has he then mishandled you?"
Black Simon gave a wry smile and pulled off his jerkin. His lean
sinewy back was waled and puckered with white scars. "He has left
his sign of hand upon me," said he. "He swore that he would break
me to his will, and thus he tried to do it. But most I desire to
see him because he hath lost a wager to me and I would fain be
"This is a strange saying," said Knolles. "What is this wager,
and why should he pay you?"
"It is but a small matter," Simon answered; "but I am a poor man
and the payment would be welcome. Should it have chanced that we
stopped at this island I should have craved your leave that I go
ashore and ask for that which I have fairly won."
Sir Robert Knolles laughed. "This business tickleth my fancy,"
said he. "As to stopping at the island, this shipman tells me
that we must needs wait a day and a night, for that we have
strained our planks. But if you should go ashore, how will you be
sure that you will be free to depart, or that you will see this
King of whom you speak?"
Black Simon's dark face was shining with a fierce joy. "Fair sir,
I will ever be your debtor if you will let me go. Concerning what
you ask, I know this island even as I know the streets of Norwich,
as you may well believe seeing that it is but a small place and I
upon it for near a year. Should I land after dark, I could win my
way to the King's house, and if he be not dead or distraught with
drink I could have speech with him alone, for I know his ways and
his hours and how he may be found. I would ask only that Aylward
the archer may go with me, that I may have one friend at my side
if things should chance to go awry."
Knolles thought awhile. "It is much that you ask," said he, "for
by God's truth I reckon that you and this friend of yours are two
of my men whom I would be least ready to lose. I have seen you
both at grips with the Spaniards and I know you. But I trust you,
and if we must indeed stop at this accursed place, then you may do
as you will. If you have deceived me, or if this is a trick by
which you design to leave me, then God be your friend when next we
meet, for man will be of small avail!"
It proved that not only the seams had to be calked but that the
cog Thomas was out of fresh water. The ships moored therefore
near the Isle of Brechou, where springs were to be found. There
were no people upon this little patch, but over on the farther
island many figures could be seen watching them, and the twinkle
of steel from among them showed that they were armed men. One
boat had ventured forth and taken a good look at them, but had
hurried back with the warning that they were too strong to be
Black Simon found Aylward seated under the poop with his back,
against Bartholomew the bowyer. He was whistling merrily as he
carved a girl's face upon the horn of his bow.
"My friend," said Simon, "will you come ashore to-night - for I
have need of your help?"
Aylward crowed lustily. "Will I come, Simon? By my hilt, I shall
be right glad to put my foot on the good brown earth once more.
All my life I have trod it, and yet I would never have learned its
worth had I not journeyed in these cursed ships. We will go on
shore together, Simon, and we will seek out the women, if there be
any there, for it seems a long year since I heard their gentle
voices, and my eyes are weary of such faces as Bartholomew's or
Simon's grim features relaxed into a smile. "The only face that
you will see ashore, Samkin, will bring you small comfort," said
he, "and I warn you that this is no easy errand, but one which may
be neither sweet nor fair, for if these people take us our end
will be a cruel one."
"By my hilt," said Aylward, "I am with you, gossip, wherever you
may go! Say no more, therefore, for I am weary of living like a
cony in a hole, and I shall be right glad to stand by you in your
That night, two hours after dark, a small boat put forth from the
Basilisk. It contained Simon, Aylward and two seamen. The
soldiers carried their swords, and Black Simon bore a brown
biscuit-bag over his shoulder. Under his direction the rowers
skirted the dangerous surf which beat against the cliffs until
they came to a spot where an outlying reef formed a breakwater.
Within was a belt of calm water and a shallow cover with a sloping
beach. Here the boat was dragged up and the seamen were ordered
to wait, while Simon and Aylward started on their errand.
With the assured air of a man who knows exactly where he is and
whither he is going, the man-at-arms began to clamber up a narrow
fern-lined cleft among the rocks. It was no easy ascent in the
darkness, but Simon climbed on like an old dog hot upon a scent,
and the panting Aylward struggled after as best he might. At last
they were at the summit and the archer threw himself down upon the
"Nay, Simon, I have not enough breath to blow out a candle," said
he. "Stint your haste for a minute, since we have a long night
before us. Surely this man is a friend indeed, if you hasten so
to see him."
"Such a friend," Simon answered, "that I have often dreamed of our
next meeting. Now before that moon has set it will have come."
"Had it been a wench I could have understood it," said Aylward.
"By these ten finger-bones, if Mary of the mill or little Kate of
Compton had waited me on the brow of this cliff, I should have
come up it and never known it was there. But surely I see houses
and hear voices over yonder in the shadow?"
"It is their town," whispered Simon. "There are a hundred as
bloody-minded cutthroats as are to be found in Christendom beneath
those roofs. Hark to that!"
A fierce burst of laughter came out of the darkness, followed by a
long cry of pain.
"All-hallows be with us!" cried Aylward. "What is that?"
"As like as not some poor devil has fallen into their clutches,
even as I did. Come this way, Samkin, for there is a peat-cutting
where we may hide. Aye, here it is, but deeper and broader than
of old. Now follow me close, for if we keep within it we shall
find ourselves a stone cast off the King's house."
Together they crept along the dark cutting. Suddenly Simon seized
Aylward by the shoulder and pushed him into the shadow of the
bank. Crouching in the darkness, they heard footsteps and voices
upon the farther side of the trench. Two men sauntered along it
and stopped almost at the very spot where the comrades were lying.
Aylward could see their dark figures outlined against the starry
"Why should you scold, Jacques," said one of them, speaking a
strange half-French, half-English lingo. "Le diable t'emporte for
a grumbling rascal. You won a woman and I got nothing. What more
would you have?"
"You will have your chance off the next ship, mon garcon, but mine
is passed. A woman, it is true - an old peasant out of the
fields, with a face as yellow as a kite's claw. But Gaston, who
threw a nine against my eight, got as fair a little Normandy lass
as ever your eyes have seen. Curse the dice, I say! And as to my
woman, I will sell her to you for a firkin of Gascony:'
"I have no wine to spare, but I will give you a keg of apples,"
said the other. "I had it out of the Peter and Paul, the Falmouth
boat that struck in Creux Bay."
"Well, well your apples may be the worse for keeping, but so is
old Marie, and we can cry quits on that. Come round and drink a
cup over the bargain."
They shuffled onward in the darkness.
"Heard you ever such villainy?" cried Aylward, breathing fierce
and hard. "Did you hear them, Simon? A woman for a keg of
apples! And my heart's root is sad for the other one, the girl of
Normandy. Surely we can land to-morrow and burn all these water-
rats out of their nest."
"Nay, Sir Robert will not waste time or strength ere he reach
"Sure I am that if my little master Squire Loring had the handling
of it, every woman on this island would be free ere another day
"I doubt it not," said Simon. "He is one who makes an idol of
woman, after the manner of those crazy knight errants. But Sir
Robert is a true soldier and hath only his purpose in view."
"Simon," said Aylward, "the light is not overgood and the place is
cramped for sword-play, but if you will step out into the open I
will teach you whether my master is a true soldier or not."
"Tut, man! you are as foolish yourself," said Simon. "Here we are
with our work in hand, and yet you must needs fall out with me on
our way to it. I say nothing against your master save that he
hath the way of his fellows who follow dreams and fancies. But
Knolles looks neither to right nor left and walks forward to his
mark. Now, let us on, for the time passes."
"Simon, your words are neither good nor fair. When we are back on
shipboard we will speak further of this matter. Now lead on, I
pray you, and let us see some more of this ten-devil island."
For half a mile Simon led the way until they came to a large house
which stood by itself. Peering at it from the edge of the
cutting, Aylward could see that it was made from the wreckage of
many vessels, for at each corner a prow was thrust out. Lights
blazed within, and there came the sound of a strong voice singing
a gay song which was taken up by a dozen others in the chorus.
"All is well, lad!" whispered Simon in great delight. "That is
the voice of the King. It is the very song he used to sing. 'Les
deux filles de Pierre.' 'Fore God, my back tingles at the very
sound of it. Here we will wait until his company take their
Hour after hour they crouched in the peat-cutting, listening to
the noisy songs of the revelers within, some French, some English,
and all growing fouler and less articulate as the night wore on.
Once a quarrel broke out and the clamor was like a cageful of wild
beasts at feeding-time. Then a health was drunk and there was
much stamping and cheering.
Only once was the long vigil broken. A woman came forth from the
house and walked up and down, with her face sunk upon her breast.
She was tall and slender, but her features could not be seen for a
wimple over her head. Weary sadness could be read in her bowed
back and dragging steps. Once only they saw her throw her two
hands up to Heaven as one who is beyond human aid. Then she
passed slowly into the house again. A moment later the door of
the hall was flung open, and a shouting stumbling throng came
crowding forth, with whoop and yell, into the silent night.
Linking arms and striking up a chorus, they marched past the
peat-cutting, their voices dwindling slowly away as they made for
"Now, Samkin, now!" cried Simon, and jumping out from the
hiding-place he made for the door. It had not yet been fastened.
The two comrades sprang inside. Then Simon drew the bolts so that
none might interrupt them.
A long table littered with flagons and beakers lay before them.
It was lit up by a line of torches, which flickered and smoked in
their iron sconces. At the farther end a solitary man was seated.
His head rested upon his two hands, as if he were befuddled with
wine, but at the harsh sound of the snapping bolts he raised his
face and looked angrily around him. It was a strange powerful
head, tawny and shaggy like a lion's, with a tangled beard and a
large harsh face, bloated and blotched with vice. He laughed as
the newcomers entered, thinking that two of his boon companions
had returned to finish a flagon. Then he stared hard and he
passed his hand over his eyes like one who thinks he may be
"Mon Dieu!" he cried. "Who are you and whence come you at this
hour of the night? Is this the way to break into our royal
Simon approached up one side of the table and Aylward up the
other. When they were close to the King, the man-at-arms plucked
a torch from its socket and held it to his own face. The King
staggered back with a cry, as he gazed at that grim visage.
"Le diable noir!" he cried. "Simon, the Englishman! What make
Simon put his hand upon his shoulder. "Sit here!" said he, and he
forced the King into his seat. "Do you sit on the farther side of
him, Aylward. We make a merry group, do we not? Often have I
served at this table, but never did I hope to drink at it. Fill
your cup, Samkin, and pass the flagon."
The King looked from one to the other with terror in his bloodshot
eyes. "What would you do?" he asked. "Are you mad, that you
should come here. One shout and you are at my mercy."
"Nay, my friend, I have lived too long in your house not to know
the ways of it. No man-servant ever slept beneath your roof, for
you feared lest your throat would be cut in the night-time. You
may shout and shout, if it so please you. It chanced that I was
passing on my way from England in those ships which lie off La
Brechou, and I thought I would come in and have speech with you."
"Indeed, Simon, I am right glad to see you," said the King,
cringing away from the fierce eyes of the soldier. "We were good
friends in the past, were we not, and I cannot call to mind that I
have ever done you injury. When you made your way to England by
swimming to the Levantine there was none more glad in heart than!"
"If I cared to doff my doublet I could show you the marks of what
your friendship has done for me in the past," said Simon. "It is
printed on my back as clearly as on my memory. Why, you foul dog,
there are the very rings upon the wall to which my hands were
fastened, and there the stains upon the boards on which my blood
has dripped! Is it not so, you king of butchers?"
The pirate chief turned whiter still. "It may be that life here
was somewhat rough, Simon, but if I have wronged you in anyway, I
will surely make amends. What do you ask?"
"I ask only one thing, and I have come hither that I may get it.
It is that you pay me forfeit for that you have lost your wager."
"My wager, Simon! I call to mind no wager."
"But I will call it to your mind, and then I will take my payment.
Often have you sworn that you would break my courage. `By my
head!' you have cried to me. `You will crawl at my feet!' and
again: `I will wager my head that I will tame you!' Yes, yes, a
score of times you have said so. In my heart, as I listened, I
have taken up your gage. And now, dog, you have lost and I am
here to claim the forfeit."
His long heavy sword flew from its sheath. The King, with a howl
of despair, flung his arms round him, and they rolled together
under the table. Aylward sat with a ghastly face, and his toes
curled with horror at the sight, for he was still new to scenes of
strife and his blood was too cold for such a deed. When Simon
rose he tossed something into his bag and sheathed his bloody
"Come, Samkin, our work is well done," said he.
"By my hilt, if I had known what it was I would have been less
ready to come with you," said the archer. "Could you not have
clapped a sword in his fist and let him take his chance in the
"Nay, Samkin, if you had such memories as I, you would have wished
that he should die like a sheep and not like a man. What chance
did he give me when he had the power? And why should I treat him
better? But, Holy Virgin, what have we here?"
At the farther end of the table a woman was standing. An open
door behind her showed that she had come from the inner room of
the house. By her tall figure the comrades knew that she was the
same that they had already seen. Her face had once been fair, but
now was white and haggard with wild dark eyes full of a hopeless
terror and despair. Slowly she paced up the room, her gaze fixed
not upon the comrades, but upon the dreadful thing beneath the
table. Then as she stooped and was sure she burst into loud
laughter and clapped her hands.
"Who shall say there is no God?" she cried. "Who shall say that
prayer is unavailing? Great sir, brave sir, let me kiss that
"Nay, nay, dame, stand back! Well, if you must needs have one of
them, take this which is the clean one."
"It is the other I crave - that which is red with his blood! Oh!
joyful night when my lips have been wet with it! Now I can die in
"We must go, Aylward," said Simon. "In another hour the dawn will
have broken. In daytime a rat could not cross this island and
pass unseen. Come, man, and at once!"
But Aylward was at the woman's side. "Come with us, fair dame,"
said he. "Surely we can, at least, take you from this island, and
no such change can be for the worse."
"Nay," said she, the saints in Heaven cannot help me now until
they take me to my rest. There is no place for me in the world
beyond, and all my friends were slain on the day I was taken.
Leave me, brave men, and let me care for myself. Already it
lightens in the east, and black will be your fate if you are
taken. Go, and may the blessing of one who was once a holy nun go
with you and guard you from danger!"
Sir Robert Knolles was pacing the deck in the early morning, when
he heard the sound of oars, and there were his two night-birds
climbing up the side.
"So, fellow," said he, "have you had speech with the King of
"Fair sir, I have seen him."
"And he has paid his forfeit?"
"He has paid it, sir!"
Knolles looked with curiosity at the bag which Simon bore. "What
carry you there?" he asked.
"The stake that he has lost."
"What was it then? A goblet? A silver plate?"
For answer Simon opened his bag and shook it on the deck.
Sir Robert turned away with a whistle. "'Fore God!" said he, "it
is in my mind that I carry some hard men with me to Brittany."
XIX. HOW A SQUIRE OF ENGLAND MET A SQUIRE OF FRANCE
Sir Robert Knolles with his little fleet had sighted the Breton
coast near Cancale; they had rounded the Point du Grouin, and
finally had sailed past the port of St. Malo and down the long
narrow estuary of the Rance until they were close to the old
walled city of Dinan, which was held by that Montfort faction
whose cause the English had espoused. Here the horses had been
disembarked, the stores were unloaded, and the whole force
encamped outside the city, whilst the leaders waited for news as
to the present state of affairs, and where there was most hope of
honor and profit.
The whole of France was feeling the effects of that war with
England which had already lasted some ten years, but no Province
was in so dreadful a condition as this unhappy land of Brittany.
In Normandy or Picardy the inroads of the English were periodical
with intervals of rest between; but Brittany was torn asunder by
constant civil war apart from the grapple of the two great
combatants, so that there was no surcease of her sufferings. The
struggle had begun in 1341 through the rival claims of Montfort
and of Blois to the vacant dukedom. England had taken the part of
Montfort, France that of Blois. Neither faction was strong enough
to destroy the other, and so after ten years of continual
fighting, history recorded a long ineffectual list of surprises
and ambushes, of raids and skirmishes, of towns taken and retaken,
of alternate victory and defeat, in which neither party could
claim a supremacy. It mattered nothing that Montfort and Blois
had both disappeared from the scene, the one dead and the other
taken by the English. Their wives caught up the swords which had
dropped from the hands of their lords, and the long struggle went
on even more savagely than before.
In the south and east the Blois faction held the country, and
Nantes the capital was garrisoned and occupied by a strong French
army. In the north and west the Montfort party prevailed, for the
island kingdom was at their back and always fresh sails broke the
northern sky-line bearing adventurers from over the channel.
Between these two there lay a broad zone comprising all the center
of the country which was a land of blood and violence, where no
law prevailed save that of the sword. From end to end it was
dotted with castles, some held for one side, some for the other,
and many mere robber strongholds, the scenes of gross and
monstrous deeds, whose brute owners, knowing that they could never
be called to account, made war upon all mankind, and wrung with
rack and with flame the last shilling from all who fell into their
savage hands. The fields had long been untilled. Commerce was
dead. From Rennes in the east to Hennebon in the west, and from
Dinan in the north to Nantes in the south, there was no spot where
a man's life or a woman's honor was safe. Such was the land, full
of darkness and blood, the saddest, blackest spot in Christendom,
into which Knolles and his men were now advancing.
But there was no sadness in the young heart of Nigel, as he rode
by the side of Knolles at the head of a clump of spears, nor did
it seem to him that Fate had led him into an unduly arduous path.
On the contrary, he blessed the good fortune which had sent him
into so delightful a country, and it seemed to him as he listened
to dreadful stories of robber barons, and looked round at the
black scars of war which lay branded upon the fair faces of the
hills, that no hero of romances or trouveur had ever journeyed
through such a land of promise, with so fair a chance of knightly
venture and honorable advancement.
The Red Ferret was one deed toward his vow. Surely a second, and
perhaps a better, was to be found somewhere upon this glorious
countryside. He had borne himself as the others had in the
sea-fight, and could not count it to his credit where he had done
no more than mere duty. Something beyond this was needed for such
a deed as could be laid at the feet of the Lady Mary. But surely
it was to be found here in fermenting war-distracted Brittany.
Then with two done it would be strange if he could not find
occasion for that third one, which would complete his service and
set him free to look her in the face once more. With the great
yellow horse curveting beneath him, his Guildford armor gleaming
in the sun, his sword clanking against his stirrup-iron, and his
father's tough ash-spear in his hand, he rode with a light heart
and a smiling face, looking eagerly to right and to left for any
chance which his good Fate might send.
The road from Dinan to Caulnes, along which the small army was
moving, rose and dipped over undulating ground, with a bare marshy
plain upon the left where the river Rance ran down to the sea,
while upon the right lay a wooded country with a few wretched
villages, so poor and sordid that they had nothing with which to
tempt the spoiler. The peasants had left them at the first
twinkle of a steel cap, and lurked at the edges of the woods,
ready in an instant to dive into those secret recesses known only
to themselves. These creatures suffered sorely at the hands of
both parties, but when the chance came they revenged their wrongs
on either in a savage way which brought fresh brutalities upon
The new-comers soon had a chance of seeing to what lengths they
would go, for in the roadway near to Caulnes they came upon an
English man-at-arms who had been waylaid and slain by them. How
they had overcome him could not be told, but how they had slain
him within his armor was horribly apparent, for they had carried
such a rock as eight men could lift, and had dropped it upon him
as he lay, so that he was spread out in his shattered case like a
crab beneath a stone. Many a fist was shaken at the distant woods
and many a curse hurled at those who haunted them, as the column
of scowling soldiers passed the murdered man, whose badge of the
Molene cross showed him to have been a follower of that House of
Bentley, whose head, Sir Walter, was at that time leader of the
British forces in the country.
Sir Robert Knolles had served in Brittany before, and he marshaled
his men on the march with the skill and caution of the veteran
soldier, the man who leaves as little as possible to chance,
having too steadfast a mind to heed the fool who may think him
overcautious. He had recruited a number of bowmen and men-at-arms
at Dinan; so that his following was now close upon five hundred
men. In front under his own leadership were fifty mounted
lancers, fully armed and ready for any sudden attack. Behind them
on foot came the archers, and a second body of mounted men closed
up the rear. Out upon either flank moved small bodies of cavalry,
and a dozen scouts, spread fanwise, probed every gorge and dingle
in front of the column. So for three days he moved slowly down
the Southern Road.
Sir Thomas Percy and Sir James Astley had ridden to the head of
the column, and Knolles conferred with them as they marched
concerning the plan of their campaign. Percy and Astley were
young and hot-headed with wild visions of dashing deeds and knight
errantry, but Knolles with cold, clear brain and purpose of iron
held ever his object in view.
"By the holy Dunstan and all the saints of Lindisfarne!" cried the
fiery Borderer, "it goes to my heart to ride forward when there
are such honorable chances on either side of us. Have I not heard
that the French are at Evran beyond the river, and is it not sooth
that yonder castle, the towers of which I see above the woods, is
in the hands of a traitor, who is false to his liege lord of
Montford? There is little profit to be gained upon this road, for
the folk seem to have no heart for war. Had we ventured as far
over the marches of Scotland as we now are in Brittany, we should
not have lacked some honorable venture or chance of winning
"You say truth, Thomas," cried Astley, a red-faced and choleric
young man. "It is well certain that the French will not come to
us, and surely it is the more needful that we go to them. In
sooth, any soldier who sees us would smile that we should creep
for three days along this road as though a thousand dangers lay
before us, when we have but poor broken peasants to deal with."
But Robert Knolles shook his head. "We know not what are in these
woods, or behind these hills," said he, "and when I know nothing
it is my wont to prepare for the worst which may befall. It is
but prudence so to do."
"Your enemies might find some harsher name for it," said Astley
with a sneer. "Nay, you need not think to scare me by glaring at
me, Sir Robert, nor will your ill-pleasure change my thoughts. I
have faced fiercer eyes than thine, and I have not feared."
"Your speech, Sir James, is neither courteous nor good," said
Knolles, "and if I were a free man I would cram your words down
your throat with the point of my dagger. But I am here to lead
these men in profit and honor, not to quarrel with every fool who
has not the wit to understand how soldiers should be led. Can you
not see that if I make attempts here and there, as you would have
me do, I shall have weakened my strength before I come to that
part where it can best be spent?"
"And where is that?" asked Percy. "'Fore God, Astley, it is in my
mind that we ride with one who knows more of war than you or I,
and that we would be wise to be guided by his rede. Tell us then
what is in your mind."
"Thirty miles from here," said Knolles, "there is, as I am told, a
fortalice named Ploermel, and within it is one Bambro', an
Englishman, with a good garrison. No great distance from him is
the Castle of Josselin where dwells Robert of Beaumanoir with a
great following of Bretons. It is my intention that we should
join Bambro', and so be in such strength that we may throw
ourselves upon Josselin, and by taking it become the masters of
all mid-Brittany, and able to make head against the Frenchmen in
"Indeed I think that you can do no better," said Percy heartily,
"and I swear to you on jeopardy of my soul that I will stand by
you in the matter! I doubt not that when we come deep into their
land they will draw together and do what they may to make head
against us; but up to now I swear by all the saints of Lindisfarne
that I should have seen more war in a summer's day in Liddesdale
or at the Forest of Jedburgh than any that Brittany has shown us.
Bat see, yonder horsemen are riding in. They are our own
hobblers, are they not? And who are these who are lashed to their
A small troop of mounted bowmen had ridden out of an oak grove
upon the left of the road. They trotted up to where the three
knights had halted. Two wretched peasants whose wrists had been
tied to their leathers came leaping and straining beside the
horses in their effort not to be dragged off their feet. One was
a tall, gaunt, yellow-haired man, the other short and swarthy, but
both so crusted with dirt, so matted and tangled and ragged, that
they were more like beasts of the wood than human beings.
"What is this?" asked Knolles. "Have I not ordered you to leave
the countryfolk at peace?"
The leader of the archers, old Wat of Carlisle, held up a sword, a
girdle and a dagger. "If it please you, fair sir," said he, "I
saw the glint of these, and I thought them no fit tools for hands
which were made for the spade and the plow. But when we had
ridden them down and taken them, there was the Bentley cross upon
each, and we knew that they had belonged to yonder dead Englishman
upon the road. Surely then, these are two of the villains who
have slain him, and it is right that we do justice upon them."
Sure enough, upon sword, girdle and dagger shone the silver Molene
cross which had gleamed on the dead man's armor. Knolles looked
at them and then at the prisoners with a face of stone. At the
sight of those fell eyes they had dropped with inarticulate howls
upon their knees, screaming out their protests in a tongue which
none could understand.
"We must have the roads safe for wandering Englishmen," said
Knolles. "These men must surely die. Hang them to yonder tree."
He pointed to a live-oak by the roadside, and rode onward upon his
way in converse with his fellow-knights. But the old bowman had
ridden after him.
"If it please you, Sir Robert, the bowmen would fain put these men
to death in their own fashion," said he.
"So that they die, I care not how," Knolles answered carelessly,
and looked back no more.
Human life was cheap in those stern days when the footmen of a
stricken army or the crew of a captured ship were slain without
any question or thought of mercy by the victors. War was a rude
game with death for the stake, and the forfeit was always claimed
on the one side and paid on the other without doubt or hesitation.
Only the knight might be spared, since his ransom made him worth
more alive than dead. To men trained in such a school, with death
forever hanging over their own heads, it may be well believed that
the slaying of two peasant murderers was a small matter.
And yet there was special reason why upon this occasion the bowmen
wished to keep the deed in their own hands. Ever since their
dispute aboard the Basilisk, there had been ill-feeling betwixt
Bartholomew the old bald-headed bowyer, and long Ned Widdington
the Dalesman, which had ended in a conflict at Dinan, in which not
only they, but a dozen of their friends had been laid upon the
cobble-stones. The dispute raged round their respective knowledge
and skill with the bow, and now some quick wit amongst the
soldiers had suggested a grim fashion in which it should be put to
the proof, once for all, which could draw the surer shaft.
A thick wood lay two hundred paces from the road upon which the
archers stood. A stretch of smooth grassy sward lay between. The
two peasants were led out fifty yards from the road, with their
faces toward the wood. There they stood, held on a leash, and
casting many a wondering frightened glance over their shoulders at
the preparations which were being made behind them.
Old Bartholomew and the big Yorkshireman had stepped out of the
ranks and stood side by side each with his strung bow in his left
hand and a single arrow in his right. With care they had drawn on
and greased their shooting-gloves and fastened their bracers.
They plucked and cast up a few blades of grass to measure the
wind, examined every small point of their tackle, turned their
sides to the mark, and Widened their feet in a firmer stance.
>From all sides came chaff and counsel from their comrades.
"A three-quarter wind, bowyer!" cried one. "Aim a body's breadth
to the right!"
"But not thy body's breadth, bowyer," laughed another. "Else may
you be overwide."
"Nay, this wind will scarce turn a well-drawn shaft," said a
third. "Shoot dead upon him and you will be clap in the clout."
" Steady, Ned, for the good name of the Dales," cried a
Yorkshireman. " Loose easy and pluck not, or I am five crowns the
"A week's pay on Bartholomew!" shouted another. "Now, old
fat-pate, fail me not!"
"Enough, enough! Stint your talk!" cried the old bowman, Wat of
Carlisle. "Were your shafts as quick as your tongues there would
be no facing you. Do you shoot upon the little one, Bartholomew,
and you, Ned, upon the other. Give them law until I cry the word,
then loose in your own fashion and at your own time. Are you
ready! Hola, there, Hayward, Beddington, let them run!"
The leashes were torn away, and the two men, stooping their heads,
ran madly for the shelter of the wood amid such a howl from the
archers as beaters may give when the hare starts from its form.
The two bowmen, each with his arrow drawn to the pile, stood like
russet statues, menacing, motionless, their eager eyes fixed upon
the fugitives, their bow-staves rising slowly as the distance
between them lengthened. The Bretons were half-way to the wood,
and still Old Wat was silent. It may have been mercy or it may
have been mischief, but at least the chase should have a fair
chance of life. At six score paces he turned his grizzled head at
"Loose!" he cried.
At the word the Yorkshireman's bow-string twanged. It was not for
nothing that he had earned the name of being one of the deadliest
archers of the North and had twice borne away the silver arrow of
Selby. Swift and true flew the fatal shaft and buried itself to
the feather in the curved back of the long yellow-haired peasant.
Without a sound he fell upon his face and lay stone-dead upon the
grass, the one short white plume between his dark shoulders to
mark where Death had smote him.
The Yorkshireman threw his bowstave into the air and danced in
triumph, whilst his comrades roared their fierce delight in a
shout of applause, which changed suddenly into a tempest of
hooting and of laughter.
The smaller peasant, more cunning, than his comrade, had run more
slowly, but with many a backward glance. He had marked his
companion's fate and had waited with keen eyes until he saw the
bowyer loose his string. At the moment he had thrown himself flat
upon the grass and had heard the arrow scream above him,- and seen
it quiver in the turf beyond. Instantly he had sprung to his feet
again and amid wild whoops and halloos from the bowmen had made
for the shelter of the wood. Now he had reached it, and ten score
good paces separated him from the nearest of his persecutors.
Surely they could not reach him here. With the tangled brushwood
behind him he was as safe as a rabbit at the mouth of his burrow.
In the joy of his heart he must needs dance in derision and snap
his fingers at the foolish men who had let him slip. He threw
back his head, howling at them like a dog, and at the instant an
arrow struck him full in the throat and laid him dead among the
bracken. There was a hush of surprised silence and then a loud
cheer burst from the archers.
"By the rood of Beverley!" cried old Wat, "I have not seen a finer
roving shaft this many a year. In my own best day I could not
have bettered it. Which of you loosed it?"
"It was Aylward of Tilford - Samkin Aylward," cried a score of
voices, and the bowman, flushed at his own fame, was pushed to the
"Indeed I would that it had been at a nobler mark," said he. "He
might have gone free for me, but I could not keep my fingers from
the string when he turned to jeer at us."
"I see well that you are indeed a master-bowman," said old Wat,
"and it is comfort to my soul to think that if I fall I leave such
a man behind me to hold high the credit of our craft. Now gather
your shafts and on, for Sir Robert awaits us on the brow of the
All day Knolles and his men marched through the same wild and
deserted country, inhabited only by these furtive creatures, hares
to the strong and wolves to the weak, who hovered in the shadows
of the wood. Ever and anon upon the tops of the hills they caught
a glimpse of horsemen who watched them from a distance and
vanished when approached. Sometimes bells rang an alarm from
villages amongst the hills, and twice they passed castles which
drew up their drawbridges at their approach and lined their walls
with hooting soldiers as they passed. The Englishmen gathered a
few oxen and sheep from the pastures of each, but Knolles had no
mind to break his strength upon stone walls, and so he went upon
Once at St. Meen they passed a great nunnery, girt with a high
gray lichened wall, an oasis of peace in this desert of war, the
black-robed nuns basking in the sun or working in the gardens,
with the strong gentle hand of Holy Church shielding them ever
from evil. The archers doffed caps to them as they passed, for
the boldest and roughest dared not cross that line guarded by the
dire ban and blight which was the one only force in the whole
steel-ridden earth which could stand betwixt the weakling and the
The little army halted at St. Meen and cooked its midday meal. It
had gathered into its ranks again and was about to start, when
Knolles drew Nigel to one side.
"Nigel," said he, "it seems to me that I have seldom set eyes upon
a horse which hath more power and promise of speed than this great
beast of thine."
"It is indeed a noble steed, fair sir," said Nigel. Betwixt him
and his young leader there had sprung up great affection and
respect since the day that they set foot in the Basilisk.
"It will be the better if you stretch his limbs, for he grows
overheavy," said the knight. "Now mark me, Nigel! Yonder betwixt
the ash-tree and the red rock what do you see on the side of the
"There is a white dot upon it. Surely it is a horse."
"I have marked it all morning, Nigel. This horseman has kept ever
upon our flank, spying upon us or waiting to make some attempt
upon us. Now I should be right glad to have a prisoner, for it is
my wish to know something of this country-side, and these peasants
can speak neither French nor English. I would have you linger
here in hiding when we go forward. This man will still follow us.
When he does so, yonder wood will lie betwixt you and him. Do you
ride round it and come upon him from behind. There is broad plain
upon his left, and we will cut him off upon the right. If your
horse be indeed the swifter, then you cannot fail to take him."
Nigel had already sprung down and was tightening Pommers' girth.
"Nay, there is no need of haste, for you cannot start until we are
two miles upon our way. And above all I pray you, Nigel, none of
your knight-errant ways. It is this roan that I want, him and the
news that he can bring me. Think little of your own advancement
and much of the needs of the army. When you get him, ride
westwards upon the sun, and you cannot fail to find the road."
Nigel waited with Pommers under the shadow of the nunnery wall,
horse and man chafing with impatience, whilst above them six
round-eyed innocent nun-faces looked down on this strange and
disturbing vision from the outer world. At last the long column
wound itself out of sight round a curve of the road, and the white
dot was gone from the bare green flank of the hill. Nigel bowed
his steel head to the nuns, gave his bridle a shake, and bounded
off upon his welcome mission. The round-eyed sisters saw yellow
horse and twinkling man sweep round the skirt of the wood, caught
a last glimmer of him through the tree-trunks, and paced slowly
back to their pruning and their planting, their minds filled with
the beauty and the terror of that outer world beyond the high gray
Everything fell out even as Knolles had planned. As Nigel rounded
the oak forest, there upon the farther side of it, with only good
greensward between, was the rider upon the white horse. Already
he was so near that Nigel could see him clearly, a young cavalier,
proud in his bearing, clad in purple silk tunic with a red curling
feather in his low black cap. He wore no armor, but his sword
gleamed at his side. He rode easily and carelessly, as one who
cares for no man, and his eyes were forever fixed upon the English
soldiers on the road. So intent was he upon them that he gave no
thought to his own safety, and it was only when the low thunder of
the great horse's hoofs broke upon his ears that he turned in his
saddle, looked very coolly and steadily at Nigel, then gave his
own bridle a shake and darted off, swift as a hawk, toward the
hills upon the left.
Pommers had met his match that day. The white horse, two parts
Arab, bore the lighter weight, since Nigel was clad in full armor.
For five miles over the open neither gained a hundred yards upon
the other. They had topped the hill and flew down the farther
side, the stranger continually turning in his saddle to have a
look at his pursuer. There was no panic in his flight, but rather
the amused rivalry with which a good horseman who is proud of his
mount contends with one who has challenged him. Below the hill
was a marshy plain, studded with great Druidic stones, some
prostrate, some erect, some bearing others across their tops like
the huge doors of some vanished building. A path ran through the
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