Arthur Conan Doyle
Part 6 out of 8
marsh with green rushes as a danger signal on either side of it.
Across this path many of the huge stones were lying, but the white
horse cleared them in its stride and Pommers followed close upon
his heels. Then came a mile of soft ground where the lighter
weight again drew to the front, but it ended in a dry upland and
once again Nigel gained. A sunken road crossed it, but the white
cleared it with a mighty spring, and again the yellow followed.
Two small hills lay before them with a narrow gorge of deep bushes
between. Nigel saw the white horse bounding chest-deep amid the
Next instant its hind legs were high in the air, and the rider had
been shot from its back. A howl of triumph rose from amidst the
bushes, and a dozen wild figures armed with club and with spear,
rushed upon the prostrate man.
"A moi, Anglais, a moi!" cried a voice, and Nigel saw the young
rider stagger to his feet, strike round him with his sword, and
then fall once more before the rush of his assailants.
There was a comradeship among men of gentle blood and bearing
which banded them together against all ruffianly or unchivalrous
attack. These rude fellows were no soldiers. Their dress and
arms, their uncouth cries and wild assault, marked them as
banditti - such men as had slain the Englishman upon the road.
Waiting in narrow gorges with a hidden rope across the path, they
watched for the lonely horseman as a fowler waits by his
bird-trap, trusting that they could overthrow the steed and then
slay the rider ere he had recovered from his fall.
Such would have been the fate of the stranger, as of so many
cavaliers before him, had Nigel not chanced to be close upon his
heels. In an instant Pommers had burst through the group who
struck at the prostrate man, and in another two of the robbers had
fallen before Nigel's sword. A spear rang on his breastplate, but
one blow shore off its head, and a second that of him who held it.
In vain they thrust at the steel-girt man. His sword played round
them like lightning, and the fierce horse ramped and swooped above
them with pawing iron-shod hoofs and eyes of fire. With cries and
shrieks they flew off to right and left amidst the bushes,
springing over boulders and darting under branches where no
horseman could follow them. The foul crew had gone as swiftly and
suddenly as it had come, and save for four ragged figures littered
amongst the trampled bushes, no sign remaining of their passing.
Nigel tethered Pommers to a thorn-bush and then turned his
attention to the injured man. The white horse had regained his
feet and stood whinnying gently as he looked down on his prostrate
master. A heavy blow, half broken by his sword, had beaten him
down and left a great raw bruise upon his forehead. But a stream
gurgled through the gorge, and a capful of water dashed over his
face brought the senses back to the injured man. He was a mere
stripling, with the delicate features of a woman, and a pair of
great violet-blue eyes which looked up presently with a puzzled
stare into Nigel's face.
"Who are you?" he asked. "Ah yes! I call you to mind. You are
the young Englishman who chased me on the great yellow horse. By
our Lady of Rocamadour whose vernicle is round my neck! I could
not have believed that any horse could have kept at the heels of
Charlemagne so long. But I will wager you a hundred crowns,
Englishman, that I lead you over a five-mile course."
"Nay," said Nigel, "we will wait till you can back a horse ere we
talk of racing it. I am Nigel of Tilford, of the family of
Loring, a squire by rank and the son of a knight. How are you
called, young sir?"
"I also am a squire by rank and the son of a knight. I am Raoul
de la Roche Pierre de Bras, whose father writes himself Lord of
Grosbois, a free vavasor of the noble Count of Toulouse, with the
right of fossa and of furca, the high justice, the middle and the
low." He sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Englishman, you have saved
my life as I would have saved yours, had I seen such yelping dogs
set upon a man of blood and of coat-armor. But now I am yours,
and what is your sweet will?"
" When you are fit to ride, you will come back with me to my
"Alas! I feared that you would say so. Had I taken you, Nigel -
that is your name, is it not? - had I taken you, I would not have
"How then would you have ordered things?" asked Nigel, much taken
with the frank and debonair manner of his captive.
"I would not have taken advantage of such a mischance as has
befallen me which has put me in your power. I would give you a
sword and beat you in fair fight, so that I might send you to give
greeting to my dear lady and show her the deeds which I do for her
"Indeed, your words are both good and fair," said Nigel. "By
Saint Paul! I cannot call to mind that I have ever met a man who
bore himself better. But since I am in my armor and you without,
I see not how we can debate the matter."
"Surely, gentle Nigel, you could doff your armor."
"Then have I only my underclothes."
"Nay, there shall be no unfairness there, for I also will very
gladly strip to my underclothes."
Nigel looked wistfully at the Frenchman; but he shook his head.
"Alas! it may not be," said he. "The last words that Sir Robert
said to me were that I was to bring you to his side, for he would
have speech with you. Would that I could do what you ask, for I
also have a fair lady to whom I would fain send you. What use are
you to me, Raoul, since I have gained no honor in the taking of
you? How is it with you now?"
The young Frenchman had risen to his feet. "Do not take my
sword," he said. "I am yours, rescue or no rescue. I think now
that I could mount my horse, though indeed my head still rings
like a cracked bell."
Nigel had lost all traces of his comrades; but he remembered Sir
Robert's words that he should ride upon the sun with the certainty
that sooner or later he would strike upon the road. As they
jogged slowly along over undulating hills, the Frenchman shook off
his hurt and the two chatted merrily together.
"I had but just come from France," said he, "and I had hoped to
win honor in this country, for I have ever heard that the English
are very hardy men and excellent people to fight with. My mules
and my baggage are at Evran; but I rode forth to see what I could
see, and I chanced upon your army moving down the road, so I
coasted it in the hopes of some profit or adventure. Then you
came after me and I would have given all the gold goblets upon my
father's table if I had my harness so that I could have turned
upon you. I have promised the Countess Beatrice that I will send
her an Englishman or two to kiss her hands."
"One might perchance have a worse fate," said Nigel. "Is this
fair dame your betrothed?"
"She is my love," answered the Frenchman. "We are but waiting for
the Count to be slain in the wars, and then we mean to marry. And
this lady of thine, Nigel? I would that I could see her."
"Perchance you shall, fair sir," said Nigel, "for all that I have
seen of you fills me with desire to go further with you. It is in
my mind that we might turn this thing to profit and to honor, for
when Sir Robert has spoken with you, I am free to do with you as I
"And what will you do, Nigel?"
"We shall surely try some small deed upon each other, so that
either I shall see the Lady Beatrice, or you the Lady Mary. Nay,
thank me not, for like yourself, I have come to this country in
search of honor, and I know not where I may better find it than at
the end of your sword-point. My good lord and master, Sir John
Chandos, has told me many times that never yet did he meet French
knight nor squire that he did not find great pleasure and profit
from their company, and now I very clearly see that he has spoken
For an hour these two friends rode together, the Frenchman pouring
forth the praises of his lady, whose glove he produced from one
pocket, her garter from his vest, and her shoe from his
saddle-bag. She was blond, and when he heard that Mary was dark,
he would fain stop then and there to fight the question of color.
He talked too of his great chateau at Lauta, by the head waters of
the pleasant Garonne; of the hundred horses in the stables, the
seventy hounds in the kennels, the fifty hawks in the mews. His
English friend should come there when the wars were over, and what
golden days would be theirs! Nigel too, with his English coldness
thawing before this young sunbeam of the South, found himself
talking of the heather slopes of Surrey, of the forest of Woolmer,
even of the sacred chambers of Cosford.
But as they rode onward towards the sinking sun, their thoughts
far away in their distant homes, their horses striding together,
there came that which brought their minds back in an instant to
the perilous hillsides of Brittany.
It was the long blast of a trumpet blown from somewhere on the
farther side of a ridge toward which they were riding. A second
long-drawn note from a distance answered it.
"It is your camp," said the Frenchman.
"Nay," said Nigel; "we have pipes with us and a naker or two, but
I have heard no trumpet-call from our ranks. It behooves us to
take heed, for we know not what may be before us. Ride this way,
I pray you, that we may look over and yet be ourselves unseen."
Some scattered boulders crowned the height, and from behind them
the two young Squires could see the long rocky valley beyond.
Upon a knoll was a small square building with a battlement round
it. Some distance from it towered a great dark castle, as massive
as the rocks on which it stood, with one strong keep at the
corner, and four long lines of machicolated walls. Above, a great
banner flew proudly in the wind, with some device which glowed red
in the setting sun. Nigel shaded his eyes and stared with
"It is not the arms of England, nor yet the lilies of France, nor
is it the ermine of Brittany," said he. "He who holds this castle
fights for his own hand, since his own device flies above it.
Surely it is a head gules on an argent field."
"The bloody head on a silver tray!" cried the Frenchman. "Was I
not warned against him? This is not a man, friend Nigel. It is a
monster who wars upon English, French and all Christendom. Have
you not heard of the Butcher of La Brohiniere?"
"Nay, I have not heard of him."
" His name is accursed in France. Have I not been told also that
he put to death this very year Gilles de St. Pol, a friend of the
"Yes, in very truth it comes back to my mind now that I heard
something of this matter in Calais before we started."
"Then there he dwells, and God guard you if ever you pass under
yonder portal, for no prisoner has ever come forth alive! Since
these wars began he hath been a king to himself, and the plunder
of eleven years lies in yonder cellars. How can justice come to
him, when no man knows who owns the land? But when we have packed
you all back to your island, by the Blessed Mother of God, we have
a heavy debt to pay to the man who dwells in yonder pile!"
But even as they watched, the trumpet-call burst forth once more.
It came not from the castle but from the farther end of the
valley. It was answered by a second call from the walls. Then in
a long, straggling line there came a wild troop of marauders
streaming homeward from some foray. In the van, at the head of a
body of spearmen, rode a tall and burly man, clad in brazen armor,
so that he shone like a golden image in the slanting rays of the
sun. His helmet had been loosened from his gorget and was held
before him on his horse's neck. A great tangled beard flowed over
his breastplate, and his hair hung down as far behind. A squire
at his elbow bore high the banner of the bleeding head. Behind
the spearmen were a line of heavily laden mules, and on either
side of them a drove of poor country folk, who were being herded
into the castle. Lastly came a second strong troop of mounted
spearmen, who conducted a score or more of prisoners who marched
together in a solid body.
Nigel stared at them and then, springing on his horse, he urged it
along the shelter of the ridge so as to reach unseen a spot which
was close to the castle gate. He had scarce taken up his new
position when the cavalcade reached the drawbridge, and amid yells
of welcome from those upon the wall, filed in a thin line across
it. Nigel stared hard once more at the prisoners in the rear, and
so absorbed was he by the sight that he had passed the rocks and
was standing sheer upon the summit.
"By Saint Paul!" he cried, "it must indeed be so. I see their
russet jackets. They are English archers!"
As he spoke, the hindmost one, a strongly built, broad-shouldered
man, looked round and saw the gleaming figure above him upon the
hill, with open helmet, and the five roses glowing upon his
breast. With a sweep of his hands he had thrust his guardians
aside and for a moment was clear of the throng.
"Squire Loring! Squire Loring!" he cried. "It is I, Aylward the
archer! It is I, Samkin Aylward!" The next minute a dozen hands
had seized him, his cries were muffled with a gag, and he was
hurled, the last of the band, through the black and threatening
archway of the gate. Then with a clang the two iron wings came
together, the portcullis swung upward, and captives and captors,
robbers and booty, were all swallowed up within the grim and
XX. HOW THE ENGLISH ATTEMPTED THE CASTLE OF LA BROHINIERE
For some minutes Nigel remained motionless upon the crest of the
hill, his heart, like lead within him, and his eyes fixed upon the
huge gray walls which contained his unhappy henchman. He was
roused by a sympathetic hand upon his shoulder and the voice of
his young prisoner in his ear.
"Peste!" said he. "They have some of your birds in their cage,
have they not? What then, my friend? Keep your heart high! Is
it not the chance of war, to-day to them, to-morrow to thee, and
death at last for us all? And yet I had rather they were in any
hands than those of Oliver the Butcher."
"By Saint Paul, we cannot suffer it!" cried Nigel distractedly.
"This man has come with me from my own home. He has stood between
me and death before now. It goes to my very heart that he should
call upon me in vain. I pray you, Raoul, to use your wits, for
mine are all curdled in my head. Tell me what I should do and how
I may bring him help."
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders. "As easy to get a lamb
unscathed out of a wolves' lair as a prisoner safe from La
Brohiniere. Nay, Nigel, whither do you go? Have you indeed taken
leave of your wits?"
The Squire had spurred his horse down the hillside and never
halted until he was within a bowshot of the gate. The French
prisoner followed hard behind him, with a buzz of reproaches and
"You are mad, Nigel!" he. cried. "What do you hope to do then?
Would you carry the castle with your own hands? Halt, man, halt,
in the name of the Virgin!"
But Nigel had no plan in his head and only obeyed the fevered
impulse to do something to ease his thoughts. He paced his horse
up and down, waving his spear, and shouting insults and challenges
to the garrison. Over the high wall a hundred jeering faces
looked down upon him. So rash and wild was his action that it
seemed to those within to mean some trap, so the drawbridge was
still held high and none ventured forth to seize him. A few
long-range arrows pattered on the rocks, and then with a deep
booming sound a huge stone, hurled from a mangonel, sang over the
head of the two Squires and crushed into splinters amongst the
boulders behind them. The Frenchman seized Nigel's bridle and
forced him farther from the gateway.
"By the dear Virgin!" he cried, "I care not to have those pebbles
about my ears, yet I cannot go back alone, so it is very clear,
my, crazy comrade, that you must come also. Now we are beyond
their reach! But see, my friend Nigel, who are those who crown
The sun had sunk behind the western ridge, but the glowing sky was
fringed at its lower edge by a score of ruddy twinkling points. A
body of horsemen showed hard and black upon the bare hill. Then
they dipped down the slope into the valley, whilst a band of
footmen followed behind.
"They are my people," cried Nigel joyously. "Come, my friend,
hasten, that we may take counsel what we shall do."
Sir Robert Knolles rode a bowshot in front of his men, and his
brow was as black as night. Beside him, with crestfallen face,
his horse bleeding, his armor dinted and soiled, was the
hot-headed knight, Sir James Astley. A fierce discussion raged
"I have done my devoir as best I might," said Astley. "Alone I
had ten of them at my sword-point. I know not how I have lived to
"What is your devoir to me? Where are my thirty bowmen?" cried
Knolles in bitter wrath. "Ten lie dead upon the ground and twenty
are worse than dead in yonder castle. And all because you must
needs show all men how bold you are, and ride into a bushment such
as a child could see. Alas for my own folly that ever I should
have trusted such a one as you with the handling of men!"
"By God, Sir Robert, you shall answer to me for those words!"
cried Astley with a choking voice. "Never has a man dared to
speak to me as you have done this day."
"As long as I hold the King's order I shall be master, and by the
Lord I will hang you, James, on a near tree if I have further
cause of offense! How now, Nigel? I see by yonder white horse
that you at least have not failed me. I will speak with you anon.
Percy, bring up your men, and let us gather round this castle,
for, as I hope for my soul's salvation, I win not leave it until I
have my archers, or the head of him who holds them."
That night the English lay thick round the fortress of La
Brohiniere so that none might come forth from it. But if none
could come forth it was hard to see how any could win their way
in, for it was full of men, the walls were high and strong, and a
deep dry ditch girt it round. But the hatred and fear which its
master had raised over the whole country-side could now be plainly
seen, for during the night the brushwood men and the villagers
came in from all parts with offers of such help as they could give
for the intaking of the castle. Knolles set them cutting bushes
and tying them into fagots. When morning came he rode out before
the wall and he held counsel with his knights and squires as to
how he should enter in.
"By noon," said he, "we shall have so many fagots that we may make
our way over the ditch. Then we will beat in the gates and so win
The young Frenchman had come with Nigel to the conference, and
now, amid the silence which followed the leader's proposal, he
asked if he might be heard. He was clad in the brazen armor which
Nigel had taken from the Red Ferret.
"It may be that it is not for me to join in your counsel," said
he, "seeing that I am a prisoner and a Frenchman. But this man is
the enemy of all, and we of France owe him a debt even as you do,
since many a good Frenchman has died in his cellars. For this
reason I crave to be heard."
"We will hear you," said Knolles.
"I have come from Evran yesterday," said he. "Sir Henry
Spinnefort, Sir Peter La Roye and many other brave knights and
squires lie there, with a good company of men, all of whom would
very gladly join with you to destroy this butcher and his castle,
for it is well known amongst us that his deeds are neither good
nor fair. There are also bombards which we could drag over the
hills, and so beat down this iron gate. If you so order it I will
ride to Evran and bring my companions back with me."
"Indeed, Robert," said Percy, "it is in my mind that this
Frenchman speaks very wisely and well."
"And when we have taken the castle - what then?" asked Knolles.
"Then you could go upon your way, fair sir, and we upon ours. Or
if it please you better you could draw together on yonder hill and
we on this one, so that the valley lies between us. Then if any
cavalier wished to advance himself or to shed a vow and exalt his
lady, an opening might be found for him. Surely it would be shame
if so many brave men drew together and no small deed were to come
Nigel clasped his captive's hand to show his admiration and
esteem, but Knolles shook his head.
"Things are not ordered thus, save in the tales of the minstrels,"
said he. "I have no wish that your people at Evran should know
our numbers or our plans. I am not in this land for knight
errantry, but I am here to make head against the King's enemies.
Has no one aught else to say?"
Percy pointed to the small outlying fortalice upon the knoll, on
which also flew the flag of the bloody head. "This smaller
castle, Robert, is of no great strength and cannot hold more than
fifty men. It is built, as I conceive it, that no one should
seize the high ground and shoot down into the other. Why should
we not turn all our strength upon it, since it is the weaker of
But again the young leader shook his head. "If I should take it,"
said he, "I am still no nearer to my desire, nor will it avail me
in getting back my bowmen. It may cost a score of men, and what
profit shall I have from it? Had I bombards, I might place them
on yonder hill, but having none it is of little use to me."
"It may be," said Nigel, "that they have scant food or water, and
so must come forth to fight us."
"I have made inquiry of the peasants," Knolles answered, "and they
are of one mind that there is a well within the castle, and good
store of food. Nay, gentlemen, there is no way before us save to
take it by arms, and no spot where we can attempt it save through
the great gate. Soon we will have so many fagots that we can cast
them down into the ditch, and so win our way across. I have
ordered them to cut a pine-tree on the hill and shear the branches
so that we may beat down the gate with it. But what is now amiss,
and why do they run forward to the castle?"
A buzz had risen from the soldiers in the camp, and they all
crowded in one direction, rushing toward the castle wall. The
knights and squires rode after them, and when in view of the main
gate, the cause of the disturbance lay before them. On the tower
above the portal three men were standing in the garb of English
archers, ropes round their necks and their hands bound behind
them. Their comrades surged below them with cries of recognition
and of pity.
"It is Ambrose!" cried one. "Surely it is Ambrose of Ingleton."
"Yes, in truth, I see his yellow hair. And the other, him with
the beard, it is Lockwood of Skipton. Alas for his wife who keeps
the booth by the bridge-head of Ribble! I wot not who the third
"It is little Johnny Alspaye, the youngest man in the company,"
cried old Wat, with the tears running down his cheeks, "'Twas I
who brought him from his home. Alas! Alas! Foul fare the day
that ever I coaxed him from his mother's side that he might perish
in a far land."
There was a sudden flourish of a trumpet and the drawbridge fell.
Across it strode a portly man with a faded herald's coat. He
halted warily upon the farther side and his voice boomed like a
drum. "I would speak with your leader." he cried.
Knolles rode forward.
"Have I your knightly word that I may advance unscathed with all
courteous entreaty as befits a herald?"
Knolles nodded his head.
The man came slowly and pompously forward. "I am the messenger
and liege servant," said he, "of the high baron, Oliver de St.
Yvon, Lord of La Brohiniere. He bids me to say that if you
continue your journey and molest him no further he will engage
upon his part to make no further attack upon you. As to the men
whom he holds, he will enroll them in his own honorable service,
for he has need of longbowmen, and has heard much of their skill.
But if you constrain him or cause him further displeasure by
remaining before his castle he hereby gives you warning that he
will hang these three men over his gateway and every morning
another three until all have been slain. This he has sworn upon
the rood of Calvery, and as he has said so he will do upon
jeopardy of his soul."
Robert Knolles looked grimly at the messenger. "You may thank the
saints that you have had my promise," said he, "else would I have
stripped that lying tabard from thy back and the skin beneath it
from thy bones, that thy master might have a fitting answer to his
message. Tell him that I hold him and all that are within his
castle as hostage for the lives of my men, and that should he dare
to do them scathe he and every man that is with him shall hang
upon his battlements. Go, and go quickly, less my patience fail.
There was that in Knolles' cold gray eyes and in his manner of
speaking those last words which sent the portly envoy back at a
quicker gait than he had come. As he vanished into the gloomy
arch of the gateway the drawbridge swung up with creak and rattle
A few minutes later a rough-bearded fellow stepped out over the
portal where the condemned archers stood and seizing the first by
the shoulders he thrust him over the wall. A cry burst from the
man's lips and a deep groan from those of his comrades below as he
fell with a jerk which sent him half-way up to the parapet again,
and then after dancing like a child's toy swung slowly backward
and forward with limp limbs and twisted neck.
The hangman turned and bowed in mock reverence to the spectators
beneath him. He had not yet learned in a land of puny archers how
sure and how strong is the English bow. Half a dozen men, old Wat
amongst them, had run forward toward the wall. They were too late
to save their comrades, but at least their deaths were speedily
The man was in the act of pushing off the second prisoner when an
arrow crashed through his head, and he fell stone dead upon the
parapet. But even in falling he had given the fatal thrust and a
second russet figure swung beside the first against the dark
background of the castle wall.
There only remained the young lad, Johnny Alspaye, who stood
shaking with fear, an abyss below him, and the voices of those who
would hurl him over it behind. There was a long pause before
anyone would come forth to dare those deadly arrows. Then a
fellow, crouching double, ran forward from the shelter, keeping
the young archer's body as a shield between him and danger.
"Aside, John! Aside!" cried his comrades from below.
The youth sprang as far as the rope would allow him, and slipped
it half over his face in the effort. Three arrows flashed past
his side, and two of them buried themselves in the body of the man
behind. A howl of delight burst from the spectators as he dropped
first upon his knees and then upon his face. A life for a life
was no bad bargain.
But it was only a short respite which the skill of his comrades
had given to the young archer. Over the parapet there appeared a
ball of brass, then a pair of great brazen shoulders, and lastly
the full figure of an armored man. He walked to the edge and they
heard his hoarse guffaw of laughter as the arrows clanged and
clattered against his impenetrable mail. He slapped his
breast-plate, as he jeered at them. Well he knew that at the
distance no dart ever sped by mortal hands could cleave through
his plates of metal. So he stood, the great burly Butcher of La
Brohiniere, with head uptossed, laughing insolently at his foes.
Then with slow and ponderous tread he walked toward his boy
victim, seized him by the ear, and dragged him across so that the
rope might be straight. Seeing that the noose had slipped across
the face, he tried to push it down, but the mail glove hampering
him he pulled it off, and grasped the rope above the lad's head
with his naked hand.
Quick as a flash old Wat's arrow had sped, and the Butcher sprang
back with a howl of pain, his hand skewered by a cloth-yard shaft.
As he shook it furiously at his enemies a second grazed his
knuckles. With a brutal kick of his metal-shod feet he hurled
young Alspaye over the edge, looked down for a few moments at his
death agonies, and then walked slowly from the parapet, nursing
his dripping hand, the arrows still ringing loudly upon his
back-piece as he went.
The archers below, enraged at the death of their comrades, leaped
and howled like a pack of ravening wolves.
"By Saint Dunstan," said Percy, looking round at their flushed
faces, "if ever we are to carry it now is the moment, for these
men will not be stopped if hate can take them forward."
"You are right, Thomas!" cried Knolles. "Gather together twenty
men-at-arms each with his shield to cover him. Astley, do you
place the bowmen so that no head may show at window or parapet.
Nigel, I pray you to order the countryfolk forward with their
fardels of fagots. Let the others bring up the lopped pine-tree
which lies yonder behind the horse lines. Ten men-at-arms can
bear it on the right, and ten on the left, having shields over
their heads. The gate once down, let every man rush in. And God
help the better cause!"
Swiftly and yet quietly the dispositions were made, for these were
old soldiers whose daily trade was war. In little groups the
archers formed in front of each slit or crevice in the walls,
whilst others scanned the battlements with wary eyes, and sped an
arrow at every face which gleamed for an instant above them. The
garrison shot forth a shower of crossbow bolts and an occasional
stone from their engine, but so deadly was the hail which rained
upon them that they had no time to dwell upon their aim, and their
discharges were wild and harmless. Under cover of the shafts of
the bowmen a line of peasants ran unscathed to the edge of the
ditch, each hurling in the bundle which he bore in his arms, and
then hurrying back for another one. In twenty minutes a broad
pathway of fagots lay level with the ground upon one side and the
gate upon the other. With the loss of two peasants slain by bolts
and one archer crushed by a stone, the ditch had been filled up.
All was ready for the battering-ram.
With a shout, twenty picked men rushed forward with the pine-tree
under their arms, the heavy end turned toward the gate. The
arbalesters on the tower leaned over and shot into the midst of
them, but could not stop their advance. Two dropped, but the
others raising their shields ran onward still shouting, crossed
the bridge of fagots, and came with a thundering crash against the
door. It splintered from base to arch, but kept its place.
Swinging their mighty weapon, the storming party thudded and
crashed upon the gate, every blow loosening and widening the
cracks which rent it from end to end. The three knights, with
Nigel, the Frenchman Raoul and the other squires, stood beside the
ram, cheering on the men, and chanting to the rhythm of the swing
with a loud "Ha!" at every blow. A great stone loosened from the
parapet roared through the air and struck Sir James Astley and
another of the attackers, but Nigel and the Frenchman had taken
their places in an instant, and the ram thudded and smashed with
greater energy than ever. Another blow and another! the lower
part was staving inward, but the great central bar still held
firm. Surely another minute would beat it from its sockets.
But suddenly from above there came a great deluge of liquid. A
hogshead of it had been tilted from the battlement until soldiers,
bridge, and ram were equally drenched in yellow slime. Knolles
rubbed his gauntlet in it, held it to his visor, and smelled it.
"Back, back!" he cried. " Back before it is too late!"
There was a small barred window above their heads at the side of
the gate. A ruddy glare shone through it, and then a blazing
torch was tossed down upon them. In a moment the oil had caught
and the whole place was a sheet of flame. The fir-tree that they
carried, the fagots beneath them, their very weapons, were all in
To right and left the men sprang down into the dry ditch, rolling
with screams upon the ground in their endeavor to extinguish the
flames. The knights and squires protected by their armor strove
hard, stamping and slapping, to help those who had but leather
jacks to shield their bodies. From above a ceaseless shower of
darts and of stones were poured down upon them, while on the other
hand the archers, seeing the greatness of the danger, ran up to
the edge of the ditch, and shot fast and true at every face which
showed above the wall.
Scorched, wearied and bedraggled, the remains of the storming
party clambered out of the ditch as best they could, clutching at
the friendly hands held down to them, and so limped their way back
amid the taunts and howls of their enemies. A long pile of
smoldering cinders was all that remained of their bridge, and on
it lay Astley and six other red-hot men glowing in their armor.
Knolles clinched his hands as he looked back at the ruin that was
wrought, and then surveyed the group of men who stood or lay
around him nursing their burned limbs and scowling up at the
exultant figures who waved on the castle wall. Badly scorched
himself, the young leader had no thought for his own injuries in
the rage and grief which racked his soul. "We will build another
bridge," he cried. "Set the peasants binding fagots once more."
But a thought had flashed through Nigel's mind. "See, fair sir,"
said he. "The nails of yonder door are red-hot and the wood as
white as ashes. Surely we can break our way through it."
"By the Virgin, you speak truly!" cried the French Squire. "If we
can cross the ditch the gate will not stop us. Come, Nigel, for
our fair ladies' sakes, I will race you who will reach it first,
England or France."
Alas for all the wise words of the good Chandos! Alas for all the
lessons in order and discipline learned from the wary Knolles. In
an instant, forgetful of all things but this noble challenge,
Nigel was running at the top of his speed for the burning gate.
Close at his heels was the Frenchman, blowing and gasping, as he
rushed along in his brazen armor. Behind came a stream of howling
archers and men-at-arms, like a flood which has broken its dam.
Down they slipped into the ditch, rushed across it, and clambered
on each other's backs up the opposite side. Nigel, Raoul and two
archers gained a foothold in front of the burning gate at the same
moment. With blows and kicks they burst it to pieces, and dashed
with a yell of triumph through the dark archway beyond. For a
moment they thought with mad rapture that the castle was carried.
A dark tunnel lay before them, down which they rushed. But alas!
at the farther end it was blocked by a second gateway as strong as
that which had been burned. In vain they beat upon it with their
swords and axes. On each side the tunnel was pierced with slits,
and the crossbow bolts discharged at only a few yards' distance
crashed through armor as if it were cloth and laid man after man
upon the stones. They raged and leaped before the great
iron-clamped barrier, but the ;wall itself was as easy to tear
It was bitter to draw back; but it was madness to remain. Nigel
looked round and saw that half his men were down. At the same
moment Raoul sank with a gasp at his feet, a bolt driven to its
socket through the links of the camail which guarded his neck.
Some of the archers, seeing that certain death awaited them, were
already running back to escape from the fatal passage.
"By Saint Paul!" cried Nigel hotly. "Would you leave our wounded
where this butcher may lay his hands upon them? Let the archers
shoot inwards and hold them back from the slits. Now let each man
raise one of our comrades, lest we leave our honor in the gate of
With a mighty effort he had raised Raoul upon his shoulders and
staggered with him to the edge of the ditch. Several men were
waiting below where the steep bank shield them from the arrows,
and to them Nigel handed down his wounded friend, and each archer
in turn did the same. Again and again Nigel went back until no
one lay in the tunnel save seven who had died there. Thirteen
wounded were laid in the shelter of the ditch, and there they must
remain until night came to cover them. Meanwhile the bowmen on
the farther side protected them from attack, and also prevented
the enemy from all attempts to build up the outer gate. The
gaping smoke-blackened arch was all that they could show for a
loss of thirty men, but that at least Knolles was determined to
Burned and bruised, but unconscious of either pain or fatigue for
the turmoil of his spirit within him, Nigel knelt by the Frenchman
and loosened his helmet. The girlish face of the young Squire was
white as chalk, and the haze of death was gathering over his
violet eyes, but a faint smile played round his lips as he looked
up at his English comrade.
"I shall never see Beatrice again," he whispered. "I pray you,
Nigel, that when there is a truce you will journey as far as my
father's chateau and tell him how his son died. Young Gaston will
rejoice, for to him come the land and the coat, the war-cry and
the profit. See them, Nigel, and tell them that I was as forward
as the others."
"Indeed Raoul, no man could have carried himself with more honor
or won more worship than you have done this day. I will do your
behest when the time comes."
"Surely you are happy, Nigel," the dying Squire murmured, "for
this day has given you one more deed which you may lay at the feet
of your lady-love."
"It might have been so had we carried the gate," Nigel answered
sadly; "but by Saint Paul! I cannot count it a deed where I have
come back with my purpose unfulfilled. But this is no time,
Raoul, to talk of my small affairs. If we take the castle and I
bear a good part in it, then perchance all this may indeed avail."
The Frenchman sat up with that strange energy which comes often as
the harbinger of death. "You will win your Lady Mary, Nigel, and
your great deeds will be not three but a score, so that in all
Christendom there shall be no man of blood and coat-armor who has
not heard your name and your fame. This I tell you - I, Raoul de
la Roche Pierre de Bras, dying upon the field of honor. And now
kiss me, sweet friend, and lay me back, for the mists close round
me and I am gone!"
With tender hands the Squire lowered his comrade's head, but even
as he did so there came a choking rush of blood, and the soul had
passed. So died a gallant cavalier of France, and Nigel as he
knelt in the ditch beside him prayed that his own end might be as
noble and as debonair.
XXI. HOW THE SECOND MESSENGER WENT TO COSFORD
Under cover of night the wounded men were lifted from the ditch
and carried back, whilst pickets of archers were advanced to the
very gate so that none should rebuild it. Nigel, sick at heart
over his own failure, the death of his prisoner and his fears for
Aylward, crept back into the camp, but his cup was not yet full,
for Knolles was waiting for him with a tongue which cut like a
whip-lash. Who was he, a raw squire, that he should lead an
attack without orders? See what his crazy knight errantry had
brought about. Twenty men had been destroyed by it and nothing
gained. Their blood was on his head. Chandos should hear of his
conduct. He should be sent back to England when the castle had
Such were the bitter words of Knolles, the more bitter because
Nigel felt in his heart that he had indeed done wrong, and that
Chandos would have said the same though, perchance, in kinder
words. He listened in silent respect, as his duty was, and then
having saluted his leader he withdrew apart, threw himself down
amongst the bushes, and wept the hottest tears of his life,
sobbing bitterly with his face between his hands. He had striven
hard, and yet everything had gone wrong with him. He was bruised,
burned and aching from head to foot. Yet so high is the spirit
above the body that all was nothing compared to the sorrow and
shame which racked his soul.
But a little thing changed the current of his thoughts and brought
some peace to his mind. He had slipped off his mail gauntlets,
and as he did so his fingers lighted upon the tiny bangle which
Mary had fastened there when they stood together upon St.
Catharine's Hill on the Guildford Road. He remembered the motto
curiously worked in filigree of gold. It ran: "Fais ce que dois,
adviegne que pourra - c'est commande au chevalier."
The words rang in his weary brain. He had done what seemed right,
come what might. It had gone awry, it is true; but all things
human may do that. If he had carried the castle, he felt that
Knolles would have forgiven and forgotten all else. If he had not
carried it, it was no fault of his. No man could have done more.
If Mary could see she would surely have approved. Dropping into
sleep, he saw her dark face, shining with pride and with pity,
stooping over him as he lay. She stretched out her hand in his
dream and touched him on the shoulder. He sprang up and rubbed
his eyes, for fact had woven itself into dream in the strange way
that it does, and some one was indeed leaning over him in the
gloom, and shaking him from his slumbers. But the gentle voice
and soft touch of the Lady Mary had changed suddenly to the harsh
accents and rough grip of Black Simon, the fierce Norfolk
"Surely you are the Squire Loring," he said, peering close to his
face in the darkness.
"I am he. What then?"
"I have searched through the camp for you, but when I saw the
great horse tethered near these bushes, I thought you would be
found hard by. I would have a word with you."
"This man Aylward the bowman was my friend, and it is the nature
that God has given me to love my friends even as I hate my foes.
He is also thy servant, and it has seemed to me that you love him
"I have good cause so to do."
"Then you and I, Squire Loring, have more reason to strive on his
behalf than any of these others, who think more of taking the
castle than of saving those who are captives within. Do you not
see that such a man as this robber lord would, when all else had
failed him, most surely cut the throats of his prisoners at the
last instant before the castle fell, knowing well that come what
might he would have short shrift himself ? Is that not certain?"
"By Saint Paul! I had not thought of it."
"I was with you, hammering at the inner gate," said Simon, "and
yet once when I thought that it was giving way I said in my heart:
`Good-by, Samkin! I shall never see you more.' This Baron has
gall in his soul, even as I have myself, and do you think that I
would give up my prisoners alive, if I were constrained so to do?
No, no; had we won our way this day it would have been the
death-stroke for them all."
"It may be that you are right, Simon," said Nigel, "and the
thought of it should assuage our grief. But if we cannot save
them by taking the castle, then surely they are lost indeed."
"It may be so, or it may not," Simon answered slowly. "It is in
my mind that if the castle were taken very suddenly, and in such a
fashion that they could not foresee it, then perchance we might
get the prisoners before they could do them scathe."
Nigel bent forward eagerly, his hand on the soldier's arm.
"You have some plan in your mind, Simon. Tell me what it is."
"I had wished to tell Sir Robert, but he is preparing the assault
for to-morrow and will not be turned from his purpose. I have
indeed a plan, but whether it be good or not I cannot say until I
have tried it. But first I will tell you what put it into my
thoughts. Know then that this morning when I was in yonder ditch
I marked one of their men upon the wall. He was a big man with a
white face, red hair and a touch of Saint Anthony's fire upon the
"But what has this to do with Aylward?"
"I will show you. This evening after the assault I chanced to
walk with some of my fellows, round yonder small fort upon the
knoll to see if we could spy a weak spot in it. Some of them came
to the wall to curse us, and among them whom should I see but a
big man with a white face, red hair and a touch of Anthony's fire
upon his cheek? What make you of that, Squire Nigel?"
"That this man had crossed from the castle to the fort."
"In good sooth, it must indeed be so. There are not two such
ken-speckled men in the world. But if he crossed from the castle
to the fort, it was not above the ground, for our own people were
"By Saint Paul! I see your meaning!" cried Nigel. "It is in your
mind that there is a passage under the earth from one to the
"I am well sure of it."
"Then if we should take the small fort we may pass down this
tunnel, and so carry the great castle also."
"Such a thing might happen," said Simon, "and yet it is dangerous
also, for surely those in the castle would hear our assault upon
the fort and so be warned to bar the passage against us, and to
slay the prisoners before we could come."
"What then is your rede?"
"Could we find where the tunnel lay, Squire Nigel, I know not what
is to prevent us from digging down upon it and breaking into it so
that both fort and castle are at our mercy before either knows
that we are there."
Nigel clapped his hands with joy. "'Fore God!" he cried. "It is
a most noble plan! But alas! Simon, I see not how we can tell
the course of this passage or where we should dig."
"I have peasants yonder with spades," said Simon. "There are two
of my friends, Harding of Barnstable and West-country John who are
waiting for us with their gear. If you will come to lead us,
Squire Nigel, we are ready to venture our bodies in the attempt."
What would Knolles say in case they failed? The thought flashed
through Nigel's mind, but another came swiftly behind it. He
would not venture further unless he found hopes of success. And
if he did venture further he would put his life upon it. Giving
that, he made amends for all errors. And if on the other hand
success crowned their efforts, then Knolles would forgive his
failure at the gateway. A minute later, every doubt banished from
his mind, he was making his way through the darkness under the
guidance of Black Simon.
Outside the camp the two other men-at-arms were waiting for them,
and the four advanced together. Presently a little group of
figures loomed up in the darkness. It was a cloudy night, and a
thin rain was falling which obscured both the castle and the fort;
but a stone had been placed by Simon in the daytime which assured
that they were between the two.
"Is blind Andreas there?" asked Simon.
"Yes, kind sir, I am here," said a voice.
"This man," said Simon, "was once rich and of good repute, but he
was beggared by this robber lord, who afterwards put out his eyes
so that he has lived for many years in darkness at the charity of
"How can he help us in our enterprise if he be indeed blind?"
"It is for that very reason, fair lord, that he can be of greater
service than any other man," Simon answered; "for it often happens
that when a man has lost a sense the good God will strengthen
those that remain. Hence it is that Andreas has such ears that he
can hear the sap in the trees or the cheep of the mouse in its
burrow. He has come to help us to find the tunnel."
"And I have found it," said the blind man proudly. "Here I have
placed my staff upon the line of it. Twice as I lay there with my
ear to the ground I have heard footsteps pass beneath me."
"I trust you make no mistake, old man," said Nigel.
For answer the blind man raised his staff and smote twice upon the
ground, once to the right and once to the left. The one gave a
dull thud, the other a hollow boom.
"Can you not hear that?" he asked. "Will you ask me now if I make
"Indeed, we are much beholden to you!" cried Nigel. "Let the
peasants dig then, and as silently as they may. Do you keep your
ear upon the ground, Andreas, so that if anyone pass beneath us we
shall be warned."
So, amid the driving rain, the little group toiled in the
darkness. The blind man lay silent, flat upon his face, and twice
they heard his warning hiss and stopped their work, whilst some
one passed beneath. In an hour they had dug down to a stone arch
which was clearly the outer side of the tunnel roof. Here was a
sad obstacle, for it might take long to loosen a stone, and if
their work was not done by the break of day then their enterprise
was indeed hopeless. They loosened the mortar with a dagger, and
at last dislodged one small stone which enabled them to get at the
others. Presently a dark hole blacker than the night around them
yawned at their feet, and their swords could touch no bottom to
it. They had opened the tunnel.
"I would fain enter it first," said Nigel. "I pray you to lower
me down." They held him to the full length of their arms and then
letting him drop they heard him land safely beneath them. An
instant later the blind man started up with a low cry of alarm.
"I hear steps coming," said he. "They are far off, but they draw
Simon thrust his head and neck down the hole. "Squire Nigel," he
whispered, "can you hear me?"
"I can hear you, Simon."
"Andreas says that some one comes."
"Then cover over the hole," came the answer. "Quick, I pray you,
cover it over!"
A mantle was stretched across it, so that no glimmer of light
should warn the new-comer. The fear was that he might have heard,
the sound of Nigel's descent. But soon it was clear that he had
not done so, for Andreas announced that he was still advancing.
Presently Nigel could hear the distant thud of his feet. If he
bore a lantern all was lost. But no gleam of light appeared in
the black tunnel, and still the footsteps drew nearer.
Nigel breathed a prayer of thanks to all his guardian saints as he
crouched close to the slimy wall and waited breathless, his dagger
in his hand. Nearer yet and nearer came the steps. He could hear
the stranger's coarse breathing in the darkness. Then as he
brushed past Nigel bounded upon him with a tiger spring. There
was one gasp of astonishment, and not a sound more, for the
Squire's grip was on the man's throat and his body was pinned
motionless against the wall.
"Simon! Simon!" cried Nigel loudly.
The mantle was moved from the hole.
"Have you a cord? Or your belts linked together may serve."
One of the peasants had a rope, and Nigel soon felt it dangling
against his hand. He listened and there was no sound in the
passage. For an instant he released his captive's throat. A
torrent of prayers and entreaties came forth. The man was shaking
like a leaf in the wind. Nigel pressed the point of his dagger
against his face and dared him to open his lips. Then he slipped
the rope beneath his arms and tied it.
"Pull him up!" he whispered, and for an instant the gray glimmer
above him was obscured.
"We have him, fair sir," said Simon.
"Then drop me the rope and hold it fast."
A moment later Nigel stood among the group of men who had gathered
round their captive. It was too dark to see him, and they dare
not strike flint and steel.
Simon passed his hand roughly over him and felt a fat clean-shaven
face, and a cloth gabardine which hung to the ankles. "Who are
you?" he whispered. " peak the truth and speak it low, if you
would ever speak again."
The man's teeth chattered in his head with cold and fright. "I
speak no English," he murmured.
"French, then," said Nigel.
"I am a holy priest of God. You court the ban of holy Church when
you lay hands upon me. I pray you let me go upon my way, for
there are those whom I would shrive and housel. If they should
die in sin, their damnation is upon you."
"How are you called then?"
"I am Dom Peter de Cervolles."
"De Cervolles, the arch-priest, he who heated the brazier when
they burned out my eyes," cried old Andreas. "Of all the devils
in hell there is none fouler than this one. Friends, friends, if
I have done aught for you this night, I ask but one reward, that
ye let me have my will of this man."
But Nigel pushed the old man back. "There is no time for this,"
he said. "Now hark you, priest - if priest indeed you be - your
gown and tonsure will not save you if you play us false, for we
are here of a set purpose and we will go forward with it, come
what may. Answer me and answer me truly or it will be an ill
night for you. In what part of the Castle does this tunnel
"In the lower cellar."
"What is at the end?"
"An oaken door."
"Is it barred?"
"Yes, it is barred."
"How would you have entered?"
"I would have given the password."
"Who then would have opened?"
"There is a guard within."
"And beyond him?"
"Beyond him are the prison cells and the jailers."
"Who else would be afoot?"
"No one save a guard at the gate and another on the battlement."
"What then is the password?"
The man was silent.
"The password, fellow!"
The cold points of two daggers pricked his throat; but still he
would not speak.
"Where is the blind man?" asked Nigel. "Here, Andreas, you can
have him and do what you will with him."
"Nay, nay," the priest whimpered. "Keep him off me. Save me from
blind Andreas! I will tell you everything."
"The password then, this instant?"
"It is `Benedicite!'"
"We have the password, Simon," cried Nigel. "Come then, let us on
to the farther end. These peasants will guard the priest, and
they will remain here lest we wish to send a message."
"Nay, fair sir, it is in my mind that we can do better," said
Simon. "Let us take the priest with us, so that he who is within
may know his voice."
"It is well thought of," said Nigel, "and first let us pray
together, for indeed this night may well be our last."
He and the three men-at-arms knelt in the rain and sent up their
simple orisons, Simon still clutching tight to his prisoner's
The priest fumbled in his breast and drew something forth. "It is
the heart of the blessed confessor Saint Enogat," said he. "It
may be that it will ease and assoil your souls if you would wish
to handle it."
The four Englishmen passed the flat silver case from hand to hand,
each pressing his lips devoutly upon it. Then they rose to their
feet. Nigel was the first to lower himself down the hole; then
Simon; then the priest, who was instantly seized by the other two.
The men-at-arms followed them. They had scarcely moved away from
the hole when Nigel stopped.
"Surely some one else came after us," said he.
They listened, but no whisper or rustle came from behind them.
For a minute they paused and then resumed their journey through
the dark. It seemed a long, long way, though in truth it was but
a few hundred yards before they came to a door with a glimmer of
yellow light around it, which barred their passage. Nigel struck
upon it with his hand.
There was the rasping of a bolt and then a loud voice "Is that
"Yes, it is I," said the prisoner in a quavering voice. "Open,
The voice was enough. There was no question of passwords. The
door swung inward, and in an instant the janitor was cut down by
Nigel and Simon. So sudden and so fierce was the attack that save
for the thud of his body no sound was heard. A flood of light
burst outward into the passage, and the Englishmen stood with
blinking eyes in its glare.
In front of them lay a stone-flagged corridor, across which lay
the dead body of the janitor. It had doors on either side of it,
and another grated door at the farther end. A strange hubbub, a
kind of low droning and whining filled the air. The four men were
standing listening, full of wonder as to what this might mean,
when a sharp cry came from behind them. The priest lay in a
shapeless heap upon the ground, and the blood was rushing from his
gaping throat. Down the passage, a black shadow in the yellow
light, there fled a crouching man, who clattered with a stick as
"It is Andreas," cried West-country Will. "He has slain him."
"Then it was he that I heard behind us," said Nigel. "Doubtless
he was at our very heels in the darkness. I fear that the
priest's cry has been heard."
"Nay," said Simon, "there are so many cries that one more may well
pass. Let us take this lamp from the wall and see what sort of
devil's den we have around us."
They opened the door upon the right, and so horrible a smell
issued from it that they were driven back from it. The lamp which
Simon held forward showed a monkeylike creature mowing and
grimacing in the corner, man or woman none could tell, but driven
crazy by loneliness and horror. In the other cell was a
graybearded man fettered to the wall, looking blankly before him,
a body without a soul, yet with life still in him, for his dull
eyes turned slowly in their direction. But it was from behind the
central door at the end of the passage that the chorus of sad
cries came which filled the air.
"Simon," said Nigel, "before we go farther we will take this outer
door from its hinges. With it we will block this passage so that
at the worst we may hold our ground here until help comes. Do you
back to the camp as fast as your feet can bear you. The peasants
will draw you upward through the hole. Give my greetings to Sir
Robert and tell him that the castle is taken without fail if he
comes this way with fifty men. Say that we have made a lodgment
within the walls. And tell him also, Simon, that I would counsel
him to make a stir before the gateway so that the guard may be
held there whilst we make good our footing behind them. Go, good
Simon, and lose not a moment!"
But the man-at-arms shook his head. "It is I who have brought you
here, fair sir, and here I bide through fair and foul. But you
speak wisely and well, for Sir Robert should indeed be told what
is going forward now that we have gone so far. Harding, do you go
with all speed and bear the gentle Nigel's message."
Reluctantly the man-at-arms sped upon his errand. They could hear
the racing of his feet and the low jingle of his harness until
they died away in the tunnel. Then the three companions
approached the door at the end. It was their intention to wait
where they were until help should come, but suddenly amid the
babel of cries within there broke forth an English voice, shouting
"My God!" it cried, "I pray you, comrades, for a cup of water, as
you hope for Christ's mercy!"
A shout of laughter and the thud of a heavy blow followed the
All the hot blood rushed to Nigel's head at the sound, buzzing in
his ears and throbbing in his temples. There are times when the
fiery heart of a man must overbear the cold brain of a soldier.
With one bound he was at the door, with another he was through it,
the men-at-arms at his heels. So strange was the scene before
them that for an instant all three stood motionless with horror
It was a great vaulted chamber, brightly lit by many torches. At
the farther end roared a great fire. In front of it three naked
men were chained to posts in such a way that flinch as they might
they could never get beyond the range of its scorching heat. Yet
they were so far from it that no actual burn would be inflicted if
they could but keep turning and shifting so as continually to
present some fresh portion of their flesh to the flames. Hence
they danced and whirled in front of the fire, tossing ceaselessly
this way and that within the compass of their chains, wearied to
death, their protruding tongues cracked and blackened with thirst,
but unable for one instant to rest from their writhings and
Even stranger was the sight at each side of the room, whence came
that chorus of groans which had first struck upon the ears of
Nigel and his companions. A line of great hogsheads were placed
alongside the walls, and within each sat a man, his head
protruding from the top. As they moved within there was a
constant splashing and washing of water. The white wan faces all
turned together as the door flew open, and a cry of amazement and
of hope took the place of those long-drawn moans of despair.
At the same instant two fellows clad in black, who had been seated
with a flagon of wine between them at a table near the fire,
sprang wildly to their feet, staring with blank amazement at this
sudden inrush. That instant of delay deprived them of their last
chance of safety. Midway down the room was a flight of stone
steps which led to the main door.
Swift as a wildcat Nigel bounded toward it and gained the steps a
stride or two before the jailers. They turned and made for the
other which led to the passage, but Simon and his comrades were
nearer to it than they. Two sweeping blows, two dagger thrusts
into writhing figures, and the ruffians who worked the will of the
Butcher lay dead upon the floor of their slaughter-house.
Oh, the buzz of joy and of prayer from all those white lips! Oh,
the light of returning hope in all those sunken weary eyes! One
wild shout would have gone up had not Nigel's outstretched hands
and warning voice hushed them to silence.
He opened the door behind him. A curving newel staircase wound
upward into the darkness. He listened, but no sound came down.
There was a key in the outer lock of the iron door. He whipped it
out and turned it on the inner side. The ground that they had
gained was safe. Now they could turn to the relief of these poor
fellows beside them. A few strong blows struck off the irons and
freed the three dancers before the fire. With a husky croak of
joy, they rushed across to their comrades' water-barrels, plunged
their heads in like horses, and drank and drank and drank. Then
in turn the poor shivering wretches were taken out of the barrels,
their skins bleached and wrinkled with long soaking. Their bonds
were torn from them; but, cramped and fixed, their limbs refused
to act, and they tumbled and twisted upon the floor in their
efforts to reach Nigel and to kiss his hand.
In a corner lay Aylward, dripping from his barrel and exhausted
with cold and hunger. Nigel ran to his side and raised his head.
The jug of wine from which the two jailers had drunk still stood
upon their table. The Squire placed it to the archer's lips and
he took a hearty pull at it.
"How is it with you now, Aylward?"
"Better, Squire, better, but may I never touch water again as long
as I live! Alas! poor Dicon has gone, and Stephen also - the
life chilled out of them. The cold is in the very marrow of my
bones. I pray you, let me lean upon your arm as far as the fire,
that I may warm the frozen blood and set it running in my veins
A strange sight it was to see these twenty naked men crouching in
a half-circle round the fire with their trembling hands extended
to the blaze. Soon their tongues at least were thawed, and they
poured out the story of their troubles with many a prayer and
ejaculation to the saints for their safe delivery. No food had
crossed their lips since they had been taken. The Butcher had
commanded them to join his garrison and to shoot upon their
comrades from the wall. When they refused he had set aside three
of them for execution.
The others had been dragged to the cellar, whither the leering
tyrant had followed them. Only one question he had asked them,
whether they were of a hot-blooded nature or of a cold. Blows
were showered upon them until they answered. Three had said cold,
and had been condemned to the torment of the fire. The rest who
had said hot were delivered up to the torture of the water-cask.
Every few hours this man or fiend had come down to exult over
their sufferings and to ask them whether they were ready yet to
enter his service. Three had consented and were gone. But the
others had all of them stood firm, two of them even to their
Such was the tale to which Nigel and his comrades listened whilst
they waited impatiently for the coming of Knolles and his men.
Many an anxious look did they cast down the black tunnel, but no
glimmer of light and no clash of steel came from its depths.
Suddenly, however, a loud and measured sound broke upon their
ears. It was a dull metallic clang, ponderous and slow, growing
louder and ever louder - the tread of an armored man. The poor
wretches round the fire, all unnerved by hunger and suffering,
huddled together with wan, scared faces, their eyes fixed in
terror on the door.
"It is he!" they whispered. "It is the Butcher himself!"
Nigel had darted to the door and listened intently. There were no
footfalls save those of one man. Once sure of that, he softly
turned the key in the lock. At the same instant there came a
bull's bellow from without.
"Ives! Bertrand!" cried the voice. "Can you not hear me coming,
you drunken varlets? You shall cool your own heads in the
water-casks, you lazy rascals! What, not even now! Open, you
dogs. Open, I say!"
He had thrust down the latch, and with a kick he flung the door
wide and rushed inward. For an instant he stood motionless, a
statue of dull yellow metal, his eyes fixed upon the empty casks
and the huddle of naked men. Then with the roar of a trapped
lion, he turned, but the door had slammed behind him, and Black
Simon, with grim figure and sardonic face, stood between.
The Butcher looked round him helplessly, for he was unarmed save
for his dagger. Then his eyes fell upon Nigel's roses.
"You are a gentleman of coat-armor," he cried. "I surrender
myself to you."
"I will not take your surrender, you black villain," said Nigel.
"Draw and defend yourself. Simon, give him your sword."
"Nay, this is madness," said the blunt man-at-arms. "Why should I
give the wasp a sting?"
"Give it him, I say. I cannot kill him in cold blood."
"But I can!" yelled Aylward, who had crept up from the fire.
"Come, comrades! By these ten finger-bones! has he not taught us
how cold blood should be warmed?"
Like a pack of wolves they were on him, and he clanged upon the
floor with a dozen frenzied naked figures clutching and clinging
above him. In vain Nigel tried to pull them off. They were mad
with rage, these tortured starving men, their eyes fixed and
glaring, their hair on end, their teeth gnashing with fury, while
they tore at the howling, writhing man. Then with a rattle and
clatter they pulled him across the room by his two ankles and
dragged him into the fire.
Nigel shuddered and turned away his eyes as he saw the brazen
figure roll out and stagger to his knees, only to be hurled once
more into the heart of the blaze. His prisoners screamed with joy
and clapped their hands as they pushed him back with their feet
until the armor was too hot for them to touch. Then at last he
lay still and glowed darkly red, whilst the naked men danced in a
wild half-circle round the fire.
But now at last the supports had come. Lights flashed and armor
gleamed down the tunnel. The cellar filled with armed men, while
from above came the cries and turmoil of the feigned assault upon
the gate. Led by Knolles and Nigel, the storming party rushed
upward and seized the courtyard. The guard of the gate taken in
the rear threw down their weapons and cried for mercy. The gate
was thrown open and the assailants rushed in, with hundreds of
furious peasants at their heels. Some of the robbers died in hot
blood, many in cold; but all died, for Knolles had vowed to give
no quarter. Day was just breaking when the last fugitive had been
hunted out and slain. From all sides came the yells and whoops of
the soldiers with the rending and riving of doors as they burst
into the store-rooms and treasure-chambers. There was a joyous
scramble amongst them, for the plunder of eleven years, gold and
jewels, satins and velvets, rich plate and noble hangings were all
to be had for the taking.
The rescued prisoners, their hunger appeased and their clothes
restored, led the search for booty. Nigel, leaning on his sword
by the gateway, saw Aylward totter past, a huge bundle under each
arm, another slung over his back and a smaller packet hanging from
his mouth. He dropped it for a moment as he passed his young
"By these ten finger-bones! I am right glad that I came to the
war, and no man could ask for a more goodly life," said he. "I
have a present here for every girl in Tilford, and my father need
never fear the frown of the sacrist of Waverley again. But how of
you, Squire Loring? It standeth not aright that we should gather
the harvest whilst you, who sowed it, go forth empty-handed.
Come, gentle sir, take these things that I have gathered, and I
will go back and find more."
But Nigel smiled and shook his head. "You have gained what your
heart desired, and perchance I have done so also," said he.
An instant later Knolles strode up to him with outstretched hand.
"I ask your pardon, Nigel," said he. "I have spoken too hotly in
"Nay, fair sir, I was at fault."
"If we stand here now within this castle, it is to you that I owe
it. The King shall know of it, and Chandos also. Can I do aught
else, Nigel, to prove to you the high esteem in which I hold you?"
The Squire flushed with pleasure. "Do you send a messenger home
to England, fair sir, with news of these doings?"
"Surely, I must do so. But do not tell me, Nigel, that you would
be that messenger. Ask me some other favor, for indeed I cannot
let you go."
"Now God forbid!" cried Nigel. "By Saint Paul! I would not be so
caitiff and so thrall as to leave you, when some small deed might
still be done. But I would fain send a message by your
"It is to the Lady Mary, daughter of old Sir John Buttesthorn who
dwells near Guildford."
"But you will write the message, Nigel. Such greetings as a
cavalier sends to his lady-love should be under seal."
"Nay, he can carry my message by word of mouth."
"Then I shall tell him for he goes this morning. What message,
then, shall he say to the lady?"
"He will give her my very humble greeting, and he will say to her
that for the second time Saint Catharine has been our friend."
XXII. HOW ROBERT OF BEAUMANOIR CAME TO PLOERMEL
Sir Robert Knolles and his men passed onward that day, looking
back many a time to see the two dark columns of smoke, one thicker
and one more slender, which arose from the castle and from the
fort of La Brohiniere. There was not an archer nor a man-at-arms
who did not bear a great bundle of spoil upon his back, and
Knolles frowned darkly as he looked upon them. Gladly would he
hove thrown it all down by the roadside, but he had tried such
matters before, and he knew that it was as safe to tear a
half-gnawed bone from a bear as their blood-won plunder from such
men as these. In any case it was but two days' march to Ploermel,
where he hoped to bring his journey to an end.
That night they camped at Mauron, where a small English and Breton
garrison held the castle. Right glad were the bowmen to see some
of their own countrymen once more, and they spent the night over
wine and dice, a crowd of Breton girls assisting, so that next
morning their bundles were much lighter, and most of the plunder
of La Brohiniere was left with the men and women of Mauron. Next
day their march lay with a fair sluggish river upon their right,
and a great rolling forest upon their left which covered the whole
country. At last toward evening the towers of Ploermel rose
before them and they saw against a darkening sky the Red Cross of
England waving in the wind. So blue was the river Duc which
skirted the road, and so green its banks, that they might indeed
have been back beside their own homely streams, the Oxford Thames
or the Midland Trent, but ever as the darkness deepened there came
in wild gusts the howling of wolves from the forest to remind them
that they were in a land of war. So busy had men been for many
years in hunting one another that the beasts of the chase had
grown to a monstrous degree, until the streets of the towns were
no longer safe from the wild inroads of the fierce creatures, the
wolves and the bears, who swarmed around them.
It was nightfall when the little army entered the outer gate of
the Castle of Ploermel and encamped in the broad Bailey yard.
Ploermel was at that time the center of British power in Mid-
Brittany, as Hennebon was in the West, and it was held by a
garrison of five hundred men under an old soldier, Richard of
Bambro'', a rugged Northumbrian, trained in that great school of
warriors, the border wars. He who had ridden the marches of the
most troubled frontier in Europe, and served his time against the
Liddlesdale and Nithsdale raiders was hardened for a life in the
Of late, however, Bambro' had been unable to undertake any
enterprise, for his reinforcements had failed him, and amid his
following he had but three English knights and seventy men. The
rest were a mixed crew of Bretons, Hainaulters and a few German
mercenary soldiers, brave men individually, as those of that stock
have ever been, but lacking interest in the cause, and bound
together by no common tie of blood or tradition.
On the other hand, the surrounding castles, and especially that of
Josselin, were held by strong forces of enthusiastic Bretons,
inflamed by a common patriotism, and full of warlike ardor.
Robert of Beaumanoir, the fierce seneschal of the house of Rohan,
pushed constant forays and excursions against Ploermel so that
town and castle were both in daily dread of being surrounded and
besieged. Several small parties of the English faction had been
cut off and slain to a man, and so straitened were the others that
it was difficult for them to gather provisions from the country
Such was the state of Bambro's garrison when on that March evening
Knolles and his men streamed into the bailey-yard of his Castle.
In the glare of the torches at the inner gate Bambro' was waiting
to receive them, a dry, hard, wizened man, small and fierce, with
beady black eyes and quick furtive ways.
Beside him, a strange contrast, stood his Squire, Croquart, a
German, whose name and fame as a man-at-arms were widespread,
though like Robert Knolles himself he had begun as a humble page.
He was a very tall man, with an enormous spread of shoulders, and
a pair of huge hands with which he could crack a horse-shoe. He
was slow and lethargic, save in moments of excitement, and his
calm blond face, his dreamy blue eyes and his long fair hair gave
him so gentle an appearance that none save those who had seen him
in his berserk mood, raging, an iron giant, in the forefront of
the battle, could ever guess how terrible a warrior he might be.
Little knight and huge squire stood together under the arch of the
donjon and gave welcome to the newcomers, whilst a swarm of
soldiers crowded round to embrace their comrades and to lead them
off where they might feed and make merry together.
Supper had been set in the hall of Ploermel wherein the knights
and squires assembled. Bambro' and Croquart were there with Sir
Hugh Calverly, an old friend of Knolles and a fellow-townsman, for
both were men of Chester. Sir Hugh was a middle-sized flaxen man,
with hard gray eyes and fierce large-nosed face sliced across with
the scar of a sword-cut. There too were Geoffrey D'Ardaine, a
young Breton seigneur, Sir Thomas Belford, a burly thick-set
Midland Englishman, Sir Thomas Walton, whose surcoat of scarlet
martlets showed that he was of the Surrey Waltons, James Marshall
and John Russell, young English squires, and the two brothers,
Richard and Hugh Le Galliard, who were of Gascon blood. Besides
these were several squires, unknown to fame, and of the
new-comers, Sir Robert Knolles, Sir Thomas Percy, Nigel Loring and
two other squires, Allington and Parsons. These were the company
who gathered in the torch-light round the table of the Seneschal
of Ploermel, and kept high revel with joyous hearts because they
thought that much honor and noble deeds lay before them.
But one sad face there was at the board, and that belonged to him
at the head of it. Sir Robert Bambro' sat with his chin leaning
upon his hand and his eyes downcast upon the cloth, whilst all
round him rose the merry clatter of voices, everyone planning some
fresh enterprise which might now be attempted. Sir Robert Knolles
was for an immediate advance upon Josselin. Calverly thought that
a raid might be made into the South where the main French power
lay. Others spoke of an attack upon Vannes.
To all these eager opinions Bambro'' listened in a moody silence,
which he broke at last by a fierce execration which drew a hushed
attention from the company. "Say no more, fair sirs," he cried;
"for indeed your words are like so many stabs in my heart. All
this and more we might indeed have done. But of a truth you are
"Too late?'" cried Knolles. "What mean you, Richard?"
"Alas; that I should have to say it, but you and all these fair
soldiers might be back in England once more for all the profit
that I am like to have from your coming. Saw you a rider on a
white horse ere you reached the Castle?"
"Nay, I saw him not?"
"He came by the western road from Hennebon. Would that he had
broken his neck ere he came here. Not an hour ago he left his
message and now hath ridden on to warn the garrison of Malestroit.
A truce has been proclaimed for a year betwixt the French King and
the English, and he who breaks it forfeits life and estate."
"A truce!" Here was an end to all their fine dreams. They looked
blankly at each other all round the table, whilst Croquart brought
his great fist down upon the board until the glasses rattled
again. Knolles sat with clenched hands as if he were a figure of
stone, while Nigel's heart turned cold and heavy within him. A
truce! Where then was his third deed, and how might he return
Even as they sat in moody silence there was the call of a bugle
from somewhere out in the darkness.
Sir Richard looked up with surprise. "We are not wont to be
summoned after once the portcullis is up," said he. "Truce or no
truce, we must let no man within our walls until we have proved
him. Croquart, see to it!"
The huge German left the room. The company were still seated in
despondent silence when he returned.
"Sir Richard," said he, "the brave knight Robert of Beaumanoir and
his Squire William de Montaubon are without the gate, and would
fain have speech with you."
Bambro' started in his chair. What could the fierce leader of the
Bretons, a man who was red to the elbow with English blood, have
to say to them? On what errand had he left his castle of Josselin
to pay this visit to his deadly enemies?
"Are they armed?" he asked.
"They are unarmed."
"Then admit them and bring them hither, but double the guards and
take all heed against surprise."
Places were set at the farther end of the table for these most
unexpected guests. Presently the door was swung open, and
Croquart with all form and courtesy announced the two Bretons, who
entered with the proud and lofty air of gallant warriors and
Beaumanoir was a tall dark man with raven hair and long swarthy
beard. He was strong and straight as a young oak, with fiery
black eyes, and no flaw in his comely features save that his front
teeth had been dashed from their sockets. His Squire, William of
Montaubon, was also tall, with a thin hatchet face, and two small
gray eyes set very close upon either side of a long fierce nose.
In Beaumanoir's expression one read only gallantry and frankness;
in Montaubon's there was gallantry also, but it was mixed with the
cruelty and cunning of the wolf. They bowed as they entered, and
the little English seneschal advanced with outstretched hand to
"Welcome, Robert, so long as you are beneath this roof," said he.
"Perhaps the time may come in another place when we may speak to
each other in another fashion."
"So I hope, Richard," said Beaumanoir; "but indeed we of Josselin
bear you in high esteem and are much beholden to you and to your
men for all that you have done for us. We could not wish better
neighbors nor any from whom more honor is to be gained. I learn
that Sir Robert Knolles and others have joined you, and we are
heavy-hearted to think that the orders of our Kings should debar
us from attempting a venture." He and his squire sat down at the
places set for them, and filling their glasses drank to the
"What you say is true, Robert," said Bambro', "and before you came
we were discussing the matter among ourselves and grieving that it
should be so. When heard you of the truce?"
"Yester-evening a messenger rode from Nantes."
"Our news came to-night from Hennebon. The King's own seal was on
the order. So I fear that for a year at least you will bide at
Josselin and we at Ploermel, and kill time as we may. Perchance
we may hunt the wolf together in the great forest, or fly our
hawks on the banks of the Duc."
"Doubtless we shall do all this, Richard," said Beaumanoir; "but
by Saint Cadoc it is in my mind that with good-will upon both
sides we may please ourselves and yet stand excused before our
Knights and squires leaned forward in their chairs, their eager
eyes, fixed upon him. He broke into a gap-toothed smile as he
looked round at the circle, the wizened seneschal, the blond
giant, Nigel's fresh young face, the grim features of Knolles, and
the yellow hawk-like Calverly, all burning with the same desire.
"I see that I need not doubt the good-will," said he, "and of that
I was very certain before I came upon this errand. Bethink you
then that this order applies to war but not to challenges,
spear-runnings, knightly exchanges or the like. King Edward is
too good a knight, and so is King John, that either of them should
stand in the way of a gentleman who desires to advance himself or
to venture his body for the exaltation of his lady. Is this not
A murmur of eager assent rose from the table.
"If you as the garrison of Ploermel march upon the garrison of
Josselin, then it is very plain that we have broken the truce and
upon our heads be it. But if there be a private bickering betwixt
me, for example, and this young squire whose eyes show that he is
very eager for honor, and if thereafter others on each side join
in and fight upon the quarrel, it is in no sense war, but rather
our own private business which no king can alter."
"Indeed, Robert," said Bambro', " all that you say is very good
Beaumanoir leaned forward toward Nigel, his brimming glass in his
hand. "Your name, squire?" said he.
"My name is Nigel Loring."
"I see that you are young and eager, so I choose you as I would
fain have been chosen when I was of your age."
"I thank you, fair sir," said Nigel. "It is great honor that one
so famous as yourself should condescend to do some small deed upon
"But we must have cause for quarrel, Nigel. Now here I drink to
the ladies of Brittany, who of all ladies upon this earth are the
most fair and the most virtuous, so that the least worthy-amongst
them is far above the best of England. What say you to that,
Nigel dipped his finger in his glass and leaning over he placed
its wet impress on the Breton's hand. "This in your face!" said
Beaumanoir swept off the red drop of moisture and smiled his
approval. "It could not have been better done," said he. "Why
spoil my velvet paltock as many a hot-headed fool would have done.
It is in my mind, young sir, that you will go far. And now, who
follows up this quarrel?"
A growl ran round the table.
Beaumanoir ran his eye round and shook his head. "Alas!" said he,
"there are but twenty of you here, and I have thirty at Josselin
who are so eager to advance themselves that if I return without
hope for all of them there will be sore hearts amongst them. I
pray you, Richard, since we have been at these pains to arrange
matters, that you in turn will do what you may. Can you not find
ten more men?"
"But not of gentle blood."
"Nay, it matters not, if they will only fight."
"Of that there can be no doubt, for the castle is full of archers
and men-at-arms who would gladly play a part in the matter."
"Then choose ten," said Beaumanoir.
But for the first time the wolf-like squire opened his thin lips.
"Surely, my lord, you will not allow archers," said he.
"I fear not any man."
"Nay, fair sir, consider that this is a trial of weapons betwixt
us where man faces man. You have seen these English archers, and
you know how fast and bow strong are their shafts. Bethink you
that if ten of them were against us it is likely that half of us
would be down before ever we came to handstrokes."
"By Saint Cadoc, William, I think that you are right," cried the
Breton. "If we are to have such a fight as will remain in the
memories of men, you will bring no archers and we no crossbows.
Let it be steel upon steel. How say you then?"
"Surely we can bring ten men-at-arms to make up the thirty that
you desire, Robert. It is agreed then that we fight on no quarrel
of England and France, but over this matter of the ladies in which
you and Squire Loring have fallen out. And now the time?"
"Surely at once, or perchance a second messenger may come and this
also be forbidden. We will be ready with to-morrow's sunrise."
"Nay, a day later," cried the Breton Squire. "Bethink you, my
lord, that the three lances of Radenac would take time to come
"They are not of our garrison, and they shall not have a place."
"But, fair sir, of all the lances of Brittany - "
"Nay, William, I will not have it an hour later. Tomorrow it
shall be, Richard."
"I marked a fitting place even as I rode here this evening. If
you cross the river and take the bridle-path through the fields
which leads to Josselin you come midway upon a mighty oak standing
at the corner of a fair and level meadow. There let us meet at
"Agreed!" cried Bambro'. "But I pray you not to rise, Robert!
The night is still young and the spices and hippocras will soon be
served. Bide with us, I pray you, for if you would fain hear the
latest songs from England, these gentlemen have doubtless brought
them. To some of us perchance it is the last night, so we would
make it a full one."
But the gallant Breton shook his head. "It may indeed be the last
night for many," said he, "and it is but right that my comrades
should know it. I have no need of monk or friar, for I cannot
think that harm will ever come beyond the grave to one who has
borne himself as a knight should, but others have other thoughts
upon these matters and would fain have time for prayer and
penitence. Adieu, fair sirs, and I drink a last glass to a happy
meeting at the midway oak."
XXIII. HOW THIRTY OF JOSSELIN ENCOUNTERED THIRTY OF PLOERMEL
All night the Castle of Ploermel rang with warlike preparations,
for the smiths were hammering and filing and riveting, preparing
the armor for the champions. In the stable yard hostlers were
testing and grooming the great war-horses, whilst in the chapel
knights and squires were easing their souls at the knees of old
Down in the courtyard, meanwhile, the men-at-arms had been
assembled, and the volunteers weeded out until the best men had
been selected. Black Simon had obtained a place, and great was
the joy which shone upon his grim visage. With him were chosen
young Nicholas Dagsworth, a gentleman adventurer who was nephew to
the famous Sir Thomas, Walter the German, Hulbitee - a huge
peasant whose massive frame gave promise which his sluggish spirit
failed to fulfil - John Alcock, Robin Adey and Raoul Provost.
These with three others made up the required thirty. Great was
the grumbling and evil the talk amongst the archers when it was
learned that none of them were to be included, but the bow had
been forbidden on either side. It is true that many of them were
expert fighters both with ax and with sword, but they were unused
to carry heavy armor, and a half-armed man would have short shrift
in such a hand-to-hand struggle as lay before them.
It was two hours after tierce, or one hour before noon, on the
fourth Wednesday of Lent in the year of Christ 1351 that the men
of Ploermel rode forth from their castle-gate and crossed the
bridge of the Due. In front was Bambro' with his Squire Croquart,
the latter on a great roan horse bearing the banner of Ploermel,
which was a black rampant lion holding a blue flag upon a field of
ermine. Behind him came Robert Knolles and Nigel Loring, with an
attendant at their side, who carried the pennon of the black
raven. Then rode Sir Thomas Percy with his blue lion flaunting
above him, and Sir Hugh Calverly, whose banner bore a silver owl,
followed by the massive Belford who carried a huge iron club,
weighing sixty pounds, upon his saddlebow, and Sir Thomas Walton
the knight of Surrey. Behind them were four brave Anglo-Bretons,
Perrot de Commelain, Le Gaillart, d'Aspremont and d'Ardaine, who
fought against their own countrymen because they were partisans of
the Countess of Montfort. Her engrailed silver cross upon a blue
field was carried at their head. In the rear were five German or
Hainault mercenaries, the tall Hulbitee, and the men-at-arms.
Altogether of these combatants twenty were of English birth, four
were Breton and six were of German blood.
So, with glitter of armor and flaunting of pennons, their
warhorses tossing and pawing, the champions rode down to the
midway oak. Behind them streamed hundreds of archers and men-
at-arms whose weapons had been wisely taken from them lest a
general battle should ensue. With them also went the townsfolk,
men and women, together with wine-sellers, provisions merchants,
armorers, grooms and heralds, with surgeons to tend the wounded
and priests to shrive the dying. The path was blocked by this
throng, but all over the face of the country horsemen and footmen,
gentle and simple, men and women, could be seen speeding their way
to the scene of the encounter.
The journey was not a long one, for presently, as they threaded
their way through the fields, there appeared before them a great
gray oak which spread its gnarled leafless branches over the
corner of a green and level meadow. The tree was black with the
peasants who had climbed into it, and all round it was a huge
throng, chattering and calling like a rookery at sunset. A storm
of hooting broke out from them at the approach of the English, for
Bambro' was hated in the country where he raised money for the
Montfort cause by putting every parish to ransom and maltreating
those who refused to pay. There was little amenity in the warlike
ways which had been learned upon the Scottish border. The
champions rode onward without deigning to take notice of the
taunts of the rabble, but the archers turned that way and soon
beat the mob to silence. Then they resolved themselves into the
keepers of the ground, and pressed the people back until they
formed a dense line along the edge of the field,' leaving the
whole space clear for the warriors.
The Breton champions had not yet arrived, so the English tethered
their horses at one side of the ground, and then gathered round
their leader. Every man had his shield slung round his neck, and
had cut his spear to the length of five feet so that it might be
more manageable for fighting on foot. Besides the spear a sword
or a battle-ax hung at the side of each. They were clad from head
to foot in armor, with devices upon the crests and surcoats to
distinguish them from their antagonists. At present their visors
were still up and they chatted gayly with each other.
"By Saint Dunstan!" cried Percy, slapping his gauntleted hands
together and stamping his steel feet. "I shall be right glad to
get to work, for my blood is chilled."
"I warrant you will be warm enough ere you get through," said
"Or cold forever. Candle shall burn and bell toll at Alnwick
Chapel if I leave this ground alive, but come what may, fair sirs,
it should be a famous joust and one which will help us forward.
Surely each of us will have worshipfully won worship, if we chance
to come through."
"You say truth, Thomas," said Knolles, bracing his girdle. "For
my own part I have no joy in such encounters when there is warfare
to be carried out, for it standeth not aright that a man should
think of his own pleasure and advancement rather than of the
King's cause and the weal of the army. But in times of truce I
can think of no better way in which a day may be profitably spent.
Why so silent, Nigel?"
"Indeed, fair sir, I was looking toward Josselin, which lies as I
understand beyond those woods. I see no sign of this debonair
gentleman and of his following. It would be indeed grievous pity
if any cause came to hold them back."
Hugh Calverly laughed at the words. "You need have no fear, young
sir," said he. "Such a spirit lies in Robert de Beaumanoir that
if he must come alone he would ride against us none the less. I
warrant that if he were on a bed of death he would be borne here
and die on the green field."
"You say truly, Hugh," said Bambro'. "I know him and those who
ride behind him. Thirty stouter men or more skilled in arms are
not to be found in Christendom. It is in my mind that come what
may there will be much honor for all of us this day. Ever in my
head I have a rhyme which the wife of a Welsh archer gave me when
I crossed her hand with a golden bracelet after the intaking of
Bergerac. She was of the old blood of Merlin with the power of
sight. Thus she said -
"'Twixt the oak-tree and the river
Knightly fame aid brave endeavor
Make an honored name forever.'
Methinks I see the oak-tree, and yonder is the river. Surely this
should betide some good to us."
The huge German Squire betrayed some impatience during this speech
of his leader. Though his rank was subordinate, no man present
had more experience of warfare or was more famous as a fighter
than he. He new broke brusquely into the talk. "We should be
better employed in ordering our line and making our plans than in
talking of the rhymes of Merlin or such old wives' tales," said
he. "It is to our own strong arms and good weapons that we must
trust this day. And first I would ask you, Sir Richard, what is
Back to Full Books