The White Company
Arthur Conan Doyle
Part 7 out of 9
If it were grim and desolate upon the English border, however,
what can describe the hideous barrenness of this ten times
harried tract of France? The whole face of the country was
scarred and disfigured, mottled over with the black blotches of
burned farm-steadings, and the gray, gaunt gable-ends of what had
been chateaux. Broken fences, crumbling walls, vineyards
littered with stones, the shattered arches of bridges--look where
you might, the signs of ruin and rapine met the eye. Here and
there only, on the farthest sky-line, the gnarled turrets of a
castle, or the graceful pinnacles of church or of monastery
showed where the forces of the sword or of the spirit had
preserved some small islet of security in this universal flood of
misery. Moodily and in silence the little party rode along the
narrow and irregular track, their hearts weighed down by this
far-stretching land of despair. It was indeed a stricken and a
blighted country, and a man might have ridden from Auvergne in
the north to the marches of Foix, nor ever seen a smiling village
or a thriving homestead.
From time to time as they advanced they saw strange lean figures
scraping and scratching amid the weeds and thistles, who, on
sight of the band of horsemen, threw up their arms and dived in
among the brushwood, as shy and as swift as wild animals. More
than once, however, they came on families by the wayside, who
were too weak from hunger and disease to fly, so that they could
but sit like hares on a tussock, with panting chests and terror
in their eyes. So gaunt were these poor folk, so worn and
spent--with bent and knotted frames, and sullen, hopeless,
mutinous faces--that it made the young Englishman heart-sick to
look upon them. Indeed, it seemed as though all hope and light
had gone so far from them that it was not to be brought back; for
when Sir Nigel threw down a handful of silver among them there
came no softening of their lined faces, but they clutched
greedily at the coins, peering questioningly at him, and champing
with their animal jaws. Here and there amid the brushwood the
travellers saw the rude bundle of sticks which served them as a
home--more like a fowl's nest than the dwelling-place of man.
Yet why should they build and strive, when the first adventurer
who passed would set torch to their thatch, and when their own
feudal lord would wring from them with blows and curses the last
fruits of their toil? They sat at the lowest depth of human
misery, and hugged a bitter comfort to their souls as they
realized that they could go no lower. Yet they had still the
human gift of speech, and would take council among themselves in
their brushwood hovels, glaring with bleared eyes and pointing
with thin fingers at the great widespread chateaux which ate like
a cancer into the life of the country-side. When such men, who
are beyond hope and fear, begin in their dim minds to see the
source their woes, it may be an evil time for those who have
wronged them. The weak man becomes strong when he has nothing,
for then only can he feel the wild, mad thrill of despair. High
and strong the chateaux, lowly and weak the brushwood hut; but
God help the seigneur and his lady when the men of the brushwood
set their hands to the work of revenge!
Through such country did the party ride for eight or it might be
nine miles, until the sun began to slope down in the west and
their shadows to stream down the road in front of them. Wary and
careful they must be, with watchful eyes to the right and the
left, for this was no man's land, and their only passports were
those which hung from their belts. Frenchmen and Englishmen,
Gascon and Provencal, Brabanter, Tardvenu, Scorcher, Flayer, and
Free Companion, wandered and struggled over the whole of this
accursed district. So bare and cheerless was the outlook, and so
few and poor the dwellings, that Sir Nigel began to have fears as
to whether he might find food and quarters for his little troop.
It was a relief to him, therefore, when their narrow track opened
out upon a larger road, and they saw some little way down it a
square white house with a great bunch of holly hung out at the
end of a stick from one of the upper windows.
"By St. Paul!" said he, "I am right glad; for I had feared that
we might have neither provant nor herbergage. Ride on, Alleyne,
and tell this inn-keeper that an English knight with his party
will lodge with him this night."
Alleyne set spurs to his horse and reached the inn door a long
bow-shot before his companions. Neither varlet nor ostler could
be seen, so he pushed open the door and called loudly for the
landlord. Three times he shouted, but, receiving no reply, he
opened an inner door and advanced into the chief guest-room of
A very cheerful wood-fire was sputtering and cracking in an open
grate at the further end of the apartment. At one side of this
fire, in a high-backed oak chair, sat a lady, her face turned
towards the door. The firelight played over her features, and
Alleyne thought that he had never seen such queenly power, such
dignity and strength, upon a woman's face. She might have been
five-and-thirty years of age, with aquiline nose, firm yet
sensitive mouth, dark curving brows, and deep-set eyes which
shone and sparkled with a shifting brilliancy. Beautiful as she
was, it was not her beauty which impressed itself upon the
beholder; it was her strength, her power, the sense of wisdom
which hung over the broad white brow, the decision which lay in
the square jaw and delicately moulded chin. A chaplet of pearls
sparkled amid her black hair, with a gauze of silver network
flowing back from it over her shoulders; a black mantle was
swathed round her, and she leaned back in her chair as one who is
fresh from a journey.
In the opposite corner there sat a very burly and broad-shouldered
man, clad in a black jerkin trimmed with sable, with a black
velvet cap with curling white feather cocked upon the side
of his head. A flask of red wine stood at his elbow, and he
seemed to be very much at his ease, for his feet were stuck up on
a stool, and between his thighs he held a dish full of nuts.
These he cracked between his strong white teeth and chewed in a
leisurely way, casting the shells into the blaze. As Alleyne
gazed in at him he turned his face half round and cocked an eye
at him over his shoulder. It seemed to the young Englishman that
he had never seen so hideous a face, for the eyes were of the
lightest green, the nose was broken and driven inwards, while the
whole countenance was seared and puckered with wounds. The
voice, too, when he spoke, was as deep and as fierce as the growl
of a beast of prey.
"Young man," said he, "I know not who you may be, and I am not
much inclined to bestir myself, but if it were not that I am bent
upon taking my ease, I swear, by the sword of Joshua! that I
would lay my dog-whip across your shoulders for daring to fill
the air with these discordant bellowings."
Taken aback at this ungentle speech, and scarce knowing how to
answer it fitly in the presence of the lady, Alleyne stood with
his hand upon the handle of the door, while Sir Nigel and his
companions dismounted. At the sound of these fresh voices, and
of the tongue in which they spoke, the stranger crashed his dish
of nuts down upon the floor, and began himself to call for the
landlord until the whole house re-echoed with his roarings. With
an ashen face the white-aproned host came running at his call,
his hands shaking and his very hair bristling with apprehension.
"For the sake of God, sirs," he whispered as he passed, "speak
him fair and do not rouse him! For the love of the Virgin, be
mild with him!"
"Who is this, then?" asked Sir Nigel.
Alleyne was about to explain, when a fresh roar from the stranger
"Thou villain inn-keeper," he shouted, "did I not ask you when I
brought my lady here whether your inn was clean?"
"You did, sire."
"Did I not very particularly ask you whether there were any
vermin in it?"
"You did, sire."
"And you answered me?"
"That there were not, sire."
"And yet ere I have been here an hour I find Englishmen crawling
about within it. Where are we to be free from this pestilent
race? Can a Frenchman upon French land not sit down in a French
auberge without having his ears pained by the clack of their
hideous talk? Send them packing, inn-keeper, or it may be the
worse for them and for you."
"I will, sire, I will!" cried the frightened host, and bustled
from the room, while the soft, soothing voice of the woman was
heard remonstrating with her furious companion.
"Indeed, gentlemen, you had best go," said mine host. "It is but
six miles to Villefranche, where there are very good quarters at
the sign of the `Lion Rouge.'"
"Nay," answered Sir Nigel, "I cannot go until I have seen more of
this person, for he appears to be a man from whom much is to be
hoped. What is his name and title?"
"It is not for my lips to name it unless by his desire. But I
beg and pray you, gentlemen, that you will go from my house, for
I know not what may come of it if his rage should gain the
mastery of him."
"By Saint Paul!" lisped Sir Nigel, "this is certainly a man whom
it is worth journeying far to know. Go tell him that a humble
knight of England would make his further honorable acquaintance,
not from any presumption, pride, or ill-will, but for the
advancement of chivalry and the glory of our ladies. Give him
greeting from Sir Nigel Loring, and say that the glove which I
bear in my cap belongs to the most peerless and lovely of her
sex, whom I am now ready to uphold against any lady whose claim
he might be desirous of advancing."
The landlord was hesitating whether to carry this message or no,
when the door of the inner room was flung open, and the stranger
bounded out like a panther from its den, his hair bristling and
his deformed face convulsed with anger.
"Still here!" he snarled. "Dogs of England, must ye be lashed
hence? Tiphaine, my sword!" He turned to seize his weapon, but
as he did so his gaze fell upon the blazonry of sir Nigel's
shield, and he stood staring, while the fire in his strange green
eyes softened into a sly and humorous twinkle.
"Mort Dieu!" cried he, "it is my little swordsman of Bordeaux. I
should remember that coat-armor, seeing that it is but three days
since I looked upon it in the lists by Garonne. Ah! Sir Nigel,
Sir Nigel! you owe me a return for this," and he touched his
right arm, which was girt round just under the shoulder with a
But the surprise of the stranger at the sight of Sir Nigel was as
nothing compared with the astonishment and the delight which
shone upon the face of the knight of Hampshire as he looked upon
the strange face of the Frenchman. Twice he opened his mouth and
twice he peered again, as though to assure himself that his eyes
had not played him a trick.
"Bertrand!" he gasped at last. "Bertrand du Guesclin!"
"By Saint Ives!" shouted the French soldier, with a hoarse roar
of laughter, "it is well that I should ride with my vizor down,
for he that has once seen my face does not need to be told my
name. It is indeed I, Sir Nigel, and here is my hand! I give you
my word that there are but three Englishmen in this world whom I
would touch save with the sharp edge of the sword: the prince is
one, Chandos the second, and you the third; for I have heard much
that is good of you."
"I am growing aged, and am somewhat spent in the wars," quoth Sir
Nigel; "but I can lay by my sword now with an easy mind, for I
can say that I have crossed swords with him who hath the bravest
heart and the strongest arm of all this great kingdom of France.
I have longed for it, I have dreamed of it, and now I can scarce
bring my mind to understand that this great honor hath indeed
"By the Virgin of Rennes! you have given me cause to be very
certain of it," said Du Guesclin, with a gleam of his broad white
"And perhaps, most honored sir, it would please you to continue
the debate. Perhaps you would condescend to go farther into the
matter. God He knows that I am unworthy of such honor, yet I can
show my four-and-sixty quarterings, and I have been present at
some bickerings and scufflings during these twenty years."
"Your fame is very well known to me, and I shall ask my lady to
enter your name upon my tablets," said Sir Bertrand. "There are
many who wish to advance themselves, and who bide their turn, for
I refuse no man who comes on such an errand. At present it may
not be, for mine arm is stiff from this small touch, and I would
fain do you full honor when we cross swords again. Come in with
me, and let your squires come also, that my sweet spouse, the
Lady Tiphaine, may say that she hath seen so famed and gentle a
Into the chamber they went in all peace and concord, where the
Lady Tiphaine sat like queen on throne for each in turn to be
presented to her. Sooth to say, the stout heart of Sir Nigel,
which cared little for the wrath of her lion-like spouse, was
somewhat shaken by the calm, cold face of this stately dame, for
twenty years of camp-life had left him more at ease in the lists
than in a lady's boudoir. He bethought him, too, as he looked at
her set lips and deep-set questioning eyes, that he had heard
strange tales of this same Lady Tiphaine du Guesclin. Was it not
she who was said to lay hands upon the sick and raise them from
their couches when the leeches had spent their last nostrums?
Had she not forecast the future, and were there not times when in
the loneliness of her chamber she was heard to hold converse with
some being upon whom mortal eye never rested--some dark familiar
who passed where doors were barred and windows high? Sir Nigel
sunk his eye and marked a cross on the side of his leg as he
greeted this dangerous dame, and yet ere five minutes had passed
he was hers, and not he only but his two young squires as well.
The mind had gone out of them, and they could but look at this
woman and listen to the words which fell from her lips--words
which thrilled through their nerves and stirred their souls like
the battle-call of a bugle.
Often in peaceful after-days was Alleyne to think of that scene
of the wayside inn of Auvergne. The shadows of evening had
fallen, and the corners of the long, low, wood-panelled room were
draped in darkness. The sputtering wood fire threw out a circle
of red flickering light which played over the little group of
wayfarers, and showed up every line and shadow upon their faces.
Sir Nigel sat with elbows upon knees, and chin upon hands, his
patch still covering one eye, but his other shining like a star,
while the ruddy light gleamed upon his smooth white head. Ford
was seated at his left, his lips parted, his eyes staring, and a
fleck of deep color on either cheek, his limbs all rigid as one
who fears to move. On the other side the famous French captain
leaned back in his chair, a litter of nut-shells upon his lap,
his huge head half buried in a cushion, while his eyes wandered
with an amused gleam from his dame to the staring, enraptured
Englishmen. Then, last of all, that pale clear-cut face, that
sweet clear voice, with its high thrilling talk of the
deathlessness of glory, of the worthlessness of life, of the pain
of ignoble joys, and of the joy which lies in all pains which
lead to a noble end. Still, as the shadows deepened, she spoke
of valor and virtue, of loyalty, honor, and fame, and still they
sat drinking in her words while the fire burned down and the red
ash turned to gray.
"By the sainted Ives!" cried Du Guesclin at last, "it is time
that we spoke of what we are to do this night, for I cannot think
that in this wayside auberge there are fit quarters for an
Sir Nigel gave a long sigh as he came back from the dreams of
chivalry and hardihood into which this strange woman's words had
wafted him. "I care not where I sleep," said he; "but these are
indeed somewhat rude lodgings for this fair lady."
"What contents my lord contents me," quoth she. "I perceive, Sir
Nigel, that you are under vow," she added, glancing at his
"It is my purpose to attempt some small deed," he answered.
"And the glove--is it your lady's?"
"It is indeed my sweet wife's."
"Who is doubtless proud of you."
"Say rather I of her," quoth he quickly. "God He knows that I am
not worthy to be her humble servant. It is easy, lady, for a man
to ride forth in the light of day, and do his devoir when all men
have eyes for him. But in a woman's heart there is a strength
and truth which asks no praise, and can but be known to him whose
treasure it is."
The Lady Tiphaine smiled across at her husband. "You have often
told me, Bertrand, that there were very gentle knights amongst
the English," quoth she.
"Aye, aye," said he moodily. "But to horse, Sir Nigel, you and
yours and we shall seek the chateau of Sir Tristram de Rochefort,
which is two miles on this side of Villefranche. He is Seneschal
of Auvergne, and mine old war companion."
"Certes, he would have a welcome for you," quoth Sir Nigel; "but
indeed he might look askance at one who comes without permit over
"By the Virgin! when he learns that you have come to draw away
these rascals he will be very blithe to look upon your face.
Inn-keeper, here are ten gold pieces. What is over and above
your reckoning you may take off from your charges to the next
needy knight who comes this way. Come then, for it grows late
and the horses are stamping in the roadway."
The Lady Tiphaine and her spouse sprang upon their steeds without
setting feet to stirrup, and away they jingled down the white
moonlit highway, with Sir Nigel at the lady's bridle-arm, and
Ford a spear's length behind them. Alleyne had lingered for an
instant in the passage, and as he did so there came a wild outcry
from a chamber upon the left, and out there ran Aylward and John,
laughing together like two schoolboys who are bent upon a prank.
At sight of Alleyne they slunk past him with somewhat of a
shame-faced air, and springing upon their horses galloped after
their party. The hubbub within the chamber did not cease,
however, but rather increased, with yells of: "A moi, mes amis! A
moi, camarades! A moi, l'honorable champion de l'Eveque de
Montaubon! A la recousse de l'eglise sainte!" So shrill was the
outcry that both the inn-keeper and Alleyne, with every varlet
within hearing, rushed wildly to the scene of the uproar.
It was indeed a singular scene which met their eyes. The room
was a long and lofty one, stone floored and bare, with a fire at
the further end upon which a great pot was boiling. A deal table
ran down the centre, with a wooden wine-pitcher upon it and two
horn cups. Some way from it was a smaller table with a single
beaker and a broken wine-bottle. From the heavy wooden rafters
which formed the roof there hung rows of hooks which held up
sides of bacon, joints of smoked beef, and strings of onions for
winter use. In the very centre of all these, upon the largest
hook of all, there hung a fat little red-faced man with enormous
whiskers, kicking madly in the air and clawing at rafters, hams,
and all else that was within hand-grasp. The huge steel hook had
been passed through the collar of his leather jerkin, and there
he hung like a fish on a line, writhing, twisting, and screaming,
but utterly unable to free himself from his extraordinary
position. It was not until Alleyne and the landlord had mounted
on the table that they were able to lift him down, when he sank
gasping with rage into a seat, and rolled his eyes round in every
"Has he gone?" quoth he.
"He, the man with the red head, the giant man."
"Yes," said Alleyne, "he hath gone."
"And comes not back?"
"The better for him!" cried the little man, with a long sigh of
relief. "Mon Dieu! What! am I not the champion of the Bishop
of Montaubon? Ah, could I have descended, could I have come down,
ere he fled! Then you would have seen. You would have beheld a
spectacle then. There would have been one rascal the less upon
earth. Ma, foi, yes!"
"Good master Pelligny," said the landlord, "these gentlemen have
not gone very fast, and I have a horse in the stable at your
disposal, for I would rather have such bloody doings as you
threaten outside the four walls of mine auberge."
"I hurt my leg and cannot ride," quoth the bishop's champion. "I
strained a sinew on the day that I slew the three men at
"God save you, master Pelligny!" cried the landlord. "It must be
an awesome thing to have so much blood upon one's soul. And yet
I do not wish to see so valiant a man mishandled, and so I will,
for friendship's sake, ride after this Englishman and bring him
back to you."
"You shall not stir," cried the champion, seizing the inn-keeper
in a convulsive grasp. "I have a love for you, Gaston, and I
would not bring your house into ill repute, nor do such scath to
these walls and chattels as must befall if two such men as this
Englishman and I fall to work here."
"Nay, think not of me!" cried the inn-keeper. "What are my
walls when set against the honor of Francois Poursuivant d'Amour
Pelligny, champion of the Bishop of Montaubon. My horse, Andre!"
"By the saints, no! Gaston, I will not have it! You have said
truly that it is an awesome thing to have such rough work upon
one's soul. I am but a rude soldier, yet I have a mind. Mon
Dieu! I reflect, I weigh, I balance. Shall I not meet this man
again? Shall I not bear him in mind? Shall I not know him by
his great paws and his red head? Ma foi, yes!"
"And may I ask, sir," said Alleyne, "why it is that you call
yourself champion of the Bishop of Montaubon?"
"You may ask aught which it is becoming to me to answer. The
bishop hath need of a champion, because, if any cause be set to
test of combat, it would scarce become his office to go down into
the lists with leather and shield and cudgel to exchange blows
with any varlet. He looks around him then for some tried
fighting man, some honest smiter who can give a blow or take one.
It is not for me to say how far he hath succeeded, but it is
sooth that he who thinks that he hath but to do with the Bishop
of Montaubon, finds himself face to face with Francois Poursuivant
At this moment there was a clatter of hoofs upon the road, and a
varlet by the door cried out that one of the Englishmen was
coming back. The champion looked wildly about for some corner of
safety, and was clambering up towards the window, when Ford's
voice sounded from without, calling upon Alleyne to hasten, or he
might scarce find his way. Bidding adieu to landlord and to
champion, therefore, he set off at a gallop, and soon overtook
the two archers.
"A pretty thing this, John," said he. "Thou wilt have holy
Church upon you if you hang her champions upon iron hooks in an
"It was done without thinking," he answered apologetically, while
Aylward burst into a shout of laughter.
"By my hilt! mon petit," said he, "you would have laughed also
could you have seen it. For this man was so swollen with pride
that he would neither drink with us, nor sit at the same table
with us, nor as much as answer a question, but must needs talk to
the varlet all the time that it was well there was peace, and
that he had slain more Englishmen than there were tags to his
doublet. Our good old John could scarce lay his tongue to French
enough to answer him, so he must needs reach out his great hand
to him and place him very gently where you saw him. But we must
on, for I can scarce hear their hoofs upon the road."
"I think that I can see them yet," said Ford, peering down the
"Pardieu! yes. Now they ride forth from the shadow. And yonder
dark clump is the Castle of Villefranche. En avant camarades! or
Sir Nigel may reach the gates before us. But hark, mes amis,
what sound is that?"
As he spoke the hoarse blast of a horn was heard from some woods
upon the right. An answering call rung forth upon their left,
and hard upon it two others from behind them.
"They are the horns of swine-herds," quoth Aylward. "Though why
they blow them so late I cannot tell."
"Let us on, then," said Ford, and the whole party, setting their
spurs to their horses, soon found themselves at the Castle of
Villefranche, where the drawbridge had already been lowered and
the portcullis raised in response to the summons of Du Guesclin.
HOW THE BLESSED HOUR OF SIGHT CAME TO THE LADY TIPHAINE.
Sir Tristram de Rochefort, Seneschal of Auvergne and Lord of
Villefranche, was a fierce and renowned soldier who had grown
gray in the English wars. As lord of the marches and guardian of
an exposed country-side, there was little rest for him even in
times of so-called peace, and his whole life was spent in raids
and outfalls upon the Brabanters, late-comers, flayers, free
companions, and roving archers who wandered over his province.
At times he would come back in triumph, and a dozen corpses
swinging from the summit of his keep would warn evil-doers that
there was still a law in the land. At others his ventures were
not so happy, and he and his troop would spur it over the
drawbridge with clatter of hoofs hard at their heels and whistle
of arrows about their ears. Hard he was of hand and harder of
heart, hated by his foes, and yet not loved by those whom he
protected, for twice he had been taken prisoner, and twice his
ransom had been wrung by dint of blows and tortures out of the
starving peasants and ruined farmers. Wolves or watch-dogs, it
was hard to say from which the sheep had most to fear.
The Castle of Villefranche was harsh and stern as its master. A
broad moat, a high outer wall turreted at the corners, with a
great black keep towering above all--so it lay before them in the
moonlight. By the light of two flambeaux, protruded through the
narrow slit-shaped openings at either side of the ponderous gate,
they caught a glimpse of the glitter of fierce eyes and of the
gleam of the weapons of the guard. The sight of the two-headed
eagle of Du Guesclin, however, was a passport into any fortalice
in France, and ere they had passed the gate the old border knight
came running forwards with hands out-thrown to greet his famous
countryman. Nor was he less glad to see Sir Nigel, when the
Englishman's errand was explained to him, for these archers had
been a sore thorn in his side and had routed two expeditions
which he had sent against them. A happy day it would be for the
Seneschal of Auvergne when they should learn that the last yew
bow was over the marches.
The material for a feast was ever at hand in days when, if there
was grim want in the cottage, there was at least rude plenty in
the castle. Within an hour the guests were seated around a board
which creaked under the great pasties and joints of meat, varied
by those more dainty dishes in which the French excelled, the
spiced ortolan and the truffled beccaficoes. The Lady Rochefort,
a bright and laughter-loving dame, sat upon the left of her
warlike spouse, with Lady Tiphaine upon the right. Beneath sat
Du Guesclin and Sir Nigel, with Sir Amory Monticourt, of the
order of the Hospitallers, and Sir Otto Harnit, a wandering
knight from the kingdom of Bohemia. These with Alleyne and Ford,
four French squires, and the castle chaplain, made the company
who sat together that night and made good cheer in the Castle of
Villefranche. The great fire crackled in the grate, the hooded
hawks slept upon their perches, the rough deer-hounds with
expectant eyes crouched upon the tiled floor; close at the elbows
of the guests stood the dapper little lilac-coated pages; the
laugh and jest circled round and all was harmony and comfort.
Little they recked of the brushwood men who crouched in their
rags along the fringe of the forest and looked with wild and
haggard eyes at the rich, warm glow which shot a golden bar of
light from the high arched windows of the castle.
Supper over, the tables dormant were cleared away as by magic and
trestles and bancals arranged around the blazing fire, for there
was a bitter nip in the air. The Lady Tiphaine had sunk back in
her cushioned chair, and her long dark lashes drooped low over
her sparkling eyes. Alleyne, glancing at her, noted that her
breath came quick and short, and that her cheeks had blanched to
a lily white. Du Guesclin eyed her keenly from time to time, and
passed his broad brown fingers through his crisp, curly black
hair with the air of a man who is perplexed in his mind.
"These folk here," said the knight of Bohemia, "they do not seem
too well fed."
"Ah, canaille!" cried the Lord of Villefranche. "You would
scarce credit it, and yet it is sooth that when I was taken at
Poictiers it was all that my wife and foster-brother could do to
raise the money from them for my ransom. The sulky dogs would
rather have three twists of a rack, or the thumbikins for an
hour, than pay out a denier for their own feudal father and liege
lord. Yet there is not one of them but hath an old stocking full
of gold pieces hid away in a snug corner."
"Why do they not buy food then?" asked Sir Nigel. "By St. Paul!
it seemed to me their bones were breaking through their skin."
"It is their grutching and grumbling which makes them thin. We
have a saying here, Sir Nigel, that if you pummel Jacques
Bonhomme he will pat you, but if you pat him he will pummel you.
Doubtless you find it so in England."
"Ma foi, no!" said Sir Nigel. "I have two Englishmen of this
class in my train, who are at this instant, I make little doubt,
as full of your wine as any cask in your cellar. He who
pummelled them might come by such a pat as he would be likely to
"I cannot understand it," quoth the seneschal, "for the English
knights and nobles whom I have met were not men to brook the
insolence of the base born."
"Perchance, my fair lord, the poor folk are sweeter and of a
better countenance in England," laughed the Lady Rochefort.
"Mon Dieu! you cannot conceive to yourself how ugly they are!
Without hair, without teeth, all twisted and bent; for me, I
cannot think how the good God ever came to make such people. I
cannot bear it, I, and so my trusty Raoul goes ever before me
with a cudgel to drive them from my path."
"Yet they have souls, fair lady, they have souls!" murmured the
chaplain, a white-haired man with a weary, patient face.
"So I have heard you tell them," said the lord of the castle;
"and for myself, father, though I am a true son of holy Church,
yet I think that you were better employed in saying your mass and
in teaching the children of my men-at-arms, than in going over
the country-side to put ideas in these folks' heads which would
never have been there but for you. I have heard that you have
said to them that their souls are as good as ours, and that it is
likely that in another life they may stand as high as the oldest
blood of Auvergne. For my part, I believe that there are so many
worthy knights and gallant gentlemen in heaven who know how such
things should be arranged, that there is little fear that we
shall find ourselves mixed up with base roturiers and swine-herds.
Tell your beads, father, and con your psalter, but do not
come between me and those whom the king has given to me!"
"God help them!" cried the old priest. "A higher King than yours
has given them to me, and I tell you here in your own castle
hall, Sir Tristram de Rochefort, that you have sinned deeply in
your dealings with these poor folk, and that the hour will come,
and may even now be at hand, when God's hand will be heavy upon
you for what you have done." He rose as he spoke, and walked
slowly from the room.
"Pest take him!" cried the French knight. "Now, what is a man to
do with a priest, Sir Bertrand?--for one can neither fight him
like a man nor coax him like a woman."
"Ah, Sir Bertrand knows, the naughty one!" cried the Lady
Rochefort. "Have we not all heard how he went to Avignon and
squeezed fifty thousand crowns out of the Pope."
"Ma foi!" said Sir Nigel, looking with a mixture of horror and
admiration at Du Guesclin. "Did not your heart sink within you?
Were you not smitten with fears? Have you not felt a curse hang
"I have not observed it," said the Frenchman carelessly. "But by
Saint Ives! Tristram, this chaplain of yours seems to me to be a
worthy man, and you should give heed to his words, for though I
care nothing for the curse of a bad pope, it would be a grief to
me to have aught but a blessing from a good priest."
"Hark to that, my fair lord," cried the Lady Rochefort. "Take
heed, I pray thee, for I do not wish to have a blight cast over
me, nor a palsy of the limbs. I remember that once before you
angered Father Stephen, and my tire-woman said that I lost more
hair in seven days than ever before in a month."
"If that be sign of sin, then, by Saint Paul! I have much upon
my soul," said Sir Nigel, amid a general laugh. "But in very
truth, Sir Tristram, if I may venture a word of counsel, I should
advise that you make your peace with this good man."
"He shall have four silver candlesticks," said the seneschal
moodily. "And yet I would that he would leave the folk alone.
You cannot conceive in your mind how stubborn and brainless they
are. Mules and pigs are full of reason beside them. God He
knows that I have had great patience with them. It was but last
week that, having to raise some money, I called up to the castle
Jean Goubert, who, as all men know, has a casketful of gold
pieces hidden away in some hollow tree. I give you my word that
I did not so much as lay a stripe upon his fool's back, but after
speaking with him, and telling him how needful the money was to
me, I left him for the night to think over the matter in my
dungeon. What think you that the dog did? Why, in the morning
we found that he had made a rope from strips of his leathern
jerkin, and had hung himself to the bar of the window."
"For me, I cannot conceive such wickedness!" cried the lady.
"And there was Gertrude Le Boeuf, as fair a maiden as eye could
see, but as bad and bitter as the rest of them. When young Amory
de Valance was here last Lammastide he looked kindly upon the
girl, and even spoke of taking her into his service. What does
she do, with her dog of a father? Why, they tie themselves
together and leap into the Linden Pool, where the water is five
spears'-lengths deep. I give you my word that it was a great
grief to young Amory, and it was days ere he could cast it from
his mind. But how can one serve people who are so foolish and so
Whilst the Seneschal of Villefranche had been detailing the evil
doings of his tenants, Alleyne had been unable to take his eyes
from the face of Lady Tiphaine. She had lain back in her chair,
with drooping eyelids and bloodless face, so that he had feared
at first her journey had weighed heavily upon her, and that the
strength was ebbing out of her. Of a sudden, however, there came
a change, for a dash of bright color flickered up on to either
cheek, and her lids were slowly raised again upon eyes which
sparkled with such lustre as Alleyne had never seen in human eyes
before, while their gaze was fixed intently, not on the company,
but on the dark tapestry which draped the wall. So transformed
and so ethereal was her expression, that Alleyne, in his
loftiest dream of archangel or of seraph, had never pictured so
sweet, so womanly, and yet so wise a face. Glancing at Du
Guesclin, Alleyne saw that he also was watching his wife closely,
and from the twitching of his features, and the beads upon his
brick-colored brow, it was easy to see that he was deeply
agitated by the change which he marked in her.
"How is it with you, lady?" he asked at last, in a tremulous
Her eyes remained fixed intently upon the wall, and there was a
long pause ere she answered him. Her voice, too, which had been
so clear and ringing, was now low and muffled as that of one who
speaks from a distance.
"All is very well with me, Bertrand," said she. "The blessed
hour of sight has come round to me again."
"I could see it come! I could see it come!" he exclaimed,
passing his fingers through his hair with the same perplexed
expression as before.
"This is untoward, Sir Tristram," he said at last. "And I scarce
know in what words to make it clear to you, and to your fair
wife, and to Sir Nigel Loring, and to these other stranger
knights. My tongue is a blunt one, and fitter to shout word of
command than to clear up such a matter as this, of which I can
myself understand little. This, however, I know, that my wife is
come of a very sainted race, whom God hath in His wisdom endowed
with wondrous powers, so that Tiphaine Raquenel was known
throughout Brittany ere ever I first saw her at Dinan. Yet these
powers are ever used for good, and they are the gift of God and
not of the devil, which is the difference betwixt white magic and
"Perchance it would be as well that we should send for Father
Stephen," said Sir Tristram.
"It would be best that he should come," cried the Hospitaller.
"And bring with him a flask of holy water," added the knight of
"Not so, gentlemen," answered Sir Bertrand. "It is not needful
that this priest should be called, and it is in my mind that in
asking for this ye cast some slight shadow or slur upon the good
name of my wife, as though it were still doubtful whether her
power came to her from above or below. If ye have indeed such a
doubt I pray that you will say so, that we may discuss the matter
in a fitting way."
"For myself," said Sir Nigel, "I have heard such words fall from
the lips of this lady that I am of the opinion that there is no
woman, save only one, who can be in any way compared to her in
beauty and in goodness. Should any gentleman think otherwise, I
should deem it great honor to run a small course with him, or
debate the matter in whatever way might be most pleasing to him."
"Nay, it would ill become me to cast a slur upon a lady who is
both my guest and the wife of my comrade-in-arms," said the
Seneschal of Villefranche. "I have perceived also that on her
mantle there is marked a silver cross, which is surely sign
enough that there is nought of evil in these strange powers which
you say that she possesses."
This argument of the seneschal's appealed so powerfully to the
Bohemian and to the Hospitaller that they at once intimated that
their objections had been entirely overcome, while even the Lady
Rochefort, who had sat shivering and crossing herself, ceased to
cast glances at the door, and allowed her fears to turn to
"Among the gifts which have been vouchsafed to my wife," said Du
Guesclin, "there is the wondrous one of seeing into the future;
but it comes very seldom upon her, and goes as quickly, for none
can command it. The blessed hour of sight, as she hath named it,
has come but twice since I have known her, and I can vouch for it
that all that she hath told me was true, for on the evening of
the Battle of Auray she said that the morrow would be an ill day
for me and for Charles of Blois. Ere the sun had sunk again he
was dead, and I the prisoner of Sir John Chandos. Yet it is not
every question that she can answer, but only those----"
"Bertrand, Bertrand!" cried the lady in the same mutterings far-away
voice, "the blessed hour passes. Use it, Bertrand, while you may."
"I will, my sweet. Tell me, then, what fortune comes upon me?"
"Danger, Bertrand--deadly, pressing danger--which creeps upon you
and you know it not."
The French soldier burst into a thunderous laugh, and his green
eyes twinkled with amusement. "At what time during these twenty
years would not that have been a true word?" he cried. "Danger
is in the air that I breathe. But is this so very close,
"Here--now--close upon you!" The words came out in broken,
strenuous speech, while the lady's fair face was writhed and
drawn like that of one who looks upon a horror which strikes, the
words from her lips. Du Guesclin gazed round the tapestried
room, at the screens, the tables, the abace, the credence, the
buffet with its silver salver, and the half-circle of friendly,
wondering faces. There was an utter stillness, save for the
sharp breathing of the Lady Tiphaine and for the gentle soughing
of the wind outside, which wafted to their ears the distant call
upon a swine-herd's horn.
"The danger may bide," said he, shrugging his broad shoulders.
"And now, Tiphaine, tell us what will come of this war in Spain."
"I can see little," she answered, straining her eyes and
puckering her brow, as one who would fain clear her sight.
"There are mountains, and dry plains, and flash of arms and
shouting of battle-cries. Yet it is whispered to me that by
failure you will succeed."
"Ha! Sir Nigel, how like you that?" quoth Bertrand, shaking his
head. "It is like mead and vinegar, half sweet, half sour. And
is there no question which you would ask my lady?"
"Certes there is. I would fain know, fair lady, how all things
are at Twynham Castle, and above all how my sweet lady employs
"To answer this I would fain lay hand upon one whose thoughts
turn strongly to this castle which you have named. Nay, my Lord
Loring, it is whispered to me that there is another here who hath
thought more deeply of it than you."
"Thought more of mine own home?" cried Sir Nigel. "Lady, I fear
that in this matter at least you are mistaken."
"Not so, Sir Nigel. Come hither, young man, young English squire
with the gray eyes! Now give me your hand, and place it here
across my brow, that I may see that which you have seen. What is
this that rises before me? Mist, mist, rolling mist with a
square black tower above it. See it shreds out, it thins, it
rises, and there lies a castle in green plain, with the sea
beneath it, and a great church within a bow-shot. There are two
rivers which run through the meadows, and between them lie the
tents of the besiegers."
"The besiegers!" cried Alleyne, Ford, and Sir Nigel, all three in
"Yes, truly, and they press hard upon the castle, for they are an
exceeding multitude and full of courage. See how they storm and
rage against the gate, while some rear ladders, and others, line
after line, sweep the walls with their arrows. They are many
leaders who shout and beckon, and one, a tall man with a golden
beard, who stands before the gate stamping his foot and hallooing
them on, as a pricker doth the hounds. But those in the castle
fight bravely. There is a woman, two women, who stand upon the
walls, and give heart to the men-at-arms. They shower down
arrows, darts and great stones. Ah! they have struck down the
tall leader, and the others give back. The mist thickens and I
can see no more."
"By Saint Paul!" said Sir Nigel, "I do not think that there can
be any such doings at Christchurch, and I am very easy of the
fortalice so long as my sweet wife hangs the key of the outer
bailey at the head of her bed. Yet I will not deny that you have
pictured the castle as well as I could have done myself, and I am
full of wonderment at all that I have heard and seen."
"I would, Lady Tiphaine," cried the Lady Rochefort, "that you
would use your power to tell me what hath befallen my golden
bracelet which I wore when hawking upon the second Sunday of
Advent, and have never set eyes upon since."
"Nay, lady," said du Guesclin, "it does not befit so great and
wondrous a power to pry and search and play the varlet even to
the beautiful chatelaine of Villefranche. Ask a worthy question,
and, with the blessing of God, you shall have a worthy answer."
"Then I would fain ask," cried one of the French squires, "as to
which may hope to conquer in these wars betwixt the English and
"Both will conquer and each will hold its own," answered the Lady
"Then we shall still hold Gascony and Guienne?" cried Sir Nigel.
The lady shook her head. "French land, French blood, French
speech," she answered. "They are French, and France shall have
"But not Bordeaux?" cried Sir Nigel excitedly.
"Bordeaux also is for France."
"Woe worth me then, and ill hail to these evil words! If
Bordeaux and Calais be gone, then what is left for England?"
"It seems indeed that there are evil times coming upon your
country," said Du Guesclin. "In our fondest hopes we never
thought to hold Bordeaux. By Saint Ives! this news hath warmed
the heart within me. Our dear country will then be very great in
the future, Tiphaine?"
"Great, and rich, and beautiful," she cried. "Far down the
course of time I can see her still leading the nations, a wayward
queen among the peoples, great in war, but greater in peace,
quick in thought, deft in action, with her people's will for her
sole monarch, from the sands of Calais to the blue seas of the
"Ha!" cried Du Guesclin, with his eyes flashing in triumph, "you
hear her, Sir Nigel?--and she never yet said word which was not
The English knight shook his head moodily. "What of my own poor
country?" said he. "I fear, lady, that what you have said bodes
but small good for her."
The lady sat with parted lips, and her breath came quick and
fast. "My God!" she cried, "what is this that is shown me?
Whence come they, these peoples, these lordly nations, these
mighty countries which rise up before me? I look beyond, and
others rise, and yet others, far and farther to the shores of the
uttermost waters. They crowd! They swarm! The world is given
to them, and it resounds with the clang of their hammers and the
ringing of their church bells. They call them many names, and
they rule them this way or that but they are all English, for I
can hear the voices of the people. On I go, and onwards over
seas where man hath never yet sailed, and I see a great land
under new stars and a stranger sky, and still the land is
England. Where have her children not gone? What have they not
done? Her banner is planted on ice. Her banner is scorched in
the sun. She lies athwart the lands, and her shadow is over the
seas. Bertrand, Bertrand! we are undone for the buds of her bud
are even as our choicest flower!" Her voice rose into a wild cry,
and throwing up her arms she sank back white and nerveless into
the deep oaken chair.
"It is over," said Du Guesclin moodily, as he raised her drooping
head with his strong brown hand. "Wine for the lady, squire!
The blessed hour of sight hath passed."
HOW THE BRUSHWOOD MEN CAME TO THE CHATEAU OF VILLEFRANCHE.
It was late ere Alleyne Edricson, having carried Sir Nigel the
goblet of spiced wine which it was his custom to drink after the
curling of his hair, was able at last to seek his chamber. It
was a stone-flagged room upon the second floor, with a bed in a
recess for him, and two smaller pallets on the other side, on
which Aylward and Hordle John were already snoring. Alleyne had
knelt down to his evening orisons, when there came a tap at his
door, and Ford entered with a small lamp in his hand. His face
was deadly pale, and his hand shook until the shadows flickered
up and down the wall.
"What is it, Ford?" cried Alleyne, springing to his feet.
"I can scarce tell you," said he, sitting down on the side of the
couch, and resting his chin upon his hand. "I know not what to
say or what to think."
"Has aught befallen you, then?"
"Yes, or I have been slave to my own fancy. I tell you, lad,
that I am all undone, like a fretted bow-string. Hark hither,
Alleyne! it cannot be that you have forgotten little Tita, the
daughter of the old glass-stainer at Bordeaux?"
"I remember her well."
"She and I, Alleyne, broke the lucky groat together ere we
parted, and she wears my ring upon her finger. `Caro mio,' quoth
she when last we parted, `I shall be near thee in the wars, and
thy danger will be my danger.' Alleyne, as God is my help, as I
came up the stairs this night I saw her stand before me, her face
in tears, her hands out as though in warning--I saw it, Alleyne,
even as I see those two archers upon their couches. Our very
finger-tips seemed to meet, ere she thinned away like a mist in
"I would not give overmuch thought to it," answered Alleyne. "Our
minds will play us strange pranks, and bethink you that these
words of the Lady Tiphaine Du Guesclin have wrought upon us and
Ford shook his head. "I saw little Tita as clearly as though I
were back at the Rue des Apotres at Bordeaux," said he.
"But the hour is late, and I must go."
"Where do you sleep, then?"
"In the chamber above you. May the saints be with us all!" He
rose from the couch and left the chamber, while Alleyne could
hear his feet sounding upon the winding stair. The young squire
walked across to the window and gazed out at the moonlit
landscape, his mind absorbed by the thought of the Lady Tiphaine,
and of the strange words that she had spoken as to what was going
forward at Castle Twynham. Leaning his elbows upon the
stonework, he was deeply plunged in reverie, when in a moment his
thoughts were brought back to Villefranche and to the scene
The window at which he stood was in the second floor of that
portion of the castle which was nearest to the keep. In front
lay the broad moat, with the moon lying upon its surface, now
clear and round, now drawn lengthwise as the breeze stirred the
waters. Beyond, the plain sloped down to a thick wood, while
further to the left a second wood shut out the view. Between the
two an open glade stretched, silvered in the moonshine, with the
river curving across the lower end of it.
As he gazed, he saw of a sudden a man steal forth from the wood
into the open clearing. He walked with his head sunk, his
shoulders curved, and his knees bent, as one who strives hard to
remain unseen. Ten paces from the fringe of trees he glanced
around, and waving his hand he crouched down, and was lost to
sight among a belt of furze-bushes. After him there came a
second man, and after him a third, a fourth, and a fifth stealing
across the narrow open space and darting into the shelter of the
brushwood. Nine-and-seventy Alleyne counted of these dark
figures flitting across the line of the moonlight. Many bore
huge burdens upon their backs, though what it was that they
carried he could not tell at the distance. Out of the one wood
and into the other they passed, all with the same crouching,
furtive gait, until the black bristle of trees had swallowed up
the last of them.
For a moment Alleyne stood in the window, still staring down at
the silent forest, uncertain as to what he should think of these
midnight walkers. Then he bethought him that there was one
beside him who was fitter to judge on such a matter. His fingers
had scarce rested upon Aylward's shoulder ere the bowman was on
his feet, with his hand outstretched to his sword.
"Qui va?" he cried. "Hola! mon petit. By my hilt! I thought
there had been a camisade. What then, mon gar.?"
"Come hither by the window, Aylward," said Alleyne. "I have seen
four-score men pass from yonder shaw across the glade, and nigh
every man of them had a great burden on his back. What think you
"I think nothing of it, mon camarade! There are as many
masterless folk in this country as there are rabbits on Cowdray
Down, and there are many who show their faces by night but would
dance in a hempen collar if they stirred forth in the day. On all
the French marches are droves of outcasts, reivers, spoilers, and
draw-latches, of whom I judge that these are some, though I
marvel that they should dare to come so nigh to the castle of the
seneschal. All seems very quiet now," he added, peering out of
"They are in the further wood," said Alleyne.
"And there they may bide. Back to rest, mon petit; for, by my
hilt! each day now will bring its own work. Yet it would be well
to shoot the bolt in yonder door when one is in strange quarters.
So!" He threw himself down upon his pallet and in an instant was
It might have been about three o'clock in the morning when
Alleyne was aroused from a troubled sleep by a low cry or
exclamation. He listened, but, as he heard no more, he set it
down as the challenge of the guard upon the walls, and dropped
off to sleep once more. A few minutes later he was disturbed by
a gentle creaking of his own door, as though some one were
pushing cautiously against it, and immediately afterwards he
heard the soft thud of cautious footsteps upon the stair which
led to the room above, followed by a confused noise and a muffled
groan. Alleyne sat up on his couch with all his nerves in a
tingle, uncertain whether these sounds might come from a simple
cause--some sick archer and visiting leech perhaps--or whether
they might have a more sinister meaning. But what danger could
threaten them here in this strong castle, under the care of
famous warriors, with high walls and a broad moat around them?
Who was there that could injure them? He had well-nigh persuaded
himself that his fears were a foolish fancy, when his eyes fell
upon that which sent the blood cold to his heart and left him
gasping, with hands clutching at the counterpane.
Right in front of him was the broad window of the chamber, with
the moon shining brightly through it. For an instant something
had obscured the light, and now a head was bobbing up and down
outside, the face looking in at him, and swinging slowly from one
side of the window to the other. Even in that dim light there
could be no mistaking those features. Drawn, distorted and
blood-stained, they were still those of the young fellow-squire
who had sat so recently upon his own couch. With a cry of horror
Alleyne sprang from his bed and rushed to the casement, while the
two archers, aroused by the sound, seized their weapons and
stared about them in bewilderment. One glance was enough to show
Edricson that his fears were but too true. Foully murdered,
with a score of wounds upon him and a rope round his neck, his
poor friend had been cast from the upper window and swung slowly
in the night wind, his body rasping against the wall and his
disfigured face upon a level with the casement.
"My God!" cried Alleyne, shaking in every limb. "What has come
upon us? What devil's deed is this?"
"Here is flint and steel," said John stolidly. "The lamp,
Aylward! This moonshine softens a man's heart. Now we may use
the eyes which God hath given us."
"By my hilt!" cried Aylward, as the yellow flame flickered up,
"it is indeed young master Ford, and I think that this seneschal
is a black villain, who dare not face us in the day but would
murther us in our sleep. By the twang of string! if I do not
soak a goose's feather with his heart's blood, it will be no
fault of Samkin Aylward of the White Company."
"But, Aylward, think of the men whom I saw yesternight," said
Alleyne. "It may not be the seneschal. It may be that others
have come into the castle. I must to Sir Nigel ere it be too
late. Let me go, Aylward, for my place is by his side."
"One moment, mon gar. Put that steel head-piece on the end of my
yew-stave. So! I will put it first through the door; for it is
ill to come out when you can neither see nor guard yourself.
Now, camarades, out swords and stand ready! Hola, by my hilt! it
is time that we were stirring!"
As he spoke, a sudden shouting broke forth in the castle, with
the scream of a woman and the rush of many feet. Then came the
sharp clink of clashing steel, and a roar like that of an angry
lion--"Notre Dame Du Guesclin! St. Ives! St. Ives!" The bow-man
pulled back the bolt of the door, and thrust out the headpiece at
the end of the bow. A clash, the clatter of the steel-cap upon
the ground, and, ere the man who struck could heave up for
another blow, the archer had passed his sword through his body.
"On, camarades, on!" he cried; and, breaking fiercely past two
men who threw themselves in his way, he sped down the broad
corridor in the direction of the shouting.
A sharp turning, and then a second one, brought them to the head
of a short stair, from which they looked straight down upon the
scene of the uproar. A square oak-floored hall lay beneath them,
from which opened the doors of the principal guest-chambers.
This hall was as light as day, for torches burned in numerous
sconces upon the walls, throwing strange shadows from the tusked
or antlered heads which ornamented them. At the very foot of the
stair, close to the open door of their chamber, lay the seneschal
and his wife: she with her head shorn from her shoulders, he
thrust through with a sharpened stake, which still protruded from
either side of his body. Three servants of the castle lay dead
beside them, all torn and draggled, as though a pack of wolves
had been upon them. In front of the central guest-chamber stood
Du Guesclin and Sir Nigel, half-clad and unarmored, with the mad
joy of battle gleaming in their eyes. Their heads were thrown
back, their lips compressed, their blood-stained swords poised
over their right shoulders, and their left feet thrown out.
Three dead men lay huddled together in front of them: while a
fourth, with the blood squirting from a severed vessel, lay back
with updrawn knees, breathing in wheezy gasps. Further back--all
panting together, like the wind in a tree--there stood a group of
fierce, wild creatures, bare-armed and bare-legged, gaunt,
unshaven, with deep-set murderous eyes and wild beast faces.
With their flashing teeth, their bristling hair, their mad
leapings and screamings, they seemed to Alleyne more like fiends
from the pit than men of flesh and blood. Even as he looked,
they broke into a hoarse yell and dashed once more upon the two
knights, hurling themselves madly upon their sword-points;
clutching, scrambling, biting, tearing, careless of wounds if
they could but drag the two soldiers to earth. Sir Nigel was
thrown down by the sheer weight of them, and Sir Bertrand with
his thunderous war-cry was swinging round his heavy sword to
clear a space for him to rise, when the whistle of two long
English arrows, and the rush of the squire and the two English
archers down the stairs, turned the tide of the combat. The
assailants gave back, the knights rushed forward, and in a very
few moments the hall was cleared, and Hordle John had hurled the
last of the wild men down the steep steps which led from the end
"Do not follow them," cried Du Guesclin. "We are lost if we
scatter. For myself I care not a denier, though it is a poor
thing to meet one's end at the hands of such scum; but I have my
dear lady here, who must by no means be risked. We have
breathing-space now, and I would ask you, Sir Nigel, what it is
that you would counsel?"
"By St. Paul!" answered Sir Nigel, "I can by no means understand
what hath befallen us, save that I have been woken up by your
battle-cry, and, rushing forth, found myself in the midst of this
small bickering. Harrow and alas for the lady and the seneschal!
What dogs are they who have done this bloody deed?"
"They are the Jacks, the men of the brushwood. They have the
castle, though I know not how it hath come to pass. Look from
this window into the bailey."
"By heaven!" cried Sir Nigel, "it is as bright as day with the
torches. The gates stand open, and there are three thousand of
them within the walls. See how they rush and scream and wave!
What is it that they thrust out through the postern door? My
God! it is a man-at-arms, and they pluck him limb from limb like
hounds on a wolf. Now another, and yet another. They hold the
whole castle, for I see their faces at the windows. See, there
are some with great bundles on their backs."
"It is dried wood from the forest. They pile them against the
walls and set them in a blaze. Who is this who tries to check
them? By St. Ives! it is the good priest who spake for them in
the hall. He kneels, he prays, he implores! What! villains,
would ye raise hands against those who have befriended you? Ah,
the butcher has struck him! He is down! They stamp him under
their feet! They tear off his gown and wave it in the air! See
now, how the flames lick up the walls! Are there none left to
rally round us? With a hundred men we might hold our own."
"Oh, for my Company!" cried Sir Nigel. "But where is Ford,
"He is foully murdered, my fair lord."
"The saints receive him! May he rest in peace! But here come
some at last who may give us counsel, for amid these passages it
is ill to stir without a guide."
As he spoke, a French squire and the Bohemian knight came rushing
down the steps, the latter bleeding from a slash across his
"All is lost!" he cried. "The castle is taken and on fire, the
seneschal is slain, and there is nought left for us."
"On the contrary," quoth Sir Nigel, "there is much left to us,
for there is a very honorable contention before us, and a fair
lady for whom to give our lives. There are many ways in which a
man might die, but none better than this."
"You can tell us, Godfrey," said Du Guesclin to the French
squire: "how came these men into the castle, and what succors can
we count upon? By St. Ives! if we come not quickly to some
counsel we shall be burned like young rooks in a nest."
The squire, a dark, slender stripling, spoke firmly and quickly,
as one who was trained to swift action. "There is a passage
under the earth into the castle," said he, "and through it some
of the Jacks made their way, casting open the gates for the
others. They have had help from within the walls, and the
men-at-arms were heavy with wine: they must have been slain in
their beds, for these devils crept from room to room with soft
step and ready knife. Sir Amory the Hospitaller was struck down
with an axe as he rushed before us from his sleeping-chamber.
Save only ourselves, I do not think that there are any left
"What, then, would you counsel?"
"That we make for the keep. It is unused, save in time of war,
and the key hangs from my poor lord and master's belt."
"There are two keys there."
"It is the larger. Once there, we might hold the narrow stair;
and at least, as the walls are of a greater thickness, it would
be longer ere they could burn them. Could we but carry the lady
across the bailey, all might be well with us."
"Nay; the lady hath seen something of the work of war," said
Tiphaine coming forth, as white, as grave, and as unmoved as
ever. "I would not be a hamper to you, my dear spouse and
gallant friend. Rest assured of this, that if all else fail I
have always a safeguard here"--drawing a small silver-hilted
poniard from her bosom--"which sets me beyond the fear of these
vile and blood-stained wretches."
"Tiphaine," cried Du Guesclin, "I have always loved you; and now,
by Our Lady of Rennes! I love you more than ever. Did I not know
that your hand will be as ready as your words I would myself turn
my last blow upon you, ere you should fall into their hands.
Lead on, Godfrey! A new golden pyx will shine in the minster of
Dinan if we come safely through with it."
The attention of the insurgents had been drawn away from murder
to plunder, and all over the castle might be heard their cries
and whoops of delight as they dragged forth the rich tapestries,
the silver flagons, and the carved furniture. Down in the
courtyard half-clad wretches, their bare limbs all mottled with
blood-stains, strutted about with plumed helmets upon their
heads, or with the Lady Rochefort's silken gowns girt round their
loins and trailing on the ground behind them. Casks of choice
wine had been rolled out from the cellars, and starving peasants
squatted, goblet in hand, draining off vintages which De
Rochefort had set aside for noble and royal guests. Others, with
slabs of bacon and joints of dried meat upon the ends of their
pikes, held them up to the blaze or tore at them ravenously with
their teeth. Yet all order had not been lost amongst them, for
some hundreds of the better armed stood together in a silent
group, leaning upon their rude weapons and looking up at the
fire, which had spread so rapidly as to involve one whole side of
the castle. Already Alleyne could hear the crackling and roaring
of the flames, while the air was heavy with heat and full of the
pungent whiff of burning wood.
HOW FIVE MEN HELD THE KEEP OF VILLEFRANCHE
Under the guidance of the French squire the party passed down two
narrow corridors. The first was empty, but at the head of the
second stood a peasant sentry, who started off at the sight of
them, yelling loudly to his comrades. "Stop him, or we are
undone!" cried Du Guesclin, and had started to run, when
Aylward's great war-bow twanged like a harp-string, and the man
fell forward upon his face, with twitching limbs and clutching
fingers. Within five paces of where he lay a narrow and
little-used door led out into the bailey. From beyond it came
such a Babel of hooting and screaming, horrible oaths and yet
more horrible laughter, that the stoutest heart might have shrunk
from casting down the frail barrier which faced them.
"Make straight for the keep!" said Du Guesclin, in a sharp, stern
whisper. "The two archers in front, the lady in the centre, a
squire on either side, while we three knights shall bide behind
and beat back those who press upon us. So! Now open the door,
and God have us in his holy keeping!"
For a few moments it seemed that their object would be attained
without danger, so swift and so silent had been their movements.
They were half-way across the bailey ere the frantic, howling
peasants made a movement to stop them. The few who threw
themselves in their way were overpowered or brushed aside, while
the pursuers were beaten back by the ready weapons of the three
cavaliers. Unscathed they fought their way to the door of the
keep, and faced round upon the swarming mob, while the squire
thrust the great key into the lock.
"My God!" he cried, "it is the wrong key."
"The wrong key!"
"Dolt, fool that I am! This is the key of the castle gate; the
other opens the keep. I must back for it!" He turned, with some
wild intention of retracing his steps, but at the instant a great
jagged rock, hurled by a brawny peasant, struck him full upon the
ear, and he dropped senseless to the ground.
"This is key enough for me!" quoth Hordle John, picking up the
huge stone, and hurling it against the door with all the strength
of his enormous body. The lock shivered, the wood smashed, the
stone flew into five pieces, but the iron clamps still held the
door in its position. Bending down, he thrust his great fingers
under it, and with a heave raised the whole mass of wood and iron
from its hinges. For a moment it tottered and swayed, and then,
falling outward, buried him in its ruin, while his comrades
rushed into the dark archway which led to safety.
"Up the steps, Tiphaine!" cried Du Guesclin. "Now round,
friends, and beat them back!" The mob of peasants had surged in
upon their heels, but the two trustiest blades in Europe gleamed
upon that narrow stair, and four of their number dropped upon the
threshold. The others gave back, and gathered in a half circle
round the open door, gnashing their teeth and shaking their
clenched hands at the defenders. The body of the French squire
had been dragged out by them and hacked to pieces. Three or four
others had pulled John from under the door, when he suddenly
bounded to his feet, and clutching one in either hand dashed
them together with such force that they fell senseless across
each other upon the ground. With a kick and a blow he freed
himself from two others who clung to him, and in a moment he was
within the portal with his comrades.
Yet their position was a desperate one. The peasants from far
and near had been assembled for this deed of vengeance, and not
less than six thousand were within or around the walls of the
Chateau of Villefranche. Ill armed and half starved, they were
still desperate men, to whom danger had lost all fears: for what
was death that they should shun it to cling to such a life as
theirs? The castle was theirs, and the roaring flames were
spurting through the windows and flickering high above the
turrets on two sides of the quadrangle. From either side they
were sweeping down from room to room and from bastion to bastion
in the direction of the keep. Faced by an army, and girt in by
fire, were six men and one woman; but some of them were men so
trained to danger and so wise in war that even now the combat was
less unequal than it seemed. Courage and resource were penned in
by desperation and numbers, while the great yellow sheets of
flame threw their lurid glare over the scene of death.
"There is but space for two upon a step to give free play to our
sword-arms," said Du Guesclin. "Do you stand with me, Nigel,
upon the lowest. France and England will fight together this
night. Sir Otto, I pray you to stand behind us with this young
squire. The archers may go higher yet and shoot over our heads.
I would that we had our harness, Nigel."
"Often have I heard my dear Sir John Chandos say that a knight
should never, even when a guest, be parted from it. Yet it will
be more honor to us if we come well out of it. We have a vantage,
since we see them against the light and they can scarce see us.
It seems to me that they muster for an onslaught."
"If we can but keep them in play," said the Bohemian, "it is
likely that these flames may bring us succor if there be any true
men in the country."
"Bethink you, my fair lord," said Alleyne to Sir Nigel, "that we
have never injured these men, nor have we cause of quarrel
against them. Would it not be well, if but for the lady's sake,
to speak them fair and see if we may not come to honorable terms
"Not so, by St. Paul!" cried Sir Nigel. "It does not accord with
mine honor, nor shall it ever be said that I, a knight of
England, was ready to hold parley with men who have slain a fair
lady and a holy priest."
"As well hold parley with a pack of ravening wolves," said the
French captain. "Ha! Notre Dame Du Guesclin! Saint Ives!
As he thundered forth his war-cry, the Jacks who had been
gathering before the black arch of the gateway rushed in madly in
a desperate effort to carry the staircase. Their leaders were a
small man, dark in the face, with his beard done up in two
plaits, and another larger man, very bowed in the shoulders, with
a huge club studded with sharp nails in his hand. The first had
not taken three steps ere an arrow from Aylward's bow struck him
full in the chest, and he fell coughing and spluttering across
the threshold. The other rushed onwards, and breaking between Du
Guesclin and Sir Nigel he dashed out the brains of the Bohemian
with a single blow of his clumsy weapon. With three swords
through him he still struggled on, and had almost won his way
through them ere he fell dead upon the stair. Close at his heels
came a hundred furious peasants, who flung themselves again and
again against the five swords which confronted them. It was cut
and parry and stab as quick as eye could see or hand act. The
door was piled with bodies, and the stone floor was slippery with
blood. The deep shout of Du Guesclin, the hard, hissing breath
of the pressing multitude, the clatter of steel, the thud of
falling bodies, and the screams of the stricken, made up such a
medley as came often in after years to break upon Alleyne's
sleep. Slowly and sullenly at last the throng drew off, with
many a fierce backward glance, while eleven of their number lay
huddled in front of the stair which they had failed to win.
"The dogs have had enough," said Du Guesclin.
"By Saint Paul! there appear to be some very worthy and valiant
persons among them," observed Sir Nigel. "They are men from
whom, had they been of better birth, much honor and advancement
might be gained. Even as it is, it is a great pleasure to have
seen them. But what is this that they are bringing forward?"
"It is as I feared," growled Du Guesclin. "They will burn us
out, since they cannot win their way past us. Shoot straight and
hard, archers; for, by St. Ives! our good swords are of little
use to us."
As he spoke, a dozen men rushed forward, each screening himself
behind a huge fardel of brushwood. Hurling their burdens in one
vast heap within the portal, they threw burning torches upon the
top of it. The wood had been soaked in oil, for in an instant it
was ablaze, and a long, hissing, yellow flame licked over the
heads of the defenders, and drove them further up to the first
floor of the keep. They had scarce reached it, however, ere they
found that the wooden joists and planks of the flooring were
already on fire. Dry and worm-eaten, a spark upon them became a
smoulder, and a smoulder a blaze. A choking smoke filled the
air, and the five could scarce grope their way to the staircase
which led up to the very summit of the square tower.
Strange was the scene which met their eyes from this eminence.
Beneath them on every side stretched the long sweep of peaceful
country, rolling plain, and tangled wood, all softened and
mellowed in the silver moonshine. No light, nor movement, nor
any sign of human aid could be seen, but far away the hoarse
clangor of a heavy bell rose and fell upon the wintry air.
Beneath and around them blazed the huge fire, roaring and
crackling on every side of the bailey, and even as they looked
the two corner turrets fell in with a deafening crash, and the
whole castle was but a shapeless mass, spouting flames and smoke
from every window and embrasure. The great black tower upon
which they stood rose like a last island of refuge amid this sea
of fire but the ominous crackling and roaring below showed that
it would not be long ere it was engulfed also in the common ruin.
At their very feet was the square courtyard, crowded with the
howling and dancing peasants, their fierce faces upturned, their
clenched hands waving, all drunk with bloodshed and with
vengeance. A yell of execration and a scream of hideous laughter
burst from the vast throng, as they saw the faces of the last
survivors of their enemies peering down at them from the height
of the keep. They still piled the brushwood round the base of
the tower, and gambolled hand in hand around the blaze, screaming
out the doggerel lines which had long been the watchword of the
Cessez, cessez, gens d'armes et pietons,
De piller et manger le bonhomme
Qui de longtemps Jacques Bonhomme
Their thin, shrill voices rose high above the roar of the flames
and the crash of the masonry, like the yelping of a pack of
wolves who see their quarry before them and know that they have
well-nigh run him down.
"By my hilt!" said Aylward to John, "it is in my mind that we
shall not see Spain this journey. It is a great joy to me that I
have placed my feather-bed and other things of price with that
worthy woman at Lyndhurst, who will now have the use of them. I
have thirteen arrows yet, and if one of them fly unfleshed, then,
by the twang of string! I shall deserve my doom. First at him
who flaunts with my lady's silken frock. Clap in the clout, by
God! though a hand's-breadth lower than I had meant. Now for the
rogue with the head upon his pike. Ha! to the inch, John. When
my eye is true, I am better at rovers than at long-butts or
hoyles. A good shoot for you also, John! The villain hath
fallen forward into the fire. But I pray you, John, to loose
gently, and not to pluck with the drawing-hand, for it is a trick
that hath marred many a fine bowman."
Whilst the two archers were keeping up a brisk fire upon the mob
beneath them, Du Guesclin and his lady were consulting with Sir
Nigel upon their desperate situation.
"'Tis a strange end for one who has seen so many stricken
fields," said the French chieftain. "For me one death is as
another, but it is the thought of my sweet lady which goes to my
"Nay, Bertrand, I fear it as little as you," said she. "Had I my
dearest wish, it would be that we should go together."
"Well answered, fair lady!" cried Sir Nigel. "And very sure I am
that my own sweet wife would have said the same. If the end be
now come, I have had great good fortune in having lived in times
when so much glory was to be won, and in knowing so many valiant
gentlemen and knights. But why do you pluck my sleeve, Alleyne?"
"If it please you, my fair lord, there are in this corner two
great tubes of iron, with many heavy balls, which may perchance
be those bombards and shot of which I have heard."
"By Saint Ives! it is true," cried Sir Bertrand, striding across
to the recess where the ungainly, funnel-shaped, thick-ribbed
engines were standing. "Bombards they are, and of good size. We
may shoot down upon them."
"Shoot with them, quotha?" cried Aylward in high disdain, for
pressing danger is the great leveller of classes. "How is a man
to take aim with these fool's toys, and how can he hope to do
scath with them?"
"I will show you," answered Sir Nigel; "for here is the great box
of powder, and if you will raise it for me, John, I will show you
how it may be used. Come hither, where the folk are thickest
round the fire. Now, Aylward, crane thy neck and see what would
have been deemed an old wife's tale when we first turned our
faces to the wars. Throw back the lid, John, and drop the box
into the fire!"
A deafening roar, a fluff of bluish light, and the great square
tower rocked and trembled from its very foundations, swaying this
way and that like a reed in the wind. Amazed and dizzy, the
defenders, clutching at the cracking parapets for support, saw
great stones, burning beams of wood, and mangled bodies hurtling
past them through the air. When they staggered to their feet
once more, the whole keep had settled down upon one side, so that
they could scarce keep their footing upon the sloping platform.
Gazing over the edge, they looked down upon the horrible
destruction which had been caused by the explosion. For forty
yards round the portal the ground was black with writhing,
screaming figures, who struggled up and hurled themselves down
again, tossing this way and that, sightless, scorched, with fire
bursting from their tattered clothing. Beyond this circle of
death their comrades, bewildered and amazed, cowered away from
this black tower and from these invincible men, who were most to
be dreaded when hope was furthest from their hearts.
"A sally, Du Guesclin, a sally!" cried Sir Nigel. "By Saint
Paul! they are in two minds, and a bold rush may turn them." He
drew his sword as he spoke and darted down the winding stairs,
closely followed by his four comrades. Ere he was at the first
floor, however, he threw up his arms and stopped. "Mon Dieu!" he
said, "we are lost men!"
"What then?" cried those behind him.
"The wail hath fallen in, the stair is blocked, and the fire
still rages below. By Saint Paul! friends, we have fought a very
honorable fight, and may say in all humbleness that we have done
our devoir, but I think that we may now go back to the Lady
Tiphaine and say our orisons, for we have played our parts in
this world, and it is time that we made ready for another."
The narrow pass was blocked by huge stones littered in wild
confusion over each other, with the blue choking smoke reeking up
through the crevices. The explosion had blown in the wall and
cut off the only path by which they could descend. Pent in, a
hundred feet from earth, with a furnace raging under them and a
ravening multitude all round who thirsted for their blood, it
seemed indeed as though no men had ever come through such peril
with their lives. Slowly they made their way back to the summit,
but as they came out upon it the Lady Tiphaine darted forward and
caught her husband by the wrist.
"Bertrand," said she, "hush and listen! I have heard the voices
of men all singing together in a strange tongue."
Breathless they stood and silent, but no sound came up to them,
save the roar of the flames and the clamor of their enemies.
"It cannot be, lady," said Du Guesclin. "This night hath over
wrought you, and your senses play you false. What men ere there
in this country who would sing in a strange tongue?"
"Hola!" yelled Aylward, leaping suddenly into the air with waving
hands and joyous face. "I thought I heard it ere we went down,
and now I hear it again. We are saved, comrades! By these ten
finger-bones, we are saved! It is the marching song of the White
With upraised forefinger and slanting head, he stood listening.
Suddenly there came swelling up a deep-voiced, rollicking chorus
from somewhere out of the darkness. Never did choice or dainty
ditty of Provence or Languedoc sound more sweetly in the ears
than did the rough-tongued Saxon to the six who strained their
ears from the blazing keep:
We'll drink all together
To the gray goose feather
And the land where the gray goose flew.
"Ha, by my hilt!" shouted Aylward, "it is the dear old bow song
of the Company. Here come two hundred as tight lads as ever
twirled a shaft over their thumbnails. Hark to the dogs, how
lustily they sing!"
Nearer and clearer, swelling up out of the night, came the gay
What of the bow?
The bow was made in England.
Of true wood, of yew wood,
The wood of English bows;
For men who are free
Love the old yew-tree
And the land where the yew tree grows.
What of the men?
The men were bred in England,
The bowmen, the yeomen,
The lads of the dale and fell,
Here's to you and to you,
To the hearts that are true,
And the land where the true hearts dwell.
"They sing very joyfully," said Du Guesclin, "as though they were
going to a festival."
"It is their wont when there is work to be done."
"By Saint Paul!" quoth Sir Nigel, "it is in my mind that they
come too late, for I cannot see how we are to come down from this
"There they come, the hearts of gold!" cried Aylward. "See, they
move out from the shadow. Now they cross the meadow. They are on
the further side of the moat. Hola camarades, hola! Johnston,
Eccles, Cooke, Harward, Bligh! Would ye see a fair lady and two
gallant knights done foully to death?"
"Who is there?" shouted a deep voice from below. "Who is this
who speaks with an English tongue?"
"It is I, old lad. It is Sam Aylward of the Company; and here is
your captain, Sir Nigel Loring, and four others, all laid out to
be grilled like an Easterling's herrings."
"Curse me if I did not think that it was the style of speech of
old Samkin Aylward," said the voice, amid a buzz from the ranks.
"Wherever there are knocks going there is Sammy in the heart of
it. But who are these ill-faced rogues who block the path? To
your kennels, canaille! What! you dare look us in the eyes? Out
swords, lads, and give them the flat of them! Waste not your
shafts upon such runagate knaves."
There was little fight left in the peasants, however, still dazed
by the explosion, amazed at their own losses and disheartened by
the arrival of the disciplined archers. In a very few minutes
they were in full flight for their brushwood homes, leaving the
morning sun to rise upon a blackened and blood-stained ruin,
where it had left the night before the magnificent castle of the
Seneschal of Auvergne. Already the white lines in the east were
deepening into pink as the archers gathered round the keep and
took counsel how to rescue the survivors.
"Had we a rope," said Alleyne, "there is one side which is not
yet on fire, down which we might slip."
"But how to get a rope?"
"It is an old trick," quoth Aylward. "Hola! Johnston, cast me up
a rope, even as you did at Maupertuis in the war time."
The grizzled archer thus addressed took several lengths of rope
from his comrades, and knotting them firmly together, he
stretched them out in the long shadow which the rising sun threw
from the frowning keep. Then he fixed the yew-stave of his bow
upon end and measured the long, thin, black line which it threw
upon the turf.
"A six-foot stave throws a twelve-foot shadow," he muttered. "The
keep throws a shadow of sixty paces. Thirty paces of rope will
be enow and to spare. Another strand, Watkin! Now pull at the
end that all may be safe. So! It is ready for them.'
"But how are they to reach it?" asked the young archer beside
"Watch and see, young fool's-head," growled the old bowman. He
took a long string from his pouch and fastened one end to an
"All ready, Samkin?"
"Close to your hand then." With an easy pull he sent the shaft
flickering gently up, falling upon the stonework within a foot of
where Aylward was standing. The other end was secured to the
rope, so that in a minute a good strong cord was dangling from
the only sound side of the blazing and shattered tower. The Lady
Tiphaine was lowered with a noose drawn fast under the arms, and
the other five slid swiftly down, amid the cheers and joyous
outcry of their rescuers.
HOW THE COMPANY TOOK COUNSEL ROUND THE FALLEN TREE.
"Where is Sir Claude Latour?" asked Sir Nigel, as his feet
"He is in camp, near Montpezat, two hours' march from here, my
fair lord," said Johnston, the grizzled bowman who commanded the
"Then we shall march thither, for I would fain have you all back
at Dax in time to be in the prince's vanguard."
"My lord," cried Alleyne, joyfully, "here are our chargers in the
field, and I see your harness amid the plunder which these rogues
have left behind them."
"By Saint Ives! you speak sooth, young squire," said Du Guesclin.
"There is my horse and my lady's jennet. The knaves led them
from the stables, but fled without them. Now, Nigel, it is great
joy to me to have seen one of whom I have often heard. Yet we
must leave you now, for I must be with the King of Spain ere your
army crosses the mountains."
"I had thought that you were in Spain with the valiant Henry of
"I have been there, but I came to France to raise succor for him.
I shall ride back, Nigel, with four thousand of the best lances
of France at my back, so that your prince may find he hath a task
which is worthy of him. God be with you, friend, and may we meet
again in better times!"
"I do not think," said Sir Nigel, as he stood by Alleyne's side
looking after the French knight and his lady, "that in all
Christendom you will meet with a more stout-hearted man or a
fairer and sweeter dame. But your face is pale and sad, Alleyne!
Have you perchance met with some hurt during the ruffle?"
"Nay, my fair lord, I was but thinking of my friend Ford, and how
he sat upon my couch no later than yesternight."
Sir Nigel shook his head sadly. "Two brave squires have I lost,"
said he. "I know not why the young shoots should be plucked, and
an old weed left standing, yet certes there must be come good
reason, since God hath so planned it. Did you not note, Alleyne,
that the Lady Tiphaine did give us warning last night that danger
was coming upon us?"
"She did, my lord."
"By Saint Paul! my mind misgives me as to what she saw at Twynham
Castle. And yet I cannot think that any Scottish or French
rovers could land in such force as to beleaguer the fortalice.
Call the Company together, Aylward; and let us on, for it will be
shame to us if we are not at Dax upon the trysting day."
The archers had spread themselves over the ruins, but a blast
upon a bugle brought them all back to muster, with such booty as
they could bear with them stuffed into their pouches or slung
over their shoulders. As they formed into ranks, each man
dropping silently into his place, Sir Nigel ran a questioning eye
over them, and a smile of pleasure played over his face. Tall
and sinewy, and brown, clear-eyed, hard-featured, with the stern
and prompt bearing of experienced soldiers, it would be hard
indeed for a leader to seek for a choicer following. Here and
there in the ranks were old soldiers of the French wars, grizzled
and lean, with fierce, puckered features and shaggy, bristling
brows. The most, however, were young and dandy archers, with
fresh English faces, their beards combed out, their hair curling
from under their close steel hufkens, with gold or jewelled
earrings gleaming in their ears, while their gold-spangled
baldrics, their silken belts, and the chains which many of them
wore round their thick brown necks, all spoke of the brave times
which they had had as free companions. Each had a yew or hazel
stave slung over his shoulder, plain and serviceable with the
older men, but gaudily painted and carved at either end with the
others. Steel caps, mail brigandines, white surcoats with the
red lion of St. George, and sword or battle-axe swinging from
their belts, completed this equipment, while in some cases the
murderous maule or five-foot mallet was hung across the
bowstave, being fastened to their leathern shoulder-belt by a
hook in the centre of the handle. Sir Nigel's heart beat high as
he looked upon their free bearing and fearless faces.
For two hours they marched through forest and marshland, along
the left bank of the river Aveyron; Sir Nigel riding behind his
Company, with Alleyne at his right hand, and Johnston, the old
master bowman, walking by his left stirrup. Ere they had reached
their journey's end the knight had learned all that he would know
of his men, their doings and their intentions. Once, as they
marched, they saw upon the further bank of the river a body of
French men-at-arms, riding very swiftly in the direction of
"It is the Seneschal of Toulouse, with his following," said
Johnston, shading his eyes with his hand. "Had he been on this
side of the water he might have attempted something upon us."
"I think that it would be well that we should cross," said Sir
Nigel. "It were pity to balk this worthy seneschal, should he
desire to try some small feat of arms."
"Nay, there is no ford nearer than Tourville," answered the old
archer. "He is on his way to Villefranche, and short will be the
shrift of any Jacks who come into his hands, for he is a man of
short speech. It was he and the Seneschal of Beaucaire who hung
Peter Wilkins, of the Company, last Lammastide; for which, by the
black rood of Waltham! they shall hang themselves, if ever they
come into our power. But here are our comrades, Sir Nigel, and
here is our camp."
As he spoke, the forest pathway along which they marched opened
out into a green glade, which sloped down towards the river.
High, leafless trees girt it in on three sides, with a thick
undergrowth of holly between their trunks. At the farther end of
this forest clearing there stood forty or fifty huts, built very
neatly from wood and clay, with the blue smoke curling out from
the roofs. A dozen tethered horses and mules grazed around the
encampment, while a number of archers lounged about: some
shooting at marks, while others built up great wooden fires in
the open, and hung their cooking kettles above them. At the
sight of their returning comrades there was a shout of welcome,
and a horseman, who had been exercising his charger behind the
camp, came cantering down to them. He was a dapper, brisk man,
very richly clad, with a round, clean-shaven face, and very
bright black eyes, which danced and sparkled with excitement.
"Sir Nigel!" he cried. "Sir Nigel Loring, at last! By my soul
we have awaited you this month past. Right welcome, Sir Nigel!
You have had my letter?"
"It was that which brought me here," said Sir Nigel. "But
indeed, Sir Claude Latour, it is a great wonder to me that you
did not yourself lead these bowmen, for surely they could have
found no better leader?"
"None, none, by the Virgin of L'Esparre!" he cried, speaking in
the strange, thick Gascon speech which turns every _v_ into a
_b_. "But you know what these islanders of yours are, Sir Nigel.
They will not be led by any save their own blood and race. There
is no persuading them. Not even I, Claude Latour Seigneur of
Montchateau, master of the high justice, the middle and the low,
could gain their favor. They must needs hold a council and put
their two hundred thick heads together, and then there comes this
fellow Aylward and another, as their spokesmen, to say that they
will disband unless an Englishman of good name be set over them.
There are many of them, as I understand, who come from some great
forest which lies in Hampi, or Hampti--I cannot lay my tongue to
the name. Your dwelling is in those parts, and so their thoughts
turned to you as their leader. But we had hoped that you would
bring a hundred men with you."
"They are already at Dax, where we shall join them," said Sir
Nigel. "But let the men break their fast, and we shall then take
counsel what to do."
"Come into my hut," said Sir Claude. "It is but poor fare that I
can lay before you--milk, cheese, wine, and bacon--yet your
squire and yourself will doubtless excuse it. This is my house
where the pennon flies before the door--a small residence to
contain the Lord of Montchateau."
Sir Nigel sat silent and distrait at his meal, while Alleyne
hearkened to the clattering tongue of the Gascon, and to his talk
of the glories of his own estate, his successes in love, and his
triumphs in war.
"And now that you are here, Sir Nigel," he said at last, "I have
many fine ventures all ready for us. I have heard that Montpezat
is of no great strength, and that there are two hundred thousand
crowns in the castle. At Castelnau also there is a cobbler who
is in my pay, and who will throw us a rope any dark night from
his house by the town wall. I promise you that you shall thrust
your arms elbow-deep among good silver pieces ere the nights are
moonless again; for on every hand of us are fair women, rich
wine, and good plunder, as much as heart could wish."
"I have other plans," answered Sir Nigel curtly; "for I have come
hither to lead these bowmen to the help of the prince, our
master, who may have sore need of them ere he set Pedro upon the
throne of Spain. It is my purpose to start this very day for Dax
upon the Adour, where he hath now pitched his camp."
The face of the Gascon darkened, and his eyes flashed with
resentment, "For me," he said, "I care little for this war, and I
find the life which I lead a very joyous and pleasant one. I
will not go to Dax."
"Nay, think again, Sir Claude," said Sir Nigel gently; "for you
have ever had the name of a true and loyal knight. Surely you
will not hold back now when your master hath need of you."
"I will not go to Dax," the other shouted.
"But your devoir--your oath of fealty?"
"I say that I will not go."
"Then, Sir Claude, I must lead the Company without you."
"If they will follow," cried the Gascon with a sneer. "These are
not hired slaves, but free companions, who will do nothing save
by their own good wills. In very sooth, my Lord Loring, they are
ill men to trifle with, and it were easier to pluck a bone from a
hungry bear than to lead a bowman out of a land of plenty and of
"Then I pray you to gather them together," said Sir Nigel, "and I
will tell them what is in my mind; for if I am their leader they
must to Dax, and if I am not then I know not what I am doing in
Auvergne. Have my horse ready, Alleyne; for, by St. Paul! come
what may, I must be upon the homeward road ere mid-day."
A blast upon the bugle summoned the bowmen to counsel, and they
gathered in little knots and groups around a great fallen tree
which lay athwart the glade. Sir Nigel sprang lightly upon the
trunk, and stood with blinking eye and firm lips looking down at
the ring of upturned warlike faces.
"They tell me, bowmen," said he, "that ye have grown so fond of
ease and plunder and high living that ye are not to be moved from
this pleasant country. But, by Saint Paul! I will believe no
such thing of you, for I can readily see that you are all very
valiant men, who would scorn to live here in peace when your
prince hath so great a venture before him. Ye have chosen me as
a leader, and a leader I will be if ye come with me to Spain; and
I vow to you that my pennon of the five roses shall, if God give
me strength and life, be ever where there is most honor to be
gained. But if it be your wish to loll and loiter in these
glades, bartering glory and renown for vile gold and ill-gotten
riches, then ye must find another leader; for I have lived in
honor, and in honor I trust that I shall die. If there be forest
men or Hampshire men amongst ye, I call upon them to say whether
they will follow the banner of Loring."
"Here's a Romsey man for you!" cried a young bowman with a sprig
of evergreen set in his helmet.
"And a lad from Alresford!" shouted another.
"And from Milton!"
"And from Burley!"
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