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Sir Nigel

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CHAPTER VI. IN WHICH LADY ERMYNTRUDE OPENS THE IRON COFFER

AS in a dream Nigel heard these stupendous and incredible words. As in a dream also he had a vision of a smiling and conciliatory Abbot, of an obsequious sacrist, and of a band of archers who cleared a path for him and for the King's messenger through the motley crowd who had choked the entrance of the Abbey court. A minute later he was walking by the side of Chandos through the peaceful cloister, and in front in the open archway of the great gate was the broad yellow road between its borders of green meadow-land. The spring air was the sweeter and the more fragrant for that chill dread of dishonor and captivity which had so recently frozen his ardent heart. He had already passed the portal when a hand plucked at his sleeve and he turned to find himself confronted by the brown honest face and hazel eyes of the archer who had interfered in his behalf.

“Well,” said Aylward, “what have you to say to me, young sir?”

“What can I say, my good fellow, save that I thank you with all my heart? By Saint Paul! if you had been my blood brother you could not have stood by me more stoutly.”

“Nay! but this is not enough.”

Nigel colored with vexation, and the more so as Chandos was listening with his critical smile to their conversation. “If you had heard what was said in the court,” said he, “you would understand that I am not blessed at this moment with much of this world's gear. The black death and the monks have between them been heavy upon our estate. Willingly would I give you a handful of gold for your assistance, since that is what you seem to crave; but indeed I have it not, and so once more I say that you must be satisfied with my thanks.”

“Your gold is nothing to me,” said Aylward shortly, “nor would you buy my loyalty if you filled my wallet with rose nobles, so long as you were not a man after my own heart. But I have seen you back the yellow horse, and I have seen you face the Abbot of Waverley, and you are such a master as I would very gladly serve if you have by chance a place for such a man. I have seen your following, and I doubt not that they were stout fellows in your grandfather's time; but which of them now would draw a bow-string to his ear? Through you I have left the service of the Abbey of Waverley, and where can I look now for a post? If I stay here I am all undone like a fretted bow-string.”

“Nay, there can be no difficulty there,” said Chandos. “Pardieu! a roistering, swaggering dare-devil archer is worth his price on the French border. There are two hundred such who march behind my own person, and I would ask nothing better than to see you among them.”

“I thank you, noble sir, for your offer,” said Aylward, “and I had rather follow your banner than many another one, for it is well known that it goes ever forward, and I have heard enough of the wars to know that there are small pickings for the man who lags behind. Yet, if the Squire will have me, I would choose to fight under the five roses of Loring, for though I was born in the hundred of Easebourne and the rape of Chichester, yet I have grown up and learned to use the longbow in these parts, and as the free son of a free franklin I had rather serve my own neighbor than a stranger.”

“My good fellow,” said Nigel, “I have told you that I could in no wise reward you for such service.”

“If you will but take me to the wars I will see to my own reward,” said Aylward. “Till then I ask for none, save a corner of your table and six feet of your floor, for it is certain that the only reward I would get from the Abbey for this day's work would be the scourge for my back and the stocks for my ankles. Samkin Aylward is your man, Squire Nigel, from this hour on, and by these ten finger-bones he trusts the Devil will fly away with him if ever he gives you cause to regret it!” So saying he raised his hand to his steel cap in salute, slung his great yellow bow over his back, and followed on some paces in the rear of his new master.

“Pardieu! I have arrived a la bonne heure,” said Chandos. “I rode from Windsor and came to your manor house, to find it empty save for a fine old dame, who told me of your troubles. From her I walked across to the Abbey, and none too soon, for what with cloth-yard shafts for your body, and bell, book and candle for your soul, it was no very cheerful outlook. But here is the very dame herself, if I mistake not.”

It was indeed the formidable figure of the Lady Ermyntrude, gaunt, bowed and leaning on her staff, which had emerged from the door of the manor-house and advanced to greet them. She croaked with laughter, and shook her stick at the great building as she heard of the discomfiture of the Abbey court. Then she led the way into the hall where the best which she could provide had been laid out for their illustrious guest. There was Chandos blood in her own veins, traceable back through the de Greys, de Multons, de Valences, de Montagues and other high and noble strains, so that the meal had been eaten and cleared before she had done tracing the network of intermarriages and connections, with quarterings, impalements, lozenges and augmentations by which the blazonry of the two families might be made to show a common origin. Back to the Conquest and before it there was not a noble family-tree every twig and bud of which was not familiar to the Dame Ermyntrude.

And now when the trestles were cleared and the three were left alone in the hall, Chandos broke his message to the lady. “King Edward hath ever borne in mind that noble knight your son Sir Eustace,” said he. “He will journey to Southampton next week, and I am his harbinger. He bade me say, noble and honored lady, that he would come from Guildford in any easy stage so that he might spend one night under your roof.”

The old dame flushed with pleasure, and then turned white with vexation at the words. “It is in truth great honor to the house of Loring,” said she, “yet our roof is now humble and, as you have seen, our fare is plain. The King knows not that we are so poor. I fear lest we seem churlish and niggard in his eyes.”

But Chandos reasoned away her fears. The King's retinue would journey on to Farnham Castle. There were no ladies in his party. Though he was King, still he was a hardy soldier, and cared little for his ease. In any case, since he had declared his coming, they must make the best of it. Finally, with all delicacy, Chandos offered his own purse if it would help in the matter. But already the Lady Ermyntrude had recovered her composure.

“Nay, fair kinsman, that may not be,” said she. “I will make such preparation as I may for the King. He will bear in mind that if the house of Loring can give nothing else, they have always held their blood and their lives at his disposal.”

Chandos was to ride on to Farnham Castle and beyond, but he expressed his desire to have a warm bath ere he left Tilford, for like most of his fellow-knights, he was much addicted to simmering in the hottest water that he could possibly endure. The bath therefore, a high hooped arrangement like a broader but shorter churn, was carried into the privacy of the guest-chamber, and thither it was that Nigel was summoned to hold him company while he stewed and sweltered in his tub.

Nigel perched himself upon the side of the high bed, swinging his legs over the edge and gazing with wonder and amusement at the quaint face, the ruffled yellow hair, and the sinewy shoulders of the famous warrior, dimly seen amid a pillar of steam. He was in a mood for talk; so Nigel with eager lips plied him with a thousand questions about the wars, hanging upon every word which came back to him, like those of the ancient oracles, out of the mist and the cloud. To Chandos himself, the old soldier for whom war had lost its freshness, it was a renewal of his own ardent youth to listen to Nigel's rapid questions and to mark the rapt attention with which he listened.

“Tell me of the Welsh, honored sir,” asked the Squire. “What manner of soldiers are the Welsh?”

“They are very valiant men of war,” said Chandos, splashing about in his tub. “There is good skirmishing to be had in their valleys if you ride with a small following. They flare up like a furzebush in the flames, but if for a short space you may abide the heat of it, then there is a chance that it may be cooler.”

“And the Scotch?” asked Nigel. “You have made war upon them also, as I understand.”

“The Scotch knights have no masters in the world, and he who can hold his own with the best of them, be it a Douglas, a Murray or a Seaton, has nothing more to learn. Though you be a hard man, you will always meet as hard a one if you ride northward. If the Welsh be like the furze fire, then, pardieu! the Scotch are the peat, for they will smolder and you will never come to the end of them. I have had many happy hours on the marches of Scotland, for even if there be no war the Percies of Alnwick or the Governor of Carlisle can still raise a little bickering with the border clans.”

“I bear in mind that my father was wont to say that they were very stout spearmen.”

“No better in the world, for the spears are twelve foot long and they hold them in very thick array; but their archers are weak, save only the men of Ettrick and Selkirk who come from the forest. I pray you to open the lattice, Nigel, for the steam is overthick. Now in Wales it is the spearmen who are weak, and there are no archers in these islands like the men of Gwent with their bows of elm, which shoot with such power that I have known a cavalier to have his horse killed when the shaft had passed through his mail breeches, his thigh and his saddle. And yet, what is the most strongly shot arrow to these new balls of iron driven by the fire-powder which will crush a man's armor as an egg is crushed by a stone? Our fathers knew them not.”

“Then the better for us,” cried Nigel, “since there is at least one honorable venture which is all our own.”

Chandos chuckled and turned upon the flushed youth a twinkling and sympathetic eye. “You have a fashion of speech which carries me back to the old men whom I met in my boyhood,” said he. “There were some of the real old knight-errants left in those days, and they spoke as you do. Young as you are, you belong to another age. Where got you that trick of thought and word?”

“I have had only one to teach me, the Lady Ermyntrude.”

“Pardieu! she has trained a proper young hawk ready to stoop at a lordly quarry,” said Chandos. “I would that I had the first unhooding of you. Will you not ride with me to the wars?”

The tears brimmed over from Nigel's eyes, and he wrung the gaunt hand extended from the bath. “By Saint Paul! what could I ask better in the world? I fear to leave her, for she has none other to care for her. But if it can in any way be arranged—”

“The King's hand may smooth it out. Say no more until he is here. But if you wish to ride with me—”

“What could man wish for more? Is there a Squire in England who would not serve under the banner of Chandos! Whither do you go, fair sir? And when do you go? Is it to Scotland? Is it to Ireland? Is it to France? But alas, alas!”

The eager face had clouded. For the instant he had forgotten that a suit of armor was as much beyond his means as a service of gold plate. Down in a twinkling came all his high hopes to the ground. Oh, these sordid material things, which come between our dreams and their fulfilment! The Squire of such a knight must dress with the best. Yet all the fee simple of Tilford would scarce suffice for one suit of plate.

Chandos, with his quick wit and knowledge of the world, had guessed the cause of this sudden change. “If you fight under my banner it is for me to find the weapons,” said he. “Nay, I will not be denied.”

But Nigel shook his head sadly. “It may not be. The Lady Ermyntrude would sell this old house and every acre round it, ere she would permit me to accept this gracious bounty which you offer. Yet I do not despair, for only last week I won for myself a noble war-horse for which I paid not a penny, so perchance a suit of armor may also come my way.”

“And how won you the horse?”

“It was given me by the monks of Waverley.”

“This is wonderful. Pardieu! I should have expected, from what I had seen, that they would have given you little save their malediction.”

“They had no use for the horse, and they gave it to me.”

“Then we have only to find some one who has no use for a suit of armor and will give it to you. Yet I trust that you will think better of it and let me, since that good lady proves that I am your kinsman, fit you for the wars.”

“I thank you, noble sir, and if I should turn to anyone it would indeed be to you; but there are other ways which I would try first. But I pray you, good Sir John, to tell me of some of your noble spear-runnings against the French, for the whole land rings with the tale of your deeds and I have heard that in one morning three champions have fallen before your lance. Was it not so?”

“That it was indeed so these scars upon my body will prove; but these were the follies of my youth.”

“How can you call them follies? Are they not the means by which honorable advancement may be gained and one's lady exalted?”

“It is right that you should think so, Nigel. At your age a man should have a hot head and a high heart. I also had both and fought for my lady's glove or for my vow or for the love of fighting. But as one grows older and commands men one has other things to think of. One thinks less of one's own honor and more of the safety of the army. It is not your own spear, your own sword, your own arm, which will turn the tide of fight; but a cool head may save a stricken field. He who knows when his horsemen should charge and when they should fight on foot, he who can mix his archers with his men-at-arms in such a fashion that each can support the other, he who can hold up his reserve and pour it into the battle when it may turn the tide, he who has a quick eye for boggy land and broken ground—that is the man who is of more worth to an army than Roland, Oliver and all the paladins.”

“Yet if his knights fail him, honored sir, all his head-work will not prevail.”

“True enough, Nigel; so may every Squire ride to the wars with his soul on fire, as yours is now. But I must linger no longer, for the King's service must be done. I will dress, and when I have bid farewell to the noble Dame Ermyntrude I will on to Farnham; but you will see me here again on the day that the King comes.”

So Chandos went his way that evening, walking his horse through the peaceful lanes and twanging his citole as he went, for he loved music and was famous for his merry songs. The cottagers came from their huts and laughed and clapped as the rich full voice swelled and sank to the cheery tinkling of the strings. There were few who saw him pass that would have guessed that the quaint one-eyed man with the yellow hair was the toughest fighter and craftiest man of war in Europe. Once only, as he entered Farnham, an old broken man-at-arms ran out in his rags and clutched at his horse as a dog gambols round his master. Chandos threw him a kind word and a gold coin as he passed on to the castle.

In the meanwhile young Nigel and the Lady Ermyntrude, left alone with their difficulties, looked blankly in each other's faces.

“The cellar is well nigh empty,” said Nigel. “There are two firkins of small beer and a tun of canary. How can we set such drink before the King and his court?”

“We must have some wine of Bordeaux. With that and the mottled cow's calf and the fowls and a goose, we can set forth a sufficient repast if he stays only for the one night. How many will be with him?”

“A dozen, at the least.”

The old dame wrung her hands in despair. “Nay, take it not to heart, dear lady!” said Nigel. “We have but to say the word and the King would stop at Waverley, where he and his court would find all that they could wish.”

“Never!” cried the Lady Ermyntrude. “It would be shame and disgrace to us forever if the King were to pass our door when he has graciously said that he was fain to enter in. Nay, I will do it. Never did I think that I would be forced to this, but I know that he would wish it, and I will do it.”

She went to the old iron coffer, and taking a small key from her girdle she unlocked it. The rusty hinges, screaming shrilly as she threw back the lid, proclaimed how seldom it was that she had penetrated into the sacred recesses of her treasure-chest. At the top were some relics of old finery: a silken cloak spangled with golden stars, a coif of silver filigree, a roll of Venetian lace. Beneath were little packets tied in silk which the old lady handled with tender care: a man's hunting-glove, a child's shoe, a love-knot done in faded green ribbon, some letters in rude rough script, and a vernicle of Saint Thomas. Then from the very bottom of the box she drew three objects, swathed in silken cloth, which she uncovered and laid upon the table. The one was a bracelet of rough gold studded with uncut rubies, the second was a gold salver, and the third was a high goblet of the same metal.

“You have heard me speak of these, Nigel, but never before have you seen them, for indeed I have not opened the hutch for fear that we might be tempted in our great need to turn them into money. I have kept them out of my sight and even out of my thoughts. But now it is the honor of the house which calls, and even these must go. This goblet was that which my husband, Sir Nele Loring, won after the intaking of Belgrade when he and his comrades held the lists from matins to vespers against the flower of the French chivalry. The salver was given him by the Earl of Pembroke in memory of his valor upon the field of Falkirk.”

“And the bracelet, dear lady?”

“You will not laugh, Nigel?”

“Nay, why should I laugh?”

“The bracelet was the prize for the Queen of Beauty which was given to me before all the high-born ladies of England by Sir Nele Loring a month before our marriage—the Queen of Beauty, Nigel—I, old and twisted, as you see me. Five strong men went down before his lance ere he won that trinket for me. And now in my last years—”

“Nay, dear and honored lady, we will not part with it.”

“Yes, Nigel, he would have it so. I can hear his whisper in my ear. Honor to him was everything—the rest nothing. Take it from me, Nigel, ere my heart weakens. To-morrow you will ride with it to Guildford; you will see Thorold the goldsmith; and you will raise enough money to pay for all that we shall need for the King's coming.” She turned her face away to hide the quivering of her wrinkled features, and the crash of the iron lid covered the sob which burst from her overwrought soul.






CHAPTER VII. HOW NIGEL WENT MARKETING TO GUILDFORD

It was on a bright June morning that young Nigel, with youth and springtime to make his heart light, rode upon his errand from Tilford to Guildford town. Beneath him was his great yellow warhorse, caracoling and curveting as he went, as blithe and free of spirit as his master. In all England one would scarce have found upon that morning so high-mettled and so debonair a pair. The sandy road wound through groves of fir, where the breeze came soft and fragrant with resinous gums, or over heathery downs, which rolled away to north and to south, vast and untenanted, for on the uplands the soil was poor and water scarce. Over Crooksbury Common he passed, and then across the great Heath of Puttenham, following a sandy path which wound amid the bracken and the heather, for he meant to strike the Pilgrims' Way where it turned eastward from Farnham and from Seale. As he rode he continually felt his saddle-bag with his hand, for in it, securely strapped, he had placed the precious treasures of the Lady Ermyntrude. As he saw the grand tawny neck tossing before him, and felt the easy heave of the great horse and heard the muffled drumming of his hoofs, he could have sung and shouted with the joy of living.

Behind him, upon the little brown pony which had been Nigel's former mount, rode Samkin Aylward the bowman, who had taken upon himself the duties of personal attendant and body-guard. His great shoulders and breadth of frame seemed dangerously top-heavy upon the tiny steed, but he ambled along, whistling a merry lilt and as lighthearted as his master. There was no countryman who had not a nod and no woman who had not a smile for the jovial bowman, who rode for the most part with his face over his shoulder, staring at the last petticoat which had passed him. Once only he met with a harsher greeting. It was from a tall, white-headed, red-faced man whom they met upon the moor.

“Good-morrow, dear father!” cried Aylward. “How is it with you at Crooksbury? And how are the new black cow and the ewes from Alton and Mary the dairymaid and all your gear?”

“It ill becomes you to ask, you ne'er-do-weel,” said the old man. “You have angered the monks of Waverley, whose tenant I am, and they would drive me out of my farm. Yet there are three more years to run, and do what they may I will bide till then. But little did I think that I should lose my homestead through you, Samkin, and big as you are I would knock the dust out of that green jerkin with a good hazel switch if I had you at Crooksbury.”

“Then you shall do it to-morrow morning, good father, for I will come and see you then. But indeed I did not do more at Waverley than you would have done yourself. Look me in the eye, old hothead, and tell me if you would have stood by while the last Loring—look at him as he rides with his head in the air and his soul in the clouds—was shot down before your very eyes at the bidding of that fat monk! If you would, then I disown you as my father.”

“Nay, Samkin, if it was like that, then perhaps what you did was not so far amiss. But it is hard to lose the old farm when my heart is buried deep in the good brown soil.”

“Tut, man! there are three years to run, and what may not happen in three years? Before that time I shall have gone to the wars, and when I have opened a French strong box or two you can buy the good brown soil and snap your fingers at Abbot John and his bailiffs. Am I not as proper a man as Tom Withstaff of Churt? And yet he came back after six months with his pockets full of rose nobles and a French wench on either arm.”

“God preserve us from the wenches, Samkin! But indeed I think that if there is money to be gathered you are as likely to get your fist full as any man who goes to the war. But hasten, lad, hasten! Already your young master is over the brow.”

Thus admonished, the archer waved his gauntleted hand to his father, and digging his heels into the sides of his little pony soon drew up with the Squire. Nigel glanced over his shoulder and slackened speed until the pony's head was up to his saddle.

“Have I not heard, archer,” said he, “that an outlaw has been loose in these parts?”

“It is true, fair sir. He was villain to Sir Peter Mandeville, but he broke his bonds and fled into the forests. Men call him the 'Wild Man of Puttenham.'”

“How comes it that he has not been hunted down? If the man be a draw-latch and a robber it would be an honorable deed to clear the country of such an evil.”

“Twice the sergeants-at-arms from Guildford have come out against him, but the fox has many earths, and it would puzzle you to get him out of them.”

“By Saint Paul! were my errand not a pressing one I would be tempted to turn aside and seek him. Where lives he, then?”

“There is a great morass beyond Puttenham, and across it there are caves in which he and his people lurk.”

“His people? He hath a band?”

“There are several with him.”

“It sounds a most honorable enterprise,” said Nigel. “When the King hath come and gone we will spare a day for the outlaws of Puttenham. I fear there is little chance for us to see them on this journey.”

“They prey upon the pilgrims who pass along the Winchester Road, and they are well loved by the folk in these parts, for they rob none of them and have an open hand for all who will help them.”

“It is right easy to have an open hand with the money that you have stolen,” said Nigel; “but I fear that they will not try to rob two men with swords at their girdles like you and me, so we shall have no profit from them.”

They had passed over the wild moors and had come down now into the main road by which the pilgrims from the west of England made their way to the national shrine at Canterbury. It passed from Winchester, and up the beautiful valley of the Itchen until it reached Farnham, where it forked into two branches, one of which ran along the Hog's Back, while the second wound to the south and came out at Saint Catherine's Hill where stands the Pilgrim shrine, a gray old ruin now, but once so august, so crowded and so affluent. It was this second branch upon which Nigel and Aylward found themselves as they rode to Guildford.

No one, as it chanced, was going the same way as themselves, but they met one large drove of pilgrims returning from their journey with pictures of Saint Thomas and snails' shells or little leaden ampullae in their hats and bundles of purchases over their shoulders. They were a grimy, ragged, travel-stained crew, the men walking, the women borne on asses. Man and beast, they limped along as if it would be a glad day when they saw their homes once more. These and a few beggars or minstrels, who crouched among the heather on either side of the track in the hope of receiving an occasional farthing from the passer-by, were the only folk they met until they had reached the village of Puttenham. Already there, was a hot sun and just breeze enough to send the dust flying down the road, so they were glad to clear their throats with a glass of beer at the ale-stake in the village, where the fair alewife gave Nigel a cold farewell because he had no attentions for her, and Aylward a box on the ear because he had too many.

On the farther side of Puttenham the road runs through thick woods of oak and beech, with a tangled undergrowth of fern and bramble. Here they met a patrol of sergeants-at-arms, tall fellows, well-mounted, clad in studded-leather caps and tunics, with lances and swords. They walked their horses slowly on the shady side of the road, and stopped as the travelers came up, to ask if they had been molested on the way.

“Have a care,” they added, “for the 'Wild Man' and his wife are out. Only yesterday they slew a merchant from the west and took a hundred crowns.”

“His wife, you say?”

“Yes, she is ever at his side, and has saved him many a time, for if he has the strength it is she who has the wit. I hope to see their heads together upon the green grass one of these mornings.”

The patrol passed downward toward Farnham, and so, as it proved, away from the robbers, who had doubtless watched them closely from the dense brushwood which skirted the road. Coming round a curve, Nigel and Aylward were aware of a tall and graceful woman who sat, wringing her hands and weeping bitterly, upon the bank by the side of the track. At such a sight of beauty in distress Nigel pricked Pommers with the spur and in three bounds was at the side of the unhappy lady.

“What ails you, fair dame?” he asked. “Is there any small matter in which I may stand your friend, or is it possible that anyone hath so hard a heart as to do you an injury.”

She rose and turned upon him a face full of hope and entreaty. “Oh, save my poor, poor father!” she cried. “Have you perchance seen the way-wardens? They passed us, and I fear they are beyond reach.”

“Yes, they have ridden onward, but we may serve as well.”

“Then hasten, hasten, I pray you! Even now they may be doing him to death. They have dragged him into yonder grove and I have heard his voice growing ever weaker in the distance. Hasten, I implore you!”

Nigel sprang from his horse and tossed the rein to Aylward.

“Nay, let us go together. How many robbers were there, lady?”

“Two stout fellows.”

“Then I come also.”

“Nay, it is not possible,” said Nigel. “The wood is too thick for horses, and we cannot leave them in the road.”

“I will guard them,” cried the lady.

“Pommers is not so easily held. Do you bide here, Aylward, until you hear from me. Stir not, I command you!” So saying, Nigel, with the light, of adventure gleaming in his joyous eyes, drew his sword and plunged swiftly into the forest.

Far and fast he ran, from glade to glade, breaking through the bushes, springing over the brambles, light as a young deer, peering this way and that, straining his ears for a sound, and catching only the cry of the wood-pigeons. Still on he went, with the constant thought of the weeping woman behind and of the captured man in front. It was not until he was footsore and out of breath that he stopped with his hand to his side, and considered that his own business had still to be done, and that it was time once more that he should seek the road to Guildford.

Meantime Aylward had found his own rough means of consoling the woman in the road, who stood sobbing with her face against the side of Pommers' saddle.

“Nay, weep not, my pretty one,” said he. “It brings the tears to my own eyes to see them stream from thine.”

“Alas! good archer, he was the best of fathers, so gentle and so kind! Had you but known him, you must have loved him.”

“Tut, tut! he will suffer no scathe. Squire Nigel will bring him back to you anon.”

“No, no, I shall never see him more. Hold me, archer, or I fall!”

Aylward pressed his ready arm round the supple waist. The fainting woman leaned with her hand upon his shoulder. Her pale face looked past him, and it was some new light in her eyes, a flash of expectancy, of triumph, of wicked joy, which gave him sudden warning of his danger.

He shook her off and sprang to one side, but only just in time to avoid a crashing blow from a great club in the hands of a man even taller and stronger than himself. He had one quick vision of great white teeth clenched in grim ferocity, a wild flying beard and blazing wild-beast eyes. The next instant he had closed, ducking his head beneath another swing of that murderous cudgel.

With his arms round the robber's burly body and his face buried in his bushy beard, Aylward gasped and strained and heaved. Back and forward in the dusty road the two men stamped and staggered, a grim wrestling-match, with life for the prize. Twice the great strength of the outlaw had Aylward nearly down, and twice with his greater youth and skill the archer restored his grip and his balance. Then at last his turn came. He slipped his leg behind the other's knee, and, giving a mighty wrench, tore him across it. With a hoarse shout the outlaw toppled backward and had hardly reached the ground before Aylward had his knee upon his chest and his short sword deep in his beard and pointed to his throat.

“By these ten finger-bones!” he gasped, “one more struggle and it is your last!”

The man lay still enough, for he was half-stunned by the crashing fall. Aylward looked round him, but the woman had disappeared. At the first blow struck she had vanished into the forest. He began to have fears for his master, thinking that he perhaps had been lured into some deathtrap; but his forebodings were soon at rest, for Nigel himself came hastening down the road, which he had struck some distance from the spot where he left it.

“By Saint Paul!” he cried, “who is this man on whom you are perched, and where is the lady who has honored us so far as to crave our help? Alas, that I have been unable to find her father!”

“As well for you, fair sir,” said Aylward, “for I am of opinion that her father was the Devil. This woman is, as I believe, the wife of the 'Wild Man of Puttenham,' and this is the 'Wild Man' himself who set upon me and tried to brain me with his club.”

The outlaw, who had opened his eyes, looked with a scowl from his captor to the new-comer. “You are in luck, archer,” said he, “for I have come to grips with many a man, but I cannot call to mind any who have had the better of me.”

“You have indeed the grip of a bear,” said Aylward; “but it was a coward deed that your wife should hold me while you dashed out my brains with a stick. It is also a most villainous thing to lay a snare for wayfarers by asking for their pity and assistance, so that it was our own soft hearts which brought us into such danger. The next who hath real need of our help may suffer for your sins.”

“When the hand of the whole world is against you,” said the outlaw in a surly voice, “you must fight as best you can.”

“You well deserve to be hanged, if only because you have brought this woman, who is fair and gentle-spoken, to such a life,” said Nigel. “Let us tie him by the wrist to my stirrup leather, Aylward, and we will lead him into Guildford.”

The archer drew a spare bowstring from his case and had bound the prisoner as directed, when Nigel gave a sudden start and cry of alarm.

“Holy Mary!” he cried. “Where is the saddle-bag?”

It had been cut away by a sharp knife. Only the two ends of strap remained. Aylward and Nigel stared at each other in blank dismay. Then the young Squire shook his clenched hands and pulled at his yellow curls in his despair.

“The Lady Ermyntrude's bracelet! My grandfather's cup!” he cried. “I would have died ere I lost them! What can I say to her? I dare not return until I have found them. Oh, Aylward, Aylward! how came you to let them be taken?”

The honest archer had pushed back his steel cap and was scratching his tangled head. “Nay, I know nothing of it. You never said that there was aught of price in the bag, else had I kept a better eye upon it. Certes! it was not this fellow who took it, since I have never had my hands from him. It can only be the woman who fled with it while we fought.”

Nigel stamped about the road in his perplexity. “I would follow her to the world's end if I knew where I could find her, but to search these woods for her is to look for a mouse in a wheat-field. Good Saint George, thou who didst overcome the Dragon, I pray you by that most honorable and knightly achievement that you will be with me now! And you also, great Saint Julian, patron of all wayfarers in distress! Two candles shall burn before your shrine at Godalming, if you will but bring me back my saddle-bag. What would I not give to have it back?”

“Will you give me my life?” asked the outlaw. “Promise that I go free, and you shall have it back, if it be indeed true that my wife has taken it.”

“Nay, I cannot do that,” said Nigel. “My honor would surely be concerned, since my loss is a private one; but it would be to the public scathe that you should go free. By Saint Paul! it would be an ungentle deed if in order to save my own I let you loose upon the gear of a hundred others.”

“I will not ask you to let me loose,” said the “Wild Man.” “If you will promise that my life be spared I will restore your bag.”

“I cannot give such a promise, for it will lie with the Sheriff and reeves of Guildford.”

“Shall I have your word in my favor?”

“That I could promise you, if you will give back the bag, though I know not how far my word may avail. But your words are vain, for you cannot think that we will be so fond as to let you go in the hope that you return?”

“I would not ask it,” said the “Wild Man,” “for I can get your bag and yet never stir from the spot where I stand. Have I your promise upon your honor and all that you hold dear that you will ask for grace?”

“You have.”

“And that my wife shall be unharmed?”

“I promise it.”

The outlaw laid back his head and uttered a long shrill cry like the howl of a wolf. There was a silent pause, and then, clear and shrill, there rose the same cry no great distance away in the forest. Again the “Wild Man” called, and again his mate replied. A third time he summoned, as the deer bells to the doe in the greenwood. Then with a rustle of brushwood and snapping of twigs the woman was before them once more, tall, pale, graceful, wonderful. She glanced neither at Aylward nor Nigel, but ran to the side of her husband.

“Dear and sweet lord,” she cried, “I trust they have done you no hurt. I waited by the old ash, and my heart sank when you came not.”

“I have been taken at last, wife.”

“Oh, cursed, cursed day! Let him go, kind, gentle sirs; do not take him from me!”

“They will speak for me at Guildford,” said the “Wild Man.” “They have sworn it. But hand them first the bag that you have taken.”

She drew it out from under her loose cloak. “Here it is, gentle sir. Indeed it went to my heart to take it, for you had mercy upon me in my trouble. But now I am, as you see, in real and very sore distress. Will you not have mercy now? Take ruth on us, fair sir! On my knees I beg it of you, most gentle and kindly Squire!”

Nigel had clutched his bag, and right glad he was to feel that the treasures were all safe within it. “My proffer is given,” said he. “I will say what I can; but the issue rests with others. I pray you to stand up, for indeed I cannot promise more.”

“Then I must be content,” said she, rising, with a composed face. “I have prayed you to take ruth, and indeed I can do no more; but ere I go back to the forest I would rede you to be on your guard lest you lose your bag once more. Wot you how I took it, archer? Nay, it was simple enough, and may happen again, so I make it clear to you. I had this knife in my sleeve, and though it is small it is very sharp. I slipped it down like this. Then when I seemed to weep with my face against the saddle, I cut down like this—”

In an instant she had shorn through the stirrup leather which bound her man, and he, diving under the belly of the horse, had slipped like a snake into the brushwood. In passing he had struck Pommers from beneath, and the great horse, enraged and insulted, was rearing high, with two men hanging to his bridle. When at last he had calmed there was no sign left of the “Wild Man” or of his wife. In vain did Aylward, an arrow on his string, run here and there among the great trees and peer down the shadowy glades. When he returned he and his master cast a shamefaced glance at each other.

“I trust that we are better soldiers than jailers,” said Aylward, as he climbed on his pony.

But Nigel's frown relaxed into a smile. “At least we have gained back what we lost,” said he. “Here I place it on the pommel of my saddle, and I shall not take my eyes from it until we are safe in Guildford town.”

So they jogged on together until passing Saint Catherine's shrine they crossed the winding Wey once more, and so found themselves in the steep high street with its heavy-caved gabled houses, its monkish hospitium upon the left, where good ale may still be quaffed, and its great square-keeped castle upon the right, no gray and grim skeleton of ruin, but very quick and alert, with blazoned banner flying free, and steel caps twinkling from the battlement. A row of booths extended from the castle gate to the high street, and two doors from the Church of the Trinity was that of Thorold the goldsmith, a rich burgess and Mayor of the town.

He looked long and lovingly at the rich rubies and at the fine work upon the goblet. Then he stroked his flowing gray beard as he pondered whether he should offer fifty nobles or sixty, for he knew well that he could sell them again for two hundred. If he offered too much his profit would be reduced. If he offered too little the youth might go as far as London with them, for they were rare and of great worth. The young man was ill-clad, and his eyes were anxious. Perchance he was hard pressed and was ignorant of the value of what he bore. He would sound him.

“These things are old and out of fashion, fair sir,” said he. “Of the stones I can scarce say if they are of good quality or not, but they are dull and rough. Yet, if your price be low I may add them to my stock, though indeed this booth was made to sell and not to buy. What do you ask?”

Nigel bent his brows in perplexity. Here was a game in which neither his bold heart nor his active limbs could help him. It was the new force mastering the old: the man of commerce conquering the man of war—wearing him down and weakening him through the centuries until he had him as his bond-servant and his thrall.

“I know not what to ask, good sir,” said Nigel. “It is not for me, nor for any man who bears my name, to chaffer and to haggle. You know the worth of these things, for it is your trade to do so. The Lady Ermyntrude lacks money, and we must have it against the King's coming, so give me that which is right and just, and we will say no more.”

The goldsmith smiled. The business was growing more simple and more profitable. He had intended to offer fifty, but surely it would be sinful waste to give more than twenty-five.

“I shall scarce know what to do with them when I have them,” said he. “Yet I should not grudge twenty nobles if it is a matter in which the King is concerned.”

Nigel's heart turned to lead. This sum would not buy one-half what was needful. It was clear that the Lady Ermyntrude had overvalued her treasures. Yet he could not return empty-handed, so if twenty nobles was the real worth, as this good old man assured him, then he must be thankful and take it.

“I am concerned by what you say,” said he. “You know more of these things than I can do. However, I will take—”

“A hundred and fifty,” whispered Aylward's voice in his ear.

“A hundred and fifty,” said Nigel, only too relieved to have found the humblest guide upon these unwonted paths.

The goldsmith started. This youth was not the simple soldier that he had seemed. That frank face, those blue eyes, were traps for the unwary. Never had he been more taken aback in a bargain.

“This is fond talk and can lead to nothing, fair sir,” said he, turning away and fiddling with the keys of his strong boxes. “Yet I have no wish to be hard on you. Take my outside price, which is fifty nobles.”

“And a hundred,” whispered Aylward.

“And a hundred,” said Nigel, blushing at his own greed.

“Well, well, take a hundred!” cried the merchant. “Fleece me, skin me, leave me a loser, and take for your wares the full hundred!”

“I should be shamed forever if I were to treat you so badly,” said Nigel. “You have spoken me fair, and I would not grind you down. Therefore, I will gladly take one hundred—”

“And fifty,” whispered Aylward.

“And fifty,” said Nigel.

“By Saint John of Beverley!” cried the merchant. “I came hither from the North Country, and they are said to be shrewd at a deal in those parts; but I had rather bargain with a synagogue full of Jews than with you, for all your gentle ways. Will you indeed take no less than a hundred and fifty? Alas! you pluck from me my profits of a month. It is a fell morning's work for me. I would I had never seen you!” With groans and lamentations he paid the gold pieces across the counter, and Nigel, hardly able to credit his own good fortune, gathered them into the leather saddle-bag.

A moment later with flushed face he was in the street and pouring out his thanks to Aylward.

“Alas, my fair lord! the man has robbed us now,” said the archer. “We could have had another twenty had we stood fast.”

“How know you that, good Aylward?”

“By his eyes, Squire Loring. I wot I have little store of reading where the parchment of a book or the pinching of a blazon is concerned, but I can read men's eyes, and I never doubted that he would give what he has given.”

The two travelers had dinner at the monk's hospitium, Nigel at the high table and Aylward among the commonalty. Then again they roamed the high street on business intent. Nigel bought taffeta for hangings, wine, preserves, fruit, damask table linen and many other articles of need. At last he halted before the armorer's shop at the castle-yard, staring at the fine suits of plate, the engraved pectorals, the plumed helmets, the cunningly jointed gorgets, as a child at a sweet-shop.

“Well, Squire Loring,” said Wat the armorer, looking sidewise from the furnace where he was tempering a sword blade, “what can I sell you this morning? I swear to you by Tubal Cain, the father of all workers in metal, that you might go from end to end of Cheapside and never see a better suit than that which hangs from yonder hook!”

“And the price, armorer?”

“To anyone else, two hundred and fifty rose nobles. To you two hundred.”

“And why cheaper to me, good fellow?”

“Because I fitted your father also for the wars, and a finer suit never went out of my shop. I warrant that it turned many an edge before he laid it aside. We worked in mail in those days, and I had as soon have a well-made thick-meshed mail as any plates; but a young knight will be in the fashion like any dame of the court, and so it must be plate now, even though the price be trebled.”

“Your rede is that the mail is as good?”

“I am well sure of it.”

“Hearken then, armorer! I cannot at this moment buy a suit of plate, and yet I sorely need steel harness on account of a small deed which it is in my mind to do. Now I have at my home at Tilford that very suit of mail of which you speak, with which my father first rode to the wars. Could you not so alter it that it should guard my limbs also?”

The armorer looked at Nigel's small upright figure and burst out laughing. “You jest, Squire Loring! The suit was made for one who was far above the common stature of man.”

“Nay, I jest not. If it will but carry me through one spear-running it will have served its purpose.”

The armorer leaned back on his anvil and pondered while Nigel stared anxiously at his sooty face.

“Right gladly would I lend you a suit of plate for this one venture, Squire Loring, but I know well that if you should be overthrown your harness becomes prize to the victor. I am a poor man with many children, and I dare not risk the loss of it. But as to what you say of the old suit of mail, is it indeed in good condition?”

“Most excellent, save only at the neck, which is much frayed.”

“To shorten the limbs is easy. It is but to cut out a length of the mail and then loop up the links. But to shorten the body—nay, that is beyond the armorer's art.”

“It was my last hope. Nay, good armorer, if you have indeed served and loved my gallant father, then I beg you by his memory that you will help me now.”

The armorer threw down his heavy hammer with a crash upon the floor. “It is not only that I loved your father, Squire Loring, but it is that I have seen you, half armed as you were, ride against the best of them at the Castle tiltyard. Last Martinmas my heart bled for you when I saw how sorry was your harness, and yet you held your own against the stout Sir Oliver with his Milan suit: When go you to Tilford?”

“Even now.”

“Heh, Jenkin, fetch out the cob!” cried the worthy Wat. “May my right hand lose its cunning if I do not send you into battle in your father's suit! To-morrow I must be back in my booth, but to-day I give to you without fee and for the sake of the good-will which I bear to your house. I will ride with you to Tilford, and before night you shall see what Wat can do.”

So it came about that there was a busy evening at the old Tilford Manor-house, where the Lady Ermyntrude planned and cut and hung the curtains for the hall, and stocked her cupboards with the good things which Nigel had brought from Guildford.

Meanwhile the Squire and the armorer sat with their heads touching and the old suit of mail with its gorget of overlapping plates laid out across their knees. Again and again old Wat shrugged his shoulders, as one who has been asked to do more than can be demanded from mortal man. At last, at a suggestion from the Squire, he leaned back in his chair and laughed long and loudly in his bushy beard, while the Lady Ermyntrude glared her black displeasure at such plebeian merriment. Then taking his fine chisel and his hammer from his pouch of tools, the armorer, still chuckling at his own thoughts, began to drive a hole through the center of the steel tunic.






CHAPTER VIII. HOW THE KING HAWKED ON CROOKSBURY HEATH

The King and his attendants had shaken off the crowd who had followed them from Guildford along the Pilgrims' Way and now, the mounted archers having beaten off the more persistent of the spectators, they rode at their ease in a long, straggling, glittering train over the dark undulating plain of heather.

In the van was the King himself, for his hawks were with him and he had some hope of sport. Edward at that time was a well-grown, vigorous man in the very prime of his years, a keen sportsman, an ardent gallant and a chivalrous soldier. He was a scholar too, speaking Latin, French, German, Spanish, and even a little English.

So much had long been patent to the world, but only of recent years had he shown other and more formidable characteristics: a restless ambition which coveted his neighbor's throne, and a wise foresight in matters of commerce, which engaged him now in transplanting Flemish weavers and sowing the seeds of what for many years was the staple trade of England. Each of these varied qualities might have been read upon his face. The brow, shaded by a crimson cap of maintenance, was broad and lofty. The large brown eyes were ardent and bold. His chin was clean-shaven, and the close-cropped dark mustache did not conceal the strong mouth, firm, proud and kindly, but capable of setting tight in merciless ferocity. His complexion was tanned to copper by a life spent in field sports or in war, and he rode his magnificent black horse carelessly and easily, as one who has grown up in the saddle. His own color was black also, for his active; sinewy figure was set off by close-fitting velvet of that hue, broken only by a belt of gold, and by a golden border of open pods of the broom-plant.

With his high and noble bearing, his simple yet rich attire and his splendid mount, he looked every inch a King.

The picture of gallant man on gallant horse was completed by the noble Falcon of the Isles which fluttered along some twelve feet above his head, “waiting on,” as it was termed, for any quarry which might arise. The second bird of the cast was borne upon the gauntleted wrist of Raoul the chief falconer in the rear.

At the right side of the monarch and a little behind him rode a youth some twenty years of age, tall, slim and dark, with noble aquiline features and keen penetrating eyes which sparkled with vivacity and affection as he answered the remarks of the King. He was clad in deep crimson diapered with gold, and the trappings of his white palfrey were of a magnificence which proclaimed the rank of its rider. On his face, still free from mustache or beard, there sat a certain gravity and majesty of expression which showed that young as he was great affairs had been in his keeping and that his thoughts and interests were those of the statesman and the warrior. That great day when, little more than a school-boy, he had led the van of the victorious army which had crushed the power of France and Crecy, had left this stamp upon his features; but stern as they were they had not assumed that tinge of fierceness which in after years was to make “The Black Prince” a name of terror on the marches of France. Not yet had the first shadow of fell disease come to poison his nature ere it struck at his life, as he rode that spring day, light and debonair, upon the heath of Crooksbury.

On the left of the King, and so near to him that great intimacy was implied, rode a man about his own age, with the broad face, the projecting jaw and the flattish nose which are often the outward indications of a pugnacious nature.

His complexion was crimson, his large blue eyes somewhat prominent, and his whole appearance full-blooded and choleric. He was short, but massively built, and evidently possessed of immense strength. His voice, however, when he spoke was gentle and lisping, while his manner was quiet and courteous. Unlike the King or the Prince, he was clad in light armor and carried a sword by his side and a mace at his saddle-bow, for he was acting as Captain of the King's Guard, and a dozen other knights in steel followed in the escort. No hardier soldier could Edward have at his side, if, as was always possible in those lawless times, sudden danger was to threaten, for this was the famous knight of Hainault, now naturalized as an Englishman, Sir Walter Manny, who bore as high a reputation for chivalrous valor and for gallant temerity as Chandos himself.

Behind the knights, who were forbidden to scatter and must always follow the King's person, there was a body of twenty or thirty hobblers or mounted bowmen, together with several squires, unarmed themselves but leading spare horses upon which the heavier part of their knights' equipment was carried. A straggling tail of falconers, harbingers, varlets, body-servants and huntsmen holding hounds in leash completed the long and many-colored train which rose and dipped on the low undulations of the moor.

Many weighty things were on the mind of Edward the King. There was truce for the moment with France, but it was a truce broken by many small deeds of arms, raids, surprises and ambushes upon either side, and it was certain that it would soon dissolve again into open war. Money must be raised, and it was no light matter to raise it, now that the Commons had once already voted the tenth lamb and the tenth sheaf. Besides, the Black Death had ruined the country, the arable land was all turned to pasture, the laborer, laughing at statutes, would not work under fourpence a day, and all society was chaos. In addition, the Scotch were growling over the border, there was the perennial trouble in half-conquered Ireland, and his allies abroad in Flanders and in Brabant were clamoring for the arrears of their subsidies.

All this was enough to make even a victorious monarch full of care; but now Edward had thrown it all to the winds and was as light-hearted as a boy upon a holiday. No thought had he for the dunning of Florentine bankers or the vexatious conditions of those busybodies at Westminster. He was out with his hawks, and his thoughts and his talk should be of nothing else. The varlets beat the heather and bushes as they passed, and whooped loudly as the birds flew out.

“A magpie! A magpie!” cried the falconer.

“Nay, nay, it is not worthy of your talons, my brown-eyed queen,” said the King, looking up at the great bird which flapped from side to side above his head, waiting for the whistle which should give her the signal. “The tercels, falconer—a cast of tercels! Quick, man, quick! Ha! the rascal makes for wood! He puts in! Well flown, brave peregrine! He makes his point. Drive him out to thy comrade. Serve him, varlets! Beat the bushes! He breaks! He breaks! Nay, come away then! You will see Master Magpie no more.”

The bird had indeed, with the cunning of its race, flapped its way through brushwood and bushes to the thicker woods beyond, so that neither the hawk amid the cover nor its partner above nor the clamorous beaters could harm it. The King laughed at the mischance and rode on. Continually birds of various sorts were flushed, and each was pursued by the appropriate hawk, the snipe by the tercel, the partridge by the goshawk, even the lark by the little merlin. But the King soon tired of this petty sport and went slowly on his way, still with the magnificent silent attendant flapping above his head.

“Is she not a noble bird, fair son?” he asked, glancing up as her shadow fell upon him.

“She is indeed, sire. Surely no finer ever came from the isles of the north.”

“Perhaps not, and yet I have had a hawk from Barbary as good a footer and a swifter flyer. An Eastern bird in yarak has no peer.”

“I had one once from the Holy Land,” said de Manny. “It was fierce and keen and swift as the Saracens themselves. They say of old Saladin that in his day his breed of birds, of hounds and of horses had no equal on earth.”

“I trust, dear father, that the day may come when we shall lay our hands on all three,” said the Prince, looking with shining eyes upon the King. “Is the Holy Land to lie forever in the grasp of these unbelieving savages, or the Holy Temple to be defiled by their foul presence? Ah! my dear and most sweet lord, give to me a thousand lances with ten thousand bowmen like those I led at Crecy, and I swear to you by God's soul that within a year I will have done homage to you for the Kingdom of Jerusalem!”

The King laughed as he turned to Walter Manny. “Boys will still be boys,” said he.

“The French do not count me such!” cried the young Prince, flushing with anger.

“Nay, fair son, there is no one sets you at a higher rate than your father. But you have the nimble mind and quick fancy of youth, turning over from the thing that is half done to a further task beyond. How would we fare in Brittany and Normandy while my young paladin with his lances and his bowmen was besieging Ascalon or battering at Jerusalem?”

“Heaven would help in Heaven's work.”

“From what I have heard of the past,” said the King dryly, “I cannot see that Heaven has counted for much as an ally in these wars of the East. I speak with reverence, and yet it is but sooth to say that Richard of the Lion Heart or Louis of France might have found the smallest earthly principality of greater service to him than all the celestial hosts. How say you to that, my Lord Bishop?”

A stout churchman who had ridden behind the King on a solid bay cob, well-suited to his weight and dignity, jogged up to the monarch's elbow. “How say you, sire? I was watching the goshawk on the partridge and heard you not.”

“Had I said that I would add two manors to the See of Chichester, I warrant that you would have heard me, my Lord Bishop.”

“Nay, fair lord, test the matter by saying so,” cried the jovial Bishop.

The King laughed aloud. “A fair counter, your reverence. By the rood! you broke your lance that passage. But the question I debated was this: How is it that since the Crusades have manifestly been fought in God's quarrel, we Christians have had so little comfort or support in fighting them. After all our efforts and the loss of more men than could be counted, we are at last driven from the country, and even the military orders which were formed only for that one purpose can scarce hold a footing in the islands of the Greek sea. There is not one seaport nor one fortress in Palestine over which the flag of the Cross still waves. Where then was our ally?”

“Nay, sire, you open a great debate which extends far beyond this question of the Holy Land, though that may indeed be chosen as a fair example. It is the question of all sin, of all suffering, of all injustice—why it should pass without the rain of fire and the lightnings of Sinai. The wisdom of God is beyond our understanding.”

The King shrugged his shoulders. “This is an easy answer, my Lord Bishop. You are a prince of the Church. It would fare ill with an earthly prince who could give no better answer to the affairs which concerned his realm.”

“There are other considerations which might be urged, most gracious sire. It is true that the Crusades were a holy enterprise which might well expect the immediate blessing of God; but the Crusaders—is it certain that they deserved such a blessing? Have I not heard that their camp was the most dissolute ever seen?”

“Camps are camps all the world over, and you cannot in a moment change a bowman into a saint. But the holy Louis was a crusader after your own heart. Yet his men perished at Mansurah and he himself at Tunis.”

“Bethink you also that this world is but the antechamber of the next,” said the prelate. “By suffering and tribulation the soul is cleansed, and the true victor may be he who by the patient endurance of misfortune merits the happiness to come.”

“If that be the true meaning of the Church's blessing, then I hope that it will be long before it rests upon our banners in France,” said the King. “But methinks that when one is out with a brave horse and a good hawk one might find some other subject than theology. Back to the birds, Bishop, or Raoul the falconer will come to interrupt thee in thy cathedral.”

Straightway the conversation came back to the mystery of the woods and the mystery of the rivers, to the dark-eyed hawks and the yellow-eyed, to hawks of the lure and hawks of the fist. The Bishop was as steeped in the lore of falconry as the King, and the others smiled as the two wrangled hard over disputed and technical questions: if an eyas trained in the mews can ever emulate the passage hawk taken wild, or how long the young hawks should be placed at hack, and how long weathered before they are fully reclaimed.

Monarch and prelate were still deep in this learned discussion, the Bishop speaking with a freedom and assurance which he would never have dared to use in affairs of Church and State, for in all ages there is no such leveler as sport. Suddenly, however, the Prince, whose keen eyes had swept from time to time over the great blue heaven, uttered a peculiar call and reined up his palfrey, pointing at the same time into the air.

“A heron!” he cried. “A heron on passage!”

To gain the full sport of hawking a heron must not be put up from its feeding-ground, where it is heavy with its meal, and has no time to get its pace on before it is pounced upon by the more active hawk, but it must be aloft, traveling from point to point, probably from the fish-stream to the heronry. Thus to catch the bird on passage was the prelude of all good sport. The object to which the Prince had pointed was but a black dot in the southern sky, but his strained eyes had not deceived him, and both Bishop and King agreed that it was indeed a heron, which grew larger every instant as it flew in their direction.

“Whistle him off, sire! Whistle off the gerfalcon!” cried the Bishop.

“Nay, nay, he is overfar. She would fly at check.”

“Now, sire, now!” cried the Prince, as the great bird with the breeze behind him came sweeping down the sky.

The King gave the shrill whistle, and the well-trained hawk raked out to the right and to the left to make sure which quarry she was to follow. Then, spying the heron, she shot up in a swift ascending curve to meet him.

“Well flown, Margot! Good bird!” cried the King, clapping his hands to encourage the hawk, while the falconers broke into the shrill whoop peculiar to the sport.

Going on her curve, the hawk would soon have crossed the path of the heron; but the latter, seeing the danger in his front and confident in his own great strength of wing and lightness of body, proceeded to mount higher in the air, flying in such small rings that to the spectators it almost seemed as if the bird was going perpendicularly upward.

“He takes the air!” cried the King. “But strong as he flies, he cannot out fly Margot. Bishop, I lay you ten gold pieces to one that the heron is mine.”

“I cover your wager, sire,” said the Bishop. “I may not take gold so won, and yet I warrant that there is an altar-cloth somewhere in need of repairs.”

“You have good store of altar-cloths, Bishop, if all the gold I have seen you win at tables goes to the mending of them,” said the King. “Ah! by the rood, rascal, rascal! See how she flies at check!”

The quick eyes of the Bishop had perceived a drift of rooks when on their evening flight to the rookery were passing along the very line which divided the hawk from the heron. A rook is a hard temptation for a hawk to resist. In an instant the inconstant bird had forgotten all about the great heron above her and was circling over the rooks, flying westward with them as she singled out the plumpest for her stoop.

“There is yet time, sire! Shall I cast off her mate?” cried the falconer.

“Or shall I show you, sire, how a peregrine may win where a gerfalcon fails?” said the Bishop. “Ten golden pieces to one upon my bird.”

“Done with you, Bishop!” cried the King, his brow dark with vexation. “By the rood! if you were as learned in the fathers as you are in hawks you would win to the throne of Saint Peter! Cast off your peregrine and make your boasting good.”

Smaller than the royal gerfalcon, the Bishop's bird was none the less a swift and beautiful creature. From her perch upon his wrist she had watched with fierce, keen eyes the birds in the heaven, mantling herself from time to time in her eagerness. Now when the button was undone and the leash uncast the peregrine dashed off with a whir of her sharp-pointed wings, whizzing round in a great ascending circle which mounted swiftly upward, growing ever smaller as she approached that lofty point where, a mere speck in the sky, the heron sought escape from its enemies. Still higher and higher the two birds mounted, while the horsemen, their faces upturned, strained their eyes in their efforts to follow them.

“She rings! She still rings!” cried the Bishop. “She is above him! She has gained her pitch.”

“Nay, nay, she is far below,” said the King.

“By my soul, my Lord Bishop is right!” cried the Prince. “I believe she is above. See! See! She swoops!”

“She binds! She binds!” cried a dozen voices as the two dots blended suddenly into one.

There could be no doubt that they were falling rapidly. Already they grew larger to the eye. Presently the heron disengaged himself and flapped heavily away, the worse for that deadly embrace, while the peregrine, shaking her plumage, ringed once more so as to get high above the quarry and deal it a second and more fatal blow. The Bishop smiled, for nothing, as it seemed, could hinder his victory.

“Thy gold pieces shall be well spent, sire,” said he. “What is lost to the Church is gained by the loser.”

But a most unlooked-for chance deprived the Bishop's altar cloth of its costly mending. The King's gerfalcon having struck down a rook, and finding the sport but tame, bethought herself suddenly of that noble heron, which she still perceived fluttering over Crooksbury Heath. How could she have been so weak as to allow these silly, chattering rooks to entice her away from that lordly bird? Even now it was not too late to atone for her mistake. In a great spiral she shot upward until she was over the heron. But what was this? Every fiber of her, from her crest to her deck feathers, quivered with jealousy and rage at the sight of this creature, a mere peregrine, who had dared to come between a royal gerfalcon and her quarry. With one sweep of her great wings she shot up until she was above her rival. The next instant—

“They crab! They crab!” cried the King, with a roar of laughter, following them with his eyes as they bustled down through the air. “Mend thy own altar-cloths, Bishop. Not a groat shall you have from me this journey. Pull them apart, falconer, lest they do each other an injury. And now, masters, let us on, for the sun sinks toward the west.”

The two hawks, which had come to the ground interlocked with clutching talons and ruffled plumes, were torn apart and brought back bleeding and panting to their perches, while the heron after its perilous adventure flapped its way heavily onward to settle safely in the heronry of Waverley. The cortege, who had scattered in the excitement of the chase, came together again, and the journey was once more resumed.

A horseman who had been riding toward them across the moor now quickened his pace and closed swiftly upon them. As he came nearer, the King and the Prince cried out joyously and waved their hands in greeting.

“It is good John Chandos!!” cried the King. “By the rood, John, I have missed your merry songs this week or more! Glad I am to see that you have your citole slung to your back. Whence come you then?”

“I come from Tilford, sire, in the hope that I should meet your majesty.”

“It was well thought of. Come, ride here between the Prince and me, and we will believe that we are back in France with our war harness on our backs once more. What is your news, Master John?”

Chandos' quaint face quivered with suppressed amusement and his one eye twinkled like a star. “Have you had sport, my liege?”

“Poor sport, John. We flew two hawks on the same heron. They crabbed, and the bird got free. But why do you smile so?”

“Because I hope to show you better sport ere you come to Tilford.”

“For the hawk? For the hound?”

“A nobler sport than either.”

“Is this a riddle, John? What mean you?”

“Nay, to tell all would be to spoil all. I say again that there is rare sport betwixt here and Tilford, and I beg you, dear lord, to mend your pace that we make the most of the daylight.”

Thus adjured, the King set spurs to his horse, and the whole cavalcade cantered over the heath in the direction which Chandos showed. Presently as they came over a slope they saw beneath them a winding river with an old high-backed bridge across it. On the farther side was a village green with a fringe of cottages and one dark manor house upon the side of the hill.

“This is Tilford,” said Chandos. “Yonder is the house of the Lorings.”

The King's expectations had been aroused and his face showed his disappointment.

“Is this the sport that you have promised us, Sir John? How can you make good your words?”

“I will make them good, my liege.”

“Where then is the sport?”

On the high crown of the bridge a rider in armor was seated, lance in hand, upon a great yellow steed. Chandos touched the King's arm and pointed. “That is the sport,” said he.






CHAPTER IX. HOW NIGEL HELD THE BRIDGE AT TILFORD

The King looked at the motionless figure, at the little crowd of hushed expectant rustics beyond the bridge, and finally at the face of Chandos, which shone with amusement.

“What is this, John?” he asked.

“You remember Sir Eustace Loring, sire?”

“Indeed I could never forget him nor the manner of his death.”

“He was a knight errant in his day.”

“That indeed he was—none better have I known.”

“So is his son Nigel, as fierce a young war-hawk as ever yearned to use beak and claws; but held fast in the mews up to now. This is his trial fight. There he stands at the bridge-head, as was the wont in our fathers' time, ready to measure himself against all comers.”

Of all Englishmen there was no greater knight errant than the King himself, and none so steeped in every quaint usage of chivalry; so that the situation was after his own heart.

“He is not yet a knight?”

“No, sire, only a Squire.”

“Then he must bear himself bravely this day if he is to make good what he has done. Is it fitting that a young untried Squire should venture to couch his lance against the best in England?”

“He hath given me his cartel and challenge,” said Chandos, drawing a paper from his tunic. “Have I your permission, sire, to issue it?”

“Surely, John, we have no cavalier more versed in the laws of chivalry than yourself. You know this young man, and you are aware how far he is worthy of the high honor which he asks. Let us hear his defiance.”

The knights and squires of the escort, most of whom were veterans of the French war, had been gazing with interest and some surprise at the steel-clad figure in front of them. Now at a call from Sir Walter Manny they assembled round the spot where the King and Chandos had halted. Chandos cleared his throat and read from his paper—

“'A tous seigneurs, chevaliers et escuyers,' so it is headed, gentlemen. It is a message from the good Squire Nigel Loring of Tilford, son of Sir Eustace Loring, of honorable memory. Squire Loring awaits you in arms, gentlemen, yonder upon the crown of the old bridge. Thus says he: 'For the great desire that I, a most humble and unworthy Squire, entertain, that I may come to the knowledge of the noble gentlemen who ride with my royal master, I now wait on the Bridge of the Way in the hope that some of them may condescend to do some small deed of arms upon me, or that I may deliver them from any vow which they may have taken. This I say out of no esteem for myself, but solely that I may witness the noble bearing of these famous cavaliers and admire their skill in the handling of arms. Therefore, with the help of Saint George, I will hold the bridge with sharpened lances against any or all who may deign to present themselves while daylight lasts.”

“What say you to this, gentlemen?” asked the King, looking round with laughing eyes.

“Truly it is issued in very good form,” said the Prince. “Neither Claricieux nor Red Dragon nor any herald that ever wore tabard could better it. Did he draw it of his own hand?”

“He hath a grim old grandmother who is one of the ancient breed,” said Chandos. “I doubt not that the Dame Ermyntrude hath drawn a challenge or two before now. But hark ye, sire, I would have a word in your ear—and yours too, most noble Prince.”

Leading them aside, Chandos whispered some explanations, which ended by them all three bursting into a shout of laughter.

“By the rood! no honorable gentleman should be reduced to such straits,” said the King. “It behooves me to look to it. But how now, gentlemen? This worthy cavalier still waits his answer.”

The soldiers had all been buzzing together; but now Walter Manny turned to the King with the result of their counsel.

“If it please your majesty,” said he, “we are of opinion that this Squire hath exceeded all bounds in desiring to break a spear with a belted knight ere he has given his proofs. We do him sufficient honor if a Squire ride against him, and with your consent I have chosen my own body-squire, John Widdicombe, to clear the path for us across the bridge.”

“What you say, Walter, is right and fair,” said the King. “Master Chandos, you will tell our champion yonder what hath been arranged. You will advise him also that it is our royal will that this contest be not fought upon the bridge, since it is very clear that it must end in one or both going over into the river, but that he advance to the end of the bridge and fight upon the plain. You will tell him also that a blunted lance is sufficient for such an encounter, but that a hand-stroke or two with sword or mace may well be exchanged, if both riders should keep their saddles. A blast upon Raoul's horn shall be the signal to close.”

Such ventures as these where an aspirant for fame would wait for days at a cross-road, a ford, or a bridge, until some worthy antagonist should ride that way, were very common in the old days of adventurous knight erranty, and were still familiar to the minds of all men because the stories of the romancers and the songs of the trouveres were full of such incidents. Their actual occurrence however had become rare. There was the more curiosity, not unmixed with amusement, in the thoughts of the courtiers as they watched Chandos ride down to the bridge and commented upon the somewhat singular figure of the challenger. His build was strange, and so also was his figure, for the limbs were short for so tall a man. His head also was sunk forward as if he were lost in thought or overcome with deep dejection.

“This is surely the Cavalier of the Heavy Heart,” said Manny. “What trouble has he, that he should hang his head?”

“Perchance he hath a weak neck,” said the King.

“At least he hath no weak voice,” the Prince remarked, as Nigel's answer to Chandos came to their ears. “By our lady, he booms like a bittern.”

As Chandos rode back again to the King, Nigel exchanged the old ash spear which had been his father's for one of the blunted tournament lances which he took from the hands of a stout archer in attendance. He then rode down to the end of the bridge where a hundred-yard stretch of greensward lay in front of him. At the same moment the Squire of Sir Walter Manny, who had been hastily armed by his comrades, spurred forward and took up his position.

The King raised his hand; there was a clang from the falconer's horn, and the two riders, with a thrust of their heels and a shake of their bridles, dashed furiously at each other. In the center the green strip of marshy meadowland, with the water squirting from the galloping hoofs, and the two crouching men, gleaming bright in the evening sun, on one side the half circle of motionless horsemen, some in steel, some in velvet, silent and attentive, dogs, hawks, and horses all turned to stone; on the other the old peaked bridge, the blue lazy river, the group of openmouthed rustics, and the dark old manor-house with one grim face which peered from the upper window.

A good man was John Widdicombe, but he had met a better that day. Before that yellow whirlwind of a horse and that rider who was welded and riveted to his saddle his knees could not hold their grip. Nigel and Pommers were one flying missile, with all their weight and strength and energy centered on the steady end of the lance. Had Widdicombe been struck by a thunderbolt he could not have flown faster or farther from his saddle. Two full somersaults did he make, his plates clanging like cymbals, ere he lay prone upon his back.

For a moment the King looked grave at that prodigious fall. Then smiling once more as Widdicombe staggered to his feet, he clapped his hands loudly in applause. “A fair course and fairly run!” he cried. “The five scarlet roses bear themselves in peace even as I have seen them in war. How now, my good Walter? Have you another Squire or will you clear a path for us yourself?”

Manny's choleric face had turned darker as he observed the mischance of his representative. He beckoned now to a tall knight, whose gaunt and savage face looked out from his open bassinet as an eagle might from a cage of steel.

“Sir Hubert,” said he, “I bear in mind the day when you overbore the Frenchman at Caen. Will you not be our champion now?”

“When I fought the Frenchman, Walter, it was with naked weapons,” said the knight sternly. “I am a soldier and I love a soldier's work, but I care not for these tiltyard tricks which were invented for nothing but to tickle the fancies of foolish women.”

“Oh, most ungallant speech!” cried the King. “Had my good-consort heard you she would have arraigned you to appear at a Court of Love with a jury of virgins to answer for your sins. But I pray you to take a tilting spear, good Sir Hubert!”

“I had as soon take a peacock's feather, my fair lord; but I will do it, if you ask me. Here, page, hand me one of those sticks, and let me see what I can do.”

But Sir Hubert de Burgh was not destined to test either his skill or his luck. The great bay horse which he rode was as unused to this warlike play as was its master, and had none of its master's stoutness of heart; so that when it saw the leveled lance, the gleaming figure and the frenzied yellow horse rushing down upon it, it swerved, turned and galloped furiously down the river-bank. Amid roars of laughter from the rustics on the one side and from the courtiers on the other, Sir Hubert was seen, tugging vainly at his bridle, and bounding onward, clearing gorse-bushes and heather-clumps, until he was but a shimmering, quivering gleam upon the dark hillside. Nigel, who had pulled Pommers on to his very haunches at the instant that his opponent turned, saluted with his lance and trotted back to the bridge-head, where he awaited his next assailant.

“The ladies would say that a judgment hath fallen upon our good Sir Hubert for his impious words,” said the King.

“Let us hope that his charger may be broken in ere they venture to ride out between two armies,” remarked the Prince. “They might mistake the hardness of his horse's mouth for a softness of the rider's heart. See where he rides, still clearing every bush upon his path.”

“By the rood!” said the King, “if the bold Hubert has not increased his repute as a jouster he has gained great honor as a horseman. But the bridge is still closed, Walter. How say you now? Is this young Squire never to be unhorsed, or is your King himself to lay lance in rest ere his way can be cleared? By the head of Saint Thomas! I am in the very mood to run a course with this gentle youth.”

“Nay, nay, sire, too much honor hath already been done him!” said Manny, looking angrily at the motionless horseman. “That this untried boy should be able to say that in one evening he has unhorsed my Squire, and seen the back of one of the bravest knights in England is surely enough to turn his foolish head. Fetch me a spear, Robert! I will see what I can make of him.”

The famous knight took the spear when it was brought to him as a master-workman takes a tool. He balanced it, shook it once or twice in the air, ran his eyes down it for a flaw in the wood, and then finally having made sure of its poise and weight laid it carefully in rest under his arm. Then gathering up his bridle so as to have his horse under perfect command, and covering himself with the shield, which was slung round his neck, he rode out to do battle.

Now, Nigel, young and inexperienced, all Nature's aid will not help you against the mixed craft and strength of such a warrior. The day will come when neither Manny nor even Chandos could sweep you from your saddle; but now, even had you some less cumbrous armor, your chance were small. Your downfall is near; but as you see the famous black chevrons on a golden ground your gallant heart which never knew fear is only filled with joy and amazement at the honor done you. Your downfall is near, and yet in your wildest dreams you would never guess how strange your downfall is to be.

Again with a dull thunder of hoofs the horses gallop over the soft water-meadow. Again with a clash of metal the two riders meet. It is Nigel now, taken clean in the face of his helmet with the blunted spear, who flies backward off his horse and falls clanging on the grass.

But good heavens! what is this? Manny has thrown up his hands in horror and the lance has dropped from his nerveless fingers. From all sides, with cries of dismay, with oaths and shouts and ejaculations to the saints, the horsemen ride wildly in. Was ever so dreadful, so sudden, so complete, an end to a gentle passage at arms? Surely their eyes must be at fault? Some wizard's trick has been played upon them to deceive their senses. But no, it was only too clear. There on the greensward lay the trunk of the stricken cavalier, and there, a good dozen yards beyond, lay his helmeted head.

“By the Virgin!” cried Manny wildly, as he jumped from his horse, “I would give my last gold piece that the work of this evening should be undone! How came it? What does it mean? Hither, my Lord Bishop, for surely it smacks of witchcraft and the Devil.”

With a white face the Bishop had sprung down beside the prostrate body, pushing through the knot of horrified knights and squires.

“I fear that the last offices of the Holy Church come too late,” said he in a quivering voice. “Most unfortunate young man! How sudden an end! In medio vitae, as the Holy Book has it—one moment in the pride of his youth, the next his head torn from his body. Now God and his saints have mercy upon me and guard me from evil!”

The last prayer was shot out of the Bishop with an energy and earnestness unusual in his orisons. It was caused by the sudden outcry of one of the Squires who, having lifted the helmet from the ground, cast it down again with a scream of horror.

“It is empty!” he cried. “It weighs as light as a feather.”

“'Fore God, it is true!” cried Manny, laying his hand on it. “There is no one in it. With what have I fought, father Bishop? Is it of this world or of the next?”

The Bishop had clambered on his horse the better to consider the point. “If the foul fiend is abroad,” said he, “my place is over yonder by the King's side. Certes that sulphur-colored horse hath a very devilish look. I could have sworn that I saw both smoke and flame from its nostrils. The beast is fit to bear a suit of armor which rides and fights and yet hath no man within it.”

“Nay, not too fast, father Bishop,” said one of the knights. “It may be all that you say and yet come from a human workshop. When I made a campaign in South Germany I have seen at Nuremberg a cunning figure, devised by an armorer, which could both ride and wield a sword. If this be such a one—”

“I thank you all for your very gentle courtesy,” said a booming voice from the figure upon the ground.

At the words even the valiant Manny sprang into his saddle. Some rode madly away from the horrid trunk. A few of the boldest lingered.

“Most of all,” said the voice, “would I thank the most noble knight, Sir Walter Manny, that he should deign to lay aside his greatness and condescend to do a deed of arms upon so humble a Squire.”

“'Fore God!” said Manny, “if this be the Devil, then the Devil hath a very courtly tongue. I will have him out of his armor, if he blast me!”

So saying he sprang once more from his horse and plunging his hand down the slit in the collapsed gorget he closed it tightly upon a fistful of Nigel's yellow curls. The groan that came forth was enough to convince him that it was indeed a man who lurked within. At the same time his eyes fell upon the hole in the mail corselet which had served the Squire as a visor, and he burst into deep-chested mirth. The King, the Prince and Chandos, who had watched the scene from a distance, too much amused by it to explain or interfere, rode up weary with laughter, now that all was discovered.

“Let him out!” said the King, with his hand to his side. “I pray you to unlace him and let him out! I have shared in many a spear-running, but never have I been nearer falling from my horse than as I watched this one. I feared the fall had struck him senseless, since he lay so still.”

Nigel had indeed lain with all the breath shaken from his body, and as he was unaware that his helmet had been carried off, he had not understood either the alarm or the amusement that he had caused. Now freed from the great hauberk in which he had been shut like a pea in a pod, he stood blinking in the light, blushing deeply with shame that the shifts to which his poverty had reduced him should be exposed to all these laughing courtiers. It was the King who brought him comfort.

“You have shown that you can use your father's weapons,” said he, “and you have proved also that you are the worthy bearer of his name and his arms, for you have within you that spirit for which he was famous. But I wot that neither he nor you would suffer a train of hungry men to starve before your door; so lead on, I pray you, and if the meat be as good as this grace before it, then it will be a feast indeed.”






CHAPTER X. HOW THE KING GREETED HIS SENESCHAL OF CALAIS

It would have fared ill with the good name of Tilford Manor house and with the housekeeping of the aged Dame Ermyntrude had the King's whole retinue, with his outer and inner marshal, his justiciar, his chamberlain and his guard, all gathered under the one roof. But by the foresight and the gentle management of Chandos this calamity was avoided, so that some were quartered at the great Abbey and others passed on to enjoy the hospitality of Sir Roger FitzAlan at Farnham Castle. Only the King himself, the Prince, Manny, Chandos, Sir Hubert de Burgh, the Bishop and two or three more remained behind as the guests of the Lorings.

But small as was the party and humble the surroundings, the King in no way relaxed that love of ceremony, of elaborate form and of brilliant coloring which was one of his characteristics. The sumpter-mules were unpacked, squires ran hither and thither, baths smoked in the bed-chambers, silks and satins were unfolded, gold chains gleamed and clinked, so that when at last, to the long blast of two court trumpeters, the company took their seats at the board, it was the brightest, fairest scene which those old black rafters had ever spanned.

The great influx of foreign knights who had come in their splendor from all parts of Christendom to take part in the opening of the Round Tower of Windsor six years before, and to try their luck and their skill at the tournament connected with it, had deeply modified the English fashions of dress. The old tunic, over-tunic and cyclas were too sad and simple for the new fashions, so now strange and brilliant cote-hardies, pourpoints, courtepies, paltocks, hanselines and many other wondrous garments, parti-colored or diapered, with looped, embroidered or escalloped edges, flamed and glittered round the King. He himself, in black velvet and gold, formed a dark rich center to the finery around him. On his right sat the Prince, on his left the Bishop, while Dame Ermyntrude marshaled the forces of the household outside, alert and watchful, pouring in her dishes and her flagons at the right moment, rallying her tired servants, encouraging the van, hurrying the rear, hastening up her reserves, the tapping of her oak stick heard everywhere the pressure was the greatest.

Behind the King, clad in his best, but looking drab and sorry amid the brilliant costumes round him, Nigel himself, regardless of an aching body and a twisted knee, waited upon his royal guests, who threw many a merry jest at him over their shoulders as they still chuckled at the adventure of the bridge.

“By the rood!” said King Edward, leaning back, with a chicken bone held daintily between the courtesy fingers of his left hand, “the play is too good for this country stage. You must to Windsor with me, Nigel, and bring with you this great suit of harness in which you lurk. There you shall hold the lists with your eyes in your midriff, and unless some one cleave you to the waist I see not how any harm can befall you. Never have I seen so small a nut in so great a shell.”

The Prince, looking back with laughing eyes, saw by Nigel's flushed and embarrassed face that his poverty hung heavily upon him. “Nay,” said he kindly, “such a workman is surely worthy of better tools.”

“And it is for his master to see that he has them,” added the King. “The court armorer will look to it that the next time your helmet is carried away, Nigel, your head shall be inside it.”

Nigel, red to the roots of his flaxen hair, stammered out some words of thanks.

John Chandos, however, had a fresh suggestion, and he cocked a roguish eye as he made it: “Surely, my liege, your bounty is little needed in this case. It is the ancient law of arms that if two cavaliers start to joust, and one either by maladdress or misadventure fail to meet the shock, then his arms become the property of him who still holds the lists. This being so, methinks, Sir Hubert de Burgh, that the fine hauberk of Milan and the helmet of Bordeaux steel in which you rode to Tilford should remain with our young host as some small remembrance of your visit.”

The suggestion raised a general chorus of approval and laughter, in which all joined, save only Sir Hubert himself, who, flushed with anger, fixed his baleful eyes upon Chandos' mischievous and smiling face.

“I said that I did not play that foolish game, and I know nothing of its laws,” said he; “but you know well, John, that if you would have a bout with sharpened spear or sword, where two ride to the ground, and only one away from it, you have not far to go to find it.”

“Nay, nay, would you ride to the ground? Surely you had best walk, Hubert,” said Chandos. “On your feet I know well that I should not see your back as we have seen it to-day. Say what you will, your horse has played you false, and I claim your suit of harness for Nigel Loring.”

“Your tongue is overlong, John, and I am weary of its endless clack!” said Sir Hubert, his yellow mustache bristling from a scarlet face. “If you claim my harness, do you yourself come and take it. If there is a moon in the sky you may try this very night when the board is cleared.”

“Nay, fair sirs,” cried the King, smiling from one to the other, “this matter must be followed no further. Do you fill a bumper of Gascony, John, and you also, Hubert. Now pledge each other, I pray you, as good and loyal comrades who would scorn to fight save in your King's quarrel. We can spare neither of you while there is so much work for brave hearts over the sea. As to this matter of the harness, John Chandos speaks truly where it concerns a joust in the lists, but we hold that such a law is scarce binding in this, which was but a wayside passage and a gentle trial of arms. On the other hand, in the case of your Squire, Master Manny, there can be no doubt that his suit is forfeit.”

“It is a grievous hearing for him, my liege,” said Walter Manny; “for he is a poor man and hath been at sore pains to fit himself for the wars. Yet what you say shall be done, fair sire. So, if you will come to me in the morning, Squire Loring, John Widdicombe's suit will be handed over to you.”

“Then with the King's leave, I will hand it back to him,” said Nigel, troubled and stammering; “for indeed I had rather never ride to the wars than take from a brave man his only suit of plate.”

“There spoke your father's spirit!” cried the King. “By the rood! Nigel, I like you full well. Let the matter bide in my hands. But I marvel much that Sir Aymery the Lombard hath not come to us yet from Windsor.”

From the moment of his arrival at Tilford, again and again King Edward had asked most eagerly whether Sir Aymery had come, and whether there was any news of him, so that the courtiers glanced at each other in wonder. For Aymery was known to all of them as a famous mercenary of Italy, lately appointed Governor of Calais, and this sudden and urgent summons from the King might well mean some renewal of the war with France, which was the dearest wish of every soldier. Twice the King had stopped his meal and sat with sidelong head; his wine-cup in his hand, listening attentively when some sound like the clatter of hoofs was heard from outside; but the third time there could be no mistake. The tramp and jingle of the horses broke loud upon the ear, and ended in hoarse voices calling out of the darkness, which were answered by the archers posted as sentries without the door.

“Some traveler has indeed arrived, my liege,” said Nigel. “What is your royal will?”

“It can be but Aymery,” the King answered, “for it was only to him that I left the message that he should follow me hither. Bid him come in, I pray you, and make him very welcome at your board.”

Nigel cast open the door, plucking a torch from its bracket as he did so. Half a dozen men-at-arms sat on their horses outside, but one had dismounted, a short, squat, swarthy man with a rat face and quick, restless brown eyes which peered eagerly past Nigel into the red glare of the well-lit hall.

“I am Sir Aymery of Pavia,” he whispered. “For God's sake, tell me! is the King within?”

“He is at table, fair sir, and he bids you to enter.”

“One moment, young man, one moment, and a secret word in your ear. Wot you why it is that the King has sent for me?”

Nigel read terror in the dark cunning eyes which glanced in sidelong fashion into his. “Nay, I know not.”

“I would I knew—I would I was sure ere I sought his presence.”

“You have but to cross the threshold, fair sir, and doubtless you will learn from the King's own lips.”

Sir Aymery seemed to gather himself as one who braces for a spring into ice-cold water. Then he crossed with a quick stride from the darkness into the light. The King stood up and held out his hand with a smile upon his long handsome face, and yet it seemed to the Italian that it was the lips which smiled but not the eyes.

“Welcome!” cried Edward. “Welcome to our worthy and faithful Seneschal of Calais! Come, sit here before me at the board, for I have sent for you that I may hear your news from over the sea, and thank you for the care that you have taken of that which is as dear to me as wife or child. Set a place for Sir Aymery there, and give him food and drink, for he has ridden fast and far in our service to-day.”

Throughout the long feast which the skill of the Lady Ermyntrude had arranged, Edward chatted lightly with the Italian as well as with the barons near him. Finally, when the last dish was removed and the gravy-soaked rounds of coarse bread which served as plates had been cast to the dogs, the wine-flagons were passed round; and old Weathercote the minstrel entered timidly with his harp in the hope that he might be allowed to play before the King's majesty. But Edward had other sport afoot.

“I pray you, Nigel, to send out the servants, so that we may be alone. I would have two men-at-arms at every door lest we be disturbed in our debate, for it is a matter of privacy. And now, Sir Aymery, these noble lords as well as I, your master, would fain hear from your own lips how all goes forward in France.”

The Italian's face was calm; but he looked restlessly from one to another along the line of his listeners.

“So far as I know, my liege, all is quiet on the French marches,” said he.

“You have not heard then that they have mustered or gathered to a head with the intention of breaking the truce and making some attempt upon our dominions?”

“Nay, sire, I have heard nothing of it.”

“You set my mind much at ease, Aymery,” said the King; “for if nothing has come to your ears, then surely it cannot be. It was said that the wild Knight de Chargny had come down to St. Omer with his eyes upon my precious jewel and his mailed hands ready to grasp it.”

“Nay, sire, let him come. He will find the jewel safe in its strong box, with a goodly guard over it.”

“You are the guard over my jewel, Aymery.”

“Yes, sire, I am the guard.”

“And you are a faithful guard and one whom I can trust, are you not? You would not barter away that which is so dear to me when I have chosen you out of all my army to hold it for me?”

“Nay, sire, what reasons can there be for such questions? They touch my honor very nearly. You know that I would part with Calais only when I parted with my soul.”

“Then you know nothing of de Chargny's attempt?”

“Nothing sire.”

“Liar and villain!” yelled the King, springing to his feet and dashing his fist upon the table until the glasses rattled again. “Seize him, archers! Seize him this instant! Stand close by either elbow, lest he do himself a mischief! Now do you dare to tell me to my face, you perjured Lombard, that you know nothing of de Chargny and his plans?”

“As God is my witness I know nothing of him!” The man's lips were white, and he spoke in a thin, sighing, reedy voice, his eyes wincing away from the fell gaze of the angry King.

Edward laughed bitterly, and drew a paper from his breast. “You are the judges in this case, you, my fair son, and you, Chandos, and you, Manny, and you, Sir Hubert, and you also, my Lord Bishop. By my sovereign power I make you a court that you may deal justice upon this man, for by God's eyes I will not stir from this room until I have sifted the matter to the bottom. And first I would read you this letter. It is superscribed to Sir Aymery of Pavia, nomme Le Lombard, Chateau de Calais. Is not that your name and style, you rogue?”

“It is my name, sire; but no such letter has come to me.”

“Else had your villainy never been disclosed. It is signed 'Isidore de Chargny'. What says my enemy de Chargny to my trusted servant? Listen! 'We could not come with the last moon, for we have not gathered sufficient strength, nor have we been able to collect the twenty thousand crowns which are your price. But with the next turn of the moon in the darkest hour we will come and you will be paid your money at the small postern gate with the rowan-bush beside it.' Well, rogue, what say you now?”

“It is a forgery!” gasped the Italian.

“I pray you that you will let me see it, sire,” said Chandos. “De Chargny was my prisoner, and so many letters passed ere his ransom was paid that his script is well-known to me. Yes, yes, I will swear that this is indeed his. If my salvation were at stake I could swear it.”

“If it were indeed written by de Chargny it was to dishonor me,” cried Sir Aymery.

“Nay, nay!” said the young Prince. “We all know de Chargny and have fought against him. Many faults he has, a boaster and a brawler, but a braver man and one of greater heart and higher of enterprise does not ride beneath the lilies of France. Such a man would never stoop to write a letter for the sake of putting dishonor upon one of knightly rank. I, for one, will never believe it.”

A gruff murmur from the others showed that they were of one mind with the Prince. The light of the torches from the walls beat upon the line of stern faces at the high table. They had sat like flint, and the Italian shrank from their inexorable eyes. He looked swiftly round, but armed men choked every entrance. The shadow of death had fallen athwart his soul.

“This letter,” said the King, “was given by de Chargny to one Dom Beauvais, a priest of St. Omer, to carry into Calais. The said priest, smelling a reward, brought it to one who is my faithful servant, and so it came to me. Straightway I sent for this man that he should come to me. Meanwhile the priest has returned so that de Chargny may think that his message is indeed delivered.”

“I know nothing of it,” said the Italian doggedly, licking his dry lips.

A dark flush mounted to the King's forehead, and his eyes were gorged with his wrath. “No more of this, for God's dignity!” he cried. “Had we this fellow at the Tower, a few turns of the rack would tear a confession from his craven soul. But why should we need his word for his own guilt? You have seen, my lords, you have heard! How say you, fair son? Is the man guilty?”

“Sire, he is guilty.”

“And you, John? And you, Walter? And you, Hubert? And you, my Lord Bishop? You are all of one mind, then. He is guilty of the betrayal of his trust. And the punishment?”

“It can only be death,” said the Prince, and each in turn the others nodded their agreement.

“Aymery of Pavia, you have heard your doom,” said Edward, leaning his chin upon his hand and glooming at the cowering Italian. “Step forward, you archer at the door, you with the black beard. Draw your sword! Nay, you white-faced rogue, I would not dishonor this roof-tree by your blood. It is your heels, not your head, that we want. Hack off these golden spurs of knighthood with your sword, archer! 'Twas I who gave them, and I who take them back. Ha! they fly across the hall, and with them every bond betwixt you and the worshipful order whose sign and badge they are! Now lead him out on the heath afar from the house where his carrion can best lie, and hew his scheming head from his body as a warning to all such traitors!”

The Italian, who had slipped from his chair to his knees, uttered a cry of despair, as an archer seized him by either shoulder. Writhing out of their grip, he threw himself upon the floor and clutched at the King's feet.

“Spare me, my most dread lord, spare me, I beseech you! In the name of Christ's passion, I implore your grace and pardon! Bethink you, my good and dear lord, how many years I have served under your banners and how many services I have rendered. Was it not I who found the ford upon the Seine two days before the great battle? Was it not I also who marshaled the attack at the intaking of Calais? I have a wife and four children in Italy, great King; and it was the thought of them which led me to fall from my duty, for this money would have allowed me to leave the wars and to see them once again. Mercy, my liege, mercy, I implore!”

The English are a rough race, but not a cruel one. The King sat with a face of doom; but the others looked askance and fidgeted in their seats.

“Indeed, my fair liege,” said Chandos, “I pray you that you will abate somewhat of your anger.”

Edward shook his head curtly. “Be silent, John. It shall be as I have said.”

“I pray you, my dear and honored liege, not to act with overmuch haste in the matter,” said Manny. “Bind him and hold him until the morning, for other counsels may prevail.”

“Nay, I have spoken. Lead him out!”

But the trembling man clung to the King's knees in such a fashion that the archers could not disengage his convulsive grip. “Listen to me a moment, I implore you! Give me but one minute to plead with you, and then do what you will.”

The King leaned back in his chair. “Speak and have done,” said he.

“You must spare me, my noble liege. For your own sake I say that you must spare me, for I can set you in the way of such a knightly adventure as will gladden your heart. Bethink you, sire, that this de Chargny and his comrades know nothing of their plans having gone awry. If I do but send them a message they will surely come to the postern gate. Then, if we have placed our bushment with skill we shall have such a capture and such a ransom as will fill your coffers. He and his comrades should be worth a good hundred thousand crowns.”

Edward spurned the Italian away from him with his foot until he sprawled among the rushes, but even as he lay there like a wounded snake his dark eyes never left the King's face.

“You double traitor! You would sell Calais to de Chargny, and then in turn you would sell de Chargny to me. How dare you suppose that I or any noble knight had such a huckster's soul as to think only of ransoms where honor is to be won? Could I or any true man be so caitiff and so thrall? You have sealed your own doom. Lead him out!”

“One instant, I pray you, my fair and most sweet lord,” cried the Prince. “Assuage your wrath yet a little while, for this man's rede deserves perhaps more thought than we have given it. He has turned your noble soul sick with his talk of ransoms; but look at it, I pray you, from the side of honor, and where could we find such hope of worshipfully winning worship? I pray you to let me put my body in this adventure, for it is one from which, if rightly handled, much advancement is to be gained.”

Edward looked with sparkling eyes at the noble youth at his side. “Never was hound more keen on the track of a stricken hart than you on the hope of honor, fair son,” said he. “How do you conceive the matter in your mind?”

“De Chargny and his men will be such as are worth going far to meet, for he will have the pick of France under his banner that night. If we did as this man says and awaited him with the same number of lances, then I cannot think that there is any spot in Christendom where one would rather be than in Calais that night.”

“By the rood, fair son, you are right!” cried the King, his face shining with the thought. “Now which of you, John Chandos or Walter Manny, will take the thing in charge?” He looked mischievously from one to the other like a master who dangles a bone betwixt two fierce old hounds. All they had to say was in their burning, longing eyes. “Nay, John, you must not take it amiss; but it is Walter's turn, and he shall have it.”

“Shall we not all go under your banner, sire, or that of the Prince?”

“Nay, it is not fitting that the royal banners of England should be advanced in so small an adventure. And yet, if you have space in your ranks for two more cavaliers, both the Prince and I would ride with you that night.”

The young man stooped and kissed his father's hand.

“Take this man in your charge, Walter, and do with him as you will. Guard well lest he betray us once again. Take him from my sight, for his breath poisons the room. And now, Nigel, if that worthy graybeard of thine would fain twang his harp or sing to us—but what in God's name would you have?”

He had turned, to find his young host upon his knee and his flaxen head bent in entreaty.

“What is it, man? What do you crave?”

“A boon, fair liege!”

“Well, well, am I to have no peace to-night, with a traitor kneeling to me in front, and a true man on his knees behind? Out with it, Nigel. What would you have?”

“To come with you to Calais.”

“By the rood! your request is fair enough, seeing that our plot is hatched beneath your very roof. How say you, Walter? Will you take him, armor and all?” asked King Edward.

“Say rather will you take me?” said Chandos. “We two are rivals in honor, Walter, but I am very sure that you would not hold me back.”

“Nay, John, I will be proud to have the best lance in Christendom beneath my banner.”

“And I to follow so knightly a leader. But Nigel Loring is my Squire, and so he comes with us also.”

“Then that is settled,” said the King, “and now there is no need for hurry, since there can be no move until the moon has changed. So I pray you to pass the flagon once again, and to drink with me to the good knights of France. May they be of great heart and high of enterprise when we all meet once more within the castle wall of Calais!”