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Sir Nigel

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CHAPTER XI. IN THE HALL OF THE KNIGHT OF DUPLIN

The King had come and had gone. Tilford Manor house stood once more dark and silent, but joy and contentment reigned within its walls. In one night every trouble had fallen away like some dark curtain which had shut out the sun. A princely sum of money had come from the King's treasurer, given in such fashion that there could be no refusal. With a bag of gold pieces at his saddle-bow Nigel rode once more into Guildford, and not a beggar on the way who had not cause to bless his name.

There he had gone first to the goldsmith and had bought back cup and salver and bracelet, mourning with the merchant over the evil chance that gold and gold-work had for certain reasons which only those in the trade could fully understand gone up in value during the last week, so that already fifty gold pieces had to be paid more than the price which Nigel had received. In vain the faithful Aylward fretted and fumed and muttered a prayer that the day would come when he might feather a shaft in the merchant's portly paunch. The money had to be paid.

Thence Nigel hurried to Wat the armorer's and there he bought that very suit for which he had yearned so short a time before. Then and there he tried it on in the booth, Wat and his boy walking round him with spanner and wrench, fixing bolts and twisting rivets.

“How is that, my fair sir?” cried the armorer as he drew the bassinet over the head and fastened it to the camail which extended to the shoulders. “I swear by Tubal Cain that it fits you as the shell fits the crab! A finer suit never came from Italy or Spain.”

Nigel stood in front of a burnished shield which served as a mirror, and he turned this way and that, preening himself like a little shining bird. His smooth breastplate, his wondrous joints with their deft protection by the disks at knee and elbow and shoulder, the beautifully flexible gauntlets and sollerets, the shirt of mail and the close-fitting greave-plates were all things of joy and of beauty in his eyes. He sprang about the shop to show his lightness, and then running out he placed his hand on the pommel and vaulted into Pommers' saddle, while Wat and his boy applauded in the doorway.

Then springing off and running into the shop again he clanked down upon his knees before the image of the Virgin upon the smithy wall. There from his heart he prayed that no shadow or stain should come upon his soul or his honor whilst these arms incased his body, and that he might be strengthened to use them for noble and godly ends. A strange turn this to a religion of peace, and yet for many a century the sword and the faith had upheld each other and in a darkened world the best ideal of the soldier had turned in some dim groping fashion toward the light. “Benedictus dominus deus meus qui docet manus meas ad Praelium et digitos meos ad bellum!” There spoke the soul of the knightly soldier.

So the armor was trussed upon the armorer's mule and went back with them to Tilford, where Nigel put it on once more for the pleasure of the Lady Ermyntrude, who clapped her skinny hands and shed tears of mingled pain and joy—pain that she should lose him, joy that he should go so bravely to the wars. As to her own future, it had been made easy for her, since it was arranged that a steward should look to the Tilford estate whilst she had at her disposal a suite of rooms in royal Windsor, where with other venerable dames of her own age and standing she could spend the twilight of her days discussing long-forgotten scandals and whispering sad things about the grandfathers and the grandmothers of the young courtiers all around them. There Nigel might leave her with an easy mind when he turned his face to France.

But there was one more visit to be paid and one more farewell to be spoken ere Nigel could leave the moorlands where he had dwelled so long. That evening he donned his brightest tunic, dark purple velvet of Genoa, with trimming of miniver, his hat with the snow-white feather curling round the front, and his belt of embossed silver round his loins. Mounted on lordly Pommers, with his hawk upon wrist and his sword by his side, never did fairer young gallant or one more modest in mind set forth upon such an errand. It was but the old Knight of Duplin to whom he would say farewell; but the Knight of Duplin had two daughters, Edith and Mary, and Edith was the fairest maid in all the heather-country.

Sir John Buttesthorn, the Knight of Duplin, was so called because he had been present at that strange battle, some eighteen years before, when the full power of Scotland had been for a moment beaten to the ground by a handful of adventurers and mercenaries, marching under the banner of no nation, but fighting in their own private quarrel. Their exploit fills no pages of history, for it is to the interest of no nation to record it, and yet the rumor and fame of the great fight bulked large in those times, for it was on that day when the flower of Scotland was left dead upon the field, that the world first understood that a new force had arisen in war, and that the English archer, with his robust courage and his skill with the weapon which he had wielded from his boyhood, was a power with which even the mailed chivalry of Europe had seriously to reckon.

Sir John after his return from Scotland had become the King's own head huntsman, famous through all England for his knowledge of venery, until at last, getting overheavy for his horses, he had settled in modest comfort into the old house of Cosford upon the eastern slope of the Hindhead hill. Here, as his face grew redder and his beard more white, he spent the evening of his days, amid hawks and hounds, a flagon of spiced wine ever at his elbow, and his swollen foot perched upon a stool before him. There it was that many an old comrade broke his journey as he passed down the rude road which led from London to Portsmouth, and thither also came the young gallants of the country to hear the stout knight's tales of old wars, or to learn, from him that lore of the forest and the chase which none could teach so well as he.

But sooth to say, whatever the old knight might think, it was not merely his old tales and older wine which drew the young men to Cosford, but rather the fair face of his younger daughter, or the strong soul and wise counsel of the elder. Never had two more different branches sprung from the same trunk. Both were tall and of a queenly graceful figure. But there all resemblance began and ended.

Edith was yellow as the ripe corn, blue-eyed, winning, mischievous, with a chattering tongue, a merry laugh, and a smile which a dozen of young gallants, Nigel of Tilford at their head, could share equally amongst them. Like a young kitten she played with all things that she found in life, and some there were who thought that already the claws could be felt amid the patting of her velvet touch.

Mary was dark as night, grave-featured, plain-visaged, with steady brown eyes looking bravely at the world from under a strong black arch of brows. None could call her beautiful, and when her fair sister cast her arm round her and placed her cheek against hers, as was her habit when company was there, the fairness of the one and the plainness of the other leaped visibly to the eyes of all, each the clearer for that hard contrast. And yet, here and there, there was one who, looking at her strange, strong face, and at the passing gleams far down in her dark eyes, felt that this silent woman with her proud bearing and her queenly grace had in her something of strength, of reserve and of mystery which was more to them than all the dainty glitter of her sister.

Such were the ladies of Cosford toward whom Nigel Loring rode that night with doublet of Genoan velvet and the new white feather in his cap.

He had ridden over Thursley Ridge past that old stone where in days gone by at the place of Thor the wild Saxons worshiped their war-god. Nigel looked at it with a wary eye and spurred Pommers onward as he passed it, for still it was said that wild fires danced round it on the moonless nights, and they who had ears for such things could hear the scream and sob of those whose lives had been ripped from them that the fiend might be honored. Thor's stone, Thor's jumps, Thor's punch-bowl—the whole country-side was one grim monument to the God of Battles, though the pious monks had changed his uncouth name for that of the Devil his father, so that it was the Devil's jumps and the Devil's punch-bowl of which they spoke. Nigel glanced back at the old gray boulder, and he felt for an instant a shudder pass through his stout heart. Was it the chill of the evening air, or was it that some inner voice had whispered to him of the day when he also might lie bound on such a rock and have such a blood-stained pagan crew howling around him.

An instant later the rock and his vague fear and all things else had passed from his mind, for there, down the yellow sandy path, the setting sun gleaming on her golden hair, her lithe figure bending and swaying with every heave of the cantering horse, was none other than the same fair Edith, whose face had come so often betwixt him and his sleep. His blood rushed hot to his face at the sight, for fearless of all else, his spirit was attracted and yet daunted by the delicate mystery of woman. To his pure and knightly soul not Edith alone, but every woman, sat high and aloof, enthroned and exalted, with a thousand mystic excellencies and virtues which raised her far above the rude world of man. There was joy in contact with them; and yet there was fear, fear lest his own unworthiness, his untrained tongue or rougher ways should in some way break rudely upon this delicate and tender thing. Such was his thought as the white horse cantered toward him; but a moment later his vague doubts were set at rest by the frank voice of the young girl, who waved her whip in merry greeting.

“Hail and well met, Nigel!” she cried. “Whither away this evening? Sure I am that it is not to see your friends of Cosford, for when did you ever don so brave a doublet for us? Come, Nigel, her name, that I may hate her for ever.”

“Nay, Edith,” said the young Squire, laughing back at the laughing girl. “I was indeed coming to Cosford.”

“Then we shall ride back together, for I will go no farther. How think you that I am looking?”

Nigel's answer was in his eyes as he glanced at the fair flushed face, the golden hair, the sparkling eyes and the daintily graceful figure set off in a scarlet-and-black riding-dress. “You are as fair as ever, Edith.”

“Oh, cold of speech! Surely you were bred for the cloisters, and not for a lady's bower, Nigel. Had I asked such a question from young Sir George Brocas or the Squire of Fernhurst, he would have raved from here to Cosford. They are both more to my taste than you are, Nigel.”

“It is the worse for me, Edith,” said Nigel ruefully.

“Nay, but you must not lose heart.”

“Have I not already lost it?” said he.

“That is better,” she cried, laughing. “You can be quick enough when you choose, Master Malapert. But you are more fit to speak of high and weary matters with my sister Mary. She will have none of the prattle and courtesy of Sir George, and yet I love them well. But tell me, Nigel, why do you come to Cosford to-night?”

“To bid you farewell.”

“Me alone?”

“Nay, Edith, you and your sister Mary and the good knight your father.”

“Sir George would have said that he had come for me alone. Indeed you are but a poor courtier beside him. But is it true, Nigel, that you go to France?”

“Yes, Edith.”

“It was so rumored after the King had been to Tilford. The story goes that the King goes to France and you in his train. Is that true?”

“Yes, Edith, it is true.”

“Tell me, then, to what part you go, and when?”

“That, alas! I may not say.”

“Oh, in sooth!” She tossed her fair head and rode onward in silence, with compressed lips and angry eyes.

Nigel glanced at her in surprise and dismay. “Surely, Edith,” said he at last, “you have overmuch regard for my honor that you should wish me to break the word that I have given?”

“Your honor belongs to you, and my likings belong to me,” said she. “You hold fast to the one, and I will do the same by the other.”

They rode in silence through Thursley village. Then a thought came to her mind and in an instant her anger was forgotten and she was hot on a new scent.

“What would you do if I were injured, Nigel? I have heard my father say that small as you are there is no man in these parts could stand against you. Would you be my champion if I suffered wrong?”

“Surely I or any man of gentle blood would be the champion of any woman who had suffered wrong.”

“You or any and I or any—what sort of speech is that? Is it a compliment, think you, to be mixed with a drove in that fashion? My question was of you and me. If I were wronged would you be my man?”

“Try me and see, Edith!”

“Then I will do so, Nigel. Either Sir George Brocas or the Squire of Fernhurst would gladly do what I ask, and yet I am of a mind, Nigel, to turn to you.”

“I pray you to tell me what it is.”

“You know Paul de la Fosse of Shalford?”

“You mean the small man with the twisted back?”

“He is no smaller than yourself, Nigel, and as to his back there are many folk that I know who would be glad to have his face.”

“Nay, I am no judge of that, and I spoke out of no discourtesy. What of the man?”

“He has flouted me, Nigel, and I would have revenge.”

“What—on that poor twisted creature?”

“I tell you that he has flouted me!”

“But how?”

“I should have thought that a true cavalier would have flown to my aid, withouten all these questions. But I will tell you, since I needs must. Know then that he was one of those who came around me and professed to be my own. Then, merely because he thought that there were others who were as dear to me as himself he left me, and now he pays court to Maude Twynham, the little freckle-faced hussy in his village.”

“But how has this hurt you, since he was no man of thine?”

“He was one of my men, was he not? And he has made game of me to his wench. He has told her things about me. He has made me foolish in her eyes. Yes, yes, I can read it in her saffron face and in her watery eyes when we meet at the church door on Sundays. She smiles—yes, smiles at me! Nigel, go to him! Do not slay him, nor even wound him, but lay his face open with thy riding-whip, and then come back to me and tell me how I can serve you.”

Nigel's face was haggard with the strife within, for desire ran hot in every vein, and yet reason shrank with horror. “By Saint Paul! Edith,” he cried, “I see no honor nor advancement of any sort in this thing which you have asked me to do. Is it for me to strike one who is no better than a cripple? For my manhood I could not do such a deed, and I pray you, dear lady, that you will set me some other task.”

Her eyes flashed at him in contempt. “And you are a man-at-arms!” she cried, laughing in bitter scorn. “You are afraid of a little man who can scarce walk. Yes, yes, say what you will, I shall ever believe that you have heard of his skill at fence and of his great spirit, and that your heart has failed you! You are right, Nigel. He is indeed a perilous man. Had you done what I asked he would have slain you, and so you have shown your wisdom.”

Nigel flushed and winced under the words, but he said no more, for his mind was fighting hard within him, striving to keep that high image of woman which seemed for a moment to totter on the edge of a fall. Together in silence, side by side, the little man and the stately woman, the yellow charger and the white jennet, passed up the sandy winding track with the gorse and the bracken head-high on either side. Soon a path branched off through a gateway marked with the boar-heads of the Buttesthorns, and there was the low widespread house heavily timbered, loud with the barking of dogs. The ruddy Knight limped forth with outstretched hand and roaring voice—

“What how, Nigel! Good welcome and all hail! I had thought that you had given over poor friends like us, now that the King had made so much of you. The horses, varlets, or my crutch will be across you! Hush, Lydiard! Down, Pelamon! I can scarce hear my voice for your yelping. Mary, a cup of wine for young Squire Loring!”

She stood framed in the doorway, tall, mystic, silent, with strange, wistful face and deep soul shining in her dark, questioning eyes. Nigel kissed the hand that she held out, and all his faith in woman and his reverence came back to him as he looked at her. Her sister had slipped behind her and her fair elfish face smiled her forgiveness of Nigel over Mary's shoulder.

The Knight of Duplin leaned his weight upon the young man's arm and limped his way across the great high-roofed hall to his capacious oaken chair. “Come, come, the stool, Edith!” he cried. “As God is my help, that girl's mind swarms with gallants as a granary with rats. Well, Nigel, I hear strange tales of your spear-running at Tilford and of the visit of the King. How seemed he? And my old friend Chandos—many happy hours in the woodlands have we had together—and Manny too, he was ever a bold and a hard rider—what news of them all?”

Nigel told to the old Knight all that had occurred, saying little of his own success and much of his own failure, yet the eyes of the dark woman burned the brighter as she sat at her tapestry and listened.

Sir John followed the story with a running fire of oaths, prayers, thumps with his great fist and flourishes of his crutch. “Well, well, lad, you could scarce expect to hold your saddle against Manny, and you have carried yourself well. We are proud of you, Nigel, for you are our own man, reared in the heather country. But indeed I take shame that you are not more skilled in the mystery of the woods, seeing that I have had the teaching of you, and that no one in broad England is my master at the craft. I pray you to fill your cup again whilst I make use of the little time that is left to us.”

And straightway the old Knight began a long and weary lecture upon the times of grace and when each beast and bird was seasonable, with many anecdotes, illustrations, warnings and exceptions, drawn from his own great experience. He spoke also of the several ranks and grades of the chase: how the hare, hart and boar must ever take precedence over the buck, the doe, the fox, the marten and the roe, even as a knight banneret does over a knight, while these in turn are of a higher class to the badger, the wildcat or the otter, who are but the common populace of the world of beasts. Of blood-stains also he spoke—how the skilled hunter may see at a glance if blood be dark and frothy, which means a mortal hurt, or thin and clear, which means that the arrow has struck a bone.

“By such signs,” said he, “you will surely know whether to lay on the hounds and cast down the blinks which hinder the stricken deer in its flight. But above all I pray you, Nigel, to have a care in the use of the terms of the craft, lest you should make some blunder at table, so that those who are wiser may have the laugh of you, and we who love you may be shamed.”

“Nay, Sir John,” said Nigel. “I think that after your teaching I can hold my place with the others.”

The old Knight shook his white head doubtfully. “There is so much to be learned that there is no one who can be said to know all,” said he. “For example, Nigel, it is sooth that for every collection of beasts of the forest, and for every gathering of birds of the air, there is their own private name so that none may be confused with another.”

“I know it, fair sir.”

“You know it, Nigel, but you do not know each separate name, else are you a wiser man than I had thought you. In truth—none can say that they know all, though I have myself picked off eighty, and six for a wager at court, and it is said that the chief huntsman of the Duke of Burgundy has counted over a hundred—but it is in my mind that he may have found them as he went, for there was none to say him nay. Answer me now, lad, how would you say if you saw ten badgers together in the forest?”

“A cete of badgers, fair sir.”

“Good, Nigel—good, by my faith! And if you walk in Woolmer Forest and see a swarm of foxes, how would you call it?”

“A skulk of foxes.”

“And if they be lions?”

“Nay, fair sir, I am not like to meet several lions in Woolmer Forest.”

“Aye, lad, but there are other forests besides Woolmer, and other lands besides England, and who can tell how far afield such a knight errant as Nigel of Tilford may go, when he sees worship to be won? We will say that you were in the deserts of Nubia, and that afterward at the court of the great Sultan you wished to say that you had seen several lions, which is the first beast of the chase, being the king of all animals. How then would you say it?”

Nigel scratched his head. “Surely, fair sir, I would be content to say that I had seen a number of lions, if indeed I could say aught after so wondrous an adventure.”

“Nay, Nigel, a huntsman would have said that he had seen a pride of lions, and so proved that he knew the language of the chase. Now had it been boars instead of lions?”

“One says a singular of boars.”

“And if they be swine?”

“Surely it is a herd of swine.”

“Nay, nay, lad, it is indeed sad to see how little you know. Your hands, Nigel, were always better than your head. No man of gentle birth would speak of a herd of swine; that is the peasant speech. If you drive them it is a herd. If you hunt them it is other. What call you them, then, Edith?”

“Nay, I know not,” said the girl listlessly. A crumpled note brought in by a varlet was clinched in her right hand and her blue eyes looked afar into the deep shadows of the roof.

“But you can tell us, Mary?”

“Surely, sweet sir, one talks of a sounder of swine.”

The old Knight laughed exultantly. “Here is a pupil who never brings me shame!” he cried. “Be it lore—of chivalry or heraldry or woodcraft or what you will, I can always turn to Mary. Many a man can she put to the blush.”

“Myself among them,” said Nigel.

“Ah, lad, you are a Solomon to some of them. Hark ye! only last week that jack-fool, the young Lord of Brocas, was here talking of having seen a covey of pheasants in the wood. One such speech would have been the ruin of a young Squire at the court. How would you have said it, Nigel?”

“Surely, fair sir, it should be a nye of pheasants.”

“Good, Nigel—a nye of pheasants, even as it is a gaggle of geese or a badling of ducks, a fall of woodcock or a wisp of snipe. But a covey of pheasants! What sort of talk is that? I made him sit even where you are sitting, Nigel, and I saw the bottom of two pots of Rhenish ere I let him up. Even then I fear that he had no great profit from his lesson, for he was casting his foolish eyes at Edith when he should have been turning his ears to her father. But where is the wench?”

“She hath gone forth, father.”

“She ever doth go forth when there is a chance of learning aught that is useful indoors. But supper will soon be ready, and there is a boar's ham fresh from the forest with which I would ask your help, Nigel, and a side of venison from the King's own chase. The tinemen and verderers have not forgotten me yet, and my larder is ever full. Blow three moots on the horn, Mary, that the varlets may set the table, for the growing shadow and my loosening belt warn me that it is time.”






CHAPTER XII. HOW NIGEL FOUGHT THE TWISTED MAN OF SHALFORD

In the days of which you read all classes, save perhaps the very poor, fared better in meat and in drink than they have ever done since. The country was covered with woodlands—there were seventy separate forests in England alone, some of them covering half a shire. Within these forests the great beasts of the chase were strictly preserved, but the smaller game, the hares, the rabbits, the birds, which swarmed round the coverts, found their way readily into the poor man's pot. Ale was very cheap, and cheaper still was the mead which every peasant could make for himself out of the wild honey in the tree-trunks. There were many tea-like drinks also, which were brewed by the poor at no expense: mallow tea, tansy tea, and others the secret of which has passed.

Amid the richer classes there was rude profusion, great joints ever on the sideboard, huge pies, beasts of the field and beasts of the chase, with ale and rough French or Rhenish wines to wash them down. But the very rich had attained to a high pitch of luxury in their food, and cookery was a science in which the ornamentation of the dish was almost as important as the dressing of the food. It was gilded, it was silvered, it was painted, it was surrounded with flame. From the boar and the peacock down to such strange food as the porpoise and the hedgehog, every dish had its own setting and its own sauce, very strange and very complex, with flavorings of dates, currants, cloves, vinegar, sugar and honey, of cinnamon, ground ginger, sandalwood, saffron, brawn and pines. It was the Norman tradition to eat in moderation, but to have a great profusion of the best and of the most delicate from which to choose. From them came this complex cookery, so unlike the rude and often gluttonous simplicity of the old Teutonic stock.

Sir John Buttesthorn was of that middle class who fared in the old fashion, and his great oak supper-table groaned beneath the generous pastries, the mighty joints and the great flagons. Below were the household, above on a raised dais the family table, with places ever ready for those frequent guests who dropped in from the high road outside. Such a one had just come, an old priest, journeying from the Abbey of Chertsey to the Priory of Saint John at Midhurst. He passed often that way, and never without breaking his journey at the hospitable board of Cosford.

“Welcome again, good Father Athanasius!” cried the burly Knight. “Come sit here on my right and give me the news of the country-side, for there is never a scandal but the priests are the first to know it.”

The priest, a kindly, quiet man, glanced at an empty place upon the farther side of his host. “Mistress Edith?” said he.

“Aye, aye, where is the hussy?” cried her father impatiently. “Mary, I beg you to have the horn blown again, that she may know that the supper is on the table. What can the little owlet do abroad at this hour of the night?”

There was trouble in the priest's gentle eyes as he touched the Knight upon the sleeve. “I have seen Mistress Edith within this hour,” said he. “I fear that she will hear no horn that you may blow, for she must be at Milford ere now.”

“At Milford? What does she there?”

“I pray you, good Sir John, to abate your voice somewhat, for indeed this matter is for our private discourse, since it touches the honor of a lady.”

“Her honor?” Sir John's ruddy face had turned redder still, as he stared at the troubled features of the priest. “Her honor, say you—the honor of my daughter? Make good those words, or never set your foot over the threshold of Cosford again!”

“I trust that I have done no wrong, Sir John, but indeed I must say what I have seen, else would I be a false friend and an unworthy priest.”

“Haste man, haste! What in the Devil's name have you seen?”

“Know you a little man, partly misshapen, named Paul de la Fosse?”

“I know him well. He is a man of noble family and coat-armor, being the younger brother of Sir Eustace de la Fosse of Shalford. Time was when I had thought that I might call him son, for there was never a day that he did not pass with my girls, but I fear that his crooked back sped him ill in his wooing.”

“Alas, Sir John! It is his mind that is more crooked than his back. He is a perilous man with women, for the Devil hath given him such a tongue and such an eye that he charms them even as the basilisk. Marriage may be in their mind, but never in his, so that I could count a dozen and more whom he has led to their undoing. It is his pride and his boast over the whole countryside.”

“Well, well, and what is this to me or mine?”

“Even now, Sir John, as I rode my mule up the road I met this man speeding toward his home. A woman rode by his side, and though her face was hooded I heard her laugh as she passed me. That laugh I have heard before, and it was under this very roof, from the lips of Mistress Edith.”

The Knight's knife dropped from his hand. But the debate had been such that neither Mary nor Nigel could fail to have heard it. Mid the rough laughter and clatter of voices from below the little group at the high table had a privacy of their own.

“Fear not, father,” said the girl—“indeed, the good Father Athanasius hath fallen into error, and Edith will be with us anon. I have heard her speak of this man many times of late, and always with bitter words.”

“It is true, sir,” cried Nigel eagerly. “It was only this very evening as we rode over Thursley Moor that Mistress Edith told me that she counted him not a fly, and that she would be glad if he were beaten for his evil deeds.”

But the wise priest shook his silvery locks. “Nay, there is ever danger when a woman speaks like that. Hot hate is twin brother to hot love. Why should she speak so if there were not some bond between them?”

“And yet,” said Nigel, “what can have changed her thoughts in three short hours? She was here in the hall with us since I came. By Saint Paul, I will not believe it!”

Mary's face darkened. “I call to mind,” said she, “that a note was brought her by Hannekin the stable varlet when you were talking to us, fair sir, of the terms of the chase. She read it and went forth.”

Sir John sprang to his feet, but sank into his chair again with a groan. “Would that I were dead,” he cried, “ere I saw dishonor come upon my house, and am so tied with this accursed foot that I can neither examine if it be true, nor yet avenge it! If my son Oliver were here, then all would be well. Send me this stable varlet that I may question him.”

“I pray you, fair and honored sir,” said Nigel, “that you will take me for your son this night, that I may handle this matter in the way which seems best. On jeopardy of my honor I will do all that a man may.”

“Nigel, I thank you. There is no man in Christendom to whom I would sooner turn.”

“But I would lean your mind in one matter, fair sir. This man, Paul de la Fosse, owns broad acres, as I understand, and comes of noble blood. There is no reason if things be as we fear that he should not marry your daughter?”

“Nay, she could not wish for better.”

“It is well. And first I would question this Hannekin; but it shall be done in such a fashion that none shall know, for indeed it is not a matter for the gossip of servants. But if you will show me the man, Mistress Mary, I will take him out to tend my own horse, and so I shall learn all that he has to tell.”

Nigel was absent for some time, and when he returned the shadow upon his face brought little hope to the anxious hearts at the high table. “I have locked him in the stable loft, lest he talk too much,” said he, “for my questions must have shown him whence the wind blew. It was indeed from this man that the note came, and he had brought with him a spare horse for the lady.”

The old Knight groaned, and his face sank upon his hands.

“Nay, father, they watch you!” whispered Mary. “For the honor of our house let us keep a bold face to all.” Then, raising her young clear voice, so that it sounded through the room: “If you ride eastward, Nigel, I would fain go with you, that my sister may not come back alone.”

“We will ride together, Mary,” said Nigel, rising; then in a lower voice: “But we cannot go alone, and if we take a servant all is known. I pray you to stay at home and leave the matter with me.”

“Nay, Nigel, she may sorely need a woman's aid, and what woman should it be save her own sister? I can take my tire-woman with us.”

“Nay, I shall ride with you myself if your impatience can keep within the powers of my mule,” said the old priest.

“But it is not your road, father?”

“The only road of a true priest is that which leads to the good of others. Come, my children, and we will go together.”

And so it was that stout Sir John Buttesthorn, the aged Knight of Duplin, was left alone at his own high table, pretending to eat, pretending to drink, fidgeting in his seat, trying hard to seem unconcerned with his mind and body in a fever, while below him his varlets and handmaids laughed and jested, clattering their cups and clearing their trenchers, all unconscious of the dark shadow which threw its gloom over the lonely man upon the dais above.

Meantime the Lady Mary upon the white jennet which her sister had ridden on the same evening, Nigel on his war-horse, and the priest on the mule, clattered down the rude winding road which led to London. The country on either side was a wilderness of heather moors and of morasses from which came the strange crying of night-fowl. A half-moon shone in the sky between the rifts of hurrying clouds. The lady rode in silence, absorbed in the thought of the task before them, the danger and the shame.

Nigel chatted in a low tone with the priest. From him he learned more of the evil name of this man whom they followed. His house at Shalford was a den of profligacy and vice. No woman could cross that threshold and depart unstained. In some strange fashion, inexplicable and yet common, the man, with all his evil soul and his twisted body, had yet some strange fascination for women, some mastery over them which compelled them to his will. Again and again he had brought ruin to a household, again and again his adroit tongue and his cunning wit had in some fashion saved him from the punishment of his deeds. His family was great in the county, and his kinsmen held favor with the King, so that his neighbors feared to push things too far against him. Such was the man, malignant and ravenous, who had stooped like some foul night-hawk and borne away to his evil nest the golden beauty of Cosford. Nigel said little as he listened, but he raised his hunting-dagger to his tightened lips, and thrice he kissed the cross of its handle.

They had passed over the moors and through the village of Milford and the little township of Godalming, until their path turned southward over the Pease marsh and crossed the meadows of Shalford. There on the dark hillside glowed the red points of light which marked the windows of the house which they sought. A somber arched avenue of oak-trees led up to it, and then they were in the moon-silvered clearing in front.

From the shadow of the arched door there sprang two rough serving-men, bearded and gruff, great cudgels in their hands, to ask them who they were and what their errand. The Lady Mary had slipped from her horse and was advancing to the door, but they rudely barred her way.

“Nay, nay, our master needs no more!” cried one, with a hoarse laugh. “Stand back, mistress, whoever you be! The house is shut, and our lord sees no guests to-night.”

“Fellow,” said Nigel, speaking low and clear, “stand back from us! Our errand is with your master.”

“Bethink you, my children,” cried the old priest, “would it not be best perchance, that I go in to him and see whether the voice of the Church may not soften this hard heart? I fear bloodshed if you enter.”

“Nay, father, I pray you to stay here for the nonce,” said Nigel. “And you, Mary, do you bide with the good priest, for we know not what may be within.”

Again he turned to the door, and again the two men barred his passage.

“Stand back, I say, back for your lives!” said Nigel. “By Saint Paul! I should think it shame to soil my sword with such as you, but my soul is set, and no man shall bar my path this night.”

The men shrank from the deadly menace of that gentle voice.

“Hold!” said one of them, peering through the darkness, “is it not Squire Loring of Tilford?”

“That is indeed my name.”

“Had you spoken it I for one would not have stopped your way. Put down your staff, Wat, for this is no stranger, but the Squire of Tilford.”

“As well for him,” grumbled the other, lowering his cudgel with an inward prayer of thanksgiving. “Had it been otherwise I should have had blood upon my soul to-night. But our master said nothing of neighbors when he ordered us to hold the door. I will enter and ask him what is his will.”

But already Nigel was past them and had pushed open the outer door. Swift as he was, the Lady Mary was at his very heels, and the two passed together into the hall beyond.

It was a great room, draped and curtained with black shadows, with one vivid circle of light in the center, where two oil lamps shone upon a small table. A meal was laid upon the table, but only two were seated at it, and there were no servants in the room. At the near end was Edith, her golden hair loose and streaming down over the scarlet and black of her riding-dress.

At the farther end the light beat strongly upon the harsh face and the high-drawn misshapen shoulders of the lord of the house. A tangle of black hair surmounted a high rounded forehead, the forehead of a thinker, with two deep-set cold gray eyes twinkling sharply from under tufted brows. His nose was curved and sharp, like the beak of some cruel bird, but below the whole of his clean-shaven powerful face was marred by the loose slabbing mouth and the round folds of the heavy chin. His knife in one hand and a half-gnawed bone in the other, he looked fiercely up, like some beast disturbed in his den, as the two intruders broke in upon his hall.

Nigel stopped midway between the door and the table. His eyes and those of Paul de la Fosse were riveted upon each other. But Mary, with her woman's soul flooded over with love and pity, had rushed forward and cast her arms round her younger sister. Edith had sprung up from her chair, and with averted face tried to push the other away from her.

“Edith, Edith! By the Virgin, I implore you to come back with us, and to leave this wicked man!” cried Mary. “Dear sister, you would not break our father's heart, nor bring his gray head in dishonor to the grave! Come back Edith, come back and all is well.”

But Edith pushed her away, and her fair cheeks were flushed with her anger. “What right have you over me, Mary, you who are but two years older, that you should follow me over the country-side as though I were a runagate villain and you my mistress? Do you yourself go back, and leave me to do that which seems best in my own eyes.”

But Mary still held her in her arms, and still strove to soften the hard and angry heart. “Our mother is dead, Edith. I thank God that she died ere she saw you under this roof! But I stand for her, as I have done all my life, since I am indeed your elder. It is with her voice that I beg and pray you that you will not trust this man further, and that you will come back ere it be too late!”

Edith writhed from her grasp, and stood flushed and defiant, with gleaming, angry eyes fixed upon her sister. “You may speak evil of him now,” said she, “but there was a time when Paul de la Fosse came to Cosford, and who so gentle and soft-spoken to him then as wise, grave, sister Mary? But he has learned to love another; so now he is the wicked man, and it is shame to be seen under his roof! From what I see of my good pious sister and her cavalier it is sin for another to ride at night with a man at your side, but it comes easy enough to you. Look at your own eye, good sister, ere you would take the speck from that of another.”

Mary stood irresolute and greatly troubled, holding down her pride and her anger, but uncertain how best to deal with this strong wayward spirit.

“It is not a time for bitter words, dear sister,” said she, and again she laid her hand upon her sister's sleeve. “All that you say may be true. There was indeed a time when this man was friend to us both, and I know even as you do the power which he may have to win a woman's heart. But I know him now, and you do not. I know the evil that he has wrought, the dishonor that he has brought, the perjury that lies upon his soul, the confidence betrayed, the promise unfulfilled—all this I know. Am I to see my own sister caught in the same well-used trap? Has it shut upon you, child? Am I indeed already too late? For God's sake, tell me, Edith, that it is not so?”

Edith plucked her sleeve from her sister and made two swift steps to the head of the table. Paul de la Fosse still sat silent with his eyes upon Nigel. Edith laid her hand upon his shoulder: “This is the man I love, and the only man that I have ever loved. This is my husband,” said she.

At the word Mary gave a cry of joy.

“And is it so?” she cried. “Nay, then all is in honor, and God will see to the rest. If you are man and wife before the altar, then indeed why should I, or any other, stand between you? Tell me that it is indeed so, and I return this moment to make your father a happy man.”

Edith pouted like a naughty child. “We are man and wife in the eyes of God. Soon also we shall be wedded before all the world. We do but wait until next Monday when Paul's brother, who is a priest at St. Albans, will come to wed us. Already a messenger has sped for him, and he will come, will he not, dear love?”

“He will come,” said the master of Shalford, still with his eyes fixed upon the silent Nigel.

“It is a lie; he will not come,” said a voice from the door.

It was the old priest, who had followed the others as far as the threshold.

“He will not come,” he repeated as he advanced into the room. “Daughter, my daughter, hearken to the words of one who is indeed old enough to be your earthly father. This lie has served before. He has ruined others before you with it. The man has no brother at Saint Albans. I know his brothers well, and there is no priest among them. Before Monday, when it is all too late, you will have found the truth as others have done before you. Trust him not, but come with us!”

Paul de la Fosse looked up at her with a quick smile and patted the hand upon his shoulder.

“Do you speak to them, Edith,” said he.

Her eyes flashed with scorn as she surveyed them each in turn, the woman, the youth and the priest.

“I have but one word to say to them,” said she. “It is that they go hence and trouble us no more. Am I not a free woman? Have I not said that this is the only man I ever loved? I have loved him long. He did not know it, and in despair he turned to another. Now he knows all and never again can doubt come between us. Therefore I will stay here at Shalford and come to Cosford no more save upon the arm of my husband. Am I so weak that I would believe the tales you tell against him? Is it hard for a jealous woman and a wandering priest to agree upon a lie? No, no, Mary, you can go hence and take your cavalier and your priest with you, for here I stay, true to my love and safe in my trust upon his honor!”

“Well spoken, on my faith, my golden bird!” said the little master of Shalford. “Let me add my own word to that which has been said. You would not grant me any virtue in your unkindly speech, good Lady Mary, and yet you must needs confess that at least I have good store of patience, since I have not set my dogs upon your friends who have come between me and my ease. But even to the most virtuous there comes at last a time when poor human frailty may prevail, and so I pray you to remove both yourself, your priest and your valiant knight errant, lest perhaps there be more haste and less dignity when at last you do take your leave. Sit down, my fair love, and let us turn once more to our supper.” He motioned her to her chair, and he filled her wine-cup as well as his own.

Nigel had said no word since he had entered the room, but his look had never lost its set purpose, nor had his brooding eyes ever wandered from the sneering face of the deformed master of Shalford. Now he turned with swift decision to Mary and to the priest.

“That is over,” said he in a low voice. “You have done all that you could, and now it is for me to play my part as well as I am able. I pray you, Mary, and you, good father, that you will await me outside.”

“Nay, Nigel, if there is danger—”

“It is easier for me, Mary, if you are not there. I pray you to go. I can speak to this man more at my ease.”

She looked at him with questioning eyes and then obeyed.

Nigel plucked at the priest's gown.

“I pray you, father, have you your book of offices with you?”

“Surely, Nigel, it is ever in my breast.”

“Have it ready, father!”

“For what, my son?”

“There are two places you may mark; there is the service of marriage and there is the prayer for the dying. Go with her, father, and be ready at my call.”

He closed the door behind them and was alone with this ill-matched couple. They both turned in their chairs to look at him, Edith with a defiant face, the man with a bitter smile upon his lips and malignant hatred in his eyes.

“What,” said he, “the knight errant still lingers? Have we not heard of his thirst for glory? What new venture does he see that he should tarry here?”

Nigel walked to the table.

“There is no glory and little venture,” said he; “but I have come for a purpose and I must do it. I learn from your own lips, Edith, that you will not leave this man.”

“If you have ears you have heard it.”

“You are, as you have said, a free woman, and who can gainsay you? But I have known you, Edith, since we played as boy and girl on the heather-hills together. I will save you from this man's cunning and from your own foolish weakness.”

“What would you do?”

“There is a priest without. He will marry you now. I will see you married ere I leave this hall.”

“Or else?” sneered the man.

“Or else you never leave this hall alive. Nay, call not for your servants or your dogs! By Saint Paul! I swear to you that this matter lies between us three, and that if any fourth comes at your call you, at least, shall never live to see what comes of it! Speak then, Paul of Shalford! Will you wed this woman now, or will you not?”

Edith was on her feet with outstretched arms between them. “Stand back, Nigel! He is small and weak. You would not do him a hurt! Did you not say so this very day? For God's sake, Nigel, do not look at him so! There is death in your eyes.”

“A snake may be small and weak, Edith, yet every honest man would place his heel upon it. Do you stand back yourself, for my purpose is set.”

“Paul!” she turned her eyes to the pale sneering face. “Bethink you, Paul! Why should you not do what he asks? What matter to you whether it be now or on Monday? I pray you, dear Paul, for my sake let him have his way! Your brother can read the service again if it so please him. Let us wed now, Paul, and then all is well.”

He had risen from his chair, and he dashed aside her appealing hands. “You foolish woman,” he snarled, “and you, my savior of fair damsels, who are so bold against a cripple, you have both to learn that if my body be weak there is the soul of my breed within it! To marry because a boasting, ranting, country Squire would have me do so—no, by the soul of God, I will die first! On Monday I will marry, and no day sooner, so let that be your answer.”

“It is the answer that I wished,” said Nigel, “for indeed I see no happiness in this marriage, and the other may well be the better way. Stand aside, Edith!” He gently forced her to one side and drew his sword.

De la Fosse cried aloud at the sight. “I have no sword. You would not murder me?” said he, leaning back with haggard-face and burning eyes against his chair. The bright steel shone in the lamp-light. Edith shrank back, her hand over her face.

“Take this sword!” said Nigel, and he turned the hilt to the cripple. “Now!” he added, as he drew his hunting knife. “Kill me if you can, Paul de la Fosse, for as God is my help I will do as much for you!”

The woman, half swooning and yet spellbound and fascinated, looked on at that strange combat. For a moment the cripple stood with an air of doubt, the sword grasped in his nerveless fingers. Then as he saw the tiny blade in Nigel's hand the greatness of the advantage came home to him, and a cruel smile tightened his loose lips. Slowly, step by step he advanced, his chin sunk upon his chest, his eyes glaring from under the thick tangle of his brows like fires through the brushwood. Nigel waited for him, his left hand forward, his knife down by his hip, his face grave, still and watchful.

Nearer and nearer yet, with stealthy step, and then with a bound and a cry of hatred and rage Paul de la Fosse had sped his blow. It was well judged and well swung, but point would have been wiser than edge against that supple body and those active feet. Quick as a flash, Nigel had sprung inside the sweep of the blade, taking a flesh wound on his left forearm, as he pressed it under the hilt. The next instant the cripple was on the ground and Nigel's dagger was at his throat.

“You dog!” he whispered. “I have you at my mercy! Quick ere I strike, and for the last time! Will you marry or no?”

The crash of the fall and the sharp point upon his throat had cowed the man's spirit. He looked up with a white face and the sweat gleamed upon his forehead. There was terror in his eyes.

“Nay, take your knife from me!” he cried. “I cannot die like a calf in the shambles.”

“Will you marry?”

“Yes, yes, I will wed her! After all she is a good wench and I might do worse. Let me up! I tell you I will marry her! What more would you have?”

Nigel stood above him with his foot upon his misshapen body. He had picked up his sword, and the point rested upon the cripple's breast.

“Nay, you will bide where you are! If you are to live—and my conscience cries loud against it—at least your wedding will be such as your sins have deserved. Lie there, like the crushed worm that you are!” Then he raised his voice. “Father Athanasius!” he cried. “What ho! Father Athanasius!”

The old priest ran to the cry, and so did the Lady Mary. A strange sight it was that met them now in the circle of light, the frightened girl, half-unconscious against the table, the prostrate cripple, and Nigel with foot and sword upon his body.

“Your book, father!” cried Nigel. “I know not if what we do is good or ill; but we must wed them, for there is no way out.”

But the girl by the table had given a great cry, and she was clinging and sobbing with her arms round her sister's neck.

“Oh, Mary, I thank the Virgin that you have come! I thank the Virgin that it is not too late! What did he say? He said that he was a de la Fosse and that he would not be married at the sword-point. My heart went out to him when he said it. But I, am I not a Buttesthorn, and shall it be said that I would marry a man who could be led to the altar with a knife at his throat? No, no, I see him as he is! I know him now, the mean spirit, the lying tongue! Can I not read in his eyes that he has indeed deceived me, that he would have left me as you say that he has left others? Take me home, Mary, my sister, for you have plucked me back this night from the very mouth of Hell!”

And so it was that the master of Shalford, livid and brooding, was left with his wine at his lonely table, while the golden beauty of Cosford, hot with shame and anger, her fair face wet with tears, passed out safe from the house of infamy into the great calm and peace of the starry night.






CHAPTER XIII. HOW THE COMRADES JOURNEYED DOWN THE OLD, OLD ROAD

And now the season of the moonless nights was drawing nigh and the King's design was ripe. Very secretly his preparations were made. Already the garrison of Calais, which consisted of five hundred archers and two hundred men-at-arms, could, if forewarned, resist any attack made upon it. But it was the King's design not merely to resist the attack, but to capture the attackers. Above all it was his wish to find the occasion for one of those adventurous passages of arms which had made his name famous throughout Christendom as the very pattern and leader of knight-errant chivalry.

But the affair wanted careful handling. The arrival of any, reinforcements, or even the crossing of any famous soldier, would have alarmed the French and warned them that their plot had been discovered. Therefore it was in twos and threes in the creyers and provision ships which were continually passing from shore to shore that the chosen warriors and their squires were brought to Calais. There they were passed at night through the water-gate into the castle where they could lie hidden, unknown to the townsfolk, until the hour for action had come.

Nigel had received word from Chandos to join him at “The Sign of the Broom-Pod” in Winchelsea. Three days beforehand he and Aylward rode from Tilford all armed and ready for the wars. Nigel was in hunting-costume, blithe and gay, with his precious armor and his small baggage trussed upon the back of a spare horse which Aylward led by the bridle. The archer had himself a good black mare, heavy and slow, but strong enough to be fit to carry his powerful frame. In his brigandine of chain mail and his steel cap, with straight strong sword by his side, his yellow long-bow jutting over his shoulder, and his quiver of arrows supported by a scarlet baldric, he was such a warrior as any knight might well be proud to have in his train. All Tilford trailed behind them, as they rode slowly over the long slope of heath land which skirts the flank of Crooksbury Hill.

At the summit of the rise Nigel reined in Pommers and looked back at the little village behind him. There was the old dark manor house, with one bent figure leaning upon a stick and gazing dimly after him from beside the door. He looked at the high-pitched roof, the timbered walls, the long trail of swirling blue smoke which rose from the single chimney, and the group of downcast old servants who lingered at the gate, John the cook, Weathercote the minstrel, and Red Swire the broken soldier. Over the river amid the trees he could see the grim, gray tower of Waverley, and even as he looked, the iron bell, which had so often seemed to be the hoarse threatening cry of an enemy, clanged out its call to prayer. Nigel doffed his velvet cap and prayed also—prayed that peace might remain at home, and good warfare, in which honor and fame should await him, might still be found abroad. Then, waving his hand to the people, he turned his horse's head and rode slowly eastward. A moment later Aylward broke from the group of archers and laughing girls who clung to his bridle and his stirrup straps, and rode on, blowing kisses over his shoulder. So at last the two comrades, gentle and simple, were fairly started on their venture.

There are two seasons of color in those parts: the yellow, when the country-side is flaming with the gorse-blossoms, and the crimson, when all the long slopes are smoldering with the heather. So it was now. Nigel looked back from time to time, as he rode along the narrow track where the ferns and the ling brushed his feet on either side, and as he looked it seemed to him that wander where he might he would never see a fairer scene than that of his own home. Far to the westward, glowing in the morning light, rolled billow after billow of ruddy heather land, until they merged into the dark shadows of Woolmer Forest and the pale clear green of the Butser chalk downs. Never in his life had Nigel wandered far beyond these limits, and the woodlands, the down and the heather were dear to his soul. It gave him a pang in his heart now as he turned his face away from them; but if home lay to the westward, out there to the eastward was the great world of adventure, the noble stage where each of his kinsmen in turn had played his manly part and left a proud name behind.

How often he had longed for this day! And now it had come with no shadow cast behind it. Dame Ermyntrude was under the King's protection. The old servants had their future assured. The strife with the monks of Waverley had been assuaged. He had a noble horse under him, the best of weapons, and a stout follower at his back. Above all he was bound on a gallant errand with the bravest knight in England as his leader. All these thoughts surged together in his mind, and he whistled and sang, as he rode, out of the joy of his heart, while Pommers sidled and curveted in sympathy with the mood of his master. Presently, glancing back, he saw from Aylward's downcast eyes and Puckered brow that the archer was clouded with trouble. He reined his horse to let him come abreast of him.

“How now, Aylward?” said he. “Surely of all men in England you and I should be the most blithe this morning, since we ride forward with all hopes of honorable advancement. By Saint Paul! ere we see these heather hills once more we shall either worshipfully win worship, or we shall venture our persons in the attempt. These be glad thoughts, and why should you be downcast?”

Aylward shrugged his broad shoulders, and a wry smile dawned upon his rugged face. “I am indeed as limp as a wetted bowstring,” said he. “It is the nature of a man that he should be sad when he leaves the woman he loves.”

“In truth, yes!” cried Nigel, and in a flash the dark eyes of Mary Buttesthorn rose before him, and he heard her low, sweet, earnest voice as he had heard it that night when they brought her frailer sister back from Shalford Manor, a voice which made all that was best and noblest in a man thrill within his soul. “Yet, bethink you, archer, that what a woman loves in man is not his gross body, but rather his soul, his honor, his fame, the deeds with which he has made his life beautiful. Therefore you are winning love as well as glory when you turn to the wars.”

“It may be so,” said Aylward; “but indeed it goes to my heart to see the pretty dears weep, and I would fain weep as well to keep them company. When Mary—or was it Dolly?—nay, it was Martha, the red-headed girl from the mill—when she held tight to my baldric it was like snapping my heart-string to pluck myself loose.”

“You speak of one name and then of another,” said Nigel. “How is she called then, this maid whom you love?”

Aylward pushed back his steel cap and scratched his bristling head with some embarrassment. “Her name,” said he, “is Mary Dolly Martha Susan Jane Cicely Theodosia Agnes Johanna Kate.”

Nigel laughed as Aylward rolled out this prodigious title. “I had no right to take you to the wars,” said he; “for by Saint Paul! it is very clear that I have widowed half the parish. But I saw your aged father the franklin. Bethink you of the joy that will fill his heart when he hears that you have done some small deed in France, and so won honor in the eyes of all.”

“I fear that honor will not help him to pay his arrears of rent to the sacrist of Waverley,” said Aylward. “Out he will go on the roadside, honor and all, if he does not find ten nobles by next Epiphany. But if I could win a ransom or be at the storming of a rich city, then indeed the old man would be proud of me. 'Thy sword must help my spade, Samkin,' said he as he kissed me goodby. Ah! it would indeed be a happy day for him and for all if I could ride back with a saddle-bag full of gold pieces, and please God, I shall dip my hand in somebody's pocket before I see Crooksbury Hill once more!”

Nigel shook his head, for indeed it seemed hopeless to try to bridge the gulf between them. Already they had made such good progress along the bridle-path through the heather that the little hill of Saint Catharine and the ancient shrine upon its summit loomed up before them. Here they crossed the road from the south to London, and at the crossing two wayfarers were waiting who waved their hands in greeting, the one a tall, slender, dark woman upon a white jennet, the other a very thick and red-faced old man, whose weight seemed to curve the back of the stout gray cob which he bestrode.

“What how, Nigel!” he cried. “Mary has told me that you make a start this morning, and we have waited here this hour and more on the chance of seeing you pass. Come, lad, and have a last stoup of English ale, for many a time amid the sour French wines you will long for the white foam under your nose, and the good homely twang of it.”

Nigel had to decline the draft, for it meant riding into Guildford town, a mile out of his course, but very gladly he agreed with Mary that they should climb the path to the old shrine and offer a last orison together. The knight and Aylward waited below with the horses; and so it came about that Nigel and Mary found themselves alone under the solemn old Gothic arches, in front of the dark shadowed recess in which gleamed the golden reliquary of the saint. In silence they knelt side by side in prayer, and then came forth once more out of the gloom and the shadow into the fresh sunlit summer morning. They stopped ere they descended the path, and looked to right and left at the fair meadows and the blue Wey curling down the valley.

“What have you prayed for, Nigel?” said she.

“I have prayed that God and His saints will hold my spirit high and will send me back from France in such a fashion that I may dare to come to you and to claim you for my own.”

“Bethink you well what it is that you say, Nigel,” said she. “What you are to me only my own heart can tell; but I would never set eyes upon your face again rather than abate by one inch that height of honor and worshipful achievement to which you may attain.”

“Nay, my dear and most sweet lady, how should you abate it, since it is the thought of you which will nerve my arm and uphold my heart?”

“Think once more, my fair lord, and hold yourself bound by no word which you have said. Let it be as the breeze which blows past our faces and is heard of no more. Your soul yearns for honor. To that has it ever turned. Is there room in it for love also? or is it possible that both shall live at their highest in one mind? Do you not call to mind that Galahad and other great knights of old have put women out of their lives that they might ever give their whole soul and strength to the winning of honor? May it not be that I shall be a drag upon you, that your heart may shrink from some honorable task, lest it should bring risk and pain to me? Think well before you answer, my fair lord, for indeed my very heart would break if it should ever happen that through love of me your high hopes and great promise should miss fulfilment.”

Nigel looked at her with sparkling eyes. The soul which shone through her dark face had transformed it for the moment into a beauty more lofty and more rare than that of her shallow sister. He bowed before the majesty of the woman, and pressed his lips to her hand. “You are like a star upon my path which guides me on the upward way,” said he. “Our souls are set together upon the finding of honor, and how shall we hold each other back when our purpose is the same?”

She shook her proud head. “So it seems to you now, fair lord, but it may be otherwise as the years pass. How shall you prove that I am indeed a help and not a hindrance?”

“I will prove it by my deeds, fair and dear lady,” said Nigel. “Here at the shrine of the holy Catharine, on this, the Feast of Saint Margaret, I take my oath that I will do three deeds in your honor as a proof of my high love before I set eyes upon your face again, and these three deeds shall stand as a proof to you that if I love you dearly, still I will not let the thought of you stand betwixt me and honorable achievement!”

Her face shone with her love and her pride. “I also make my oath,” said she, “and I do it in the name of the holy Catharine whose shrine is hard by. I swear that I will hold myself for you until these three deeds be done and we meet once more; also that if—which may dear Christ forfend! you fall in doing them then I shall take the veil in Shalford nunnery and look upon no man's face again! Give me your hand, Nigel.”

She had taken a little bangle of gold filigree work from her arm and fastened it upon his sunburnt wrist, reading aloud to him the engraved motto in old French: “Fais ce que dois, adviegne que pourra—c'est commande au chevalier.” Then for one moment they fell into each other's arms and with kiss upon kiss, a loving man and a tender woman, they swore their troth to each other. But the old knight was calling impatiently from below and together they hurried down the winding path to where the horses waited under the sandy bluff.

As far as the Shalford crossing Sir John rode by Nigel's arm, and many were the last injunctions which he gave him concerning woodcraft, and great his anxiety lest he confuse a spay with a brocket, or either with a hind. At last when they came to the reedy edge of the Wey the old knight and his daughter reined up their horses. Nigel looked back at them ere he entered the dark Chantry woods, and saw them still gazing after him and waving their hands. Then the path wound amongst the trees and they were lost to sight; but long afterwards when a clearing exposed once more the Shalford meadows Nigel saw that the old man upon the gray cob was riding slowly toward Saint Catharine's Hill, but that the girl was still where he had seen her last, leaning forward in her saddle and straining her eyes to pierce the dark forest which screened her lover from her view. It was but a fleeting glance through a break in the foliage, and yet in after days of stress and toil in far distant lands it was that one little picture—the green meadow, the reeds, the slow blue-winding river, and the eager bending graceful figure upon the white horse—which was the clearest and the dearest image of that England which he had left behind him.

But if Nigel's friends had learned that this was the morning of his leaving, his enemies too were on the alert. The two comrades had just emerged from the Chantry woods and were beginning the ascent of that curving path which leads upward to the old Chapel of the Martyr when with a hiss like an angry snake a long white arrow streaked under Pommers and struck quivering in the grassy turf. A second whizzed past Nigel's ear, as he tried to turn; but Aylward struck the great war-horse a sharp blow over the haunches, and it had galloped some hundreds of yards before its rider could pull it up. Aylward followed as hard as he could ride, bending low over his horse's neck, while arrows whizzed all around him.

“By Saint Paul!” said Nigel, tugging at his bridle and white with anger, “they shall not chase me across the country as though I was a frighted doe. Archer, how dare you to lash my horse when I would have turned and ridden in upon them?”

“It is well that I did so,” said Aylward, “or by these ten finger-bones! our journey would have begun and ended on the same day. As I glanced round I saw a dozen of them at the least amongst the brushwood. See now how the light glimmers upon their steel caps yonder in the bracken under the great beech-tree. Nay, I pray you, my fair lord, do not ride forward. What chance has a man in the open against all these who lie at their ease in the underwood? If you will not think of yourself, then consider your horse, which would have a cloth-yard shaft feathered in its hide ere it could reach the wood.”

Nigel chafed in impotent anger. “Am I to be shot at like a popinjay at a fair, by any reaver or outlaw that seeks a mark for his bow?” he cried. “By Saint Paul! Aylward, I will put on my harness and go further into the matter. Help me to untruss, I pray you!”

“Nay, my fair lord, I will not help you to your own downfall. It is a match with cogged dice betwixt a horseman on the moor and archers amid the forest. But these men are no outlaws, or they would not dare to draw their bows within a league of the sheriff of Guildford.”

“Indeed, Aylward, I think that you speak truth,” said Nigel. “It may be that these are the men of Paul de la Fosse of Shalford, whom I have given little cause to love me. Ah! there is indeed the very man himself.”

They sat their horses with their backs to the long slope which leads up to the old chapel on the hill. In front of them was the dark ragged edge of the wood, with a sharp twinkle of steel here and there in its shadows which spoke of these lurking foes. But now there was a long moot upon a horn, and at once a score of russet-clad bowmen ran forward from amid the trees, spreading out into a scattered line and closing swiftly in upon the travelers. In the midst of them, upon a great gray horse, sat a small misshapen man, waving and cheering as one sets hounds on a badger, turning his head this way and that as he whooped and pointed, urging his bowmen onward up the slope.

“Draw them on, my fair lord! Draw them on until we have them out on the down!” cried Aylward, his eyes shining with joy. “Five hundred paces more, and then we may be on terms with them. Nay, linger not, but keep them always just clear of arrowshot until our turn has come.”

Nigel shook and trembled with eagerness, as with his hand on his sword-hilt he looked at the line of eager hurrying men. But it flashed through his mind what Chandos had said of the cool head which is better for the warrior than the hot heart. Aylward's words were true and wise. He turned Pommers' head therefore, and amid a cry of derision from behind them the comrades trotted over the down. The bowmen broke into a run, while their leader screamed and waved more madly than before. Aylward cast many a glance at them over his shoulder.

“Yet a little farther! Yet a little farther still!” he muttered. “The wind is towards them and the fools have forgot that I can overshoot them by fifty paces. Now, my good lord, I pray you for one instant to hold the horses, for my weapon is of more avail this day, than thine can be. They may make sorry cheer ere they gain the shelter of the wood once more.”

He had sprung from his horse, and with a downward wrench of his arm and a push with his knee he slipped the string into the upper nock of his mighty war-bow. Then in a flash he notched his shaft and drew it to the pile, his keen blue eyes glowing fiercely behind it from under his knotted brows. With thick legs planted sturdily apart, his body laid to the bow, his left arm motionless as wood, his right bunched into a double curve of swelling muscles as he stretched the white well-waxed string, he looked so keen and fierce a fighter that the advancing line stopped for an instant at the sight of him. Two or three loosed off their arrows, but the shafts flew heavily against the head wind, and snaked along the hard turf some score of paces short of the mark. One only, a short bandy-legged man, whose squat figure spoke of enormous muscular strength, ran swiftly in and then drew so strong a bow that the arrow quivered in the ground at Aylward's very feet.

“It is Black Will of Lynchmere,” said the bowman. “Many a match have I shot with him, and I know well that no other man on the Surrey marches could have sped such a shaft. I trust that you are houseled and shriven, Will, for I have known you so long that I would not have your damnation upon my soul.”

He raised his bow as he spoke, and the string twanged with a rich deep musical note. Aylward leaned upon his bow-stave as he keenly watched the long swift flight of his shaft, skimming smoothly down the wind.

“On him, on him! No, over him, by my hilt!” he cried. “There is more wind than I had thought. Nay, nay, friend, now that I have the length of you, you can scarce hope to loose again.”

Black Will had notched an arrow and was raising his bow when Aylward's second shaft passed through the shoulder of his drawing arm. With a shout of anger and pain he dropped his weapon, and dancing in his fury he shook his fist and roared curses at his rival.

“I could slay him; but I will not, for good bowmen are not so common,” said Aylward. “And now, fair sir, we must on, for they are spreading round on either side, and if once they get behind us, then indeed our journey has come to a sudden end. But ere we go I would send a shaft through yonder horseman who leads them on.”

“Nay, Aylward, I pray you to leave him,” said Nigel. “Villain as he is, he is none the less a gentleman of coat-armor, and should die by some other weapon than thine.”

“As you will,” said Aylward, with a clouded brow. “I have been told that in the late wars many a French prince and baron has not been too proud to take his death wound from an English yeoman's shaft, and that nobles of England have been glad enough to stand by and see it done.”

Nigel shook his head sadly. “It is sooth you say, archer, and indeed it is no new thing, for that good knight Richard of the Lion Heart met his end in such a lowly fashion, and so also did Harold the Saxon. But this is a private matter, and I would not have you draw your bow against him. Neither can I ride at him myself, for he is weak in body, though dangerous in spirit. Therefore, we will go upon our way, since there is neither profit nor honor to be gained, nor any hope of advancement.”

Aylward, having unstrung his bow, had remounted his horse during this conversation, and the two rode swiftly past the little squat Chapel of the Martyr and over the brow of the hill. From the summit they looked back. The injured archer lay upon the ground, with several of his comrades gathered in a knot around him. Others ran aimlessly up the hill, but were already far behind. The leader sat motionless upon his horse, and as he saw them look back he raised his hand and shrieked his curses at them. An instant later the curve of the ground had hid them from view. So, amid love and hate, Nigel bade adieu to the home of his youth.

And now the comrades were journeying upon that old, old road which runs across the south of England and yet never turns toward London, for the good reason that the place was a poor hamlet when first the road was laid. From Winchester, the Saxon capital, to Canterbury, the holy city of Kent, ran that ancient highway, and on from Canterbury to the narrow straits where, on a clear day, the farther shore can be seen. Along this track as far back as history can trace the metals of the west have been carried and passed the pack-horses which bore the goods which Gaul sent in exchange. Older than the Christian faith and older than the Romans, is the old road. North and south are the woods and the marshes, so that only on the high dry turf of the chalk land could a clear track be found. The Pilgrim's Way, it still is called; but the pilgrims were the last who ever trod it, for it was already of immemorial age before the death of Thomas a Becket gave a new reason why folk should journey to the scene of his murder.

From the hill of Weston Wood the travelers could see the long white band which dipped and curved and rose over the green downland, its course marked even in the hollows by the line of the old yew-trees which flanked it. Neither Nigel nor Aylward had wandered far from their own country, and now they rode with light hearts and eager eyes taking note of all the varied pictures of nature and of man which passed before them. To their left was a hilly country, a land of rolling heaths and woods, broken here and there into open spaces round the occasional farm-house of a franklin. Hackhurst Down, Dunley Hill, and Ranmore Common swelled and sank, each merging into the other. But on the right, after passing the village of Shere and the old church of Gomshall, the whole south country lay like a map at their feet. There was the huge wood of the Weald, one unbroken forest of oak-trees stretching away to the South Downs, which rose olive-green against the deep blue sky. Under this great canopy of trees strange folk lived and evil deeds were done. In its recesses were wild tribes, little changed from their heathen ancestors, who danced round the altar of Thor, and well was it for the peaceful traveler that he could tread the high open road of the chalk land with no need to wander into so dangerous a tract, where soft clay, tangled forest and wild men all barred his progress.

But apart from the rolling country upon the left and the great forest-hidden plain upon the right, there was much upon the road itself to engage the attention of the wayfarers. It was crowded with people. As far as their eyes could carry they could see the black dots scattered thickly upon the thin white band, sometimes single, sometimes several abreast, sometimes in moving crowds, where a drove of pilgrims held together for mutual protection, or a nobleman showed his greatness by the number of retainers who trailed at his heels. At that time the main roads were very crowded, for there were many wandering people in the land. Of all sorts and kinds, they passed in an unbroken stream before the eyes of Nigel and of Aylward, alike only in the fact that one and all were powdered from their hair to their shoes with the gray dust of the chalk.

There were monks journeying from one cell to another, Benedictines with their black gowns looped up to show their white skirts, Carthusians in white, and pied Cistercians. Friars also of the three wandering orders—Dominicans in black, Carmelites in white and Franciscans in gray. There was no love lost between the cloistered monks and the free friars, each looking on the other as a rival who took from him the oblations of the faithful; so they passed on the high road as cat passes dog, with eyes askance and angry faces.

Then besides the men of the church there were the men of trade, the merchant in dusty broadcloth and Flanders hat riding at the head of his line of pack-horses. He carried Cornish tin, Welt-country wool, or Sussex iron if he traded eastward, or if his head should be turned westward then he bore with him the velvets of Genoa, the ware of Venice, the wine of France, or the armor of Italy and Spain. Pilgrims were everywhere, poor people for the most part, plodding wearily along with trailing feet and bowed heads, thick staves in their hands and bundles over their shoulders. Here and there on a gaily caparisoned palfrey, or in the greater luxury of a horse-litter, some West-country lady might be seen making her easy way to the shrine of Saint Thomas.

Besides all these a constant stream of strange vagabonds drifted along the road: minstrels who wandered from fair to fair, a foul and pestilent crew; jugglers and acrobats, quack doctors and tooth-drawers, students and beggars, free workmen in search of better wages, and escaped bondsmen who would welcome any wages at all. Such was the throng which set the old road smoking in a haze of white dust from Winchester to the narrow sea.

But of all the wayfarers those which interested Nigel most were the soldiers. Several times they passed little knots of archers or men-at-arms, veterans from France, who had received their discharge and were now making their way to their southland homes. They were half drunk all of them, for the wayfarers treated them to beer at the frequent inns and ale-stakes which lined the road, so that they cheered and sang lustily as they passed. They roared rude pleasantries at Aylward, who turned in his saddle and shouted his opinion of them until they were out of hearing.

Once, late in the afternoon, they overtook a body of a hundred archers all marching together with two knights riding at their head. They were passing from Guildford Castle to Reigate Castle, where they were in garrison. Nigel rode with the knights for some distance, and hinted that if either was in search of honorable advancement, or wished to do some small deed, or to relieve himself of any vow, it might be possible to find some means of achieving it. They were both, however, grave and elderly men, intent upon their business and with no mind for fond wayside adventures, so Nigel quickened his pace and left them behind.

They had left Boxhill and Headley Heath upon the left, and the towers of Reigate were rising amid the trees in front of them, when they overtook a large, cheery, red-faced man, with a forked beard, riding upon a good horse and exchanging a nod or a merry word with all who passed him. With him they rode nearly as far as Bletchingley, and Nigel laughed much to hear him talk; but always under the raillery there was much earnestness and much wisdom in all his words. He rode at his ease about the country, he said, having sufficient money to keep him from want and to furnish him for the road. He could speak all the three languages of England, the north, the middle and the south, so that he was at home with the people of every shire and could hear their troubles and their joys. In all parts in town and in country there was unrest, he said; for the poor folk were weary of their masters both of the Church and State, and soon there would be such doings in England as had never been seen before.

But above all this man was earnest against the Church its enormous wealth, its possession of nearly one-third of the whole land of the country, its insatiable greed for more at the very time when it claimed to be poor and lowly. The monks and friars, too, he lashed with his tongue: their roguish ways, their laziness and their cunning. He showed how their wealth and that of the haughty lord must always be founded upon the toil of poor humble Peter the Plowman, who worked and strove in rain and cold out in the fields, the butt and laughing-stock of everyone, and still bearing up the whole world upon his weary shoulders. He had set it all out in a fair parable; so now as he rode he repeated some of the verses, chanting them and marking time with his forefinger, while Nigel and Aylward on either side of him with their heads inclined inward listened with the same attention, but with very different feelings—Nigel shocked at such an attack upon authority, and Aylward chuckling as he heard the sentiments of his class so shrewdly expressed. At last the stranger halted his horse outside the “Five Angels” at Gatton.

“It is a good inn, and I know the ale of old,” said he. “When I had finished that 'Dream of Piers the Plowman' from which I have recited to you, the last verses were thus:

“'Now have I brought my little booke to an ende
God's blessing be on him who a drinke will me sende'—

“I pray you come in with me and share it.”

“Nay,” said Nigel, “we must on our way, for we have far to go. But give me your name, my friend, for indeed we have passed a merry hour listening to your words.”

“Have a care!” the stranger answered, shaking his head. “You and your class will not spend a merry hour when these words are turned into deeds and Peter the Plowman grows weary of swinking in the fields and takes up his bow and his staff in order to set this land in order.”

“By Saint Paul! I expect that we shall bring Peter to reason and also those who have put such evil thoughts into his head,” said Nigel. “So once more I ask your name, that I may know it if ever I chance to hear that you have been hanged?”

The stranger laughed good-humoredly. “You can call me Thomas Lackland,” said he. “I should be Thomas Lack-brain if I were indeed to give my true name, since a good many robbers, some in black gowns and some in steel, would be glad to help me upwards in the way you speak of. So good-day to you, Squire, and to you also, archer, and may you find your way back with whole bones from the wars!”

That night the comrades slept in Godstone Priory, and early next morning they were well upon their road down the Pilgrim's Way. At Titsey it was said that a band of villeins were out in Westerham Wood and had murdered three men the day before; so that Nigel had high hopes of an encounter; but the brigands showed no sign, though the travelers went out of their way to ride their horses along the edges of the forest. Farther on they found traces of their work, for the path ran along the hillside at the base of a chalk quarry, and there in the cutting a man was lying dead. From his twisted limbs and shattered frame it was easy to see that he had been thrown over from above, while his pockets turned outward showed the reason for his murder. The comrades rode past without too close a survey, for dead men were no very uncommon objects on the King's highway, and if sheriff or bailiff should chance upon you near the body you might find yourself caught in the meshes of the law.

Near Sevenoaks their road turned out of the old Canterbury way and pointed south toward the coast, leaving the chalk lands and coming down into the clay of the Weald. It was a wretched, rutted mule-track running through thick forests with occasional clearings in which lay the small Kentish villages, where rude shock-headed peasants with smocks and galligaskins stared with bold, greedy eyes at the travelers. Once on the right they caught a distant view of the Towers of Penshurst, and once they heard the deep tolling of the bells of Bayham Abbey, but for the rest of their day's journey savage peasants and squalid cottages were all that met their eyes, with endless droves of pigs who fed upon the litter of acorns. The throng of travelers who crowded the old road were all gone, and only here and there did they meet or overtake some occasional merchant or messenger bound for Battle Abbey, Pevensey Castle or the towns of the south.

That night they slept in a sordid inn, overrun with rats and with fleas, one mile south of the hamlet of Mayfield. Aylward scratched vigorously and cursed with fervor. Nigel lay without movement or sound. To the man who had learned the old rule of chivalry there were no small ills in life. It was beneath the dignity of his soul to stoop to observe them. Cold and heat, hunger and thirst, such things did not exist for the gentleman. The armor of his soul was so complete that it was proof not only against the great ills of life but even against the small ones; so the flea-bitten Nigel lay grimly still while Aylward writhed upon his couch.

They were now but a short distance from their destination; but they had hardly started on their journey through the forest next morning, when an adventure befell them which filled Nigel with the wildest hopes.

Along the narrow winding path between the great oak trees there rode a dark sallow man in a scarlet tabard who blew so loudly upon a silver trumpet that they heard the clanging call long before they set eyes on him. Slowly he advanced, pulling up every fifty paces to make the forest ring with another warlike blast. The comrades rode forward to meet him.

“I pray you,” said Nigel, “to tell me who you are and why you blow upon this trumpet.”

The fellow shook his head, so Nigel repeated the question in French, the common language of chivalry, spoken at that age by every gentleman in Western Europe.

The man put his lips to the trumpet and blew another long note before he answered. “I am Gaston de Castrier,” said he, “the humble Squire of the most worthy and valiant knight Raoul de Tubiers, de Pestels, de Grimsard, de Mersac, de Leoy, de Bastanac, who also writes himself Lord of Pons. It is his order that I ride always a mile in front of him to prepare all to receive him, and he desires me to blow upon a trumpet not out of vainglory, but out of greatness of spirit, so that none may be ignorant of his coming should they desire to encounter him.”

Nigel sprang from his horse with a cry of joy, and began to unbutton his doublet. “Quick, Aylward, quick!” he said. “He comes, a knight errant comes! Was there ever such a chance of worshipfully winning worship? Untruss the harness whilst I loose my clothes! Good sir, I beg you to warn your noble and valiant master that a poor Squire of England would implore him to take notice of him and to do some small deed upon him as he passes.”

But already the Lord of Pons had come in sight. He was a huge man upon an enormous horse, so that together they seemed to fill up the whole long dark archway under the oaks. He was clad in full armor of a brazen hue with only his face exposed, and of this face there was little visible save a pair of arrogant eyes and a great black beard, which flowed through the open visor and down over his breastplate. To the crest of his helmet was tied a small brown glove, nodding and swinging above him. He bore a long lance with a red square banner at the end, charged with a black boar's head, and the same symbol was engraved upon his shield. Slowly he rode through the forest, ponderous, menacing, with dull thudding of his charger's hoofs and constant clank of metal, while always in front of him came the distant peal of the silver trumpet calling all men to admit his majesty and to clear his path ere they be cleared from it.

Never in his dreams had so perfect a vision come to cheer Nigel's heart, and as he struggled with his clothes, glancing up continually at this wondrous traveler, he pattered forth prayers of thanksgiving to the good Saint Paul who had shown such loving-kindness to his unworthy servant and thrown him in the path of so excellent and debonair a gentleman.

But alas! how often at the last instant the cup is dashed from the lips! This joyful chance was destined to change suddenly to unexpected and grotesque disaster—disaster so strange and so complete that through all his life Nigel flushed crimson when he thought of it. He was busily stripping his hunting-costume, and with feverish haste he had doffed boots, hat, hose, doublet and cloak, so that nothing remained save a pink jupon and pair of silken drawers. At the same time Aylward was hastily unbuckling the load with the intention of handing his master his armor piece by piece, when the Squire gave one last challenging peal from his silver trumpet into the very ear of the spare horse.

In an instant it had taken to its heels, the precious armor upon its back, and thundered away down the road which they had traversed. Aylward jumped upon his mare, drove his prick spurs into her sides and galloped after the runaway as hard as he could ride. Thus it came about that in an instant Nigel was shorn of all his little dignity, had lost his two horses, his attendant and his outfit, and found himself a lonely and unarmed man standing in his shirt and drawers upon the pathway down which the burly figure of the Lord of Pons was slowly advancing.

The knight errant, whose mind had been filled by the thought of the maiden whom he had left behind at St. Jean—the same whose glove dangled from his helmet—had observed nothing that had occurred. Hence, all that met his eyes was a noble yellow horse, which was tethered by the track, and a small young man, who appeared to be a lunatic since he had undressed hastily in the heart of the forest, and stood now with an eager anxious face clad in his underlinen amid the scattered debris of his garments. Of such a person the high Lord of Pons could take no notice, and so he pursued his inexorable way, his arrogant eyes looking out into the distance and his thoughts set intently upon the maiden of St. Jean. He was dimly aware that the little crazy man in the undershirt ran a long way beside him in his stockings, begging, imploring and arguing.

“Just one hour, most fair sir, just one hour at the longest, and a poor Squire of England shall ever hold himself your debtor! Do but condescend to rein your horse until my harness comes back to me! Will you not stoop to show me some small deed of arms? I implore you, fair sir, to spare me a little of your time and a handstroke or two ere you go upon your way!”

Lord de Pons motioned impatiently with his gauntleted hand, as one might brush away an importunate fly, but when at last Nigel became desperate in his clamor he thrust his spurs into his great war-horse, and clashing like a pair of cymbals he thundered off through the forest. So he rode upon his majestic way, until two days later he was slain by Lord Reginald Cobham in a field near Weybridge.

When after a long chase Aylward secured the spare horse and brought it back, he found his master seated upon a fallen tree, his face buried in his hands and his mind clouded with humiliation and grief. Nothing was said, for the matter was beyond words, and so in moody silence they rode upon their way.

But soon they came upon a scene which drew Nigel's thoughts away from his bitter trouble, for in front of them there rose the towers of a great building with a small gray sloping village around it, and they learned from a passing hind that this was the hamlet and Abbey of Battle. Together they drew rein upon the low ridge and looked down into that valley of death from which even now the reek of blood seems to rise. Down beside that sinister lake and amid those scattered bushes sprinkled over the naked flank of the long ridge was fought that long-drawn struggle betwixt two most noble foes with broad England as the prize of victory. Here, up and down the low hill, hour by hour the grim struggle had waxed and waned, until the Saxon army had died where it stood, King, court, house-carl and fyrdsman, each in their ranks even as they had fought. And now, after all the stress and toil, the tyranny, the savage revolt, the fierce suppression, God had made His purpose complete, for here were Nigel the Norman and Aylward the Saxon with good-fellowship in their hearts and a common respect in their minds, with the same banner and the same cause, riding forth to do battle for their old mother England.

And now the long ride drew to an end. In front of them was the blue sea, flecked with the white sails of ships. Once more the road passed upward from the heavy-wooded plain to the springy turf of the chalk downs. Far to the right rose the grim fortalice of Pevensey, squat and powerful, like one great block of rugged stone, the parapet twinkling with steel caps and crowned by the royal banner of England. A flat expanse of reeded marshland lay before them, out of which rose a single wooded hill, crowned with towers, with a bristle of masts rising out of the green plain some distance to the south of it. Nigel looked at it with his hand shading his eyes, and then urged Pommers to a trot. The town was Winchelsea, and there amid that cluster of houses on the hill the gallant Chandos must be awaiting him.






CHAPTER XIV. HOW NIGEL CHASED THE RED FERRET

They passed a ferry, wound upward by a curving path, and then, having satisfied a guard of men-at-arms, were admitted through the frowning arch of the Pipewell Gate. There waiting for them, in the middle of the east street, the sun gleaming upon his lemon-colored beard, and puckering his single eye, stood Chandos himself, his legs apart, his hands behind his back, and a welcoming smile upon his quaint high-nosed face. Behind him a crowd of little boys were gazing with reverent eyes at the famous soldier.

“Welcome, Nigel!” said he, “and you also, good archer! I chanced to be walking on the city wall, and I thought from the color of your horse that it was indeed you upon the Udimore Road. How have you fared, young squire errant? Have you held bridges or rescued damsels or slain oppressors on your way from Tilford?”

“Nay, my fair lord, I have accomplished nothing; but I once had hopes—” Nigel flushed at the remembrance.

“I will give you more than hopes, Nigel. I will put you where you can dip both arms to the elbow into danger and honor, where peril will sleep with you at night and rise with you in the morning and the very air you breathe be laden with it. Are you ready for that, young sir?”

“I can but pray, fair lord, that my spirit will rise to it.”

Chandos smiled his approval and laid his thin brown hand on the youth's shoulder. “Good!” said he. “It is the mute hound which bites the hardest. The babbler is ever the hang-back. Bide with me here, Nigel, and walk upon the ramparts. Archer, do you lead the horses to the 'Sign of the Broom Pod' in the high street, and tell my varlets to see them aboard the cog Thomas before nightfall. We sail at the second hour after curfew. Come hither, Nigel, to the crest of the corner turret, for from it I will show you what you have never seen.”

It was but a dim and distant white cloud upon the blue water seen far off over the Dungeness Point, and yet the sight of it flushed the young Squire's cheeks and sent the blood hot through his veins. It was the fringe of France, that land of chivalry and glory, the stage where name and fame were to be won. With burning eyes he gazed across at it, his heart rejoicing to think that the hour was at hand when he might tread that sacred soil. Then his gaze crossed the immense stretch of the blue sea, dotted over with the sails of fishing-boats, until it rested upon the double harbor beneath packed with vessels of every size and shape, from the pessoners and creyers which plied up and down the coast to the great cogs and galleys which were used either as war-ships or merchantmen as the occasion served. One of them was at that instant passing out to sea, a huge galleass, with trumpets blowing and nakers banging, the flag of Saint George flaunting over the broad purple sail, and the decks sparkling from end to end with steel. Nigel gave a cry of pleasure at the splendor of the sight.

“Aye, lad,” said Chandos, “it is the Trinity of Rye, the very ship on which I fought at Sluys. Her deck ran blood from stem to stern that day. But turn your eyes this way, I beg you, and tell me if you see aught strange about this town.”

Nigel looked down at the noble straight street, at the Roundel Tower, at the fine church of Saint Thomas, and the other fair buildings of Winchelsea. “It is all new,” said he—“church, castle, houses, all are new.”

“You are right, fair son. My grandfather can call to mind the time when only the conies lived upon this rock. The town was down yonder by the sea, until one night the waves rose upon it and not a house was left. See, yonder is Rye, huddling also on a hill, the two towns like poor sheep when the waters are out. But down there under the blue water and below the Camber Sand lies the true Winchelsea—tower, cathedral, walls and all, even as my grandfather knew it, when the first Edward was young upon the throne.”

For an hour or more Chandos paced upon the ramparts with his young Squire at his elbow and talked to him of his duties and of the secrets and craft of warfare, Nigel drinking in and storing in his memory every word from so revered a teacher. Many a time in after life, in stress and in danger, he strengthened himself by the memory of that slow walk with the blue sea on one side and the fair town on the other, when the wise soldier and noble-hearted knight poured forth his precept and advice as the master workman to the apprentice.

“Perhaps, fair son,” said he, “you are like so many other lads who ride to the wars, and know so much already that it is waste of breath to advise them?”

“Nay, my fair lord, I know nothing save that I would fain do my duty and either win honorable advancement or die worshipful on the field.”

“You are wise to be humble,” said Chandos; “for indeed he who knows most of war knows best that there is much to learn. As there is a mystery of the rivers and a mystery of woodcraft, even so there is a mystery of warfare by which battles may be lost and gained; for all nations are brave, and where the brave meets the brave it is he who is crafty and war-wise who will win the day. The best hound will run at fault if he be ill laid on, and the best hawk will fly at check if he be badly loosed, and even so the bravest army may go awry if it be ill handled. There are not in Christendom better knights and squires than those of the French, and yet we have had the better of them, for in our Scottish Wars and elsewhere we have learned more of this same mystery of which I speak.”

“And wherein lies our wisdom, honored sir?” asked Nigel. “I also would fain be war-wise and learn to fight with my wits as well as with my sword.”

Chandos shook his head and smiled. “It is in the forest and on the down that you learn to fly the hawk and loose the hound,” said he. “So also it is in camp and on the field that the mystery of war can be learned. There only has every great captain come to be its master. To start he must have a cool head, quick to think, soft as wax before his purpose is formed, hard as steel when once he sees it before him. Ever alert he must be, and cautious also, but with judgment to turn his caution into rashness where a large gain may be put against a small stake. An eye for country also, for the trend of the rivers, the slope of the hills, the cover of the woods, and the light green of the bog-land.”

Poor Nigel, who had trusted to his lance and to Pommers to break his path to glory, stood aghast at this list of needs. “Alas!” he cried. “How am I to gain all this?—I, who could scarce learn to read or write though the good Father Matthew broke a hazel stick a day across my shoulders?”

“You will gain it, fair son, where others have gained it before you. You have that which is the first thing of all, a heart of fire from which other colder hearts may catch a spark. But you must have knowledge also of that which warfare has taught us in olden times. We know, par exemple, that horsemen alone cannot hope to win against good foot-soldiers. Has it not been tried at Courtrai, at Stirling, and again under my own eyes at Crecy, where the chivalry of France went down before our bowmen?”

Nigel stared at him, with a perplexed brow. “Fair sir, my heart grows heavy as I hear you. Do you then say that our chivalry can make no head against archers, billmen and the like?”

“Nay, Nigel, for it has also been very clearly shown that the best foot-soldiers unsupported cannot hold their own against the mailed horsemen.”

“To whom then is the victory?” asked Nigel.

“To him who can mix his horse and foot, using each to strengthen the other. Apart they are weak. Together they are strong. The archer who can weaken the enemy's line, the horseman who can break it when it is weakened, as was done at Falkirk and Duplin, there is the secret of our strength. Now touching this same battle of Falkirk, I pray you for one instant to give it your attention.”

With his whip he began to trace a plan of the Scottish battle upon the dust, and Nigel with knitted brows was trying hard to muster his small stock of brains and to profit by the lecture, when their conversation was interrupted by a strange new arrival.

It was a very stout little man, wheezy and purple with haste, who scudded down the rampart as if he were blown by the wind, his grizzled hair flying and his long black gown floating behind him. He was clad in the dress of a respectable citizen, a black jerkin trimmed with sable, a black-velvet beaver hat and a white feather. At the sight of Chandos he gave a cry of joy and quickened his pace so that when he did at last reach him he could only stand gasping and waving his hands.

“Give yourself time, good Master Wintersole, give yourself time!” said Chandos in a soothing voice.

“The papers!” gasped the little man. “Oh, my Lord Chandos, the papers—”

“What of the papers, my worthy sir?”

“I swear by our good patron Saint Leonard, it is no fault of mine! I had locked them in my coffer. But the lock was forced and the coffer rifled.”

A shadow of anger passed over the soldier's keen face.

“How now, Master Mayor? Pull your wits together and do not stand there babbling like a three-year child. Do you say that some one hath taken the papers?”

“It is sooth, fair sir! Thrice I have been Mayor of the town, and fifteen years burgess and jurat, but never once has any public matter gone awry through me. Only last month there came an order from Windsor on a Tuesday for a Friday banquet, a thousand soles, four thousand plaice, two thousand mackerel, five hundred crabs, a thousand lobsters, five thousand whiting—”

“I doubt not, Master Mayor, that you are an excellent fishmonger; but the matter concerns the papers I gave into your keeping. Where are they?”

“Taken, fair sir—gone!”

“And who hath dared to take them?”

“Alas! I know not. It was but for as long as you would say an angelus that I left the chamber, and when I came back there was the coffer, broken and empty, upon my table.”

“Do you suspect no one?”

“There was a varlet who hath come with the last few days into my employ. He is not to be found, and I have sent horsemen along both the Udimore road and that to Rye, that they may seize him. By the help of Saint Leonard they can scarce miss him, for one can tell him a bow-shot off by his hair.”

“Is it red?” asked Chandos eagerly. “Is it fox-red, and the man a small man pocked with sun-spots, and very quick in his movements?”

“It is the man himself.”

Chandos shook his clenched hand with annoyance, and then set off swiftly down the street.

“It is Peter the Red Ferret once more!” said he. “I knew him of old in France, where he has done us more harm than a company of men-at-arms. He speaks English as he speaks French, and he is of such daring and cunning that nothing is secret from him. In all France there is no more dangerous man, for though he is a gentleman of blood and coat-armor he takes the part of a spy, because it hath the more danger and therefore the more honor.”

“But, my fair lord,” cried the Mayor, as he hurried along, keeping pace with the long strides of the soldier, “I knew that you warned me to take all care of the papers; but surely there was no matter of great import in it? It was but to say what stores were to be sent after you to Calais?”

“Is that not everything?” cried Chandos impatiently. “Can you not see, oh foolish Master Wintersole, that the French suspect we are about to make some attempt and that they have sent Peter the Red Ferret, as they have sent him many times before, to get tidings of whither we are bound? Now that he knows that the stores are for Calais, then the French near Calais will take his warning, and so the King's whole plan come to nothing.”

“Then he will fly by water. We can stop him yet. He has not an hour's start.”

“It may be that a boat awaits him at Rye or Hythe; but it is more like that he has all ready to depart from here. Ah, see yonder! I'll warrant that the Red Ferret is on board!”

Chandos had halted in front of his inn, and now he pointed down to the outer harbor, which lay two miles off across the green plain. It was connected by a long winding canal with the inner dock at the base of the hill, upon which the town was built. Between the two horns formed by the short curving piers a small schooner was running out to sea, dipping and rising before a sharp southerly breeze.

“It is no Winchelsea boat,” said the Mayor. “She is longer and broader in the beam than ours.”

“Horses! bring horses!” cried Chandos. “Come, Nigel, let us go further into the matter.”

A busy crowd of varlets, archers, and men-at-arms swarmed round the gateway of the “Sign of the Broom Pod,” singing, shouting, and jostling in rough good-fellowship. The sight of the tall thin figure of Chandos brought order amongst them, and a few minutes later the horses were ready and saddled. A breakneck ride down a steep declivity, and then a gallop of two miles over the sedgy plain carried them to the outer harbor. A dozen vessels were lying there, ready to start for Bordeaux or Rochelle, and the quay was thick with sailors, laborers and townsmen and heaped with wine-barrels and wool-packs.

“Who is warden here?” asked Chandos, springing from his horse.

“Badding! Where is Cock Badding? Badding is warden!” shouted the crowd.

A moment later a short swarthy man, bull-necked and deep-chested, pushed through the people. He was clad in rough russet wool with a scarlet cloth tied round his black curly head. His sleeves were rolled up to his shoulders, and his brown arms, all stained with grease and tar, were like two thick gnarled branches from an oaken stump. His savage brown face was fierce and frowning, and was split from chin to temple with the long white wale of an ill-healed wound.

“How now, gentles, will you never wait your turn?” he rumbled in a deep angry voice. “Can you not see that we are warping the Rose of Guienne into midstream for the ebb-tide? Is this a time to break in upon us? Your goods will go aboard in due season, I promise you; so ride back into the town and find such pleasure as you may, while I and my mates do our work without let or hindrance.”

“It is the gentle Chandos!” cried some one in the crowd. “It is the good Sir John.”

The rough harbor-master changed his gruffness to smiles in an instant. “Nay, Sir John, what would you? I pray you to hold me excused if I was short of speech, but we port-wardens are sore plagued with foolish young lordlings, who get betwixt us and our work and blame us because we do not turn an ebb-tide into a flood, or a south wind into a north. I pray you to tell me how I can serve you.”

“That boat!” said Chandos, pointing to the already distant sail rising and falling on the waves. “What is it?”

Cock Badding shaded his keen eyes with his strong brows hand. “She has but just gone out,” said he. “She is La Pucelle, a small wine-sloop from Gascony, home-bound and laden with barrel-staves.”

“I pray you did any man join her at the very last?”

“Nay, I know not. I saw no one.”

“But I know,” cried a seaman in the crowd. “I was standing at the wharf-side and was nigh knocked into the water by a little red-headed fellow, who breathed as though he had run from the town. Ere I had time to give him a cuff he had jumped aboard, the ropes were cast off, and her nose was seaward.”

In a few words Chandos made all clear to Badding, the crowd pressing eagerly round.

“Aye, aye!” cried a seaman, “the good Sir John is right. See how she points. It is Picardy and not Gascony that she will fetch this journey in spite of her wine-staves.”

“Then we must lay her aboard!” cried Cock Badding. “Come, lads, here is my own Marie Rose ready to cast off. Who's for a trip with a fight at the end of it?”

There was a rush for the boat; but the stout little seaman picked his men. “Go back, Jerry! Your heart is good, but you are overfat for the work. You, Luke, and you, Thomas, and the two Deedes, and William of Sandgate. You will work the boat. And now we need a few men of their hands. Do you come, little sir?”

“I pray you, my dear lord, to let me go!” cried Nigel.

“Yes, Nigel, you can go, and I will bring your gear over to Calais this night.”

“I will join you there, fair sir, and with the help of Saint Paul I will bring this Red Ferret with me.”

“Aboard, aboard! Time passes!” cried Badding impatiently, while already his seamen were hauling on the line and raising the mainsail. “Now then, sirrah! who are you?” It was Aylward, who had followed Nigel and was pushing his way aboard.

“Where my master goes I go also,” cried Aylward, “so stand clear, master-shipman, or you may come by a hurt.”

“By Saint Leonard! archer,” said Cock Badding, “had I more time I would give you a lesson ere I leave land. Stand back and give place to others!”

“Nay, stand back and give place to me!” cried Aylward, and seizing Badding round the waist he slung him into the dock.

There was a cry of anger from the crowd, for Badding was the hero of all the Cinque Ports and had never yet met his match in manhood. The epitaph still lingers in which it was said that he “could never rest until he had foughten his fill.” When, therefore, swimming like a duck, he reached a rope and pulled himself hand over hand up to the quay, all stood aghast to see what fell fate would befall this bold stranger. But Badding laughed loudly, dashing the saltwater from his eyes and hair.

“You have fairly won your place, archer,” said he. “You are the very man for our work. Where is Black Simon of Norwich?”

A tall dark young man with a long, stern, lean face came forward. “I am with you, Cock,” said he, “and I thank you for my place.”

“You can come, Hugh Baddlesmere, and you, Hal Masters, and you, Dicon of Rye. That is enough. Now off, in God's name, or it will be night ere we can come up with them!”

Already the head-sails and the main-sail had been raised, while a hundred willing hands poled her off from the wharf. Now the wind caught her; heeling over, and quivering with eagerness like an unleashed hound she flew through the opening and out into the Channel. She was a famous little schooner, the Marie Rose of Winchelsea, and under her daring owner Cock Badding, half trader and half pirate, had brought back into port many a rich cargo taken in mid-Channel, and paid for in blood rather than money. Small as she was, her great speed and the fierce character of her master had made her a name of terror along the French coast, and many a bulky Eastlander or Fleming as he passed the narrow seas had scanned the distant Kentish shore, fearing lest that ill-omened purple sail with a gold Christopher upon it should shoot out suddenly from the dim gray cliffs. Now she was clear of the land, with the wind on her larboard quarter, every inch of canvas set, and her high sharp bows smothered in foam, as she dug through the waves.

Cock Badding trod the deck with head erect and jaunty bearing, glancing up at the swelling sails and then ahead at the little tilted white triangle, which stood out clear and hard against the bright blue sky. Behind was the lowland of the Camber marshes, with the bluffs of Rye and Winchelsea, and the line of cliffs behind them. On the larboard bow rose the great white walls of Folkestone and of Dover, and far on the distant sky-line the gray shimmer of those French cliffs for which the fugitives were making.

“By Saint Paul!” cried Nigel, looking with eager eyes over the tossing waters, “it seems to me, Master Badding, that already we draw in upon them.”

The master measured the distance with his keen steady gaze, and then looked up at the sinking sun. “We have still four hours of daylight,” said he; “but if we do not lay her aboard ere darkness falls she will save herself, for the nights are as black as a wolf's mouth, and if she alter her course I know not how we may follow her.”

“Unless, indeed, you might guess to which port she was bound and reach it before her.”

“Well thought of, little master!” cried Badding. “If the news be for the French outside Calais, then Ambleteuse would be nearest to Saint Omer. But my sweeting sails three paces to that lubber's two, and if the wind holds we shall have time and to spare. How now, archer? You do not seem so eager as when you made your way aboard this boat by slinging me into the sea.”

Aylward sat on the upturned keel of a skiff which lay upon the deck. He groaned sadly and held his green face between his two hands. “I would gladly sling you into the sea once more, master-shipman,” said he, “if by so doing I could get off this most accursed vessel of thine. Or if you would wish to have your turn, then I would thank you if you would lend me a hand over the side, for indeed I am but a useless weight upon your deck. Little did I think that Samkin Aylward could be turned into a weakling by an hour of salt water. Alas the day that ever my foot wandered from the good red heather of Crooksbury!”

Cock Badding laughed loud and long. “Nay, take it not to heart, archer,” he cried; “for better men than you or I have groaned upon this deck. The Prince himself with ten of his chosen knights crossed with me once, and eleven sadder faces I never saw. Yet within a month they had shown at Crecy that they were no weaklings, as you will do also, I dare swear, when the time comes. Keep that thick head of thine down upon the planks, and all will be well anon. But we raise her, we raise her with every blast of the wind!”

It was indeed evident, even to the inexperienced eyes of Nigel, that the Marie Rose was closing in swiftly upon the stranger. She was a heavy, bluff-bowed, broad-sterned vessel which labored clumsily through the seas. The swift, fierce little Winchelsea boat swooping and hissing through the waters behind her was like some keen hawk whizzing down wind at the back of a flapping heavy-bodied duck. Half an hour before La Pucelle had been a distant patch of canvas. Now they could see the black hull, and soon the cut of her sails and the lines of her bulwarks. There were at least a dozen men upon her deck, and the twinkle of weapons from amongst them showed that they were preparing to resist. Cock Badding began to muster his own forces.

He had a crew of seven rough, hardy mariners, who had been at his back in many a skirmish. They were armed with short swords, but Cock Badding carried a weapon peculiar to himself, a twenty-pound blacksmith's hammer, the memory of which, as “Badding's cracker,” still lingers in the Cinque Ports. Then there were the eager Nigel, the melancholy Aylward, Black Simon who was a tried swordsman, and three archers, Baddlesmere, Masters and Dicon of Rye, all veterans of the French War. The numbers in the two vessels might be about equal; but Badding as he glanced at the bold harsh faces which looked to him for orders had little fear for the result.

Glancing round, however, he saw something which was more dangerous to his plans than the resistance of the enemy. The wind, which had become more fitful and feebler, now fell suddenly away, until the sails hung limp and straight above them. A belt of calm lay along the horizon, and the waves around had smoothed down into a long oily swell on which the two little vessels rose and fell. The great boom of the Marie Rose rattled and jarred with every lurch, and the high thin prow pointed skyward one instant and seaward the next in a way that drew fresh groans from the unhappy Aylward. In vain Cock Badding pulled on his sheets and tried hard to husband every little wandering gust which ruffled for an instant the sleek rollers. The French master was as adroit a sailor, and his boom swung round also as each breath of wind came up from astern.

At last even these fitful puffs died finally away, and a cloudless sky overhung a glassy sea. The sun was almost upon the horizon behind Dungeness Point, and the whole western heaven was bright with the glory of the sunset, which blended sea and sky in one blaze of ruddy light. Like rollers of molten gold, the long swell heaved up Channel from the great ocean beyond. In the midst of the immense beauty and peace of nature the two little dark specks with the white sail and the purple rose and fell, so small upon the vast shining bosom of the waters, and yet so charged with all the unrest and the passion of life.

The experienced eye of the seaman told him that it was hopeless to expect a breeze before nightfall. He looked across at the Frenchman, which lay less than a quarter of a mile ahead, and shook his gnarled fist at the line of heads which could be seen looking back over her stern. One of them waved a white kerchief in derision, and Cock Badding swore a bitter oath at the sight.

“By Saint Leonard of Winchelsea,” he cried, “I will rub my side up against her yet! Out with the skiff, lads, and two of you to the oars. Make fast the line to the mast, Will. Do you go in the boat, Hugh, and I'll make the second. Now if we bend our backs to it we may have them yet ere night cover them.”

The little skiff was swiftly lowered over the side and the slack end of the cable fastened to the after thwart. Cock Badding and his comrades pulled as if they would snap their oars, and the little vessel began slowly to lurch forward over the rollers. But the next moment a larger skiff had splashed over the side of the Frenchman, and no less than four seamen were hard at work under her bows. If the Marie Rose advanced a yard the Frenchman was going two. Again Cock Badding raved and shook his fist. He clambered aboard, his face wet with sweat and dark with anger.

“Curse them! they have had the best of us!” he cried. “I can do no more. Sir John has lost his papers, for indeed now that night is at hand I can see no way in which we can gain them.”

Nigel had leaned against the bulwark during these events, watching with keen attention the doings of the sailors, and praying alternately to Saint Paul, Saint George, and Saint Thomas for a slant of wind which would put them along side their enemy. He was silent; but his hot heart was simmering within him. His spirit had risen even above the discomfort of the sea, and his mind was too absorbed in his mission to have a thought for that which had laid Aylward flat upon the deck. He had never doubted that Cock Badding in one way or another would accomplish his end, but when he heard his speech of despair he bounded off the bulwark and stood before the seaman with his face flushed and all his soul afire.

“By Saint Paul! master-shipman,” he cried, “we should never hold up our heads in honor if we did not go further into the matter! Let us do some small deed this night upon the water, or let us never see land again, for indeed we could not wish fairer prospect of winning honorable advancement.”

“With your leave, little master, you speak like a fool,” said the gruff seaman. “You and all your kind are as children when once the blue water is beneath you. Can you not see that there is no wind, and that the Frenchman can warp her as swiftly as we? What then would you do?”

Nigel pointed to the boat which towed astern. “Let us venture forth in her,” said he, “and let us take this ship or die worshipful in the attempt.”

His bold and fiery words found their echo in the brave rough hearts around him. There was a deep-chested shout from both archers and seamen. Even Aylward sat up, with a wan smile upon his green face.

But Cock Badding shook his head. “I have never met the man who could lead where I would not follow,” said he; “but by Saint Leonard! this is a mad business, and I should be a fool if I were to risk my men and my ship. Bethink you, little master, that the skiff can hold only five, though you load her to the water's edge. If there is a man yonder, there are fourteen, and you have to climb their side from the boat. What chance would you have? Your boat stove and you in the water—there is the end of it. No man of mine goes on such a fool's errand, and so I swear!”

“Then, Master Badding, I must crave the loan of your skiff, for by Saint Paul! the good Lord Chandos' papers are not to be so lightly lost. If no one else will come, then I will go alone.”

The shipman smiled at the words; but the smile died away from his lips when Nigel, with features set like ivory and eyes as hard as steel, pulled on the rope so as to bring the skiff under the counter. It was very clear that he would do even as he said. At the same time Aylward raised his bulky form from the deck, leaned for a moment against the bulwarks, and then tottered aft to his master's side.

“Here is one that will go with you,” said he, “or he would never dare show his face to the girls of Tilford again. Come, archers, let us leave these salt herrings in their pickle tub and try our luck out on the water.”

The three archers at once ranged themselves on the same side as their comrade. They were bronzed, bearded men, short in stature, as were most Englishmen of that day, but hardy, strong and skilled with their weapons. Each drew his string from its waterproof case and bent the huge arc of his war-bow as he fitted it into the nocks.

“Now, master, we are at your back,” said they as they pulled and tightened their sword-belts.

But already Cock Badding had been carried away by the hot lust of battle and had thrown aside every fear and doubt which had clouded him. To see a fight and not to be in it was more than he could bear.

“Nay, have it your own way!” he cried, “and may Saint Leonard help us, for a madder venture I have never seen! And yet it may be worth the trial. But if it be done let me have the handling of it, little master, for you know no more of a boat than I do of a war-horse. The skiff can bear five and not a man more. Now, who will come?”

They had all caught fire, and there was not one who would be left out.

Badding picked up his hammer. “I will come myself,” said he, “and you also, little master, since it is your hot head that has planned it. Then there is Black Simon, the best sword of the Cinque Ports. Two archers can pull on the oars, and it may be that they can pick off two or three of these Frenchmen before we close with them. Hugh Baddlesmere, and you, Dicon of Rye—into the boat with you!”

“What?” cried Aylward. “Am I to be left behind? I, who am the Squire's own man? Ill fare the bowman who comes betwixt me and yonder boat!”

“Nay, Aylward,” said his master, “I order that you stay, for indeed you are a sick man.”

“But now that the waves have sunk I am myself again. Nay, fair sir, I pray that you will not leave me behind.”

“You must needs take the space of a better man; for what do you know of the handling of a boat?” said Badding shortly. “No more fool's talk, I pray you, for the night will soon fall. Stand aside!”

Aylward looked hard at the French boat. “I could swim ten times up and down Frensham pond,” said he, “and it will be strange if I cannot go as far as that. By these finger-bones, Samkin Aylward may be there as soon as you!”

The little boat with its five occupants pushed off from the side of the schooner, and dipping and rising, made its slow way toward the Frenchman. Badding and one archer had single oars, the second archer was in the prow, while Black Simon and Nigel huddled into the stern with the water lapping and hissing at their very elbows. A shout of defiance rose from the Frenchmen, and they stood in a line along the side of their vessel shaking their fists and waving their weapons. Already the sun was level with Dungeness, and the gray of evening was blurring sky and water into one dim haze. A great silence hung over the broad expanse of nature, and no sound broke it save the dip and splash of the oars and the slow deep surge of the boat upon the swell. Behind them their comrades of the Marie Rose stood motionless and silent, watching their progress with eager eyes.

They were near enough now to have a good look at the Frenchmen. One was a big swarthy man with a long black beard. He had a red cap and an ax over his shoulder. There were ten other hardy-looking fellows, all of them well armed, and there were three who seemed to be boys.

“Shall we try a shaft upon them?” asked Hugh Baddlesmere. “They are well within our bowshot.”

“Only one of you can shoot at a time, for you have no footing,” said Badding. “With one foot in the prow and one over the thwart you will get your stance. Do what you may, and then we will close in upon them.”

The archer balanced himself in the rolling boat with the deftness of a man who has been trained upon the sea, for he was born and bred in the Cinque Ports. Carefully he nocked his arrow, strongly he drew it, steadily he loosed it, but the boat swooped at the instant, and it buried itself in the waves. The second passed over the little ship, and the third struck in her black side. Then in quick succession so quick that two shafts were often in the air at the same instant—he discharged a dozen arrows, most of which just cleared the bulwarks and dropped upon the deck. There was a cry on the Frenchman, and the heads vanished from the side.

“Enough!” cried Badding. “One is down, and it may be two. Close in, close in, in God's name, before they rally!”

He and the other bent to their oars; but at the same instant there was a sharp zip in the air and a hard clear sound like a stone striking a wall. Baddlesmere clapped his hand to his head, groaned and fell forward out of the boat, leaving a swirl of blood upon the surface. A moment later the same fierce hiss ended in a loud wooden crash, and a short, thick crossbow-bolt was buried deep in the side of their boat.

“Close in, close in!” roared Badding, tugging at his oar. “Saint George for England! Saint Leonard for Winchelsea! Close in!”

But again that fatal crossbow twanged. Dicon of Rye fell back with a shaft through his shoulder. “God help me, I can no more!” said he.

Badding seized the oar from his hand; but it was only to sweep the boat's head round and pull her back to the Marie Rose. The attack had failed.

“What now, master-shipman?” cried Nigel. “What has befallen to stop us? Surely the matter does not end here?”

“Two down out of five,” said Badding, “and twelve at the least against us. The odds are too long, little master. Let us at least go back, fill up once more, and raise a mantelet against the bolts, for they have an arbalist which shoots both straight and hard. But what we do we must do quickly, for the darkness falls apace.”

Their repulse had been hailed by wild yells of delight from the Frenchmen, who danced with joy and waved their weapons madly over their heads. But before their rejoicings had finished they saw the little boat creeping out once more from the shadow of the Marie Rose, a great wooden screen in her bows to protect her from the arrows. Without a pause she came straight and fast for her enemy. The wounded archer had been put on board, and Aylward would have had his place had Nigel been able to see him upon the deck. The third archer, Hal Masters, had sprung in, and one of the seamen, Wat Finnis of Hythe. With their hearts hardened to conquer or to die, the five ran alongside the Frenchman and sprang upon her deck. At the same instant a great iron weight crashed through the bottom of their skiff, and their feet had hardly left her before she was gone. There was no hope and no escape save victory.

The crossbowman stood under the mast, his terrible weapon at his shoulder, the steel string stretched taut, the heavy bolt shining upon the nut. One life at least he would claim out of this little band. Just for one instant too long did he dwell upon his aim, shifting from the seaman to Cock Badding, whose formidable appearance showed him to be the better prize. In that second of time Hal Masters' string twanged and his long arrow sped through the arbalister's throat. He dropped on the deck, with blood and curses pouring from his mouth.

A moment later Nigel's sword and Badding's hammer had each claimed a victim and driven back the rush of assailants. The five were safe upon the deck, but it was hard for them to keep a footing there. The French seamen, Bretons and Normans, were stout, powerful fellows, armed with axes and swords, fierce fighters and brave men. They swarmed round the little band, attacking them from all sides. Black Simon felled the black-bearded French Captain, and at the same instant was cut over the head and lay with his scalp open upon the deck. The seaman Wat of Hythe was killed by a crashing blow from an ax. Nigel was struck down, but was up again like a flash, and drove his sword through the man who had felled him.

But Badding, Masters the archer and he had been hustled back to the bulwark and were barely holding their own from minute to minute against the fierce crowd who assailed them, when an arrow coming apparently from the sea struck the foremost Frenchman to the heart. A moment later a boat dashed up alongside and four more men from the Marie Rose scrambled on to the blood-stained deck. With one fierce rush the remaining Frenchmen were struck down or were seized by their assailants. Nine prostrate men upon the deck showed how fierce had been the attack, how desperate the resistance.

Badding leaned panting upon his blood-clotted hammer. “By Saint Leonard!” he cried, “I thought that this little master had been the death of us all. God wot you were but just in time, and how you came I know not. This archer has had a hand in it, by the look of him.”

Aylward, still pale from his seasickness and dripping from head to foot with water, had been the first man in the rescue party.

Nigel looked at him in amazement. “I sought you aboard the ship, Aylward, but I could not lay eyes on you,” said he.

“It was because I was in the water, fair sir, and by my hilt! it suits my stomach better than being on it,” he answered. “When you first set forth I swam behind you, for I saw that the Frenchman's boat hung by a rope, and I thought that while you kept him in play I might gain it. I had reached it when you were driven back, so I hid behind it in the water and said my prayers as I have not said them for many a day. Then you came again, and no one had an eye for me, so I clambered into it, cut the rope, took the oars which I found there and brought her back for more men.”

“By Saint Paul! you have acted very wisely and well,” said Nigel, “and I think that of all of us it is you who have won most honor this day. But of all these men dead and alive I see none who resembles that Red Ferret whom my Lord Chandos has described and who has worked such despite upon us in the past: It would indeed be an evil chance if he has in spite of all our pains made his way to France in some other boat.”

“That we shall soon find out,” said Badding. “Come with me and we will search the ship from truck to keel ere he escapes us.”

There was a scuttle at the base of the mast which led down into the body of the vessel, and the Englishmen were approaching this when a strange sight brought them to a stand. A round brazen head had appeared in the square dark opening. An instant afterward a pair of shining shoulders followed. Then slowly the whole figure of a man in complete plate-armor emerged on the deck. In his gauntleted hand he carried a heavy steel mace. With this uplifted he moved toward his enemies, silent save for the ponderous clank of his footfall. It was an inhuman, machine-like figure, menacing and terrible, devoid of all expression, slow-moving, inexorable and awesome.

A sudden wave of terror passed over the English seamen. One of them tried to pass and get behind the brazen man, but he was pinned against the side by a quick movement and his brains dashed out by a smashing blow from the heavy mace. Wild panic seized the others, and they rushed back to the boat. Aylward strung an arrow, but his bowstring was damp and the shaft rang loudly upon the shining breast-plate and glanced off into the sea. Masters struck the brazen head with a sword, but the blade snapped without injuring the helmet, and an instant later the bowman was stretched senseless on the deck. The seamen shrank from this terrible silent creature and huddled in the stern, all the fight gone out of them.

Again he raised his mace and was advancing on the helpless crowd where the brave were encumbered and hampered by the weaklings, when Nigel shook himself clear and bounded forward into the open, his sword in his hand and a smile of welcome upon his lips.

The sun had set, and one long mauve gash across the western Channel was closing swiftly into the dull grays of early night. Above, a few stars began to faintly twinkle; yet the twilight was still bright enough for an observer to see every detail of the scene: the Marie Rose, dipping and rising on the long rollers astern; the broad French boat with its white deck blotched with blood and littered with bodies; the group of men in the stern, some trying to advance and some seeking to escape—all a confused, disorderly, struggling rabble.

Then betwixt them and the mast the two figures: the armed shining man of metal, with hand upraised, watchful, silent, motionless, and Nigel, bareheaded and crouching, with quick foot, eager eyes and fearless happy face, moving this way and that, in and out, his sword flashing like a gleam of light as he sought at all points for some opening in the brazen shell before him.

It was clear to the man in armor that if he could but pen his antagonist in a corner he would beat him down without fail. But it was not to be done. The unhampered man had the advantage of speed. With a few quick steps he could always glide to either side and escape the clumsy rush. Aylward and Badding had sprung out to Nigel's assistance; but he shouted to them to stand back, with such authority and anger in his voice that their weapons dropped to their sides. With staring eyes and set features they stood watching that unequal fight.

Once it seemed that all was over with the Squire, for in springing back from his enemy he tripped over one of the bodies which strewed the deck and fell flat upon his back, but with a swift wriggle he escaped the heavy blow which thundered down upon him, and springing to his feet he bit deeply into the Frenchman's helmet with a sweeping cut in return. Again the mace fell, and this time Nigel had not quite cleared himself. His sword was beaten down and the blow fell partly upon his left shoulder. He staggered, and once more the iron club whirled upward to dash him to the ground.

Quick as a flash it passed through his mind that he could not leap beyond its reach. But he might get within it. In an instant he had dropped his sword, and springing in he had seized the brazen man round the waist. The mace was shortened and the handle jobbed down once upon the bare flaxen head. Then, with a sonorous clang, and a yell of delight from the spectators, Nigel with one mighty wrench tore his enemy from the deck and hurled him down upon his back. His own head was whirling and he felt that his senses were slipping away, but already his hunting-knife was out and pointing through the slit in the brazen helmet.

“Give yourself up, fair sir!” said he.

“Never to fishermen and to archers! I am a gentleman of coat-armor. Kill me!”

“I also am a gentleman of coat-armor. I promise you quarter.”

“Then, sir, I surrender myself to you.”

The dagger tinkled down upon the deck. Seamen and archers ran forward, to find Nigel half senseless upon his face. They drew him off, and a few deft blows struck off the helmet of his enemy. A head, sharp-featured, freckled and foxy-red, disclosed itself beneath it. Nigel raised himself on his elbow for an instant.

“You are the Red Ferret?” said he.

“So my enemies call me,” said the Frenchman, with a smile. “I rejoice, sir, that I have fallen to so valiant and honorable a gentleman.”

“I thank you, fair sir,” said Nigel feebly. “I also rejoice that I have encountered so debonair a person, and I shall ever bear in mind the pleasure which I have had from our meeting.”

So saying, he laid his bleeding head upon his enemy's brazen front and sank into a dead faint.






CHAPTER XV. HOW THE RED FERRET CAME TO COSFORD

The old chronicler in his “Gestes du Sieur Nigel” has bewailed his broken narrative, which rose from the fact that out of thirty-one years of warfare no less than seven were spent by his hero at one time or another in the recovery from his wounds or from those illnesses which arose from privation and fatigue. Here at the very threshold of his career, on the eve of a great enterprise, this very fate befell him.

Stretched upon a couch in a low-roofed and ill-furnished chamber, which looks down from under the machicolated corner turret upon the inner court of the Castle of Calais, he lay half-unconscious and impotent, while great deeds were doing under his window. Wounded in three places, and with his head splintered by the sharp pommel of the Ferret's mace, he hovered betwixt life and death, his shattered body drawing him downward, his youthful spirit plucking him up.

As in some strange dream he was aware of that deed of arms within the courtyard below. Dimly it came back to his memory afterwards the sudden startled shout, the crash of metal, the slamming of great gates, the roar of many voices, the clang, clang, clang, as of fifty lusty smiths upon their anvils, and then at last the dwindling of the hubbub, the low groans and sudden shrill cries to the saints, the measured murmur of many voices, the heavy clanking of armored feet.

Sometime in that fell struggle he must have drawn his weakened body as far as the narrow window, and hanging to the iron bars have looked down on the wild scene beneath him. In the red glare of torches held from windows and from roof he saw the rush and swirl of men below, the ruddy light shining back from glowing brass and gleaming steel. As a wild vision it came to him afterward, the beauty and the splendor, the flying lambrequins, the jeweled crests, the blazonry and richness of surcoat and of shield, where sable and gules, argent and vair, in every pattern of saltire, bend or chevron, glowed beneath him like a drift of many-colored blossoms, tossing, sinking, stooping into shadow, springing into light. There glared the blood-red gules of Chandos, and he saw the tall figure of his master, a thunderbolt of war, raging in the van. There too were the three black chevrons on the golden shield which marked the noble Manny. That strong swordsman must surely be the royal Edward himself, since only he and the black-armored swift-footed youth at his side were marked by no symbol of heraldry. “Manny! Manny! George for England!” rose the deep-throated bay, and ever the gallant counter-cry: “A Chargny! A Chargny! Saint Denis for France!” thundered amid the clash and thudding of the battle.

Such was the vague whirling memory still lingering in Nigel's mind when at last the mists cleared away from it and he found himself weak but clear on the low couch in the corner turret. Beside him, crushing lavender betwixt his rough fingers and strewing it over floor and sheets, was Aylward the archer. His longbow leaned at the foot of the bed, and his steel cap was balanced on the top of it, while he himself, sitting in his shirt sleeves, fanned off the flies and scattered the fragrant herbs over his helpless master.

“By my hilt!” he cried with a sudden shout, every tooth in his head gleaming with joy, “I thank the Virgin and all the saints for this blessed sight! I had not dared to go back to Tilford had I lost you. Three weeks have you lain there and babbled like a babe, but now I see in your eyes that you are your own man again.”

“I have indeed had some small hurt,” said Nigel feebly; “but it is shame and sorrow that I should lie here if there is work for my hands. Whither go you, archer?”

“To tell the good Sir John that you are mending.”

“Nay, bide with me a little longer, Aylward. I can call to mind all that has passed. There was a bickering of small boats, was there not, and I chanced upon a most worthy person and exchanged handstrokes with him? He was my prisoner, was he not?”

“He was, fair sir.”

“And where is he now?”

“Below in the castle.”

A smile stole over Nigel's pale face. “I know what I will do with him,” said he.

“I pray you to rest, fair sir,” said Aylward anxiously. “The King's own leech saw you this morning, and he said that if the bandage was torn from your head you would surely die.”

“Nay, good archer, I will not move. But tell me what befell upon the boat?”

“There is little to tell, fair sir. Had this Ferret not been his own squire and taken so long a time to don his harness it is likely that they would have had the better of us. He did not reach the battle till his comrades were on their backs. Him we took to the Marie Rose, because he was your man. The others were of no worth, so we threw them into the sea.”

“The quick and the dead?”

“Every man of them.”

“It was an evil deed.”

Aylward shrugged his shoulders. “I tried to save one boy,” said he; “but Cock Badding would not have it, and he had Black Simon and the others at his back. 'It is the custom of the Narrow Seas,' said they: 'To-day for them; to-morrow for us.'—Then they tore him from his hold and cast him screaming over the side. By my hilt! I have no love for the sea and its customs, so I care not if I never set foot on it again when it has once borne me back to England.”

“Nay, there are great happenings upon the sea, and many worthy people to be found upon ships,” said Nigel. “In all parts, if one goes far enough upon the water, one would find those whom it would be joy to meet. If one crosses over the Narrow Sea, as we have done, we come on the French who are so needful to us; for how else would we win worship? Or if you go south, then in time one may hope to come to the land of the unbelievers, where there is fine skirmishing and much honor for him who will venture his person. Bethink you, archer, how fair a life it must be when one can ride forth in search of advancement with some hope of finding many debonair cavaliers upon the same quest, and then if one be overborne one has died for the faith, and the gates of Heaven are open before you. So also the sea to the north is a help to him who seeks honor, for it leads to the country of the Eastlanders and to those parts where the heathen still dwell who turn their faces from the blessed Gospel. There also a man might find some small deeds to do, and by Saint Paul! Aylward, if the French hold the truce and the good Sir John permits us, I would fain go down into those parts. The sea is a good friend to the cavalier, for it takes him where he may fulfil his vows.”

Aylward shook his head, for his memories were too recent; but he said nothing, because at this instant the door opened and Chandos entered. With joy in his face he stepped forward to the couch and took Nigel's hand in his. Then he whispered a word in Aylward's ear, who hurried from the room.

“Pardieu! this is a good sight,” said the knight. “I trust that you will soon be on your feet again.”

“I crave your pardon, my honored lord, that I have been absent from your side,” said Nigel.

“In truth my heart was sore for you, Nigel; for you have missed such a night as comes seldom in any man's life. All went even as we had planned. The postern gate was opened, and a party made their way in; but we awaited them, and all were taken or slain. But the greater part of the French had remained without upon the plain of Nieullet, so we took horse and went out against them. When we drew near them they were surprised, but they made good cheer among themselves, calling out to each other: 'If we fly we lose all. It is better to fight on, in the hopes that the day may be ours.' This was heard by our people in the van, who cried out to them: 'By Saint George! you speak truth. Evil befall him who thinks of flying!' So they held their ground like worthy people for the space of an hour, and there were many there whom it is always good to meet: Sir Geoffrey himself, and Sir Pepin de Werre, with Sir John de Landas, old Ballieul of the Yellow Tooth, and his brother Hector the Leopard. But above all Sir Eustace de Ribeaumont was at great pains to meet us worthily, and he was at handstrokes with the King for a long time. Then, when we had slain or taken them, all the prisoners were brought to a feast which was ready for them, and the knights of England waited upon them at the table and made good cheer with them. And all this, Nigel, we owe to you.”

The Squire flushed with pleasure at the words. “Nay, most honored lord, it was but a small thing which I have been able to do. But I thank God and our Lady that I have done some service, since it has pleased you to take me with you to the wars. Should it chance—”

But the words were cut short upon Nigel's lips, and he lay back with amazed eyes staring from his pallid face. The door of his little chamber had opened, and who was this, the tall stately man with the noble presence, the high forehead, the long handsome face, the dark, brooding eyes—who but the noble Edward of England?

“Ha, my little cock of Tilford Bridge, I still bear you in mind,” said he. “Right glad I was to hear that you had found your wits again, and I trust that I have not helped to make you take leave of them once more.”

Nigel's stare of astonishment had brought a smile to the King's lips. Now the Squire stammered forth some halting words of gratitude at the honor done to him.

“Nay, not a word,” said the King. “But in sooth it is a joy to my heart to see the son of my old comrade Eustace Loring carry himself so bravely. Had this boat got before us with news of our coming, then all our labor had been in vain, and no Frenchman ventured to Calais that night. But above all I thank you for that you have delivered into my hands one whom I had vowed to punish in that he has caused us more scathe by fouler means than any living man. Twice have I sworn that Peter the Red Ferret shall hang, for all his noble blood and coat-armor, if ever he should fall into my hands. Now at last his time has come; but I would not put him to death until you, who had taken him, could be there to see it done. Nay, thank me not, for I could do no less, seeing that it is to you that I owe him.”

But it was not thanks which Nigel was trying to utter. It was hard to frame his words, and yet they must be said. “Sire,” he murmured, “it ill becomes me to cross your royal will—”

The dark Plantagenet wrath gathered upon the King's high brow and gloomed in his fierce deep-set eyes. “By God's dignity! no man has ever crossed it yet and lived unscathed. How now, young sir, what mean such words, to which we are little wont? Have a care, for this is no light thing which you venture.”

“Sire,” said Nigel, “in all matters in which I am a free man I am ever your faithful liege, but some things there are which may not be done.”

“How?” cried the King. “In spite of my will?”

“In spite of your will, sire,” said Nigel, sitting up on his couch, with white face and blazing eyes.

“By the Virgin!” the angry King thundered, “we are come to a pretty pass! You have been held too long at home, young man. The overstabled horse will kick. The unweathered hawk will fly at check. See to it, Master Chandos! He is thine to break, and I hold you to it that you break him. And what is it that Edward of England may not do, Master Loring?”

Nigel faced the King with a face as grim as his own. “You may not put to death the Red Ferret.”

“Pardieu! And why?”

“Because he is not thine to slay, sire. Because he is mine. Because I promised him his life, and it is not for you, King though you be, to constrain a man of gentle blood to break his plighted word and lose his honor.”

Chandos laid his soothing hand upon his Squire's shoulder. “Excuse him, sire; he is weak from his wounds,” said he. “Perhaps we have stayed overlong, for the leech has ordered repose.”

But the angry King was not easily to be appeased. “I am not wont to be so browbeat,” said he hotly. “This is your Squire, Master John. How comes it that you can stand there and listen to his pert talk, and say no word to chide him? Is this how you guide your household? Have you not taught him that every promise given is subject to the King's consent, and that with him only lie the springs of life and death? If he is sick, you at least are hale. Why stand you there in silence?”

“My liege,” said Chandos gravely, “I have served you for over a score of years, and have shed my blood through as many wounds in your cause, so that you should not take my words amiss. But indeed I should feel myself to be no true man if I did not tell you that my Squire Nigel, though perchance he has spoken more bluntly than becomes him, is none the less right in this matter, and that you are wrong. For bethink you, sire—”

“Enough!” cried the King, more furious than ever. “Like master, like man, and I might have known why it is that this saucy Squire dares to bandy words with his sovereign lord. He does but give out what he hath taken in. John, John, you grow overbold. But this I tell you, and you also, young man, that as God is my help, ere the sun has set this night the Red Ferret will hang as a warning to all spies and traitors from the highest tower of Calais, that every ship upon the Narrow Seas, and every man for ten miles round may see him as he swings and know how heavy is the hand of the English King. Do you bear it in mind, lest you also may feel its weight!” With a glare like an angry lion he walked from the room, and the iron-clamped door clanged loudly behind him.

Chandos and Nigel looked ruefully at each other. Then the knight patted his Squire upon his bandaged head.

“You have carried yourself right well, Nigel. I could not wish for better. Fear not. All will be well.”

“My fair and honored lord,” cried Nigel, “I am heavy at heart, for indeed I could do no other, and yet I have brought trouble upon you.”

“Nay, the clouds will soon pass. If he does indeed slay this Frenchman, you have done all that lay within your power, and your mind may rest easy.”

“I pray that it will rest easy in Paradise,” said Nigel; “for at the hour that I hear that I am dishonored and my prisoner slain I tear this bandage from my head and so end all things. I will not live when once my word is broken.”

“Nay, fair son, you take this thing too heavily,” said Chandos, with a grave face. “When a man has done all he may there remains no dishonor; but the King hath a kind heart for all his hot head, and it may be that if I see him I will prevail upon him. Bethink you how he swore to hang the six burghers of this very town, and yet he pardoned them. So keep a high heart, fair son, and I will come with good news ere evening.”

For three hours, as the sinking sun traced the shadow higher and ever higher upon the chamber wall, Nigel tossed feverishly upon his couch, his ears straining for the footfall of Aylward or of Chandos, bringing news of the fate of the prisoner. At last the door flew open, and there before him stood the one man whom he least expected, and yet would most gladly have seen. It was the Red Ferret himself, free and joyous.

With swift furtive steps he was across the room and on his knees beside the couch, kissing the pendent hand. “You have saved me, most noble sir!” he cried. “The gallows was fixed and the rope slung, when the good Lord Chandos told the King that you would die by your own hand if I were slain. 'Curse this mule-headed Squire!' he cried. 'In God's name let him have his prisoner, and let him do what he will with him so long as he troubles me no more!' So here I have come, fair sir, to ask you what I shall do.”

“I pray you to sit beside me and be at your ease,” said Nigel. “In a few words I will tell you what I would have you do. Your armor I will keep, that I may have some remembrance of my good fortune in meeting so valiant a gentleman. We are of a size, and I make little doubt that I can wear it. Of ransom I would ask a thousand crowns.”

“Nay, nay!” cried the Ferret. “It would be a sad thing if a man of my position was worth less than five thousand.”

“A thousand will suffice, fair sir, to pay my charges for the war. You will not again play the spy, nor do us harm until the truce is broken.”

“That I will swear.”

“And lastly there is a journey that you shall make.”

The Frenchman's face lengthened. “Where you order I must go,” said he; “but I pray you that it is not to the Holy Land.”

“Nay,” said Nigel; “but it is to a land which is holy to me. You will make your way back to Southampton.”

“I know it well. I helped to burn it down some years ago.”

“I rede you to say nothing of that matter when you get there. You will then journey as though to London until you come to a fair town named Guildford.”

“I have heard of it. The King hath a hunt there.”

“The same. You will then ask for a house named Cosford, two leagues from the town on the side of a long hill.”

“I will bear it in mind.”

“At Cosford you will see a good knight named Sir John Buttesthorn, and you will ask to have speech with his daughter, the Lady Mary.”

“I will do so; and what shall I say to the Lady Mary, who lives at Cosford on the slope of a long hill two leagues from the fair town of Guildford?”

“Say only that I sent my greeting, and that Saint Catharine has been my friend—only that and nothing more. And now leave me, I pray you, for my head is weary and I would fain have sleep.”

Thus it came about that a month later on the eve of the Feast of Saint Matthew, the Lady Mary, as she walked front Cosford gates, met with a strange horseman, richly clad, a serving-man behind him, looking shrewdly about him with quick blue eyes, which twinkled from a red and freckled face. At sight of her he doffed his hat and reined his horse.

“This house should be Cosford,” said he. “Are you by chance the Lady Mary who dwells there?”

The lady bowed her proud dark head.

“Then,” said he, “Squire Nigel Loring sends you greeting and tells you that Saint Catharine has been his friend.” Then turning to his servant he cried: “Heh, Raoul, our task is done! Your master is a free man once more. Come, lad, come, the nearest port to France! Hola! Hola! Hola!” And so without a word more the two, master and man, set spurs to their horses and galloped like madmen down the long slope of Hindhead, until as she looked after them they were but two dark dots in the distance, waist-high in the ling and the bracken.

She turned back to the house, a smile upon her face. Nigel had sent her greeting. A Frenchman had brought it. His bringing it had made him a freeman. And Saint Catherine had been Nigel's friend. It was at her shrine that he had sworn that three deeds should be done ere he should set eyes upon her again. In the privacy of her room the Lady Mary sank upon her prie-dieu and poured forth the thanks of her heart to the Virgin that one deed was accomplished; but even as she did so her joy was overcast by the thought of those two others which lay before him.