"Raymond de Brocas's spurs unwon!" cried the Prince, with kindling eye, "and he the truest knight amongst us! Call him hither this moment to me. Shame upon me that I have not ere this rewarded such pure and lofty courage as his by that knighthood he so well merits!"
And then and there upon the field of Poitiers Raymond received his knighthood, amid the cheers of the bystanders, from the hands of the Prince, on the eve of one of England's most glorious victories.
Gaston's eyes were shining with pride as he led his brother back to their tent as the last of the September daylight faded from the sky.
"I had set my heart on sending thee back to thy Joan with the spurs of knighthood won," he said, affectionately pressing his brother's hands. "And truly, as they all say, none were ever more truly won than thine have been, albeit thou wilt ever be more the saint than the warrior."
Raymond's eyes were bright. For Joan's sake rather than his own he rejoiced in his new honour; though every man prided himself upon that welcome distinction, especially when bestowed by the hand of King or Prince. And the thought of a speedy return to England and his true love there was as the elixir of life to Raymond, who was counting the days and hours before he might hope to set sail for his native land again.
He had remained with his brother at Saut all through the past winter. Gaston and Constanza had been married at Bordeaux very shortly after the death of old Navailles; and they had returned to Saut, their future home, and Raymond had gone with them. Greatly as he longed for England and Joan, his duty to the Prince kept him beside him till he should obtain his dismissal to see after his own private affairs. The Prince needed his faithful knights and followers about him in his projected expedition of the present year; and Gaston required his brother's help and counsel in setting to rights the affairs of his new kingdom, and in getting into better order a long-neglected estate and its people.
There had been work enough to fill their minds and hands for the whole time the Prince had been able to spare them from his side; and an interchange of letters between him and his lady love had helped Raymond to bear the long separation from her. She had assured him of her changeless devotion, of her present happiness and wellbeing, and had bidden him think first of his duty to the Prince, and second of his desire to rejoin her. They owed much to the Prince: all their present happiness and security were the outcome of his generous interposition on their behalf. Raymond's worldly affairs were not suffering by his absence. Master Bernard de Brocas was looking to that. He would find all well on his return to England; and it were better he should do his duty nobly by the Prince now, and return with him when they had subdued their enemies, than hasten at once to her side. In days to come it would grieve them to feel that they had at this juncture thought first of themselves, when King and country should have taken the foremost place.
So Raymond had taken the counsel thus given, and now was one of those to be foremost in the field on the morrow. No thought of fear was in his heart or Gaston's; peril was too much the order of the day to excite any but a passing sense of the uncertainty of human life. They had come unscathed through so much, and Raymond had so long been said to bear a charmed life, that he and Gaston had alike ceased to tremble before the issue of a battle. Well armed and well mounted, and versed in every art of attack and defence, the young knights felt no personal fear, and only longed to come forth with honour from the contest, whatever else their fate might be.
Monday morning dawned, and the two opposing armies were all in readiness for the attack. The fighting began almost by accident by the bold action of a Gascon knight, Eustace d'Ambrecicourt, who rode out alone towards what was called the "battle of the marshals," and was met by Louis de Recombes with his silver shield, whom he forthwith unhorsed. This provoked a rapid advance of the marshals' battle, and the fighting began in good earnest.
The moment this was soon to have taken place, the brave James Audley, calling upon his four knights to follow him, dashed in amongst the French in another part of the field, giving no quarter, taking no prisoners, but performing such prodigies of valour as struck terror into the breasts of the foe. The French army (with the exception of three hundred horsemen, whose mission was to break the ranks of the bowmen) had been ordered, on account of the nature of the ground, all to fight on foot; and when the bold knight and his four chosen companions came charging in upon them, wheeling their battle-axes round their heads and flashing through the ranks like a meteor, the terrified and impressionable Frenchmen cried out that St. George himself had appeared to fight against them, and an unreasoning panic seized upon them.
Flights of arrows from the dreaded English longbow added immeasurably to their distress and bewilderment. The three hundred horsemen utterly failed in their endeavour to approach these archers, securely posted behind the hedges, and protected by the trenches they had dug. The arrows sticking in the horses rendered them perfectly wild and unmanageable, and turning back upon their own comrades, they threw the ranks behind into utter confusion, trampling to death many of the footmen, and increasing the panic tenfold.
Then seeing the utter confusion of his foes, the Prince charged in amongst them, dealing death and destruction wherever he went. The terror of the French increased momentarily; and the division under the Duke of Normandy, that had not even taken any part as yet in the battle, rushed to their horses, mounted and fled without so much as striking a blow.
The King of France, however, behaved with far greater gallantry than either his son or the majority of his knights and nobles, and the battle that he led was long and fiercely contested.
If, as the chronicler tells us, one-fourth of his soldiers had shown the same bravery as he did, the fortunes of the day would have been vastly different; but though personally brave, he was no genius in war, and his fatal determination to fight the battle on foot was a gross blunder in military tactics. Even when he and his division were being charged by the Prince of Wales at full gallop, at the head of two thousand lances, the men all flushed with victory, John made his own men dismount, and himself did the same, fighting with his axe like a common soldier; whilst his little son Philip crouched behind him, narrowly watching his assailants, and crying out words of warning to his father as he saw blows dealt at him from right or left.
The French were driven back to the very gates of Poitiers, where a great slaughter ensued; for those gates were now shut against them, and they had nowhere else to fly. The battle had begun early in the morning, and by noon the trumpets were sounding to recall the English from the pursuit of their flying foes.
Such a victory and such vast numbers of noble prisoners almost bewildered even the victors themselves; and the Prince was anxious to assemble his knights once more about him, to learn some of the details of the issue of the day. That the French King had either been killed or made prisoner appeared certain, for it was confidently asserted that he had not left the field; but for some time the confusion was so great that it was impossible to ascertain what had actually happened, and the Prince, who had gone to his tent to take some refreshment after the labours of the day, had others than his high-born prisoners to think for.
"Who has seen Sir James Audley — gallant Sir James?" he asked, looking round upon the circle of faces about him and missing that of the one he perhaps loved best amongst his knights. "Who has seen him since his gallant charge that made all men hold their breath with wonder? I would fain reward him for that gallant example he gave to our brave soldiers at the beginning of the day."
News was soon brought that Sir James had been badly wounded, and had been carried by his knights to his tent. The Prince would have gone to visit him there; but news of this proposal having been brought to the knight, he caused himself to be transported to the Prince's tent by his knights, all of whom had escaped almost unscathed from their gallant escapade. Thus it came about that Gaston and Raymond stood within the royal tent, whilst the Prince bent over his faithful knight, and promised as the reward for that day's gallantry that he should remain his own knight for ever, and receive five hundred marks yearly from the royal treasury.
Then, when poor Sir James, too spent and faint to remain longer, had been carried hence by some of the bystanders, the Prince turned to the twin brothers and grasped them by the hand.
"I greatly rejoice that ye have come forth unhurt from that fierce strife in the which ye so boldly plunged. What can I do for you, brave comrades, to show the gratitude of a King's son for all your faithful service?"
"Sire," answered Gaston, "since you have asked us to claim our guerdon, and since your foes are at your feet, your rival a prisoner in your royal hands (if he be not a dead corpse), and the whole land subject to you; since there be no further need in the present for us to fight for you, and a time of peace seems like to follow upon this glorious day, methinks my brother and I would fain request your royal permission to retire for a while each to his own home, to regulate our private concerns, and dwell awhile each with the wife of his choice. Thou knowest that I have a wife but newly made mine, and that my brother only tarries to fly to his betrothed bride till you have no farther need of his sword. If ever the day dawns when King or Prince of England needs the faithful service of Gascon swords, those of Raymond and Gaston de Brocas will not be wanting to him. Yet in the present —"
"Ay, ay, I understand well: in the present there be bright eyes that are more to you than glittering swords, and a service that is sweeter than that of King or Prince. Nay, blush not, boy; I like you the better for that the softer passions dwell in your breast with those of sterner sort. Ye have well shown many a day ere now that ye possess the courage of young lions, and that England will never call upon you in vain. But now that times of peace and quiet seem like to fall upon us, get you to your homes and your wives. May Heaven grant you joy and happiness in both; and England's King and Prince will over have smiles of welcome for you when ye bring to the Court the sweet ladies of your choice. Do I not know them both? and do I not know that ye have both chosen worthily and well?"
A tumult without the tent now announced the approach of the French King, those who brought him disputing angrily together whose prisoner he was. The Prince stepped out to receive his vanquished foe with that winning courtesy so characteristic of one who so longed to see the revival of the truer chivalry, and in the confusion which ensued Gaston and Raymond slipped away to their own tent.
"And now," cried Gaston, clasping his brother's hand, "our day of service is for the moment ended. Now for a space of peaceful repose and of those domestic joys of which thou and I, brother, know so little."
"At last!" quoth Raymond, drawing a long breath, his eyes glowing and kindling as he looked into his brother's face and then far beyond it in the direction of the land of his adoption. "At last my task is done; my duty to my Prince has been accomplished. Now I am free to go whither I will. Now for England and my Joan!"
CHAPTER XXXIII. "AT LAST!"
"At last, my love, at last!"
"Raymond! My own true lord — my husband!"
"My life! my love!"
At last the dream had fulfilled itself; at last the long probation was past. Raymond de Brocas and Joan Vavasour had been made man and wife by good Master Bernard de Brocas in his church at Guildford, and in the soft sunlight of an October afternoon were riding together in the direction of Basildene, from henceforth to be their home.
Raymond had not yet seen Basildene. He had hurried to Joan's side the moment that he left the ship which bore him from the shores of France, and the marriage had been celebrated almost at once, there being no reason for farther delay, and Sir Hugh being eager to be at the Court to receive the triumphant young Prince when he should return to England with his kingly captive.
All the land was ringing with the news of the glorious victory, of which Raymond's vessel was the first to bring tidings. He himself, as having been one of those who had taken part in the battle and having won his spurs on the field of Poitiers, was regarded with no small admiration and respect. But Raymond had thoughts of nothing but his beloved; and to find her waiting for him, her loving heart as true to him as his was to her, was happiness sweeter than any he had once dreamed could be his.
The time had flown by on golden wings. He scarce knew how to reckon its flight. He and Joan lived in a world of their own — a world that reckons not time by our calendar, but has its own fashion of computation; and hours that once had crept by leaden footed, now flew past as if on wings. He and his love were together at last, soon to be united in a bond that only death could sunder. And neither of them held that it could be broken even by the stern cold hand of death. Such love as theirs was not for time alone; it would last on and on through the boundless cycles of eternity.
And now the holy vows had been spoken. At last the solemn ceremony was over and past. Raymond and Joan were man and wife, and were riding side by side through the whispering wood in the direction of Basildene.
Joan had not changed much since the day she and Raymond had plighted their troth beside the dying bed of John de Brocas. As a young girl she had looked older than her years; as a woman she looked scarce more. Perhaps in those great dark eyes there was more of softness; weary waiting had not dimmed their brightness, but had imparted just a touch of wistfulness, which gave to them an added charm. The full, curved lips were calmly resolute as of old, yet touched with a new sweetness and the gracious beauty of a great happiness.
Raymond had changed more than she, having developed from the youth into the man; retaining in a wonderful way the peculiar charm of his boyhood's beauty, the ethereal purity of expression and slim grace of figure, yet adding to these the dignity and purpose of a more advanced age, and all the stateliness and power of one who has struggled and suffered and battled in the world, and who has come forth from that struggle with a stainless shield, and a name unsullied by the smallest breath of slander.
Joan's eyes dwelt upon her husband's face with a proud, joyous light in them. Once she laid her hand upon his as they rode, and said, in low tones very full of feeling:
"Methinks I have found my Galahad at last. Methinks that thou hast found a treasure as precious as the Holy Grail itself. Methinks no treasure could be more precious than that which thou hast won."
He turned his eyes upon her tenderly.
"The treasure of thy love, my Joan?"
"I was not thinking of that," she answered; "we have loved each other so long. I was thinking of that other treasure — the love which has enabled thee to triumph over evil, to forgive our enemies, to do good to those that have hated us, to fight the Christian's battle as well as that of England's King. I was thinking of that higher chivalry of which in old days we have talked so much. Perchance we should give it now another name. But thou hast been true and faithful in thy quest. Ah, how proud I am of the stainless name of my knight!"
His fingers closed fast over hers, but he made no reply in words. Raymond's nature was a silent one. Of his deepest feelings he spoke the least. He had told his story to Joan; he knew that she understood all it meant to him. It was happiness to feel that this was so without the need of words. That union of soul was sweeter to him than even the possession of the hand he held in his.
And so they rode on to Basildene.
But was this Basildene? Raymond passed his hand across his eyes, and gazed and gazed again. Joan sat quietly in her saddle, watching him with smiling eyes.
Basildene! yes, truly Basildene. There was the quaint old house with its many gables and mullioned casements and twisted chimneys, its warm red walls and timbered grounds around it; but where was the old look of misery, decay, neglect, and blight? Who could look at that picturesque old mansion, with its latticed casements glistening in the sun, and think of aught but home-like comfort and peace? What had been done to it? what spell had been at work? This was the Basildene of his boyhood's dreams — the Basildene that his mother had described to them. It was not the Basildene of later years. How had the change come about?
"That has been our uncle's work these last two years," answered Joan, who was watching the changes passing over her husband's face, and seemed to read the unspoken thought of his heart. "He and I together have planned it all, and the treasure has helped to carry all out. The hidden hoard has brought a blessing at last, methinks, Raymond; for the chapel has likewise been restored, and holy mass and psalm now ascend daily from it. The wretched hovels around the gates, where miserable peasants herded like swine in their sties, have been cleared away, and places fit for human habitation have been erected in their stead. That fearful quagmire, in which so many wretched travellers have lost their lives, has been drained, and a causeway built across it. Basildene is becoming a blessing to all around it; and so long as thou art lord here, my Raymond, it will remain a blessing to all who come within shelter of its walls."
He looked at her with his dreamy smile. His mind was going back in review over all these long years since first the idea had formed itself in his brain that they two — Gaston and himself — would win back Basildene. How long those years seemed in retrospect, and yet how short! How many changes they had seen! how many strange events in the checkered career of the twin brothers!
"I would that Gaston were with me now; I would that he might see it."
"And so he shall, come next summer," answered Joan. "Is it not a promise that he comes hither with his bride to see thy home and mine, Raymond, and that we pass one of England's inclement winters in the softer air of sunny France? You are such travellers, you brethren, that the journey is but child's play to you; and I too have known something of travel, and it hath no terrors for me. There shall be no sundering of the bond betwixt the twin brothers of Basildene. Years shall only bind that bond faster, for to their faithful love and devotion one to the other Basildene owes its present weal, and we our present happiness."
"The twin brothers of Basildene," repeated Raymond dreamily, gazing round him with smiling eyes, as he held Joan's hand fast in his. "My mother, I wonder if thou canst see us now — Gaston at Saut and Raymond here at Basildene? Methinks if thou canst thou wilt rejoice in our happiness. We have done what thou biddedst us. We have fought and we have overcome. Thine own loved home has been won back by thine own sons, and Raymond de Brocas is Lord of Basildene."
i If any reader has taken the trouble to follow this story closely, he may observe that the expedition of the Black Prince has been slightly antedated. In order not to interrupt the continuity of the fictitious narrative, the time spent in long-drawn and fruitless negotiation at the conclusion of the truce has been omitted.