The youths made their salute to the knight, and then dropped behind. Sir James rode in advance, still in earnest converse with the Master of the Horse; whilst the attendants of the two bands, some of whom were acquainted, mixed together indiscriminately, and rode after their masters in amicable converse.
Sir John's three sons rode a few paces behind the knights, and as it chanced the Gascon brothers were the next behind them, studying these cousins of theirs with natural interest and curiosity. They had heard their names distinctly as their father had presented them to his friend, and gladly would they have fallen into converse with them had they felt certain that the advance would be taken in good part. As it was, they were rather fearful of committing breaches of good manners, and restrained themselves, though their quick, eager glances towards each other betrayed what they were feeling.
All of a sudden something unseen by the rider caused Gaston's horse to take fright. It was a very spirited and rather troublesome animal, which had been passed on by two or three riders as too restive for them, and had been ridden more successfully by Gaston than by any of its former masters. But the creature wanted close watching, and Gaston had been for a time off his guard. The knowing animal had doubtless discovered this, and had hoped to take advantage of this carelessness to get rid of his rider and gain the freedom of the forest himself. With a sudden plunge and hound, which almost unseated Gaston, the horse made a dash for the woodland aisles; and when he felt that his rider had regained his seat and was reining him in with a firm and steady hand, the fiery animal reared almost erect upon his hind legs, wildly pawing the air, and uttering fierce snorts of anger and defiance. But Gaston's blood was up now, and he was not going to be mastered by his steed, least of all in presence of so many witnesses. Shouting to Raymond, who had dismounted and appeared about to spring at the horse's head, to keep away, he brought the angry creature down by throwing himself upon his neck; and though there were still much plunging and fierce kicking and struggling to be encountered before the day was won, Gaston showed himself fully equal to the demands made upon his horsemanship; and before many moments had passed, had the satisfaction of riding the horse quietly back to the little cavalcade, which had halted to witness the struggle.
"That was good riding, and a fine animal," remarked the Master of the Horse, whose eyes were well trained to note the points of any steed. "I trow that lad will make a soldier yet. Who is he, good Sir James?"
"One Gaston Brook, a lad born and brought up in Gascony, together with his twin brother who rides by his side. They came to my help in the forest round Castres; and as I was in need of service, and they were faring forth to seek their fortunes, I bid them, an it pleased them, follow me. One parent was a native of Gascony, their mother I trow, since their name is English. I did hear somewhat of their simple tale, but it has fled my memory since."
"They are proper youths," said Sir John, not without a passing gleam of interest in any persons who hailed from his own country. "Half Gascon and half English makes a fine breed. The lads may live to do good service yet."
Meantime the three sons of Sir John had entered into conversation with the two youthful esquires, and were making friends as fast as circumstances would allow. They were some years older than the Gascon brothers — that is to say that John was close upon twenty, and Oliver and Bernard followed, each a year younger than his predecessor. They had seen far more of the world than these country-bred lads, and had been reared more or less in the atmosphere of the Court; still they were bright, high spirited, and unaffected youths, who were ready enough to make advances to any comrades of their own standing across whose path they might be thrown.
Gaston and Raymond had about them an air of breeding which won them notice wherever they went. Their speech was refined for the times, and their handsome figures and faces gained them speedy and favourable attention. Very soon the five youths were chatting and laughing together as though they were old friends. The sons of Sir John heard all about the encounter in the forest, and how the wolves had been scared away; whilst the Gascon brothers, on their side, heard about the vast round tower built by the King for his Round Table to assemble at, and how busily everybody had been employed in hastening on the work and getting everything in readiness for the great festival that was at hand.
"Shall we see the feast?" asked Gaston eagerly. "Men say it will be a sight not to be forgotten."
"We shall see it like enough," answered John, "but only belted knights will sit at the board. Why, even the Prince of Wales himself will not sit down at the table, but will only stand to serve his father; for his spurs are not yet won, though he says he will not be long in winning them if kind fortune will but give him the chance he craves. A great assembly of esquires will be in attendance on their masters, and I trow ye twain might well be amongst these, as we hope ourselves to be. Your master is one of the bidden knights, and will sit not very far from the King himself. If you can make shift to steal in through the press and stand behind his chair, I doubt not but what ye will see all right well; and perchance the King himself may take note of you. He has a marvellous quick eye, and so has the Prince; and he is ever on the watch for knightly youths to serve him as valettus — as we do."
"We are going to win our spurs together," cried Bernard, who in some ways was the leading spirit amongst the brothers, as he was afterwards the most noted man of his house. "We have talked of it a thousand times, and the day will come ere long. The King has promised that when next he is called forth to fight the recreant King of France, he will take the Prince with him, and he has promised that we shall go with him. The day will come when he will lay claim once more to that crown of France which by rights is his to wear, and we shall all sally forth to drive the coward Louis from the throne, and place the crown on Edward's royal brow."
Bernard's eyes flashed fire at the bare thought of the unchecked career of victory he saw for England's arms when once she had set foot on the long-talked-of expedition which was to make Edward king over the realm of France.
"And we will fight for him too!" cried Gaston and Raymond in a breath; "and so, I trow, will all Gascony. We love the English rule there. We love the Roy Outremer, as he is called there. If he would but come to our land, instead of to treacherous Flanders or feeble, storm-torn Brittany, for his soldiers and for his starting place, I trow his arms would meet with naught but victory. The Sieur d'Albret, men whisper, has been to the Court, and has looked with loving eyes upon one of the King's daughters for his son. That hope would make him faithful to the English cause, and he is the greatest Lord in Gascony, where all men fear his name."
"Thou shalt tell all that to the King or to the Prince," said John in a low tone to Raymond, as they fell a little behind, for the road grew rough and narrow. "I trow he will be glad to learn all he may from those who know what the people of the land speak and think — the humbler folks, of whom men are growing now to take more account, at least here in England, since it is they, men now say, who must be asked ere even the King himself may dare to go to war. For money must be found through them, and they will not always grant it unless they be pleased with what has already been done. The great nobles say hard things of them they call the 'Commons;' they say that England's doom will surely come if she is to be answerable to churls and merchant folk for what her King and barons choose to do. But for my part it seems but just that those who pay the heavy burden of these long wars should know somewhat about them, and should even have the power to check them did they think the country oppressed beyond what she could bear. A bad king might not care for the sufferings of his people. A weak king might be but the tool of his barons — as we have heard the King's father was — and hear nothing but what they chose for him to know. For my own part, I think it right and just enough that the people should have their voice in these things. They always grant the King a liberal supply; and if they demand from him the redress of grievances and the granting of certain privileges in return, I can see in that naught that is unfair; nor would England be happier and more prosperous, methinks, were she governed by a tyrant who might grind her down to the dust."
John de Brocas was a very thoughtful youth, very different in appearance from his younger brothers, who were fine stalwart young men, well versed in every kind of knightly exercise, and delighting in nothing so much as the display of their energies and skill. John was cast in quite a different mould, and possibly it was something of a disappointment to the father that his first born should be so unlike himself and his other sons. John had had weak health from his cradle, which might account in part for his studious turn of mind; and the influence of his uncle's training may have had still greater effect. As the damp air of Windsor did not appear to agree with the boy, he had been sent, when seven years old, to his uncle's Rectory of St. Nicholas, and brought up in the more healthy and bracing air of Guildford. Master Bernard de Brocas, though by no means a man of exclusively scholarly tastes, was for the days he lived in a learned man, and feeling sure that his eldest nephew would never make a soldier, he tried to train him for a statesman and for an ecclesiastic — the two offices being in those days frequently combined. The great statesmen were nearly always men in the Church's employ, and the scholarship and learning of the age were almost entirely in their keeping.
John showed no disposition to enter the Church — probably the hope of winning his spurs was not yet dead within him; but he took very kindly to book lore, and had often shown a shrewdness and aptness in diplomatic negotiation which had made Master Bernard prophesy great things for him.
Raymond had never heard such matters discussed before, and knew little enough about the art of government. He looked with respect at his companion, and John, catching the glance, smiled pleasantly in reply.
"I trow thou wouldest sooner be with the rest, hearing of the King's Round Table and the knightly jousts to follow. Let me not weary thee with my graver words. Go join the others an thou wilt."
"Nay, I will stay with thee," answered Raymond, who was greatly attracted by John's pale and thoughtful face, and could not but pity him for his manifest lack of strength and muscle. The youth was tall and rode well, but he was slight to the verge of attenuation, and the hollow cheek and unnaturally bright eyes sunk in deep caverns told a tale that was not hard to read. Young De Brocas might make a student, a clerk, a man of letters, but he would never be a soldier; and that in itself appeared to Raymond the greatest deprivation that could befall a man. But he liked his companion none the less for this sense of pity.
"I would fain hear more of England — England's laws, England's ways. I have heard that in this land men may obtain justice better than in any other. I have heard that justice is here administered to poor as well as rich. I would learn more of this. I would learn more of you. Tell me first of yourself. I know well the name of De Brocas. We come from the very place where once you held sway. The village (as you would call it) of Brocas was not so very far away. Tell me of yourself, your father, your uncle. I know all their names right well. I would hear all that you can tell."
John's face lighted with interest. He was willing enough to tell of himself, his two brothers, two sisters, and their many homes in and about the Castle of Windsor. Besides his post as Master of the Horse, John explained to Raymond, his father held the office of Chief Forester of Windsor Forest (equivalent to the modern Ranger), and besides the Manor of Old Windsor, possessed property and Manors at Old and New Bray, Didworth and Clewer. He was high in the King's favour and confidence, and, as may well be believed, led a busy and responsible life. Upon him devolved the care of all those famous studs of horses on which the King relied when he sent his armies into the field; and if his expenditure in these matters has been condemned in more recent days, the best answer will be found in the disasters and the ruinous expenditure of the later campaigns of the reign, when the King, thinking that he had reduced his French possessions to complete order, and that his magnificent cavalry would not longer be wanted to career over the plains of France, broke up and sold off his studs; so that when his calculation as to the future proved mistaken, he had no longer any organized supply of war horses to draw upon.
Raymond's interest in John's talk so won the heart of that youth that a warm friendship sprang up rapidly between them, whilst the younger brothers appeared to take almost the same liking for Gaston. By-and-by it became known that the Castle was crowded almost beyond its capacity for accommodation; and as much of the responsibility of seeing to the lodging of guests fell upon Sir John de Brocas, he gave up his house at Clewer for the time being for the use of some of the guests of humbler rank, his son John acting as host there; and to this house the Gaston brothers were asked, amongst many other youthful esquires of like degree. Thus it came about that the merry yuletide season was spent by them actually beneath their uncle's roof, although he had no idea that he was entertaining kinsmen unawares.
Mindful of the good priest's warning, and knowing their ignorance of the new life and the new people amongst whom their fortunes had led them, the twins still carefully preserved the secret of their identity. They knew too little of the cause of estrangement between their father and his brothers to have any confidence how his sons would be received. They were both of opinion that by far their wisest course was to wait quietly and patiently, and watch what befell them; and the only question which Raymond ever dared to put to John in the days that followed which savoured of their own affairs, was an inquiry as to whether he had ever heard of a place called Basildene.
"Basildene?" repeated John slowly. "Yes, I have heard the name. It is the name of a Manor not very many miles from my uncle's house in Guildford. Dost thou know aught of it?"
"Nay; I knew not rightly if there were such a spot. But I have heard the name. Knowest thou to whom it belongs?"
"Yes, I know that too. It belongs to one Peter Sanghurst, of whom no man speaks aught but evil."
CHAPTER V. THE KING AND THE PRINCE.
King Edward's assembly of knights that met at his first Round Table was as typical a gathering as could well have been found of that age of warlike chivalry. The King's idea was likewise typical of the age he lived in. He had begun to see something of that decline of chivalry which was the natural outcome of a real advance in general civilization, and of increasing law and order, however slow its progress might be. Greatly deploring any decay in a system so much beloved and cherished by knights and warriors, and not seeing that its light might merely be paling in the rise of something more truly bright and beneficent, the King resolved to do everything in his power to give an impetus to all chivalrous undertakings by assembling together his knights after the fashion of the great King Arthur, and with them to take counsel how the ways and usages of chivalry might best be preserved, the old spirit kept alive, and the interests of piety and religion (with which it should ever be blended) be truly considered.
How far this festival succeeded in its object can scarcely be told now. The days of chivalry (in the old acceptation of the term) were drawing to a close, and an attempt to galvanize into life a decaying institution is seldom attended with any but very moderate success. From the fact that we hear so little of the King's Round Table, and from the few times it ever met, one is led to conclude that the results were small and disappointing. But the brilliance of the first assembly cannot be doubted; and for the twins of Gascony it was a wonderful day, and marked an epoch in their lives; for on that occasion they saw for the first time the mighty King, whose name had been familiar to them from childhood, and had actual speech with the Prince of Wales, that hero of so many battlefields, known to history as the Black Prince.
So great was the crowd of esquires who waited upon the knights sitting around the huge Round Table, that the Gascon brothers only struggled for a few minutes into the gay assemblage to look at what was going on there. The table was itself a curiosity — a huge ring round which, in beautifully carved seats, the knights sat, each seat fitting into the next, with an arm to divide them, the backs forming a complete circle round the table. The King's seat was adorned with a richer carving, and had a higher back, than the others, but that was its only distinction. Within the circle of the table were pages flitting about, attending on the guests; and the esquires who thronged the corridors or supplemented the attentions of the pages were considerably more numerous than the occasion required, so that these were to be seen gathering in groups here and there about the building in the vicinity of the feast, discussing the proceedings or talking of public or private matters.
Very wonderful was all this to Gaston and Raymond, but not quite so bewildering as it would have been a month ago. They had been about the Court some little time now, and were growing used to the fine dresses, the English ways of speech, and the manners and customs which had perplexed them not a little at first. They were greatly entertained by watching the shifting throng of courtiers, and their one glimpse at the royal countenance of the King had been fraught with keen pleasure and satisfaction; but so far as they knew it, they had not yet seen the Prince of Wales, and they had not caught sight either of their cousins Oliver or Bernard, though they had found John sitting in the embrasure of a window in the corridor, watching the scene with the same interest which they felt in it themselves.
When they saw him they joined him, and asked the names of some of the gay personages flitting about. John good-naturedly amused them with a number of anecdotes of the Court; and as the three were thus chatting together, they were suddenly joined by another group of three, who advanced along the corridor talking in low tones but with eager excitement.
"Here comes the Prince," said John, rising to his feet, and the twin brothers turned eagerly round.
They knew in an instant which of the three was the Prince, for his companions were John's two brothers, Oliver and Bernard. Young Edward was at that time not quite fourteen, but so strong, so upright, so well grown, and of such a kingly presence, that it was hard to believe he had scarcely left his childhood behind. His tunic was of cloth of gold, with the royal arms embroidered upon it. He wore a golden collar round his neck, and his golden girdle held a dagger with a richly-jewelled hilt. A short velvet mantle lined with ermine hung over his shoulder, and was fastened by a clasp richly chased and set with rubies. His face was flushed as if with some great purpose, and his eyes shone brightly with excitement.
"It shall never be true — I will not believe it!" he was saying, in urgent accents. "Let chivalry once die out, and so goes England's glory. May I die ere I live to see that day! Better a thousand times death in some glorious warfare, in some knightly deed of daring, than to drag out a life of ease and sloth with the dying records of the glorious past alone to cheer and sustain one. Good John, thou art a man of letters — thou canst read the signs of the times — prithee tell me that there be no truth in this dark whisper. Sure the days of chivalry are not half lived through yet!"
"Nor will be so long as you are spared to England, gentle Prince," answered John, with his slight peculiar smile. "You and your royal Sire together will keep alive the old chivalry at which was dealt so sore a blow in your grandsire's days. A reign like that of weakness and folly and treachery leaves its mark behind; but England's chivalry has lived through it —"
"Ay, and she shall awake to new and fuller life!" cried the ardent boy. "What use in being born a prince if something cannot thus be done to restore what has been lost? And why should princes stand idle when the world is all in arms? Comrades, do ye long as I do to show the world that though we have not yet won our knighthood's spurs, we are yet ready and willing to sally forth, even as did the knights of old, upon some quest of peril or adventure? Why is it that I, who should by rights be one to show what may be done by a boy's arm with a stout heart behind, am ever held back from peril and danger, have never seen fighting save in the tilt yard, or wound worse than what splintered spear may chance to inflict? I burn to show the world what a band of youths can do who go forth alone on some errand of true chivalry. Comrades, give me your ears. Let me speak to you of the purpose in my heart. This day has my father, in the hearing of all men, lamented the wane of chivalry, has spoken brave words of encouragement to those who will strive with him to let it be no hollow name amongst us. Then who more fit than his own son to go forth now — at once, by stealth if need be — upon such a quest of peril and glory? nay, not for the glory — that may or may not be ours — but upon a mission of chivalrous service to the weak and helpless? This thing I purpose to do myself, together with some few chosen comrades. Brothers of Brocas, will ye go with me?"
"We will! we will!" cried the three brothers in a breath.
"We will!" echoed the twins of Gascony, forgetting all but their eager desire to share the peril and the glory of the Prince's enterprise, whatever it might be.
Young Edward heard the sound of the strange voices, and turned a quick glance of inquiry upon the youths. He saw that they wore the livery of Sir James Audley, who was a great favourite even then with the Prince. The true kingly courtesy of the Plantagenets was ingrained in the nature of this princely boy, and he looked with a smile at the two eager faces before him.
"And who be ye, fair gentlemen?" he asked. "Methinks the badge you wear is answer almost enough. I know your good lord well, and love him well, and sure there be none of his esquires, be they never so young, who would disgrace their master by fleeing in an hour of peril. Wherefore if ye would fain be of the band I seek to muster round me, I will bid you ready welcome. I seek none that be above twenty years of age.
"Good John, you shall be the wise man of our party. These lads have not lived many more years than I have myself, or I am much mistaken."
"We are twin brothers," said Gaston frankly, "and we are nigh upon sixteen. We have been with Sir James a matter of two months. We —"
"They met him in the woods of Gascony," cried Oliver, "and rescued him from the attacks of a pack of fierce wolves. I trow they would bear themselves bravely be your quest what it may."
"Are you Gascons?" asked the Prince, looking with keener interest at the two youths; for he shared some of his father's instincts of government, and was always well disposed towards Gascon subjects.
"We are half Gascon and half English, may it please you, fair Prince," answered Gaston readily, "and we will follow you to the death."
"I well believe it, my good comrades," answered the Prince quickly; "and right glad shall we be of your company and assistance. For our errand lies amidst dark forests with their hidden perils and dangers, and I wot that none know better what such dangers are nor how they may be escaped than our brethren of Gascony."
"Then you know on what quest we are bent, sweet Prince?"
Edward nodded his head as he looked over his shoulder. "Ay, that I do right well, and that will I tell you incontinently if no eavesdroppers be about. Ye know that of late days brave knights and gentlemen have been mustering to our Court from all parts of this land? Now amongst these is one Sir Hugh Vavasour, who comes from his house of Woodcrych, not half a day's ride from our Royal Palace of Guildford; and with him he has brought his son, one Alexander, with whom I yestere'en fell into converse. I say not that I liked the youth himself. He seemed to me something over bold, yet lacking in those graces of chivalry that are so dear to us. Still it was in talking with him that I heard this thing which has set my blood boiling in my veins."
"What thing is that, fair Prince?" asked John.
And then the young Edward told his tale. It was such a tale as was only too often heard in olden days, though it did not always reach the ears of royalty. The long and expensive, and as yet somewhat fruitless, wars in which Edward had been engaged almost ever since he came to the throne, had greatly impoverished his subjects, and with poverty there arose those other evils inseparable from general distress — robbery, freebooting, crime in its darkest and ugliest aspects; bands of hungry men, ruined and beggared, partly perhaps through misfortune, but partly through their own fault, wandering about the country ravaging and robbing, leaving desolation behind them, and too often, if opposed, committing acts of brutal cruelty upon defenceless victims, as a warning to others.
A band such as this was just now scouring the woods around Guildford. Young Vavasour had heard of depredations committed close against the walls of his own home, and had heard of many outrages which had been suffered by the poor folks around. Cattle had been driven off, their hardly-gathered fuel had vanished in the night; sometimes lonely houses were attacked, and the miserable inhabitants, if they offered resistance, stabbed to the heart by the marauders. One or two girls had been missed from their homes, and were said to have fallen a prey to the robber band. All these things, and the latter item especially, stirred the hot blood in the young Prince's veins, and he was all on fire to do some doughty deed that should at once exterminate such evildoers from the face of the earth, strike terror into the hearts of other bands, and show that the spirit of chivalry was yet alive in the kingdom, and that the King's son was the first to fly to the succour of the distressed and the feeble.
"For I will go myself and hunt these miscreants as though they were dogs or wolves — beasts of prey that needs must be put down with a strong hand. I will not tell my father the tale, else might he appoint warriors of his own to see to the matter, and the glory be theirs and not ours. No, this is a matter for my arm to settle. I will collect around me a band of our bravest youths — they shall all be youths like myself. Our good John knows well the country around our Palace of Guildford — in truth I know it indifferently well myself. We will sally forth together — my father will grant me leave to go thither with a body of youths of my own choosing — and thence we will scour the forests, scatter or slay these vile disturbers of the peace, restore the lost maidens to their homes, and make recompense to our poor subjects for all they have suffered at their hands."
It was just the scheme to fascinate the imagination and fire the ardour of a number of high-spirited and generous boys. The proximity of the Royal Palace of Guildford gave them every facility for carrying out the plan speedily and yet secretly, and the Prince had quickly enlisted a score of well-trained, well-equipped lads to follow him on his chivalrous quest. Sir James gave ready consent to his petition that the Gascon twins might join his train for a few days. The King, when he gave his sanction to the proposed expedition to Guildford, believed that his son was going there bent on sport or some boyish pastime, and scarce bestowed a second thought upon the matter. The royal children had each their own attendants and establishment, following wherever their youthful master or mistress went; and to the eldest son of the King a very decided liberty was given, of which his father had never yet had cause to repent.
Thus it came about that three days after the King's great feast of the Round Table had ended, the Prince of Wales, with a following of twenty young comrades, in addition to his ordinary staff of attendants, rode forth from the Castle of Windsor in the tardy winter's dawn, and before night had fallen the gay and gallant little band had reached the Palace of Guildford, which had received due notice of the approach of the King's son. Those who were sharp-eyed amongst the spectators of this departure might have noted that the Prince and his immediate followers each wore round his arm a band of black ribbon with a device embroidered upon it. The device was an eagle worked in gold, and was supposed to be emblematic of the swiftness and the strength that were to characterize the expedition of the Prince, when he should swoop down upon the dastardly foes, and force them to yield up their ill-gotten gains. These badges had been worked by the clever fingers of Edward's sisters, the youthful princesses Isabella and Joanna. Joanna, as the wardrobe rolls of the period show, was a most industrious little maiden with her needle, and must have spent the best part of her time in her favourite pastime of embroidery, judging by the amount of silk and other material required by her for her own private use. Both the sisters were devotedly attached to their handsome brother, and were the sharers of his confidences. They knew all about this secret expedition, and sympathized most fully with it. It was Joanna's ready wit which had suggested the idea of the badge, which idea was eagerly caught up by Edward; for to go forth with a token woven by the fair hands of ladies would give to the exploit a spice of romantic chivalry that would certainly add to its zest. So for the past three days the royal sisters had been plying their needles with the utmost diligence, and each of the gallant little band knew that he wore upon his arm a token embroidered for him by the hands of a youthful princess.
Of the Royal Palace of Guildford nothing now remains — even the site is not known with any certainty, though it is supposed to have occupied the spot where Guildford Park farm now stands. Its extensive park covered a large area of ground, and was a favoured hunting ground for many of the illustrious Plantagenets.
It need hardly be said with what interest and curiosity the twin brothers gazed about them as they neared the little town of Guildford, where their uncle, Master Bernard de Brocas, possessed a gradually increasing property. They felt that this journey was the first step towards Basildene; and utterly ignorant as they were of its exact locality, they wondered if they might not be passing it by whenever some ancient Manor House reared its chimneys or gables above the bare encircling trees, and their hearts beat high at the thought that they were drawing near to their own lost inheritance.
The Palace was warmly lighted in honour of the arrival of the Prince of Wales; and as the little cavalcade dismounted at the door and entered the noble hall, a figure, habited after the fashion of the ecclesiastics of the day, stepped forth to greet the scion of royalty, and the twin brothers heard their comrades mutter,
"It is the good Rector, Master Bernard de Brocas."
The young Prince plainly knew the Rector well, and after just bending his knee to ask the blessing, as was his reverent custom, he led him into the banqueting hall, where a goodly meal lay spread, placing him in a seat at his own right hand, and asking him many things as the meal progressed, leading the talk deftly to the robbers' raids, and seeking, without betraying his purpose, to find out where these miscreants might most readily be found.
The good Rector had heard much about them, but knew little enough of their movements. One day they were heard of in one place, and again they would vanish, and no man would know whither they had gone till they appeared in another. Everywhere they left behind them desolated homes, and bloodshed and ruin followed in their track. Master Bernard had heard too many such tales from all parts of the kingdom to heed overmuch what went on in this particular spot. He knew that the winter's privation and cold acted upon savage men almost as it did upon wolves and ravenous beasts, and that in a country harassed and overtaxed such things must needs be. He never suspected the cause of the Prince's eagerness. He believed that the youths had come down bent on sport, and that they would take far more interest in the news he had to give them, that a wild boar had recently been seen in the forest aisles of the Royal Park, and that the huntsmen would be ready to sally forth to slay it at a single word from the Prince.
Edward's eyes lighted at this. It seemed to him a fortunate coincidence. Also he would be glad enough to see the killing of the boar, though he was more interested in the expedition it would involve into the heart of the forest.
"Prithee give orders, good Master Bernard, that the huntsmen be ready tomorrow morning at dawn of day. I trow there be horses and to spare to mount us all, as our own beasts will be something weary from the journey they have taken today. We will be ready ere the sun is up, and if kind fortune smiles upon us, I trust I shall have the good fortune to have a pair of fine tusks to offer to my sisters when they join us here, as they shortly hope to do."
Master Bernard, who was a man of no small importance all through this neighbourhood, hastened away to give the needful orders. He had come from his own Rectory hard by to receive the Prince and his comrades, and he suspected that the King would be well pleased for him to remain beneath the roof of the castle so long as this gay and youthful party did so.
When night came and the youths sought the rooms which had been made ready for them, the Prince signed to a certain number of his comrades to repair with him to his chamber, as though he desired their services at his toilet. Amongst those thus summoned were the three sons of Sir John de Brocas, and also the Gascon twins, for whom young Edward appeared to have taken a great liking, and who on their part warmly returned this feeling. Shutting the door carefully, and making sure that none but friends were round him, the Prince unfolded his plan.
He had learned from the Master Huntsman, whom he had seen for a few minutes before going to his room, that the boar lay concealed for the most part in some thick underwood lying in the very heart of the forest many miles distant, right away to the southwest in the direction of Woodcrych. This part of the forest was fairly well known to the Prince from former hunting expeditions, and he and John both remembered well the hut of a lonely woodman that lay hidden in the very depths of the wood near this spot. It had occurred to Edward as likely that old Ralph would be better acquainted with the habits of the robbers than any other person could be. He was too poor to be made a mark for their rapacity, yet from his solitary life in the forest he might likely enough come across their tracks, and be able to point out their hiding places. Therefore the Prince's plan was that he and the picked companions he should choose should slip away from the main body of the huntsmen, and make their way to this lonely cabin, joining their comrades later when they had discovered all that they could do from the old man. The shouts of the huntsmen and the baying of the dogs would guide them to the scene of the chase, and if the rest who remained all the while with the foresters and the dogs missed the Prince from amongst their ranks, they were not to draw attention to the fact, but were rather to strive to conceal it from the Master Huntsman, who might grow uneasy if he found the young Edward missing. It was of importance that all inquiries respecting the robbers should be conducted with secrecy, for if the Prince's curiosity on the subject were once to be known, suspicion might be aroused, or a regular expedition against them organized, the glory and credit of which would not belong in anything but empty name to the Prince.
It was not, perhaps, unnatural that the six lads who had first conned over the plan together should be selected as the ones to make this preliminary inquiry. John was chosen for his seniority and the prudence of his counsels, his brothers for their bravery and fleetness of foot, and the Gascon twins for their close acquaintance with forest tracks, and their greater comprehension of the methods employed in following the trail of foes or fugitives through tangled woods. They would likely enough understand the old man's counsel better than any of the others; and as the sport of hunting the boar was more esteemed by the other youths than the expedition to the woodman's hut, no jealousy was aroused by the Prince's choice, and the scheme was quickly made known to the whole of the party.
The morrow proved a first-rate day for a hunting party in the forest. A light crisp snow lay on the ground, melting where exposed to the sun's rays, but forming a sparkling white carpet elsewhere. It was not deep enough to inconvenience either men or horses, and would scarce have fallen to any depth beneath the trees of the forest; but there was just sufficient to be an excellent guide in tracking down the quarry, and all felt confident that the wily old boar had seen his last sunrise.
Merrily rode the party forth through the great gateway and across the fine park in the direction of the forest. The Prince and his five chosen comrades rode together, sometimes speaking in low tones, sometimes joining in the gay converse on the subject of hunting which went on around them. But the Prince's thoughts were far less with sport than with the wrongs of his father's subjects, and the cruel outrages which they had suffered unredressed and almost unpitied. His heart burned within him to think that in merry England, as he liked to call it, and in the days of chivalry, such things were possible; and to put down cruelty and rapacity with a strong hand seemed of infinitely more importance to him than the pursuit of a fine sport.
Thus musing, and thus talking in low tones to the thoughtful John, the Prince dropped a little behind the muster of huntsmen. His chosen comrades followed his example, and straggled rather aimlessly after the main body, till at last a turn in the forest shut these completely from their view.
"Now," said the Prince, turning to his five selected comrades, "this, if I mistake not, is our road. We will soon see if we cannot get upon the track of the miscreants whom I am burning to punish and destroy!"
CHAPTER VI. THE PRINCE'S EXPLOIT.
The woodman's cottage was quickly reached. It was a little rush-thatched cabin of mud, lying in the very heart of the dim wood. The party had to dismount and tie up their horses at some short distance from the place; but they had the good fortune to find the occupant at home, or rather just outside his cabin, gathering a few dried sticks to light his fire.
He was a grizzled, uncouth-looking old man, but a certain dignity was imparted to him by a look of deep and unspeakable melancholy upon his face, which gave it pathos and character of its own. The rustic face is apt to become vacant, bovine, or coarse. Solitude often reduces man almost to the level of the beasts. This old man, who for many years had lived hidden away in this vast forest, might well have lost all but the semblance of humanity; but such was not the case. His eyes had light in them; his very melancholy showed that the soul was not dead. As he saw the bright-faced boys approaching him, he first gave a great start of surprise, eagerly scanning one face after another; then, as he did so the light of hope died out from his eyes, and the old despairing look came back.
Something of this was observed by the Prince and his followers, but they were at present too much bent upon their own mission to have thought to spare for any other concerns. They formed a circle round him, and asked him of the robbers — if he ever saw them; if he knew their haunts; if they had been near these parts during the past days?
For a moment it seemed as though the old man was disappointed by the questions asked him. He muttered something they did not rightly comprehend about robbers worse than these, and a quick fierce look passed across his face, and then died out again. The young Prince was courteous and patient: he allowed the old man's slow wits time to get to work; and when he did begin to speak he spoke to some purpose, and the boys listened and questioned with the most eager attention.
It took some time to extract the necessary information, not from any reluctance to speak on the old man's part, but from his inability to put his thoughts into words. Still when this was by degrees achieved, the information was of the highest possible importance.
The robbers, said the old man, were at that very moment not far away. He had seen them sally forth on one of their nocturnal raids about dusk the previous evening; and they had returned home laden with spoil two hours before the dawn. He was of the opinion that they had carried off some captive with them, for he had heard sounds as of bitter though stifled weeping as they passed his hut on their return. Did he know where they lay by day? Oh yes, right well he did! They had a hiding place in a cave down in a deep dingle, so overgrown with brushwood that only those who knew the path thither could hope to penetrate within it. Once there, they felt perfectly safe, and would sleep away the day after one of their raids, remaining safely hidden there till supplies were exhausted, when they sallied forth again. The old woodman showed them the tracks of the party that had passed by that morning, and to the eyes of the Gascon brothers these tracks were plain enough, and they undertook to follow them unerringly to the lair. The old woodman had no desire to be mixed up in the matter. If he were to be seen in the company of the trackers, he firmly believed that he should be skinned alive before many days had passed. He plainly did not put much faith in the power of these lads to overcome a large band of desperate men, and strongly advised them to go home and think no more of the matter. But his interest was only very partially aroused, and it was plain that there was something on his own mind which quite outweighed with him the subject of the forest outlaws.
John would fain have questioned him about himself, being a youth of kindly spirit; but the moment was not propitious, for the Prince was all on fire with a new idea.
"Comrades," he said gravely and firmly, "the hour has come when we must put our manhood to the proof. This very day, without the loss of a needless moment, we must fall, sword in hand, upon yon dastard crew, and do to them as they have done. You have heard this honest man's tale. Upon the day following a midnight raid they lie close in their cave asleep — no doubt drunken with the excesses they indulge in, I warrant, when they have replenished their larder anew. This, then, is the day they must be surprised and slain. If we wait we may never have such another chance. My brothers in arms, are you ready to follow me? Shall the eagles fail for lack of courage when the prey is almost within sight?"
An unanimous sound of dissent ran through the group. All were as eager as the Prince for the battle and the victory; but the face of John wore an anxious look.
"We must not go alone," he said. "We must summon our comrades to join us. They are bound on the quest as much as we."
"True," answered the Prince, looking round him. "It were madness, I trow, for the six of us to make the attack alone. Yet did not Jonathan and his armour bearer fall unawares upon a host and put them to flight? Methinks some holy Father has told such a tale to me. Still thou art right, good John. We must not risk losing all because it has been given to godly men in times of old to work a great deliverance. See here, friends, what we will do. Our comrades cannot be very far away. Hark! Surely it is the baying of the hound I hear yonder over that wooded ridge! Good Bernard, do thou to horse, gallop to them as fast as thou canst, and tell them of the hap upon which we have fallen. Bid them follow fast with thee, but leave the dogs and horses behind with the huntsmen, lest their noise betray our approach. Master Huntsman may seek to withhold them from the quest, but when he knows that I, the Prince, with but four of my comrades to help me, have gone on in advance, and that we are even then approaching the robbers' cave, he will not only bid them all go, but will come himself doubtless, with the best of his followers, and give us what help he may. Lose no time. To horse, and away! And when thou hast called the band together, come back in all haste to this spot. The forest trackers will be put upon the trail, and will follow us surely and swiftly. You will find us there before you, lying in ambush, having fully reconnoitred. Be not afraid for us. Honest John will see that we run not into too great peril ere we have help. Is it understood? Good! Then lose not a moment. And for the rest of us, we will follow these sturdy Gascons, who will secretly lead us to the haunt of the outlaws."
Bernard was off almost before the last words had been spoken, and very soon they heard from the sounds that he had mounted his horse and was galloping in the direction in which, from the faint baying of the hounds, he knew the hunting party to be.
John looked somewhat anxious as the Prince signed to Gaston and Raymond to lead the way upon the robbers' track; but he knew the determined nature of the Prince, and did not venture open remonstrance. Yet Edward's quick eye caught the uneasy glance, and he replied to it with frank goodwill.
"Nay, fear not, honest John; I will run into no reckless peril, for my sweet mother hath ever been forward to counsel me that recklessness is not true bravery. Some peril there must needs be — without it there could be no glory; but that danger shall not be added to by any hardihood such as my royal Sire would chide in me. Trust me; I will be prudent, as I trust I may yet show that I can be bold. We will use all due caution in approaching this hiding place, and if it will pleasure thee, I will promise not to leave thy side before our friends come to our aid."
John was glad enough of this promise. As the eldest of this ardent band, and the one who would be most harshly taken to task did any harm come of the enterprise, he was anxious above all things to insure the safety of the Prince. If Edward would remain beside him, he could certainly make sure of one thing — that he himself did not survive his royal master, but died at his side fighting for his safety. The younger spirits thought only of the glory of victory. John, with his feebler physique and more thoughtful mind, saw another possible ending to the day's adventure. Still his heart did not fail; only his unspoken prayer was that no harm should befall the brave young Prince, who was so eager to show the world that chivalry was not yet dead.
The brothers from Gascony had no trouble whatever in finding and keeping the trail the robbers had left behind them. Slowly but surely they pursued their way through the labyrinth of the gloomy forest. Neither John nor any of his companions had ever been here before. The dense wood was gloomy enough to be almost terrible. Craggy rocks were visible from time to time as the party proceeded, and the thickness of the forest was so great that almost all light was excluded.
At last a spot was reached where the forest-bred boys paused. They looked back at those who were following, and beckoned them silently forward. So quietly had the party moved that the stillness of the forest had scarce been broken. Mute and breathless, John and his companion stole up. They found that they had now reached the edge of a deep ravine, so thickly wooded as to appear impassable to human foot. But just where they stood there were traces of a narrow pathway, well concealed by the sweeping boughs of a drooping willow; and that this was the dell and the path of which the old woodman had spoken the little party did not doubt for a moment.
"It is doubtless the place," said the Prince, in a whisper. "Let us softly reconnoitre whilst our forces are assembling."
"I and my brother will make the round of the dell," answered Gaston, in a like cautious tone. "Sweet Prince, stay you hither, where the rest will doubtless find us. It boots not for us to make too much stir. Sound carries well in this still frosty air."
The Prince made a sign of assent, and Gaston and Raymond crept away in different directions to make the circuit of this secluded hollow, and try to ascertain how the land lay, and what was the chance of capturing the band unawares. In particular they desired to note whether there were any other pathway into it, and whether, if the robbers were taken by surprise and desirous of flight, there was any way of gaining the forest save by the overgrown path the exploring party had already found.
The dell proved to be a cup-like hollow of no very great extent. On the side by which the party had approached it the ground shelved down gradually, thickly covered with bushes and undergrowth; but on the opposite side, as the Gascon boys discovered, the drop was almost sheer, and though trees grew up to the very edge of the dell, nothing could grow upon the precipitous sandy sides.
"We have them like rats in a trap," cried Gaston, with sparkling eyes, as he once more joined the Prince, his brother with him. "They can only escape up these steep banks thickly overgrown, and we know that there is but this one path. On the other side it is a sheer drop; a goat could not find foothold. If we can but take them by surprise, and post an ambush ready to fall upon escaped stragglers who reach the top, there will not be one left to tell the tale when the deed is done."
The Prince set his teeth, and the battle light which in after days men learned to regard with awe shone brightly in his eyes.
"Good," he said briefly: "they shall be served as they have served others — taken in their slumber, taken in the midst of their security. Nay, even so it will not be for them as it has been for their victims, for doubtless they will have their arms beside them, and will spring from their slumber to fight like wild wolves trapped; but I trow the victory will lie with us, and he who fears may stay away. Are we not all clad in leather, and armed to repulse the savage attacks of the wild boar of the woods? Thus equipped, need we fear these human wild beasts? Methinks we shall sweep this day from the face of the earth a fouler scourge than ever beasts of the forest prove."
"Hist!" whispered Oliver de Brocas cautiously; "methinks I hear a sound approaching. It is our fellows joining us."
Oliver was right. The trail had now been cautiously followed by the huntsmen and their young charges, and the next moment the whole twenty stood at the head of the pathway, together with the Master Huntsman, and some half-dozen stout fellows all armed with murderous-looking hunting knives, and betraying by their looks the same eagerness for the fight as the band of youthful warriors.
It was vain to plead with the Prince to be one of those told off to remain in ambush in order to intercept and slay any fugitive who might escape the melee below. No, the young heir of England was resolved to be foremost in the fray; and the utmost that he would consent to was that the party should be led down by the Master Huntsman himself, whilst he walked second, John behind him, the rest pressing on in single file, one after the other, as quickly as might be. Down went the gallant little band — with the exception of two stalwart huntsmen and four of the younger amongst the boys, who were left to guard the head of the path — not knowing the risk they ran: whether they would find an alert and well-armed foe awaiting them at the bottom, or whether they might fall upon the enemy unawares. Very silent and cautious were their movements. The Huntsman and the Gascon brothers moved noiselessly as cats, and even the less trained youths were softly cautious in their movements. Downwards they pressed in breathless excitement, till they found themselves leaving the thick scrub behind and emerging upon a rocky platform of rude shape. Here the Master Huntsman made an imperative sign to the Prince to stop, whilst he crept forward a few paces upon hands and knees, and peeped over the edge.
After gazing for a moment at something unseen to those behind, he made a cautious sign to the Prince to approach. Edward at once did so, and Gaston and Raymond followed him, their agile, cat-like movements being as circumspect as those of the leader himself.
What they saw as they peeped down into the heart of the dell was a welcome spectacle indeed. Some distance below them, but in full view, was the opening into what looked like a large cavern, and at the entrance to this cavern lay two stout ruffians, armed to the teeth, but both in a sound sleep, their mouths open, their breath coming noisily between their parted lips. There were no dogs to be seen. Nothing broke the intense stillness that prevailed. It was plainly as the old woodman had said. Their nocturnal raid had been followed by a grand carouse on the return home, and now the party, overcome by fatigue and strong drink, and secure in the fancied privacy of their isolated retreat, had retired to rest within the cave, leaving two fellows on guard, to be sure, but plainly without the smallest apprehension of attack.
"Good!" whispered the Prince, with eyes that shone like his father's in the hour of action; and softly rising to his feet, he made a sign to his comrades to draw their long knives and follow him in a compact body.
"No quarter," he whispered, as he surveyed with pride the brave faces round him: "they have shown no mercy; let no mercy be shown to them. Those who rob the poor, who slay the defenceless, who commit brutal outrages upon the persons of women and children, deserve naught but death. Let them fight like men; we will slay them in fair fight, but we will give no quarter. We will, if God fights for us, sweep the carrion brood from off the very face of the earth!"
And then, to the dismay of the Master Huntsman, who had hoped to step upon the sleeping sentries unawares, and rid themselves of at least two of the foe before the alarm was given, the Prince raised his voice in a shrill battle cry, and dashing down the slope with his comrades at his heels, flung himself upon the taller of the guards and plunged his knife into the fellow's throat.
Gaston and Raymond had simultaneously sprung upon the other, and with a sharp cry of astonishment and rage he too fell lifeless to the ground.
But the Prince's shout, the man's cry, and the sound of clashing arms aroused from their deep slumbers the robber crew within the cavern, and with the alertness that comes of such a lawless life, every man of them sprang to his feet and seized his weapon almost before he was awake.
The Master Huntsman, however, had not waited to see the end of the struggle upon the platform outside. At the very moment that the Prince buried his weapon in the sentry's throat, this bold fellow, with three of his underlings at his side, had sprung inside the cave itself, and luckily enough it was upon the prostrate figure of the chief of the band that his eye first lighted. Before the man could spring to his feet, a blow from that long shining knife had found its way to his heart. The other hunters had set each upon his man, and taken unawares, those attacked were slain ere they had awakened sufficiently to realize what was happening. Thus the number had been diminished by six before the rest came swarming out, as bees from a disturbed hive.
It was well indeed then for the brave boys, who had thought themselves the match for armed men, that these latter were dazed with deep potations and but half armed after throwing aside their weapons ere lying down to rest. Well was it also that they had amongst them the Master Huntsman and his trusty satellites, who had the strength of men, as well as the trained eye, quick hand, and steady nerve that belong to their calling in life. Then, again, the dress of these huntsmen was so like in character to that worn by many of the band, that the robbers themselves suspected each other of treachery, and many turned one upon the other, and smote his fellow to the earth. Yet notwithstanding all these things in their favour, the Prince's youthful followers were hardly beset, and to his rage and grief young Edward saw more than one bright young head lying in the dust of the sandy platform.
But this sight filled him with such fury that he was like a veritable tiger amongst the assailants who still came flocking out of the cave. His battle cry rang again and again through the vaulted cavern, his shining blade seemed everywhere, dealing death and destruction. Boy though he was, he appeared endued with the strength of a man, and that wonderful hereditary fighting instinct, which was so marked in his own sire, seemed handed down to him. He took in the whole scope of the scene with a single glance. Wherever there was an opening to deal a fatal blow, that blow was dealt by the Prince's trusty blade. It almost seemed as though he bore a charmed life in that grim scene of bloodshed and confusion, though perhaps he owed his safety more to the faithful support of the two Gascon brothers, who together with John de Brocas followed the Prince wherever he went, and averted from his head many a furious stroke that else might have settled his mortal career for ever.
But the robbers began to see that this boy was their chiefest foe. If they could but slay him, the rest might perchance take flight. Already their own ranks were terribly thinned, and they saw that mischief was meant by the deadly fury with which their assailants came on at them. They were but half armed, and the terror and bewilderment of the moment put them at great disadvantage; but amongst those who still retained their full senses, and could distinguish friend from foe, were three brothers of tall stature and mighty strength, and these three, taking momentary counsel together, resolved to fling themselves upon the little knot surrounding the person of the Prince, and slay at all cost the youthful leader who appeared to exercise so great a power over the rest of the gallant little band.
It was a terrible moment for good John de Brocas, already wearied and ready to drop with the exertions of the fight — exertions to which he was but little habituated — when he saw bearing down upon them the gigantic forms, as they looked to him, of these three black-browed brothers. The Prince had separated himself somewhat from the rest of the band. He and his three immediate followers had been pursuing some fugitives, who had fallen a prey to their good steel blades. They were just about to return to the others, round whom the fight still raged, though with far less fierceness than at first, when these new adversaries set upon them from behind. John was the only one who had seen the approach, and he only just in time to give one warning shout. Before the Prince could turn, an axe was whirling in the air above his head; and had not John flung himself at that instant upon the Prince, covering his person and dragging him aside at the same moment, a glorious page in England's history would never have been written. But John's prompt action saved the young Edward's life, though a frightful gash was inflicted upon his own shoulder, which received the weight of the robber's blow. With a gasping moan he sank to the ground, and knew no more of what passed, whilst Gaston and Raymond each sprang upon one of their assailants with a yell of fury, and the Prince flung himself upon the fellow who had so nearly caused his death, and for all he knew had slain the trusty John before his very eyes.
The Prince soon made sure of his man. The fellow, having missed his stroke, was taken at a disadvantage, and was unable to free his axe or draw his dagger before the Prince had stabbed him to the heart. Gaston and Raymond were sore beset with their powerful adversaries, and would scarce have lived to tell the tale of that fell struggle had not help been nigh at hand from the Master Huntsman. But he, missing the Prince from the cave's mouth, and seeing the peril he was in, now came running up, shouting to his men to follow him, and the three giant brothers were soon lying together stark and dead, whilst poor John was tenderly lifted and carried out of the melee.
The fighting was over now. The robbers had had enough of it. Some few had escaped, or had sought to do so; but by far the greater number lay dead on or about the rocky platform, where the fiercest of the fighting had been. They had slain each other as well as having been slain by the Prince's band, and the place was now a veritable shambles, at which some of the lads began to look with shuddering horror.
Several of their own number were badly hurt. Three lay dead and cold. Victory had indeed been theirs, but something of the sense of triumph was dashed as they bore away the bodies of their comrades and looked upon the terrible traces of the fray.
But the Prince had escaped unscathed — that was the point of paramount importance in the minds of many — and he was now engrossed in striving to relieve the sufferings of his wounded comrades by seeing their wounds skilfully bound up by the huntsmen, and obtaining for them draughts of clear cold water from a spring that bubbled up within the cavern itself.
Gaston and Raymond had escaped with minor hurts; but John's case was plainly serious, and the flow of blood had been very great before any help could reach him. He was quite unconscious, and looked like death as he lay on the floor of the cave; and after fruitless efforts to revive him, the Prince commanded a rude litter to be made wherein he might be transported to the Palace by the huntsmen who had not taken part in the struggle, and were therefore least weary. The horses were not very far away, and the rest of the wounded and the rescued captives could make shift to walk that far, and afterwards gain the Palace by the help of their sturdy steeds.
Thus it came about that Master Bernard de Brocas, who had believed the Prince and his party to be engaged in the harmless and (to them) safe sport of tracking and hunting a boar in the forest, was astounded beyond all power of speech by seeing a battered and ghastly procession enter the courtyard two hours before dusk, bearing in their midst a litter upon which lay the apparently inanimate form of his eldest nephew, his brother's first-born and heir.
CHAPTER VII. THE RECTOR'S HOUSE.
"It was well thought and boldly executed, my son," said the King of England, as he looked with fatherly pride at his bright-faced boy. "Thou wilt win thy spurs ere long, I doubt not, an thou goest on thus. But it must be an exploit more worthy thy race and state that shall win thee the knighthood which thou dost rightly covet. England's Prince must be knighted upon some glorious battlefield — upon a day of victory that I trow will come ere long for thee and me. And now to thy mother, boy, and ask her pardon for the fright thou madest her to suffer, when thy sisters betrayed to her the wild chase upon which thou and thy boy comrades were bent. Well was it for all that our trusty huntsmen were with you, else might England be mourning sore this day for a life cut off ere it had seen its first youthful prime. Yet, boy, I have not heart to chide thee; all I ask is that when thou art bent on some quest of glory or peril another time, thou wilt tell thy father first. Trust him not to say thee nay; it is his wish that thou shouldst prove a worthy scion of thy house. He will never stand in thy path if thy purpose be right and wise."
The Prince accepted this paternal admonition with all becoming grace and humility, and bent his knee before his mother, to be raised and warmly embraced both by her and the little princesses, who had come in all haste to the Palace of Guildford before the good Rector had had time to send a message of warning to the King. Queen Philippa had heard from her daughters of the proposed escapade on the part of the little band surrounding the Prince, and the fear lest the bold boy might expose himself to real peril had induced the royal family to hasten to Guildford only two days after the Prince had gone thither. They had met a messenger from Master Bernard as they had neared the Palace, and the King, after assuring himself of the safety of his son, made kindly inquiries after those of his companions who had been with him on his somewhat foolhardy adventure.
John de Brocas was lying dangerously ill in one of the apartments of the Palace. The King was greatly concerned at hearing how severely he had been hurt; and when the story came to be told more in its details, and it appeared that to John's fidelity and the stanch support of Audley's two youthful esquires the heir of England owed his life, Edward and his Queen both paid a visit to the room where the sick youth lay, and with their own hands bestowed liberal rewards upon the twin brothers, who had stood beside the Prince in the stress of the fight, and had both received minor hurts in shielding him.
Sir James Audley was himself in the King's train; but he was about to leave the south for a secret mission in Scotland, entrusted to him by his sovereign. He was going to travel rapidly and without any large escort, and for the present he had no further need for the services of the Gascon twins. Neither of the lads would be fit for the saddle for more than a week to come, and they had already made good use of their time in England, and had interested both the King and the Prince in them, and had also earned liberal rewards. In their heart of hearts they were anxious to remain in the neighbourhood of Guildford, for they knew that there they were not far from Basildene. Wherefore when they understood that their master had no present occasion for any further service from them, they were not a little excited and pleased by the thought that they were now in a position to prosecute their own quest in such manner as seemed best to them.
They had made a wonderfully good beginning to their life of adventure. They had won the favour not only of their own kinsfolk, but of the King and the Prince. They had money and clothes and arms. They had the prospect of service with Sir James in the future, when he should have returned from his mission and require a larger train. Everything seemed to be falling in with their own desires; and it was with faces of eager satisfaction that they turned to each other when the knight had left them alone again, after a visit to the long rush-carpeted room, by the glowing hearth of which they were sitting when he had come to seek them soon after the King had visited John's couch.
John lay in a semi-conscious state upon the tall canopied bed, beneath a heavy pall of velvet, that gave a funereal aspect to the whole room. He had been aroused by the King's visit, and had spoken a few words in reply to the kind ones addressed to him; but afterwards he had sunk back into the lethargy of extreme weakness, and the brothers were to all intents and purposes alone in the long dormitory they had shared with John, and with two more comrades who had also received slight hurts, but who had now been summoned to attend the Prince on the return journey to Windsor, which was to be taken leisurely and by short stages.
Oliver and Bernard de Brocas had likewise gone, and John was, they knew, to be moved as soon as possible to Master Bernard's rectory, not far away. The kindly priest had said something about taking the brothers there also till they were quite healed of their wounds and bruises, and John invariably asked for Raymond if ever he awoke to consciousness. What was to be the end of it all the twins had no idea, but it certainly seemed as though for the present they were to be the guests of their own uncle, who knew nothing of the tie that existed betwixt them.
"Shall we say aught to him, Gaston?" asked Raymond, in a low whisper, as the pair sat over the glowing fire together. "He is a good man and a kind one, and perchance if he knew us for kinsmen he might —"
"Might be kinder than before?" questioned Gaston, with a proud smile. "Is it that thou wouldst say, brother? Ay, it is possible, but it is also likely enough that he would at once look coldly and harshly upon us. Raymond, I have learned many lessons since we left our peaceful home, and one of these is that men love not unsuccess. It is the prosperous, the favoured of fortune, upon whom the smiles of the great are bent. Perchance it was because he succeeded not well that by his own brothers our father was passed by. Raymond, I have seen likewise this — if our kinsmen are kind, they are also proud. They have won kingly favour, kingly rewards; all men speak well of them; they are placed high in the land. Doubtless they could help us if they would; but are we to come suing humbly to them for favours, when they would scarce listen to our father when he lived? Shall we run into the peril of having their smiles turned to frowns by striving to claim kinship with them, when perchance they would spurn us from their doors? And if in days to come we rise to fame and fortune, as by good hap we may, shall we put it in their power to say that it is to their favour we owe it all? No — a thousand times no! I will carve out mine own fortune with mine own good sword and mine own strong arm. I will be beholden to none for that which some day I will call mine own. The King himself has said that I shall make a valiant knight. I have fought by the Prince's side once; I trow that in days to come I shall do the like again. When my knighthood's spurs are won, then perchance I will to mine uncle and say to him, 'Sire, I am thy brother Arnald's son — thine own nephew;' but not till then will I divulge the secret. Sir John de Brocas — no, nor Master Bernard either — shall never say that they have made Sir Gaston's fortune for him!"
The lad's eyes flashed fire; the haughty look upon his face was not unlike the one sometimes to be seen upon that of the King's Master of the Horse.
Raymond listened with a smile to these bold words, and then said quietly:
"Perhaps thou art right, Gaston; but I trust thou bearest no ill will towards our two uncles?"
Gaston's face cleared, and he smiled frankly enough.
"Nay, Brother, none in the world. It is only as I think sometimes of the story of our parents' wrongs that my hot blood seems to rise against them. They have been kind to us. I trow we need not fear to take such kindness as may be offered to us as strangers; but to come as suppliant kinsmen, humble and unknown, I neither can nor will. Let us keep our secret; let us carve out our own fortunes. A day shall come when we may stand forth before all the world as of the old line of De Brocas, but first we will win for ourselves the welcome we would fain receive."
"Ay, and we will seek our lost inheritance of Basildene," added Raymond. "That shall be our next quest, Gaston. I would fain look upon our mother's home. Methinks it lies not many miles from here."
"I misdoubt me if Basildene be aught of great moment," said Gaston, shaking back his curly hair. "Like enough it is but a Manor such as we have seen by the score as we have ridden through this land. It may be no such proud inheritance when we do find it, Raymond. It is of our lost possessions in Gascony that I chiefly think. What can any English house, of which even here scarce any man has heard, be as compared with our vast forest lands of Gascony — our Castle of Saut — of Orthez — where the false Sieur de Navailles rules with the rod of iron? It is there that I would be; it is there that I would rule. When the Roy Outremer wages war with the French King, and I fight beneath his banner and win his favour, as I will do ere many years have passed, and when he calls me to receive my rewards at his kingly hands, then will I tell him of yon false and cruel tyrant there, and how our people groan beneath his harsh rule. I will ask but his leave to win mine own again, and then I will ride forth with my own knights in my train, and there shall be once again a lord of the old race ruling at Saut, and the tyrant usurper shall be brought to the very dust!"
"Ay," answered Raymond, with a smile that made his face look older for the moment than that of his twin brother, "thou, Gaston, shalt reign in Saut, and I will try to win and to reign at Basildene, content with the smaller inheritance. Methinks the quiet English Manor will suit me well. By thy side for a while will I fight, too, winning, if it may be, my spurs of knighthood likewise; but when the days of fighting be past, I would fain find a quiet haven in this fair land — in the very place where our mother longed to end her days."
It may be seen, from the foregoing fragment of talk, that already the twin brothers were developing in different directions. So long as they had lived in the quiet of the humble home, they had scarce known a thought or aspiration not shared alike by both; but the experiences of the past months had left a mark upon them, and the mark was not altogether the same in the case of each. They had shared all adventures, all perils, all amusements; their hearts were as much bound up as ever one with the other; but they were already looking at life differently, forming a different ideal of the future. The soldier spirit was coming out with greater intensity in one nature than in the other. Gaston had no ambition, no interest beyond that of winning fame and glory by the sword. Raymond was just beginning to see that there were other aims and interests in life, and to feel that there might even come a day when these other interests should prove more to him than any laurels of battle.
In the days that followed, this feeling grew more and more upon him. His hurt was more slow to heal than Gaston's, and long after his brother was riding out daily into the forest with the keepers to slay a fat buck for the prelate's table or fly a falcon for practice or sport, Raymond remained within the house, generally the companion of the studious John; and as the latter grew strong enough to talk, he was always imparting new ideas to the untutored but receptive mind of the Gascon boy.
They had quickly removed from the Royal Palace to the more cozy and comfortable quarters within the Rectory, which belonged to Master Bernard in right of his office. John was as much at home in his uncle's house as in his father's, having spent much of his youth with the priest. Indeed it may be questioned whether he felt as much at ease anywhere as he did in this sheltered and retired place, and Raymond began to feel the subtle charm of the life there almost at once.
The Rector possessed what was for that age a fine collection of books. These were of course all manuscripts, and very costly of their kind, some being beautifully illuminated and others very lengthy. These manuscripts and books were well known to John, who had read the majority of them, and was never weary of reading them again and again. Some were writings of the ancient fathers; others were the works of pagan writers and philosophers who had lived in the dark ages of the world's history, yet who had had thoughts and aspirations in advance of their day, and who had striven without the light of Christianity to construct a code of morals that should do the work for humanity which never could have been done till the Light came into the world with the Incarnation.
As Raymond sat day by day beside John's couch, hearing him read out of these wonderful books, learning himself to read also with a sense of quickened pleasure that it was a surprise to experience, he began to realize that there was a world around and about him of which he had had no conception hitherto, to feel his mental horizon widening, and to see that life held weightier questions than any that could be settled at the sword's point.
"In truth I have long held that myself," answered John, to whom some such remark had been made; and upon the pale face of the student there shone a light which Raymond had seen there before, and marked with a dim sense of awe. "We hear men talk of the days of chivalry, and mourn because they seem to be passing away. Yet methinks there may be a holier and a higher form of chivalry than the world has yet seen that may rise upon the ashes of what has gone before, and lead men to higher and better things. Raymond, I would that I might live to see such a day — a day when battle and bloodshed should be no longer men's favourite pastime, but when they should come to feel as our Blessed Lord has bidden us feel, brothers in love, for that we love Him, and that we walk forward hand in hand towards the light, warring no more with our brethren of the faith, but only with such things as are contrary to His Word, and are hindering His purpose concerning the earth."
Raymond listened with but small comprehension to a thought so vastly in advance of the spirit of the day; but despite his lack of true understanding, he felt a quick thrill of sympathy as he looked into John's luminous eyes, and he spoke with reverence in his tone even though his words seemed to dissent from those of his companion.
"Nay, but how would the world go on without wars and gallant feats of arms? And sure in a good cause men must fight with all their might and main? Truly I would gladly seek for paynim and pagan foes if they might be found; but men go not to the Holy Land as once they did. There be foes nigher at home against whom we have to turn our arms. Good John, thou surely dost not call it a wicked thing to fight beneath the banner of our noble King when he goes forth upon his wars?"
John smiled one of those thoughtful, flickering smiles that puzzled his companion and aroused his speculative curiosity.
"Nay, Raymond," he answered, speaking slowly, as though it were no easy matter to put his thought in such words as would be comprehensible to his companion, "it is not that I would condemn any man or any cause. We are placed in the midst of warlike and stirring times, and it may be that some great purpose is being worked out by all these wars and tumults in which we bear our share. It is only as I lie here and think (I have, as thou knowest, been here many times before amongst these books and parchments, able for little but study and thought) that there comes over me a strange sense of the hollowness of these earthly strivings and search after fame and glory, a solemn conviction — I scarce know how to frame it in words — that there must be other work to be done in the world, stronger and more heroic deeds than men will ever do with swords and spears. Methinks the holy saints and martyrs who went before us knew something of that work; and though it be not given to us to dare and suffer as they did, yet there come to me moments when I feel assured that God may still have works of faith and patience for us to do for Him here, which (albeit the world will never know it) may be more blessed in His eyes than those great deeds the fame of which goes through the world. Perchance were I a man of thews and sinews like my brothers, I might think only of the glory of feats of arms and the stress and strife of the battle. But being as I am, I cannot but think of other matters; and so thinking and dreaming, there has come to me the sense that if I may never win the knighthood and the fame which may attend on others, I may yet be called upon to serve the Great King in some other way. Raymond, I think that I could gladly die content if I might but feel that I had been called to some task for Him, and having been called had been found faithful."
John's eyes were shining brightly as he spoke. Raymond felt a slight shiver run through his frame as he answered impulsively:
"Thou hast done a deed already of which any belted knight might well be proud. It was thou who saved the life of the Prince of Wales by taking upon thy shoulder the blow aimed at his head. The King himself has spoken in thy praise. How canst thou speak as though no fame or glory would be thine?"
A look of natural pride and pleasure stole for a moment over John's pale face; but the thoughtful brightness in his eyes deepened during the silence that followed, and presently he said musingly:
"I am glad to think of that. I like to feel that my arm has struck one good blow for my King and country; though, good Raymond, to thee and to Gaston, as much as to me, belongs the credit of saving the young Prince. Yet though I too love deeds of glory and chivalry, and rejoice to have borne a part in one such struggle undertaken in defence of the poor and the weak, I still think there be higher tasks, higher quests, yet to be undertaken by man in this world."
"What quest?" asked Raymond wonderingly, as John paused, enwrapped, as it seemed, in his own thoughts.
It was some time before the question was answered, and then John spoke dreamily and slow, as though his thoughts were far away from his wondering listener.
"The quest after that whose glory shall not be of this world alone; the quest that shall raise man heavenward to his Maker. Is that thought new in the heart of man? I trow not. We have heard of late much of that great King Arthur, the founder of chivalry, and of his knights. Were feats of arms alone enough for them? or those exploits undertaken in the cause of the helpless or oppressed, great and noble as these must ever be? Did not one or more of their number feel that there was yet another and a holier quest asked of a true knight? Did not Sir Galahad leave all else to seek after the Holy Grail? Thou knowest all the story; have we not read it often together? And seems it not to thee to point us ever onward and upward, away from things of earth towards the things of heaven, showing that even chivalry itself is but an earthly thing, unless it have its final hopes and aspirations fixed far above this earth?"
John's face was illumined by a strange radiance. It seemed to Raymond as though something of the spirit of the Knight of the Grail shone out from those hollow eyes. A subtle sympathy fired his own soul, and taking his cousin's thin hand in his he cried quickly and impetuously:
"Such a knight as that would I fain be. Good John, tell me, I pray thee, where such a quest may be found."
At that literal question, put with an air of the most impulsive good faith, John's face slightly changed. The rapt look faded from his eyes, and a reflective smile took its place, as the young man gazed long and earnestly into the bright face of the eager boy.
"Why shouldst thou come to me to know, good lad?" he questioned. "It is of others that thou wilt learn these matters better than of me. Do they not call me the man of books — of dreams — of fancies?"
"I know not and I care not," answered Raymond impetuously. "It is of thee and of thee only that I would learn."
"And I scarce know how to answer thee," replied the youth, "though gladly would I help thee to fuller, clearer knowledge if I knew how. I trow that many men would smile at me were I to put my thoughts into words, for it seems to me that for us who call ourselves after the sacred name of Christ there can be no higher or holier service than the service in which He himself embarked, and bid His followers do likewise — feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, cheering the desolate, binding up the broken heart, being eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. He that would be the greatest, let him be the servant of all. Those were His own words. Yet how little do we think of them now."
Raymond sat silent and amazed. Formerly such words would have seemed comprehensible enough to him; but of late he had seen life under vastly different aspects than any he had known in his quiet village home. The great ones of the earth did not teach men thus to think or speak. Not to serve but to rule was the aim and object of life.
"Wouldst have me enter the cloister, then?" he asked, a look of distaste and shrinking upon his face; for the quiet, colourless life (as it seemed to him) of those who entered the service of the Church was little to the taste of the ardent boy. But John's answer was a bright smile and a decided negative; whereupon Raymond breathed more freely.
"Nay; I trow we have priests and monks enow, holy and pious men as they are. It has often been asked of me if I will not follow in the steps of my good uncle here; but I have never felt the wish. It seems to me that the habit of the monk or the cassock of the priest too often seems to separate betwixt him and his fellow man, and that it were not good for the world for all its holiest men to don that habit and divide themselves from their brethren. Sir Galahad's spotless heart beat beneath his silver armour. Would he have been to story and romance the star and pattern he now is had he donned the monkish vesture and turned his armed quest into a friar's pilgrimage?"
"Nay, verily not."
"I think with thee, and therefore say I, Let not all those who would fain lead the spotless life think to do so by withdrawing from the world. Rather let them carry about the spotless heart beneath the coat of mail or the gay habit. Their quest need not be the less exalted —"
"But what is that quest to be?" cried Raymond eagerly; "that is what I fain would know. Good John, give me some task to perform. What wouldst thou do thyself in my place?"
"Thou wouldst laugh were I to tell thee."
"Try me and see."
"I will. If I were sound and whole tomorrow, I should forth into the forest whence we came, and I should seek and find that aged woodman, who seemed so sorely bowed down with sorrow, and I should bid him unfold his tale to me, and see if in any wise I might help him. He is poor, helpless, wretched, and by the words he spoke, I knew that he had suffered heavy sorrow. Perchance that sorrow might be alleviated could one but know the story of it. His face has haunted my fevered dreams. To me it seems as though perchance this were an errand of mercy sent to me to do. Deeds of knightly prowess I trow will never now be mine. It must be enough for me to show my chivalry by acts of love and care for the helpless, the sorrowful, the oppressed."