And now the good vessel was slipping through the still waters of the magnificent harbour of Bordeaux. The deck was all alive with the bustle of speedy landing, and the Gascon brothers were scanning the familiar landmarks and listening with delight to the old familiar tongue.
Familiar faces there were none to be seen, it is true. The boys were too much of foreigners now to have many old friends in the queenly city. But the whole place was homelike to them, and would be so to their lives' ends. Moreover, they hoped ere they took ship again to have time and opportunity to revisit old haunts and see their foster parents and the good priest once more; but for the present their steps were turned northward towards the gallant little beleaguered town which had appealed to the English King for aid.
A few days were spent at Bordeaux collecting provisions for the town, and mustering the reinforcements which the loyal city was always ready and eager to supply in answer to any demand on the part of the Roy Outremer.
The French King had died the previous year, and his son John, formerly Duke of Normandy, was now upon the throne; but the situation between the two nations had by no means changed, and indeed the bitter feeling between them was rather increased than diminished by the many petty breaches of faith on one side or another, of which this siege of St. Jean d'Angely was an example.
On the whole the onus of breaking the truce rested more with the French than the English. But a mere truce, where no real peace is looked for on either side, is but an unsatisfactory state of affairs at best; and although both countries were sufficiently exhausted by recent wars and the ravages of the plague to desire the interlude prolonged, yet hostilities of one kind or another never really ceased, and the struggles between the rival lords of Brittany and their heroic wives always kept the flame of war smouldering.
Gascony as a whole was always loyal to the English cause, and Bordeaux too well knew what she owed to the English trade ever to be backward when called upon by the English King. Speedily a fine band of soldiers was assembled, and at dawn one day the march northward was commenced.
The little army mustered some five thousand men, all well fed and in capital condition for the march. Raymond rode by his brother's side well in the van, and he noticed presently, amongst the new recruits who had joined them, another man of very tall stature, who also wore a black visor over his face. He was plainly a friend to the unknown knight (if knight he were) who had sailed in their vessel, for they rode side by side deep in talk; and behind them, in close and regular array, rode a number of their immediate followers, all wearing a black tuft in their steel caps and a black band round their arm.
However, there was nothing very noteworthy in this. Many men had followers marked by some distinctive badge, and the sombre little contingent excited small notice. They all looked remarkably fine soldiers, and appeared to be under excellent discipline. More than that was not asked of any man, and the Gascons were well known to be amongst the best soldiers of the day.
The early start and the long daylight enabled the gallant little band to push on in the one day to the banks of the Charente, and within a few miles of St. Jean itself. There, however, a halt was called, for the French were in a remarkably good position, and it was necessary to take counsel how they might best be attacked.
In the first place there was the river to be crossed, and the one bridge was in the hands of the enemy, who had fortified it, and would be able to hold it against great odds. They were superior in numbers to their assailants, and probably knew their advantage.
Gaston, who well understood the French nature, was the first to make a likely suggestion.
"Let us appear to retreat," he said. "They will then see our small numbers, and believe that we are flying through fear of them. Doubtless they will at once rush out to pursue and attack us, and after we have drawn them from their strong position, we can turn again upon them and slay them, or drive them into the river."
This suggestion was received with great favour, and it was decided to act upon it that very day. There were still several hours of daylight before them, and the men, who had had wine and bread distributed to them, were full of eagerness for the fray.
The French, who were quite aware of the strength of their own position, and very confident of ultimate victory, were narrowly watching the movements of the English, whose approach had been for some time expected by them. They were certain that they could easily withstand the onslaught of the whole body, if these were bold enough to attack, and they well knew how terribly thinned would the English ranks become before they could hope to cross the bridge and march upon the main body of the French army encamped before the town.
Great, then, was the exultation of the French when they saw how much terror they had inspired in the heart of the foe. They were eagerly observing their movements; they saw that a council had been called amongst the chiefs, and that deliberations had been entered into by them. But so valiant were the English in fight, and so many were the victories they had obtained with numbers far inferior to those of the foe, that there was a natural sense of uncertainty as to the result of a battle, even when all the chances of the war seemed to be against the foreign foe. But when the trumpets actually sounded the retreat, and they saw the whole body moving slowly away, then indeed did they feel that triumph was near, and a great shout of derision and anger rose up in the still evening air.
"To horse, men, and after them!" was the word given, and a cry of fierce joy went up from the whole army. "My Lords of England, you will not get off in that way. You have come hither by your own will; you shall not leave until you have paid your scot."
No great order was observed as the Frenchmen sprang to horse and galloped across the bridge, and so after the retreating foe. Every man was eager to bear his share in the discomfiture of the English contingent, and hardly staying to arm themselves fully, the eager, hot-headed French soldiers, horse and foot, swung along in any sort of order, only eager to cut to pieces the flower of the English chivalry (as their leaders had dubbed this little band), and inflict a dark stain upon the honour of Edward's brilliant arms.
In the ranks of this same English contingent, now in rapid and orderly retreat, there was to the full as much exultation and lust of battle as in the hearts of their pursuing foes. Every man grasped his weapon and set his teeth firmly, the footmen marching steadily onwards at a rapid and swinging pace, whilst the horsemen, who brought up the rear — for they were to be the first to charge when the trumpet sounded the advance — kept turning their heads to watch the movement of the foe, and sent up a brief huzzah as they saw that their ruse had proved successful, and that their foes were coming fast after them.
"Keep thou by my side in the battle today, Raymond," said Gaston, as he looked to the temper of his weapons and glanced backwards over his shoulder. "Thou hast been something more familiar with the pen than the sword of late — and thy faithful esquire likewise. Fight, then, by my side, and together we will meet and overcome the foe. They will fight like wolves, I doubt not, for they will be bitterly wrathful when they see the trick we have played upon them. Wherefore quit not my side, be the fighting never so hot, for I would have thee ever with me."
"I wish for nothing better for myself," answered Raymond, with a fond proud glance at the stalwart Gaston, who now towered a full head taller above him, and was a very king amongst men.
He was mounted on a fine black war horse, who had carried his master victoriously through many charges before today. Raymond's horse was much lighter in build, a wiry little barb with a distinct Arab strain, fearless in battle, and fleet as the wind, but without the weight or solidity of Gaston's noble charger. Indeed, Gaston had found some fault with the creature's lack of weight for withstanding the onslaught of cavalry charge; but he suited Raymond so well in other ways that the latter had declined to make any change, and told his brother smilingly that his great Lucifer had weight and strength for both.
Scarcely had Gaston given this charge to his brother before the trumpets sounded a new note, and at once the compact little body of horse and foot halted, wheeled round, and put themselves in position for the advance. Another blast from those same trumpets, given with all the verve and joyousness of coming victory, and the horses of their own accord sprang forward to the attack. Then the straggling and dismayed body of Frenchmen who had been pushing on in advance of their fellows to fall upon the flying English, found themselves opposed to one of those magnificent cavalry charges which made the glory and the terror of the English arms throughout the reign of the great Edward.
Vainly trying to rally themselves, and with shouts of "St. Dennis!" "St. Dennis!" the Frenchmen rushed upon their foes; and the detachments from behind coming up quickly, the engagement became general at once, and was most hotly contested on both sides.
Gaston was one of the foremost to charge into the ranks of the French, and singling out the tallest and strongest adversary he could see, rode full upon him, and was quickly engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand conflict. Raymond was close beside him, and soon found himself engaged in parrying the thrusts of several foes. But Roger was quickly at his side, taking his own share of hard blows; and as the foot and horse from behind pressed on after the impetuous leaders, and more and more detachments from the French army came up to assist their comrades, the melee became very thick, and in the crush it was impossible to see what was happening except just in front, and to avoid the blows levelled at him was all that Raymond was able to think of for many long minutes — minutes that seemed more like hours.
When the press became a little less thick about him, Raymond looked round for his brother, but could not see him. A body of riders, moving in a compact wedge, had forced themselves in between himself and Gaston. He saw the white plume in his brother's helmet waving at some distance away to the left, but when he tried to rein in his horse and reach him, he still found himself surrounded by the same phalanx of mounted soldiers, who kept pressing him by sheer weight on and on away to the right, though the tide of battle was most distinctly rolling to the left. The French were flying promiscuously back to their lines, and the English soldiers were in hot pursuit.
Raymond was no longer amid foes. He had long since ceased to have to use his sword either for attack or defence, but he could not check the headlong pace of his mettlesome little barb, nor could he by any exertion of strength turn the creature's head in any other direction. As he was in the midst of those he looked upon as friends, he had no uneasiness as to his own position, even though entirely separated from Gaston and Roger, who generally kept close at his side. He was so little used of late to the manoeuvres of war, that he fancied this headlong gallop, in which he was taking an involuntary part, might be the result of military tactics, and that he should see its use presently.
But as he and his comrades flew over the ground, and the din of the battle died away in his ears, and the last of the evening sunlight faded from the sky, a strange sense of coming ill fell upon Raymond's spirit. Again he made a most resolute and determined effort to check the fiery little creature he rode, who seemed as if his feet were furnished with wings, so fast he spurned the ground beneath his hoofs.
Then for the first time the youth found that this mad pace was caused by regular goading from the silent riders who surrounded him. Turning in his saddle he saw that these men were one and all engaged in pricking and spurring on the impetuous little steed; and as he cast a keen and searching look at these strange riders, he saw that they all wore in their steel caps the black tuft of the followers of the Black Visor and his sable-coated companion, and that these two leaders rode themselves a little distance behind.
Greatly astonished at the strange thing that was befalling him, yet not, so far, alarmed for his personal safety, Raymond drew his sword and looked steadily round at the ring of men surrounding him.
"Cease to interfere with my horse, gentlemen," he said, in stern though courteous accents. "It may be your pleasure thus to ride away from the battle, but it is not mine; and I will ask of you to let me take my way whilst you take yours. Why you desire my company I know not, but I do not longer desire yours; wherefore forbear!"
Not a word or a sign was vouchsafed him in answer; but as he attempted to rein back his panting horse, now fairly exhausted with the struggle between the conflicting wills of so many persons, the dark silent riders continued to urge him forward with open blows and pricks from sword point, till, as he saw that his words were still unheeded, a dangerous glitter shone in Raymond's eyes.
"Have a care how you molest me, gentlemen!" he said, in clear, ringing tones. "Ye are carrying a jest (if jest it be meant for) a little too far. The next who dares to touch my horse must defend himself from my sword."
And then a sudden change came over the bearing of his companions. A dozen swords sprang from their scabbards. A score of harsh voices replied to these words in fierce accents of defiance. One — two — three heavy blows fell upon his head; and though he set his teeth and wheeled about to meet and grapple with his foes, he felt from the first moment that he had no chance whatever against such numbers, and that the only thing to do was to sell his life as dearly as he could.
There was no time to ask or even to wonder at the meaning of this mysterious attack. All he could do was to strive to shield his head from the blows that rained upon him, and breathe a prayer for succour in the midst of his urgent need.
And then he heard a voice speaking in accents of authority: where had he heard that voice before?
"Hold, men! have I not warned you to do him no hurt? Kill him not, but take him alive."
That was the last thing Raymond remembered. His next sensation was of falling and strangulation. Then a blackness swam before his eyes, and sense and memory alike fled.
CHAPTER XXIII. IN THE HANDS OF HIS FOE.
How long that blackness and darkness lasted Raymond never really knew. It seemed to him that he awoke from it at occasional long intervals, always to find himself dreaming of rapid motion, as though he were being transported through the air with considerable speed. But there was no means of telling in what direction he moved, nor in what company. His senses were clouded and dull. He did not know what was real and what part of a dream. He had no recollection of any of the events immediately preceding this sudden and extraordinary journey, and after a brief period of bewilderment would sink back into the black abyss of unconsciousness from which he had been roused for a few moments.
At last, after what seemed to him an enormous interval — for he knew not whether hours, days, or even years had gone by whilst he had remained in this state of unconscious apathy, he slowly opened his eyes, to find that the black darkness had given place to a faint murky light, and that he was no longer being carried rapidly onwards, but was lying still upon a heap of straw in some dim place, the outlines of which only became gradually visible to him.
Raymond was very weak, and weakness exercises a calming and numbing effect upon the senses. He felt no alarm at finding himself in this strange place, but after gazing about him without either recollection or comprehension, he turned round upon his bed of straw, which was by no means the worst resting place he had known in his wanderings, and quickly fell into a sound sleep.
When he awoke some hours later, the place was lighter than it had been, for a ray of sunlight had penetrated through the loophole high above his head, and illuminated with tolerable brightness the whole of the dim retreat in which he found himself. Raymond raised himself upon his elbow and looked wonderingly around him.
"What in the name of all the Holy Saints has befallen me?" he questioned, speaking half aloud in the deep stillness, glad to break the oppressive silence, if it were only by the sound of his own voice. "I feel as though a leaden weight were pressing down my limbs, and my head is throbbing as though a hammer were beating inside it. I can scarce frame my thoughts as I will. What was I doing last, before this strange thing befell me?"
He put his hand to his head and strove to think; but for a time memory eluded him, and his bewilderment grew painfully upon him. Then he espied a pitcher of water and some coarse food set not far away, and he rose with some little difficulty and dragged his stiffened limbs across the stone floor till he reached the spot where this provision stood.
"Sure, this be something of the prisoner's fare," he said, as he raised the pitcher to his lips; "yet I will refresh myself as best I may. Perchance I shall then regain my scattered senses and better understand what has befallen me."
He ate and drank slowly, and it was as he hoped. The nourishment he sorely needed helped to dispel the clouds of weakness and faintness which had hindered the working of his mind before, and a ray of light penetrated the mists about him.
"Ha!" he exclaimed, "I have it now! We were in battle together — Gaston and I rode side by side. I recollect it all now. We were separated in the press, and I was carried off by the followers of the Black Visor. Strange! He was in our ranks. He is a friend, and not a foe. How came it, then, that his men-at-arms made such an error as to set upon me? Was it an error? Did I not hear him, or his huge companion, give some order for my capture to his men before their blades struck me down? It is passing strange. I comprehend it not. But Gaston will be here anon to make all right. There must be some strange error. Sure I must have been mistaken for some other man."
Raymond was not exactly uneasy, though a little bewildered and disturbed in mind by the strangeness of the adventure. It seemed certain to him that there must have been some mistake. That he was at present a prisoner could not be doubted, from the nature of the place in which he was shut up, and the silence and gloom about him; but unless he had been abandoned by his first captors, and had fallen into the hands of the French, he believed that his captivity would speedily come to an end when the mistake concerning his identity was explained. If indeed he were in the power of some French lord, there might be a little longer delay, as a ransom would no doubt have to be found for him ere he could be released. But then Gaston was at liberty, and Gaston had now powerful friends and no mean share in some of the prizes which had been taken by sea and land. He would quickly accomplish his brother's deliverance when once he heard of his captivity; and there would be no difficulty in sending him a message, as his captor's great desire would doubtless be to obtain as large a ransom as he was able to extort.
"They had done better had they tried to seize upon Gaston himself," said Raymond, with a half smile. "He would have been a prize better worth the taking. But possibly he would have proved too redoubtable a foe. Methinks my arm has somewhat lost its strength or cunning, else should I scarce have fallen so easy a prey. I ought to have striven harder to have kept by Gaston's side; but I know not now how we came to be separated. And Roger, too, who has ever been at my side in all times of strife and danger, how came he to be sundered from me likewise? It must have been done by the fellows who bore me off — the followers of the Black Visor. Strange, very strange! I know not what to think of it. But when next my jailer comes he will doubtless tell me where I am and what is desired of me."
The chances of war were so uncertain, and the captive of one day so often became the victor of the next, that Raymond, who for all his fragile look possessed a large fund of cool courage, did not feel greatly disturbed by the ill-chance that had befallen him. Many French knights were most chivalrous and courteous to their prisoners; some even permitted them to go out on parole to collect their own ransoms, trusting to their word of honour to return if they were unable to obtain the stipulated sum. The English cause had many friends amongst the French nobility, and friendships as well as enmities had resulted from the English occupation of such large tracts of France.
So Raymond resolved to make the best of his incarceration whilst it lasted, trusting that some happy accident would soon set him at large again. With such a brother as Gaston on the outside of his prison wall, it would be foolish to give way to despondency.
He looked curiously about at the cave-like place in which he found himself. It appeared to be a natural chamber formed in the living rock. It received a certain share of air and light from a long narrow loophole high up overhead, and the place was tolerably fresh and dry, though its proportions were by no means large. Still it was lofty, and it was wide enough to admit of a certain but limited amount of exercise to its occupant.
Raymond found that he could make five paces along one side of it and four along the other. Except the heap of straw, upon which he had been laid, there was no plenishing of any kind to the cell. However, as it was probably only a temporary resting place, this mattered the less. Raymond had been worse lodged during some of his wanderings before now, and for the two years that he had lived amongst the Cistercian Brothers, he had scarcely been more luxuriously treated. His cell there had been narrower than this place, his fare no less coarse than that he had just partaken of, and his pallet bed scarce so comfortable as this truss of straw.
"Father Paul often lay for weeks upon the bare stone floor," mused Raymond, as he sat down again upon his bed. "Sure I need not grumble that I have such a couch as this."
He was very stiff and bruised, as he found on attempting to move about, but he had no actual wounds, and no bones were broken. His light strong armour had protected him, or else his foes had been striving to vanquish without seriously hurting him. He could feel that his head had been a good deal battered about, for any consecutive thought tired him; but it was something to have come off without worse injury, and sleep would restore him quickly to his wonted strength.
He lay down upon the straw presently, and again he slept soundly and peacefully. He woke up many hours later greatly refreshed, aroused by some sound from the outside of his prison. The light had completely faded from the loophole. The place was in pitchy darkness. There is something a little terrible in black oppressive darkness — the darkness which may almost be felt; and Raymond was not sorry, since he had awakened, to hear the sound of grating bolts, and then the slow creaking of a heavy door upon its hinges.
A faint glimmer of light stole into the cell, and Raymund marked the entrance of a tall dark figure habited like a monk, the cowl drawn so far over the face as entirely to conceal the features. However, the ecclesiastical habit was something of a comfort to Raymond, who had spent so much of his time amongst monks, and he rose to his feet with a respectful salutation in French.
The monk stepped within the cell, and drew the door behind him, turning the heavy key in the lock. The small lantern he carried with him gave only a very feeble light; but it was better than nothing, and enabled Raymond to see the outline of the tall form, which looked almost gigantic in the full religious habit.
"Welcome, Holy Father," said Raymond, still speaking in French. "Right glad am I to look upon face of man again. I prithee tell me where I am, and into whose hands I have fallen; for methinks there is some mistake in the matter, and that they take me for one whom I am not."
"They take thee for one Raymond de Brocas, who lays claim, in thine own or thy brother's person, to Basildene in England and Orthez and Saut in Gascony," answered the monk, who spoke slowly in English and in a strangely-muffled voice. "If thou be not he, say so, and prove it without loss of time; for evil is purposed to Raymond de Brocas, and it were a pity it should fall upon the wrong head."
A sudden shiver ran through Raymond's frame. Was there not something familiar in the muffled sound of that English voice? was there not something in the words and tone that sounded like a cruel sneer? Was it his fancy that beneath the long habit of the monk he caught the glimpse of some shining weapon? Was this some terrible dream come to his disordered brain? Was he the victim of an illusion? or did this tall, shadowy figure stand indeed before him?
For a moment Raymond's head seemed to swim, and then his nerves steadied themselves, and he wondered if he might not be disquieting himself in vain. Possibly, after all, this might be a holy man — one who would stand his friend in the future.
"Thou art English?" he asked quickly; "and if English, surely a friend to thy countrymen?"
"I am English truly," was the low-toned answer, "and I am here to advise thee for thy good."
"I thank thee for that at least. I will follow thy counsel, if I may with honour."
It seemed as though a low laugh forced its way from under the heavy cowl. The monk drew one step nearer.
"Thou hadst better not trouble thy head about honour. What good will thy honour be to thee if they tear thee piecemeal limb from limb, or roast thee to death over a slow fire, or rack thee till thy bones start from their sockets? Let thy honour go to the winds, foolish boy, and think only how thou mayest save thy skin. There be those around and about thee who will have no mercy so long as thou provest obdurate. Bethink thee well how thou strivest against them, for thou knowest little what may well befall thee in their hands."
The blood seemed to run cold in Raymond's veins as he heard these terrible words, spoken with a cool deliberation which did nothing detract from their dread significance. Who was it who once — nay, many times in bygone years — had threatened him with just that cool, deliberate emphasis, seeming to gloat over the dark threats uttered, as though they were to him full of a deep and cruel joy?
It seemed to the youth as though he were in the midst of some dark and horrible dream from which he must speedily awake. He passed his hand fiercely across his eyes and made a quick step towards the monk.
"Who and what art thou?" he asked, in stifled accents, for it seemed as though a hideous oppression was upon him, and he scarce knew the sound of his own voice; and then, with a harsh, grating laugh, the tall figure recoiled a pace, and flung the cowl from his head, and with an exclamation of astonishment and dismay Raymond recognized his implacable foe and rival, Peter Sanghurst, whom last he had beheld within the walls of Basildene.
"Thou here!" he exclaimed, and moved back as far as the narrow limits of the cell would permit, as though from the presence of some noxious beast.
Peter Sanghurst folded his arms and gazed upon his youthful rival with a gleam of cool, vindictive triumph in his cruel eyes that might well send a thrill of chill horror through the lad's slight frame. When he spoke it was with the satisfaction of one who gloats over a victim utterly and entirely in his power.
"Ay, truly I am here; and thou art mine, body and soul, to do with what I will; none caring what befalls thee, none to interpose between thee and me. I have waited long for this hour, but I have not waited in vain. I can read the future. I knew that one day thou wouldst be in my hands — that I might do my pleasure upon thee, whatsoever that pleasure might be. Knowing that, I have been content to wait; only every day the debt has been mounting up. Every time that thou, rash youth, hast dared to try to thwart me, hast dared to strive to stand between me and the object of my desires, a new score has been written down in the record I have long kept against thee. Now the day of reckoning has come, and thou wilt find the reckoning a heavy one. But thou shalt pay it — every jot and tittle shalt thou pay. Thou shalt not escape from my power until thou hast paid the uttermost farthing."
The man's lips parted in a hideous smile which showed his white teeth, sharp and pointed like the fangs of a wolf. Raymond felt his courage rise with the magnitude of his peril. That some unspeakably terrible doom was designed for him he could not doubt. The malignity and cruelty of his foe were too well understood; but at least if he must suffer, he would suffer in silence. His enemy should not have the satisfaction of wringing from him one cry for mercy. He would die a thousand times sooner than sue to him. He thought of Joan — realizing that for her sake he should be called upon, in some sort, to bear this suffering; and even the bare thought sent a thrill of ecstasy through him. Any death that was died for her would be sweet. And might not his be instrumental in ridding her for ever of her hateful foe? Would not Gaston raise heaven and earth to discover his brother? Surely he would, sooner or later, find out what had befallen him; and then might Peter Sanghurst strive in vain to flee from the vengeance he had courted: he would assuredly fall by Gaston's hand, tracked down even to the ends of the earth.
Peter Sanghurst, his eyes fixed steadily on the face of his victim, hoping to enjoy by anticipation his agonies of terror, saw only a gleam of resolution and even of joy pass across his face, and he gnashed his teeth in sudden rage at finding himself unable to dominate the spirit of the youth, as he meant shortly to rack his body.
"Thou thinkest still to defy me, mad boy?" he asked. "Thou thinkest that thy brother will come to thine aid? Let him try to trace thee if he can! I defy him ever to learn where thou art. Wouldst know it thyself? Then thou shalt do so, and thou wilt see thy case lost indeed. Thou art in that Castle of Saut that thou wouldest fain call thine own — that castle which has never yet been taken by foe from without, and never will be yet, so utterly impregnable is its position. Thou art in the hands of the Lord of Navailles, who has his own score to settle with thee, and who will not let thee go till thou hast resigned in thy brother's name and thine own every one of those bold claims which, as he has heard, have been made to the Roy Outremer by one or both of you. Now doth thy spirit quail? now dost thou hope for succour from without? Bid adieu to all such fond and idle hopes. Thou art here utterly alone, no man knowing what has befallen thee. Thou art in the hands of thy two bitterest foes, men who are known and renowned for their cruelty and their evil deeds — men who would crush to death a hundred such as thou who dared to strive to bar their way. Now what sayest thou? how about that boasted honour of thine? Thou hadst best hear reason ere thou hast provoked thy foes too far, and make for thyself the best terms that thou canst. Thou mayest yet save thyself something if thou wilt hear reason."
Raymond's face was set like a flint. He had no power to rid himself of the presence of his foe, but yield one inch to persuasion or threat he was resolved not to do. For one thing, his distrust of this man was so great that he doubted if any concessions made by him would be of the smallest value in obtaining him his release; for another, his pride rose up in arms against yielding anything to fear that he would not yield were he a free man in the midst of his friends. No: at all costs he would stand firm. He could but die once, and what other men had borne for their honour or their faith he could surely bear. His lofty young face kindled and glowed with the enthusiasm of his resolution, and again the adversary's face darkened with fury.
"Thou thinkest perhaps that I have forgot the art of torture since thou wrested from me one victim? Thou shalt find that what he suffered at my hands was but the tithe of what thou shalt endure. Thou hast heard perchance of that chamber in the heart of the earth where the Lord of Navailles welcomes his prisoners who have secrets worth the knowing, or treasures hidden out of his reach? That chamber is not far from where thou standest now, and there be willing hands to carry thee thither into the presence of its Lord, who lets not his visitors escape him till he has wrung from their reluctant lips every secret of which he desires the key. And what are his clumsy engines to the devices and refinements of torture that I can inflict when once that light frame is bound motionless upon the rack, and stretched till not a muscle may quiver save at my bidding? Rash boy, beware how thou provokest me to do my worst; for once I have thee thus bound beneath my hands, then the devil of hatred and cruelty which possesses me at times will come upon me, and I shall not let thee go until I have done my worst. Bethink thee well ere thou provokest me too far. Listen and be advised, ere it be too late for repentance, and thy groans of abject submission fall upon unheeding ears. None will befriend thee then. Thou mayest now befriend thyself. If thou wilt not take the moment when it is thine, it may never be offered thee again."
Raymond did not speak. He folded his arms and looked steadily across at his foe. He knew himself perfectly and absolutely helpless. Every weapon he possessed had been taken from him whilst he lay unconscious. His armour had been removed. He had nothing upon him save his light summer dress, and the precious heart hanging about his neck. Even the satisfaction of making one last battle for his life was denied him. His limbs were yet stiff and weak. His enemy would grip him as though he were a child if he so much as attempted to cast himself upon him. All that was now left for him was the silent dignity of endurance.
Sanghurst made one step forward and seized the arm of the lad in a grip like that of a vice. So cruel was the grip that it was hard to restrain a start of pain.
"Renounce Joan!" he hissed in the boy's ear; "renounce her utterly and for ever! Write at my bidding such words as I shall demand of thee, and thou shalt save thyself the worst of the agonies I will else inflict upon thee. Basildene thou shalt never get — I can defy thee there, do as thou wilt; besides, if thou departest alive from this prison house, thou wilt have had enough of striving to thwart the will of Peter Sanghurst — but Joan thou shalt renounce of thine own free will, and shalt so renounce her that her love for thee will be crushed and killed! Here is the inkhorn, and here the parchment. The ground will serve thee for a table, and I will tell thee what to write. Take then the pen, and linger not. Thou wouldst rejoice to write whatever words I bid thee didst thou know what is even now preparing in yon chamber below thy prison house. Take the pen and sit down. It is but a short half-hour's task."
The strong man thrust the quill into the slight fingers of the boy; but Raymond suddenly wrenched his hand away, and flung the frail weapon to the other end of the cell. He saw the vile purpose in a moment. Peter knew something of the nature of the woman he passionately desired to win for his wife, and he well knew that no lies of his invention respecting the falsity of her young lover would weigh one instant with her. Even the death of his rival would help him in no whit, for Joan would cherish the memory of the dead, and pay no heed to the wooing of the living. There was but one thing that would give him the faintest hope, and that was the destruction of her faith in Raymond. Let him be proved faithless and unworthy, and her love and loyalty must of necessity receive a rude shock. Sanghurst knew the world, and knew that broken faith was the one thing a lofty-souled and pure-minded woman finds it hardest to forgive. Raymond, false to his vows, would no longer be a rival in his way. He might have a hard struggle to win the lady even then, but the one insuperable obstacle would be removed from his path.
And Raymond saw the purpose in a moment. His quick and sharpened intelligence showed all to him in a flash. Not to save himself from any fate would he so disgrace his manhood — prove unworthy in the hour of trial, deny his love, and by so doing deny himself the right to bear all for her dear sake.
Flinging the pen to the ground and turning upon Sanghurst with a great light in his eyes, he told him how he read his base purpose, his black treachery, and dared him to do his worst.
"My worst, mad boy, my worst!" cried the furious man, absolutely foaming at the mouth as he drew back, looking almost like a venomous snake couched for a spring. "Is that, then, thy answer — thy unchangeable answer to the only loophole I offer thee of escaping the full vengeance awaiting thee from thy two most relentless foes? Bethink thee well how thou repeatest such words. Yet once again I bid thee pause. Take but that pen and do as I bid thee —"
"I will not!" answered Raymond, throwing back his head in a gesture of noble, fearless defiance; "I will not do thy vile bidding. Joan is my true love, my faithful and loving lady. Her heart is mine and mine is hers, and her faithful knight I will live and die. Do your worst. I defy you to your face. There is a God above who can yet deliver me out of your hand if He will. If not — if it be His will that I suffer in a righteous cause — I will do it with a soul unseared by coward falsehood. There is my answer; you will get none other. Now do with me what you will. I fear you not."
Peter Sanghurst's aspect changed. The fury died out, to be replaced by a perfectly cold and calm malignity a hundred times more terrible. He stooped and picked up the pen, replacing it with the parchment and inkhorn in a pouch at his girdle. Then throwing off entirely the long monk's habit which he had worn on his entrance, he advanced step by step upon Raymond, the glitter in his eye being terrible to see.
Raymond did not move. He was already standing against the wall at the farthest limit of the cell. His foe slowly advanced upon him, and suddenly put out two long, powerful arms, and gripped him round the body in a clasp against which it was vain to struggle. Lifting him from his feet, he carried him into the middle of the chamber, and setting him down, but still encircling him with that bear-like embrace, he stamped thrice upon the stone floor, which gave out a hollow sound beneath his feet.
The next moment there was a sound of strange creaking and groaning, as though some ponderous machinery were being set in motion. There was a sickening sensation, as though the very ground beneath his feet were giving way, and the next instant Raymond became aware that this indeed was the case. The great flagstone upon which he and his captor were standing was sinking, sinking, sinking into the very heart of the earth, as it seemed; and as they vanished together into the pitchy darkness, to the accompaniment of that same strange groaning and creaking, Raymond heard a hideous laugh in his ear.
"This is how his victims are carried to the Lord of Navailles's torture chamber. Ha-ha! ha-ha! This is how they go down thither. Whether they ever come forth again is quite another matter!"
CHAPTER XXIV. GASTON'S QUEST.
When Gaston missed his brother from his side in the triumphant turning of the tables upon the French, he felt no uneasiness. The battle was going so entirely in favour of the English arms, and the discomfited French were making so small a stand, that the thought of peril to Raymond never so much as entered his head. In the waning light it was difficult to distinguish one from another, and for aught he knew his brother might be quite close at hand. They were engaged in taking prisoners such of their enemies as were worthy to be carried off; and when they had completely routed the band and made captive their leaders, it was quite dark, and steps were taken to encamp for the night.
Then it was that Gaston began to wonder why he still saw nothing either of Raymond or of the faithful Roger, who was almost like his shadow. He asked all whom he met if anything had been seen of his brother, but the answer was always the same — nobody knew anything about him. Nobody appeared to have seen him since the brothers rode into battle side by side; and the young knight began to feel thoroughly uneasy.
Of course there had been some killed and wounded in the battle upon both sides, though the English loss was very trifling. Still it might have been Raymond's fate to be borne down in the struggle, and Gaston, calling some of his own personal attendants about him, and bidding them take lanterns in their hands, went forth to look for his brother upon the field where the encounter had taken place.
The field was a straggling one, as the combat had taken the character of a rout at the end, and the dead and wounded lay at long intervals apart. Gaston searched and searched, his heart growing heavier as he did so, for his brother was very dear to him, and he felt a pang of bitter self-reproach at having left him, however inadvertently, to bear the brunt of the battle alone. But search as he would he found nothing either of Raymond or Roger, and a new fear entered into his mind.
"Can he have been taken prisoner?"
This did not seem highly probable. The French, bold enough at the outset when they had believed themselves secure of an easy victory, had changed their front mightily when they had discovered the trap set for them by their foes, and in the end had thought of little save how to save their own lives. They would scarce have burdened themselves with prisoners, least of all with one who did not even hold the rank of knight. This disappearance of his brother was perplexing Gaston not a little. He looked across the moonlit plain, now almost as light as day, a cloud of pain and bewilderment upon his face.
"By Holy St. Anthony, where can the boy be?" he cried.
Then one of his men-at-arms came up and spoke.
"When we were pursuing the French here to the left, back towards their own lines, I saw a second struggle going on away to the right. The knight with the black visor seemed to be leading that pursuit, and though I could not watch it, as I had my own work to do here, I know that some of our men took a different line, there along by yon ridge to the right."
"Let us go thither and search there," said Gaston, with prompt decision, "for plainly my brother is not here. It may be he has been following another flying troop. We will up and after him. Look well as you ride if there be any prostrate figures lying in the path. I fear me he may have been wounded in the rout, else surely he would not have stayed away so long."
Turning his horse round, and closely followed by his men, Gaston rode off in the direction pointed out by his servant. It became plain that there had been fighting of some sort along this line, for a few dead and wounded soldiers, all Frenchmen, lay upon the ground at intervals. Nothing, however, could be seen of Raymond, and for a while nothing of Roger either; but just as Gaston was beginning to despair of finding trace of either, he beheld in the bright moonlight a figure staggering along in a blind and helpless fashion towards them, and spurring rapidly forward to meet it, he saw that it was Roger.
Roger truly, but Roger in pitiable plight. His armour was gone. His doublet had been half stripped from off his back. He was bleeding from more than one wound, and in his eyes was a fixed and glassy stare, like that of one walking in sleep. His face was ghastly pale, and his breath came in quick sobs and gasps.
"Roger, is it thou?" cried Gaston, in accents of quick alarm. "I have been seeking thee everywhere. Where is thy master? Where is my brother?"
"Gone! gone! gone!" cried Roger, in a strange and despairing voice. "Carried off by his bitterest foes! Gone where we shall never see him more!"
There was something in the aspect of the youth and in his lamentable words that sent an unwonted shiver through Gaston's frame; but he was quick to recover himself, and answered hastily:
"Boy, thou art distraught! Tell me where my brother has gone. I will after him and rescue him. He cannot be very far away. Quick — tell me what has befallen him!"
"He has been carried off — more I know not. He has been carried off by foulest treachery."
"Treachery! Whose treachery? Who has carried him off?"
"The knight of the Black Visor."
"The Black Visor! Nay; thou must be deceived thyself! The Black Visor is one of our own company."
"Ay verily, and that is why he succeeded where an open foe had failed. None guessed with what purpose he came when he and his men pushed their way in a compact wedge, and sundered my young master from your side, sir, driving him farther and farther from all beside, till he and I (who had managed to keep close beside him) were far away from all the world beside, galloping as if for dear life in a different direction. Then it was that they threw off the pretence of being friends — that they set upon him and overpowered him, that they beat off even me from holding myself near at hand, and carried me bound in another direction. I was given in charge to four stalwart troopers, all wearing the black badge of their master. They bound my bands and my feet, and bore me along I knew not whither. I lost sight of my master. Him they took at headlong speed in another direction. I had been wounded in the battle. I was wounded by these men, struggling to follow your brother. I swooned in my saddle, and knew no more till a short hour ago, when I woke to find myself lying, still bound, upon a heap of straw in some outhouse of a farm. I heard the voices of my captors singing snatches of songs not far away; but they were paying no heed to their captive, and I made shift to slacken my bonds and slip out into the darkness of the wood.
"I knew not where I was; but the moon told me how to bend my steps to find the English camp again. I, in truth, have escaped — have come to bring you word of his peril; but ah, I fear, I fear that we shall never see him more! They will kill him — they will kill him! He is in the hands of his deadliest foes!"
"If we know where he is, we can rescue him without delay!" cried Gaston, who was not a little perplexed at the peculiar nature of the adventure which had befallen his brother.
To be taken captive and carried off by one of the English knights (if indeed the Black Visor were a knight) was a most extraordinary thing to have happened. Gaston, who knew little enough of his brother's past history in detail, and had no idea that he had called down upon himself any particular enmity, was utterly at a loss to understand the story, nor was Roger in a condition to give any farther explanation. He tottered as he stood, and Gaston ordered his servants to mount him upon one of their horses and bring him quietly along, whilst he himself turned and galloped back to the camp to prosecute inquiries there.
"Who is the Black Visor?" — that was the burden of his inquiries, and it was long before he could obtain an answer to this question. The leaders of the expedition were full of their own plans and had little attention to bestow upon Gaston or his strange story. The loss of a single private gentleman from amongst their muster was nothing to excite them, and their own position was giving them much more concern. They had taken many prisoners. They believed that they had done amply enough to raise the siege of St. Jean d'Angely (though in this they proved themselves mistaken), and they were anxious to get safely back to Bordeaux with their spoil before any misadventure befell them.
Gaston cared nothing now for the expedition; his heart was with his brother, his mind was full of anxious questioning. Roger's story plainly showed that Raymond was in hostile hands. But the perplexity of the matter was that Gaston had no idea of the name or rank of his brother's enemy and captor.
At last he came upon a good-natured knight who had been courteous to the brothers in old days. He listened with interest to Gaston's tale, and bid him wait a few minutes whilst he went to try to discover the name and rank of the Black Visor. He was certain that he had heard it, though he could not recollect at a moment's notice what he had heard. He did not keep Gaston waiting long, but returned quickly to him.
"The Black Visor is one Peter Sanghurst of Basildene, a gentleman in favour with the King, and one likely to rise to high honour. Men whisper that he has some golden secret which, if it be so, will make of him a great man one of these days. It is he who has been in our company, always wearing his black visor. Men say he is under some vow, and until the vow is accomplished no man may look upon his face."
Gaston drew his breath hard, and a strange gleam came into his eyes.
"Peter Sanghurst of Basildene!" he exclaimed, and then fell into a deep reverie.
What did it all mean? What had Raymond told him from time to time about the enmity of this man? Did not Gaston himself well remember the adventure of long ago, when he and his brother had entered Basildene by stealth and carried thence the wretched victim of the sorcerer's art? Was not that the beginning of an enmity which had never been altogether laid to sleep? Had he not heard whispers from time to time all pointing to the conclusion that Sanghurst had neither forgotten nor forgiven, and that he felt his possession of Basildene threatened by the existence of the brothers whose right it was? Had not Raymond placed himself almost under vow to win back his mother's lost inheritance? And might it not be possible that this knowledge had come to the ears of the present owner?
Gaston ground his teeth in rage as he realized what might be the meaning of this cowardly attack. Treachery and cowardice were the two vices most hateful in his eyes, and this vile attack upon an unsuspecting comrade filled him with the bitterest rage as well as with the greatest anxiety.
Plain indeed was it that Raymond had been carried off; but whither? To England? that scarce seemed possible. It would be a daring thing indeed to bring an English subject back to his native land a prisoner. Yet where else could Peter Sanghurst carry a captive? He might have friends amongst the French; but who would be sufficiently interested in his affairs to give shelter to him and his prisoner, when it might lead to trouble perhaps with the English King?
One thought of relief there was in the matter. Plainly it was not Raymond's death that was to be compassed. If they had wished to kill him, they would have done so upon the battlefield and have left him there, where his death would have excited no surprise or question. No; it was something more than this that was wanted, and Gaston felt small difficulty in guessing what that aim and object was.
"He is to be held for ransom, and his ransom will be our claim upon Basildene. We both shall be called upon to renounce that, and then Raymond will go free. Well, if that be the only way, Basildene must go. But perchance it may be given to me to save the inheritance and rescue Raymond yet. Would that I knew whither they had carried him! But surely he may be traced and followed. Some there must be who will be able to give me news of them."
Of one thing Gaston was perfectly assured, and that was that he must now act altogether independently, gain permission to quit the expedition, and pursue his own investigations with his own followers. He had no difficulty in arranging this matter. The leaders had already resolved upon returning to Bordeaux immediately, and taking ship with their spoil and prisoners for England. Had Gaston not had other matters of his own to think of, he would most likely have urged a farther advance upon the beleaguered town, to make sure that it was sufficiently relieved. As it was, he had no thoughts but for his brother's peril; and his anxieties were by no means relieved by the babble of words falling from Roger's lips when he returned to see how it fared with him.
Roger appeared to the kindly soldiers, who had made a rude couch for him and were tending him with such skill as they possessed, to be talking in the random of delirium, and they paid little heed to his words. But as Gaston stood by he was struck by the strange fixity of the youth's eyes, by the rigidity of his muscles, and by the coherence and significance of his words.
It was not a disconnected babble that passed his lips; it was the description of some scene upon which he appeared to be looking. He spoke of horsemen galloping through the night, of the Black Visor in the midst and his gigantic companion by his side. He spoke of the unconscious captive they carried in their midst — the captive the youth struggled frantically to join, that they might share together whatever fate was to be his.
The soldiers naturally believed he was wandering, and speaking of his own ride with his captors; but Gaston listened with different feelings. He remembered well what he had once heard about this boy and the strange gift he possessed, or was said to possess, of seeing what went on at a distance when he had been in the power of the sorcerer. Might it not be that this gift was not only exercised at the will of another, but might be brought into play by the tension of anxiety evoked by a great strain upon the boy's own nervous system? Gaston did not phrase the question thus, but he well knew the devotion with which Roger regarded Raymond, and it seemed quite possible to him that in this crisis of his life, his body weakened by wounds and fatigue, his mind strained by grief and anxiety as to the fate of him he loved more than life, his spirit had suddenly taken that ascendency over his body which of old it had possessed, and that he was really and truly following in that strange trance-like condition every movement of the party of which Raymond was the centre.
At any rate, whether he were right or not in this surmise, Gaston resolved that he would not lose a word of these almost ceaseless utterings, and dismissing his men to get what rest they could, he sat beside Roger, and listened with attention to every word he spoke.
Roger lay with his eyes wide open in the same fixed and glassy stare. He spoke of a halt made at a wayside inn, of the rousing up with the earliest stroke of dawn of the keeper of this place, of the inside of the bare room, and the hasty refreshment set before the impatient travellers.
"He sits down, they both sit down, and then he laughs — ah, where have I heard that laugh before?" and a look of strange terror sweeps over the youth's face. "'I may now remove my visor — my vow is fulfilled! My enemy is in my hands. My Lord of Navailles, I drink this cup to your good health and the success of our enterprise. We have the victim in our own hands. We can wring from him every concession we desire before we offer him for ransom.'"
Gaston gave a great start. What did this mean? Well indeed he remembered the Sieur de Navailles, the hereditary foe of the De Brocas. Was it, could it be possible, that he was concerned in this capture? Had their two foes joined together to strive to win all at one blow? He must strive to find this out. Could it be possible that Roger really saw and heard all these things? or was it but the fantasy of delirium? Raymond might have spoken to him of the Lord of Navailles as a foe, and in his dreams he might be mixing one thought with the other.
Suddenly Roger uttered a sharp cry and pressed his hands before his eyes. "It is he! it is he!" he cried, with a gasping utterance. "He has removed the mask from his face. It is he — Peter Sanghurst — and he is smiling — that smile. Oh, I know what it means! He has cruel, evil thoughts in his mind. O my master, my master!"
Gaston started to his feet. Here was corroboration indeed. Roger no more knew who the Black Visor was than he had done himself an hour back. Yet he now saw the face of Peter Sanghurst, the very man he himself had discovered the Black Visor to be. This indeed showed that Roger was truly looking upon some distant scene, and a strange thrill ran through Gaston as he realized this mysterious fact.
"And the other, Peter Sanghurst's companion — what of him? what likeness does he bear?" asked Gaston quickly.
"He is a very giant in stature," was the answer, "with a swarthy skin, black eyes that burn in their sockets, and a coal-black beard that falls below his waist. He has a sear upon his left cheek, and he has lost two fingers upon the left hand. He speaks in a voice like rolling waves, and in a language that is half English and half the Gascon tongue."
"In very truth the Sieur de Navailles!" whispered Gaston to himself.
With every faculty on the alert, he sat beside Roger's bed, listening to every word of his strange babble of talk. He described how they took to horse, fresh horses being provided for the whole company, as though all had been planned beforehand, and how they galloped at headlong pace away — away — away, ever faster, ever more furiously, as though resolved to gain their destination at all cost.
The day dawned, but Roger lay still in this trance, and Gaston would not have him disturbed. Until he could know whither his brother had been carried, it was useless to strive to seek and overtake him. If in very truth Roger was in some mysterious fashion watching over him, he would, doubtless, be able to tell whither at length the captive was taken. Then they would to horse and pursue. But they must learn all they could first.
The hours passed by. Roger still talked at intervals. If questioned he answered readily — always of the same hard riding, the changes of horses, the captive carried passive in the midst of the troop.
Then he began to speak words that arrested Gaston's attention. He spoke of natural features well known to him: he described a grim fortress, so placed as to be impregnable to foes from without. There were the wide moat, the huge natural mound, the solid wall, the small loopholes. Gaston held his breath to hear: he knew every feature of the place so described. Was it not the ancient Castle of Saut — his own inheritance, as he had been brought up to call it? Roger had never seen it; he was almost assured of that. What he was describing was something seen with that mysterious second sight of his, nothing that had ever impressed itself upon his waking senses.
It was all true, then. Raymond had indeed been taken captive by the two bitter enemies of the house of De Brocas. Peter Sanghurst had doubtless heard of the feud between the two houses, and of the claim set up by Gaston for the establishment of his own rights upon the lands of the foe, and had resolved to make common cause with the Navailles against the brothers. It was possible that they would have liked to get both into their clutches, but that they feared to attack so stalwart a foe as Gaston; or else they might have believed that the possession of the person of Raymond would be sufficient for their purpose. The tie between the twin brothers was known to be strong. It was likely enough that were Raymond's ransom fixed at even an exorbitant sum, the price would be paid by the brother, who well knew that the Tower of Saut was strong enough to defy all attacks from without, and that any person incarcerated in its dungeons would be absolutely at the mercy of its cruel and rapacious lord.
The King of England had his hands full enough as it was without taking up the quarrel of every wronged subject. What was done would have to be done by himself and his own followers; and Gaston set his teeth hard as he realized this, and went forth to give his own orders for the morrow.
At the first glimpse of coming day they were to start forth for the south, and by hard riding might hope to reach Saut by the evening of the second day. Gaston could muster some score of armed men, and they would be like enough to pick up many stragglers on the way, who would be ready enough to join any expedition promising excitement and adventure. To take the Castle of Saut by assault would, as Gaston well knew, be impossible; but he cherished a hope that it might fall into his hands through strategy if he were patient, and if Roger still retained that marvellous faculty of second-sight which revealed to his eyes things hidden from the vision of others.
He slept all that night without moving or speaking, and when he awoke in the morning it was in a natural state, and at first he appeared to have no recollection of what had occurred either to himself or to Raymond. But as sense and memory returned to him, so did also the shadow of some terrible doom hanging over his beloved young master; and though he was still weak and ill, and very unfit for the long journey on horseback through the heat of a summer's day, he would not hear of being left behind, and was the one to urge upon the others all the haste possible as they rode along southward after the foes who had captured Raymond.
On, on, on! there were no halts save for the needful rest and refreshment, or to try to get fresh horses to carry them forward. A fire seemed to burn in Gaston's veins as well as in those of Roger; and the knowledge that they were on the track of the fugitives gave fresh ardour to the pursuit at every halting place.
Only a few hours were allowed for rest and sleep during the darkest hour of the short night, and then on — on — ever on, urged by an overmastering desire to know what was happening to the prisoner behind those gloomy walls.
Roger's sleep that night had been disturbed by hideous visions. He did not appear to know or see anything that was passing; but a deep gloom hung upon his spirit, and he many times woke shivering and crying out with horror at he knew not what; whilst Gaston lay broad awake, a strange sense of darkness and depression upon his own senses. He could scarce restrain himself from springing up and summoning his weary followers to get to horse and ride forth at all risks to the very doors of Saut, and only with the early dawn of day did any rest or refreshment fall upon his spirit.
Roger looked more himself as they rode forth in the dawn.
"Methinks we are near him now," he kept saying; "my heart is lighter than it was. We will save him yet — I am assured of it! He is not dead; I should surely know it if he were. We are drawing nearer every step. We may be with him ere nightfall."
"The walls of Saut lie betwixt us," said Gaston, rather grimly, but he looked sternly resolute, as though it would take strong walls indeed to keep him from his brother when they were so near.
The country was beginning to grow familiar to him. He picked up followers in many places as he passed through. The name of De Brocas was loved here; that of De Navailles was loathed, and hated, and feared.
Evening was drawing on. The woods were looking their loveliest in all the delicate beauty of their fresh young green. Gaston, riding some fifty yards ahead with Roger beside him, looked keenly about him, with vivid remembrance of every winding of the woodland path. Soon, as he knew, the grim Castle of Saut would break upon his vision — away there in front and slightly to the right, where the ground fell away to the river and rose on the opposite bank, crowned with those frowning walls.
He was riding so carelessly that when his horse suddenly swerved and shied violently, he was for a moment almost unseated; but quickly recovering himself, he looked round to see what had frightened the animal, and himself gave almost as violent a start as the beast had done.
And yet what he saw was nothing very startling: only the light figure of a young girl — a girl fair of face and light of foot as a veritable forest nymph — such as indeed she looked springing out from the overhanging shade of that dim place.
For one instant they looked into each other's faces with a glance of quick recognition, and then clasping her hands together, the girl exclaimed in the Gascon tongue:
"The Holy Saints be praised! You have come, you have come! Ah, how I have prayed that help might come! And my prayers have been heard!"
CHAPTER XXV. THE FAIRY OF THE FOREST
Gaston sat motionless in his saddle, gazing at the apparition as though fascinated. He had seen this woodland nymph before. He had spoken with her, had sat awhile beside her, and her presence had inspired feelings within him to which he had hitherto been a complete stranger. As he gazed now into that lovely face, anxious, glad, fearful, all in one, and yet beaming with joy at the encounter, he felt as if indeed the denizens of another sphere had interposed to save his brother, and from that moment he felt a full assurance that Raymond would be rescued.
Recovering himself as by an effort, he sprang from his saddle and stood beside the girl.
"Lady," he said, in gentle accents, that trembled slightly through the intensity of his emotion — "fairest lady, who thou art I know not, but this I know, that thou comest ever as a messenger of mercy. Once it was to warn me of peril to come; now it is to tell us of one who lies in sore peril. Lady, tell me that I am not wrong in this — that thou comest to give me news of my brother!"
Her liquid eyes were full of light. She did not shrink from him, or play with his feelings as on a former occasion. Her face expressed a serious gravity and earnestness of purpose which added tenfold to her charms. Gaston, deeply as his feelings were stirred with anxious care for his brother's fate, could not help his heart going out to this exquisite young thing standing before him with trustful upturned face.
Who she was he knew not and cared not. She was the one woman in the world for him. He had thought so when he had found her in the forest in wayward tricksy mood; he knew it without doubt now that he saw her at his side, her sweet face full of deep and womanly feeling, her arch shyness all forgotten in the depth and resolution of her resolve.
"I do!" she answered, in quick, short sentences that sounded like the tones of a silver bell. "You are Gaston de Brocas, and he, the prisoner, is your twin brother Raymond. I know all. I have heard them talk in their cups, when they forget that I am growing from a child to a woman. I have long ceased to be a child. I think that I have grown old in that terrible place. I have heard words — oh, that make my blood run cold! that make me wish I had never been born into a world where such things are possible! In my heart I have registered a vow. I have vowed that if ever the time should come when I might save one wretched victim from my savage uncle's power — even at the risk of mine own life — I would do it. I have warned men away from here. I have done a little, times and again, to save them from a snare laid for them. But never once have I had power to rescue from his relentless clutch the victim he had once enclosed in his net, for never have I had help from without. But when I heard them speak of Raymond de Brocas — when I knew that it was he, thy brother, of whom some such things were spoken — then I felt that I should indeed go mad could I not save him from such fate."
"What fate?" asked Gaston breathlessly; but she went on as though she had not heard.
"I thought of thee as I had seen thee in the wood. I said in my heart, 'He is noble, he is brave. He will rest not night nor day whilst his brother lies a captive in these cruel hands. I have but to watch and to wait. He will surely come. And when he comes, I will show him the black hole in the wall — the dark passage to the moat — and he will dare to enter where never man has entered before. He will save his brother, and my vow will be fulfilled!'"
Gaston drew his breath hard, and a light leaped into his eyes.
"Thou knowest a secret way by which the Tower of Saut may be entered — is that so, Lady?"
"I know a way by which many a wretched victim has left it," answered the girl, whose dark violet eyes were dilated by the depth of her emotion. "I know not if any man ever entered by that way. But my heart told me that there was one who would not shrink from the task, be the peril never so great. I will see that the men-at-arms have drink enough to turn their heads. I have a concoction of herbs which if mingled with strong drink will cause such sleep to fall upon men that a thunderbolt falling at their feet would scarce awaken them. I will see that thou hast the chance thou needest. The rest wilt thou do without a thought of fear."
"Fear to go where Raymond is — to share his fate if I may not rescue him!" cried Gaston. "Nay, sweet lady, that would be indeed a craven fear, unworthy of any true knight. But tell me more. I have many times wandered round the Tower of Saut in my boyhood, when its lord and master was away. Methinks I know every loophole and gate by heart. But the gates are so closely guarded, and the windows are so narrow and high up in the walls, that I know not how they may be entered from without."
"True: yet there is one way of which doubtless thou knowest naught, for, as I have said, men go forth that way, but enter not by it; and the trick is known only to a few chosen souls, for the victims who pass out seek not to come again. They drop with sullen plash into the black waters of the moat, and the river, which mingles its clearer water with the sluggish stream encircling the Tower, bears thence towards the hungry sea the burden thus entrusted to its care."
Gaston shivered slightly.
"Thou speakest of the victims done to death within yon gloomy walls. I have heard dark tales of such ere now."
"Thou hast heard nothing darker than the truth," said the girl, her slight frame quivering with repressed emotion and a deep and terrible sense of helpless indignation and pity. "I have heard stories that have made my blood run cold in my veins. Men have been done to death in a fashion I dare not speak of. There is a terrible room scarce raised above the level of the moat, into which I was once taken, and the memory of which has haunted me ever since. It is within the great mound upon which the Tower is built; and above it is the dungeon in which the victim is confined. There is some strange and wondrous device by which he may be carried down and raised again to his own prison house when his captor has worked his hideous will upon him. And if he dies, as many do, upon the fearful engines men have made to inflict torture upon each other, then there is this narrow stairway, and this still narrower passage down to the sullen waters of the moat.
"The opening is just at the level of the water. It looks so small from the opposite side, that one would think it but the size to admit the passage of a dog; you would think it was caused by the loosening of some stone in the wall — no more. But yet it is large enough to admit the passage of a human body; and where a body has passed out, sure a body may pass in. There is no lock upon the door from the underground passage to the moat; for what man would be so bold as find his way into the Castle by the grim dungeons which hold such terrible secrets? If thou hast the courage to enter thus, none will bar thy passage —"
"If!" echoed Gaston, whose hand was clenched and his whole face quivering with emotion as he realized the fearful peril which menaced his brother. "There is no such thing as a doubt. Raymond is there. I come to save him."
The girl's eyes flashed with answering fire. She clasped her hands together, and cried, with something like a sob in her voice:
"I knew it! I knew it! I knew that thou wert a true knight that thou wouldst brave all to save him."
"I am his brother," said Gaston simply, "his twin brother. Who should save him but I? Tell me, have I come in time? Have they dared to lay a finger upon him yet?"
"Dared!" repeated the girl, with a curious inflection in her voice. "Of what should they be afraid here in this tower, which has ever withstood the attacks of foes, which no man may enter without first storming the walls and forcing the gates? Thinkest thou that they fear God or man? Nay, they know not what such fear is; and therein lies our best hope."
"How so?" asked Gaston quickly.
"Marry, for two reasons: one being that they keep but small guard over the place, knowing its strength and remoteness; the other, that being thus secure, they are in no haste to carry out their devil's work. They will first let their prisoner recover of his hurts, that he slip not too soon from their power, as weaklier victims ofttimes do."
"Then they have done naught to him as yet?" asked Gaston, in feverish haste. "What hurts speakest thou of? Was he wounded in the fight, or when they surrounded him and carried him off captive?"
"Not wounded, as I have heard, but sorely battered and bruised; and he was brought hither unconscious, and lay long as one dead. When he refused to do the bidding of Peter Sanghurst, they took him down to yon fearsome chamber; but, as I heard when I sat at the hoard with mine uncle and that wicked man, they had scarce laid hands upon him, to bend his spirit to their will through their hellish devices, before he fell into a deep swoon from which they could not rouse him; and afraid that he would escape their malice by a merciful death, and that they would lose the very vengeance they had taken such pains to win, they took him back to his cell; and there he lies, tended not unskilfully by my old nurse, who is ever brought to the side of the sick in this place. Once I made shift to slip in behind her when the warder was off his guard, and to whisper in his ear a word of hope. But we are too close watched to do aught but by stealth, and Annette is never suffered to approach the prison alone. She is conducted thither by a grim warder, who waits beside her till she has done her office, and then takes her away. They do not know how we loathe and hate their wicked, cruel deeds; but they know that women have ere this been known to pity helpless victims, and they have an eye to us ever."
Gaston drew his breath more freely. Raymond, then, was for the moment safe. No grievous bodily hurt had been done him as yet; and here outside his prison was his brother, and one as devoted as though the tie of blood bound them together, ready to dare all to save him from the hands of his cruel foes.
"They are in no great haste," said the maiden; "they feel themselves so strong. They say that no man can so much as discover where thy brother has been spirited, still less snatch him from their clasp. They know the French King will not stir to help a subject of the Roy Outremer, They know that Edward of England is far away, and that he still avoids an open breach of the truce. They are secure in the undisturbed possession of their captive. I have heard them say that had he a hundred brothers all working without to obtain his release, the walls of the Tower of Saut would defy their utmost efforts."
"That we shall see," answered Gaston, with a fierce gleam in his eye; and then his face softened as he said, "Now that we have for our ally the enchanted princess of the Castle, many things may be done that else would be hard of achievement."
His ardent look sent a flush of colour through the girl's transparent skin, but her eyes did not waver as she looked frankly back at him.
"Nay; I am no princess, and I have no enchantments — would that I had, if they could be used in offices of pity and mercy! I am but a portionless maiden, an orphan, an alien. Ofttimes I weep to think that I too did not die when my parents did, in that terrible scourge which has devastated the world, which I hear that you of England call the Black Death."
"Who art thou then, fair maid?" questioned Gaston, who was all this time cautiously approaching the Tower of Saut by a winding and unfrequented path well known to his companion. Roger had been told to wait till the other riders came up, and conduct them with great secrecy and caution along the same path.
Their worst fears for Raymond partially set at rest, and the hope of a speedy rescue acting upon their minds like a charm, Gaston was able to think of other things, and was eager to know more of the lovely girl who had twice shown herself to him in such unexpected fashion.
It was a simple little story that she told, but it sounded strangely entrancing from her lips. Her name, she said, was Constanza, and her father had been one of a noble Spanish house, weakened and finally ruined by the ceaseless internal strife carried on between the proud nobles of the fiery south. Her mother was the sister of the Sieur do Navailles, and he had from time to time given aid to her father in his troubles with his enemies. The pestilence which had of late devastated almost the whole of Europe, had visited the southern countries some time before it had invaded more northerly latitudes; and about a year before Gaston's first encounter with the nymph of the wood, it had laid waste the districts round and about her home, and had carried off both her parents and her two brothers in the space of a few short days.
Left alone in that terrible time of trouble, surrounded by enemies eager to pounce upon the little that remained of the wide domain which had once owned her father's sway, Constanza, in her desperation, naturally turned to her uncle as the one protector that she knew. He had always showed himself friendly towards her father. He had from time to time lent him substantial assistance in his difficulties; and when he had visited at her home, he had shown himself kindly disposed in a rough fashion to the little maiden who flitted like a fairy about the wide marble halls. Annette, her nurse, who had come with her mother from France when she had left that country on her nuptials, was a Gascon woman, and had taught the language of the country to her young mistress. It was natural that the woman should be disposed to return to her native land at this crisis; and for Constanza to attempt to hold her own — a timid maiden against a score of rapacious foes — was obviously out of the question. Together they had fled, taking with them such family jewels as could easily be carried upon their persons, and disguised as peasants they had reached and crossed the frontier, and found their way to Saut, where the Lord of Navailles generally spent such of his time as was not occupied in forays against his neighbours, or in following the fortunes either of the French or English King, as best suited the fancy of the moment.
He had received his niece not unkindly, but with complete indifference, and had soon ceased to think about her in any way. She had a home beneath his roof. She had her own apartments, and she was welcome to occupy herself as she chose. Sometimes, when he was in a better humour than usual, he would give her a rough caress. More frequently he swore at her for being a useless girl, when she might, as a boy, have been of some good in the world. He had no intention of providing her with any marriage portion, so that it was superfluous to attempt to seek out a husband for her. She and Annette were occasionally of use when there was sickness within the walls of the Castle, or when he or his followers came in weary and wounded from some hard fighting. On the whole he did not object to her presence at Saut, and her own little bower was not devoid of comfort, and even of luxury.
But for all that, the girl was often sick at heart with all that she saw and heard around her, and was unconsciously pining for some life, she scarce knew what, but a life that should be different from the one she was doomed to now.
"Sometimes I think that I will retire to a Convent and shut myself up there," she said to Gaston, her eyes looking far away over the wooded plain before them; "and yet I love my liberty. I love to roam the forest glades — to hear the songs of the bird, and to feel the fresh winds of heaven about me. Methinks I should pine and die shut up within high walls, without the liberty to rove as I will. And then I am not /devote/. I love not to spend long hours upon my knees. I feel nearest to the Blessed Saints and the Holy Mother of God out here in these woods, where no ribald shouts of mirth or blasphemous oaths can reach me. But the Sisters live shut behind high walls, and they love best to tell their beads beside the shrine of some Saint within their dim chapels. They were good to us upon our journey. I love and reverence the holy Sisters, and yet I do not know how I could be one of them. I fear me they would soon send me forth, saying that I was not fit for their life."
"Nay, truly such a life is not for thee!" cried Gaston, with unwonted heat. "Sweet maiden, thou wert never made to pine away behind walls that shelter such as cannot stand against the trials and troubles of life. For it is not so with thee. Thou hast courage; thou hast a noble heart and a strong will. There is other work for thee to do. Lady, thou hast this day made me thy humble slave for ever. My brother once free, as by thy aid I trust he will be ere another day has dawned, and I will repay thy service by claiming as my reward the right to call myself thine own true knight. Sweet Constanza, I will live and, if need be, die for thee. Thou wilt henceforth be the light of my path, the star of my life. Lady, thy face hath haunted me ever since that day, so long gone by, when I saw thee first, scarce knowing if thou wert a creature of flesh and blood or a sprite of the woodland and water. Fair women have I looked upon ere now, but none so fair as thee. Let me but call myself thy true and faithful knight, and the day will come when I will stand boldly forth and make thee mine before all the world!"
Gaston had never meant to speak thus when he and his companion first began this walk through the winding woodland path. Then his thoughts had been filled with his brother and him alone, and there had been no space for other matters to intrude upon him. But with a mind more at rest as to Raymond's immediate fate, he could not but be aware of the intense fascination exercised upon him by his companion; and before he well knew what he was saying, he was pouring into her ears these ardent protestations of devotion.
Her fair face flushed, and the liquid eyes, so full of softness and fire, fell before his ardent gaze. The little hand he had taken in his own quivered in his strong clasp, and Gaston felt with a thrill of ecstatic joy that it faintly returned the pressure of his fingers.
"Lady, sweetest Lady!" he repeated, his words growing more and more rapid as his emotion deepened, "let me hear thee say that thou wilt grant me leave to call myself thy true knight! Let me hear from those sweet lips that there is none before me who has won the love of this generous heart!"
The maid was quivering from head to foot. Such words were like a new language to her, and yet her heart gave a ready and sweet response. Had she not sung of knightly wooers in the soft songs of her childhood, and had she not dreamed her own innocent dreams of him who would one day come to seek her? And had not that dream lover always worn the knightly mien, the proud and handsome face, of him she had seen but once, and that for one brief hour alone? Was it hard to give to him the answer he asked? And yet how could she frame her lips aright to tell him she had loved him ere he had asked her love?
"Fair Sir, how should a lonely maid dwelling in these wild woods know aught of that knightly love of which our troubadours so sweetly sing? I have scarce seen the face of any since I have come to these solitudes; only the rough and terrible faces of those wild soldiers and savages who follow mine uncle when he rideth forth on his forays."
Gaston's heart gave a throb of joy; but it was scarce the moment to press his suit farther. Who could tell what the next few hours might bring forth? He might himself fall a victim, ere another day had passed, to the ancient foe of his house. It was enough for the present to know that the fair girl's heart was free.
He raised the hand he held and pressed his lips upon it, saying in tenderest tones:
"From henceforth — my brother once standing free without these walls — I am thy true knight and champion, Lady. Give me, I pray thee, that knot of ribbon at thy neck. Let me place it in my head piece, and feel that I am thine indeed for life or death."