With a hand that trembled, but not from hesitation, Constanza unfastened the simple little knot she wore as her sole ornament, and gave it to Gaston. They exchanged one speaking glance, but no word passed their lips.
By this time they had approached very near to the Tower, although the thick growth of the trees hindered them from seeing it, as it also concealed them from the eyes of any persons who might be upon the walls. The evening light was now fast waning. Upon the tops of the heights the sun still shone, but here in the wooded hollow, beside the sullen waters of the moat, twilight had already fallen, and soon it would be dark as night itself. The moon rose late, and for a space there would be no light save that of the stars.
Constanza laid her finger upon her lips, and made a sign demanding caution. Gaston understood that he was warned not to speak, and to tread cautiously, which he did, stealing along after his fairy-like companion, and striving to emulate her dainty, bird-like motions. He could see by the glint of water that they were skirting along beside the moat, but he had never approached so near to it before, and he knew not where they were going.
Some men might have feared treachery, but such an idea never entered Gaston's head. Little as he knew of his companion, he knew that she was true and loyal, that she was beloved by him, and that her heart was already almost won.
Presently the girl stopped and laid her hand upon his arm.
"This is the place," she whispered. "Come very softly to the water's edge, and I will show you the dark hole opposite, just above the waterline, where entrance can be made. There be no loopholes upon this side of the Tower, and no watchman is needed where there be no foothold for man to scale the wall beneath.
"Look well across the moat. Seest thou yon black mark, that looks no larger than my hand? That is the entrance to a tunnel which slopes upward until it reaches a narrow doorway in the thickness of the solid wall whereby the underground chamber may be reached. Once there, thou wilt see let into the wall a great wheel with iron spokes projecting from it. Set that wheel in motion, and a portion of the flooring of the chamber above will descend. When it has reached the ground, thou canst ascend by reversing the wheel, leaving always some one in the chamber below to work the wheel, which will enable thee to bring thy brother down again. That accomplished, all that remains will be to creep again through the narrow passage to the moat and swim across once more. Thou canst swim?"
"Ay, truly. Raymond and I have been called fishes from our childhood. We swam in the great mill pool almost ere we could well run alone. Many of my stout fellows behind are veritable water rats. If my brother be not able to save himself, there will be a dozen stout arms ready to support him across the moat.
"And what will be the hour when this attempt must be made? What if the very moment I reached my brother his jailer should come to him, and the alarm be given through the Castle ere we could get him thence?"
"That it must be my office to prevent," answered the girl, with quiet resolution. "I have thought many times of some such thing as this, hoping as it seemed where no hope was, and Annette and I have taken counsel together. Leave it to me to see that all the Castle is filled with feasting and revelry. I will see that the mead which circulates tonight be so mingled with Annette's potion that it will work in the brains of the men till they forget all but rioting and sleep. For mine uncle and his saturnine guest, I have other means of keeping them in the great banqueting hall, far away from the lonely Tower where their prisoner lies languishing. They shall be so well served at the board this night, that no thought of aught beside the pleasure of the table shall enter to trouble their heads. And at ten of the clock, if I come not again to warn thee, cross fearlessly the great moat, and do as I have bid thee. But if thou hearest from the Castle wall the hooting of an owl thrice repeated like this" — and the girl put her hands to her mouth, and gave forth so exact an mutation of an owl's note that Gaston started to hear it — "thrice times thrice, so that there can be no mistake, then tarry here on this side; stir not till I come again. It will be a danger signal to tell that all is not well. But if at the hour of ten thou hast heard naught, then go forward, and fear not. Thy brother will be alone, and all men far away from the Tower. Take him, and go forth; and the Blessed Saints bless and protect you all."
She stretched forth her hand and placed it in his. There was a sudden sadness in her face. Gaston caught her hand and pressed it to his lips, but he had more to say than a simple word of parting.
"But I shall see thee again, sweet Constanza? Am I not thy true knight? Shall I not owe to thee a debt I know not how to pay? Thou wilt not send me forth without a word of promise of another meeting? When can I see thee again to tell thee how we have fared?"
"Thou must not dream of loitering here once thy object is secured," answered the girl, speaking very firmly and almost sternly, though there was a deep sadness in her eyes. "It will not be many hours ere they find their captive has escaped them, and they will rouse the whole country after you. Nay, to linger is certain death; it must not be thought of. In Bordeaux, and there alone, wilt thou be safe. It is thither that thou must fly, for thither alone will the Sieur de Navailles fear to follow you. For me, I must remain here, as I have done these many years. It will not be worse than it hath ever been."
"And thinkest thou that I will leave thee thus to languish after thou hast restored to me my brother?" asked Gaston hotly. "Nay, lady, think not that of thine own true knight! I will come again. I vow it! First will I to the English King, and tell in his ears a tale which shall arouse all his royal wrath. And then will I come again. It may not be this year, but it shall be ere long. I will come to claim mine own; and all that is mine shall be thine. Sweet Lady, wouldst thou look coldly upon me did I come with banners unfurled and men in arms against him thou callest thine uncle? For the lands he holds were ours once, and the English King has promised that they shall one day be restored, as they should have been long ago had not this usurper kept his iron clutch upon them in defiance of his feudal lord. Lady, sweet Constanza, tell me that thou wilt not call me thy foe if I come as a foe to the Lord of Navailles!"
"Methinks thou couldst never be my foe," answered Constanza in a low voice, pressing her hands closely together; "and though he be mine uncle, and though he has given me a home beneath his roof, he has made it to me an abode of terror, and I know that he is feared and hated far and wide, and that his evil deeds are such that none may trust or love him. I would not show ingratitude for what he hath done for me; but he has been paid many times over. He has had all my jewels, and of these many were all but priceless; and he gives me but the food I eat and the raiment I wear. I should bless the day that set me free from this life beneath his roof. There be moments when I say in mine heart that I cannot live longer in such an evil place — when I have no heart left and no hope."
"But thou wilt have hope now!" cried Gaston ardently. "Thou wilt know that I am coming to claim mine own, and with it this little hand, more precious to me than all else besides. Sweetest Constanza, tell me that I shall still find thee as thou art when I come to claim thee! I shall not come to find thee the bride of another?"
He could not see her face in the dimness, but he felt her hand flutter in his clasp like a bird in the hand of one who has tamed it, and whom it trusts and loves. The next moment his arm was about her slight figure, and her head drooped for a moment upon his shoulder.
"I shall be waiting," she whispered, scarce audibly. "How could I love another, when thou hast called thyself my knight?"
He pressed a passionate kiss upon her brow.
"If this is indeed farewell for the present hour, it is a sweet one, my beloved. I little thought, as I journeyed hither today, what I was to find. Farewell, farewell, my lady love, my princess, my bride. Farewell, but not for ever. I will come again anon, and then we will be no more parted, for thou shalt reign in these grim walls, and no more dark tales of horror shall be breathed of them. I will come again; I will surely come. Trust me, and fear not!"
She stood beside him in the gathering darkness, and he could almost hear the fluttering of her heart. It was a moment full of sweetness for both, even though the shadow of parting was hanging over them.
A slight rustle amongst the underwood near to them caused them to spring apart; and the girl fled from him, speeding away with the grace and silent fleetness of a deer. Gaston made a stride towards the place whence the sound had proceeded, and found himself face to face with Roger.
"The men are all at hand," he whispered. "I would not have them approach too close till I knew your pleasure. They are all within the wood, all upon the alert lest any foe be nigh; but all seems silent as the grave, and not a light gleams from the Tower upon this side. Shall I bid them remain where they are? or shall I bring them hither to you beside the water?"
"Let them remain where they are for a while and see that the horses be well fed and cared for. At ten o'clock, if all be well, the attempt to enter the Tower is to be made; and once the prisoner is safe and in our keeping, we must to Bordeaux as fast as horse will take us. The Sieur de Navailles will raise the whole country after us. We must be beyond the reach of his clutches ere we draw rein again."
CHAPTER XXVI. THE RESCUE OF RAYMOND.
The appointed hour had arrived. No signal had fallen upon Gaston's listening ears; no note of warning had rung through the still night air.
From the direction of the Castle sounds of distant revelry arose at intervals — sounds which seemed to show that nothing in the shape of watch or ward was being thought of by its inmates; and also that Constanza's promise had been kept, and potations of unwonted strength had been served out to the men.
Now the appointed hour had come and gone, and Gaston commenced his preparations for the rescue of his brother. That he might be going to certain death if he failed, or if he had been betrayed, did not weigh with him for a moment. If Constanza were false to him, better death than the destruction of his hopes and his trust. In any case he would share his brother's fate sooner than leave him in the relentless hands of these cruel foes.
He had selected six of his stoutest followers, all of them excellent swimmers, to accompany him across the moat; and Roger, as a matter of course, claimed to be one of the party. To Roger's mysterious power of vision they owed their rapid tracing of Raymond to this lonely spot. It was indeed his right to make one of the rescue party if he desired to be allowed to do so.
The rest of their number were to remain upon this farther side of the moat, and the horses were all in readiness, rested and refreshed, about half-a-mile off under the care of several stout fellows, all stanch to their master's interests. The story they had heard from Gaston of what had been devised against his brother filled the honest soldiers with wrath and indignation. Rough and savage as they might show themselves in open warfare, deliberate and diabolical cruelty was altogether foreign to their nature. And they all felt towards Raymond a sense of protecting and reverent tenderness, such as all may feel towards a being of finer mould and loftier nature.
Raymond had the faculty of inspiring in those about him this reverential tenderness; and not one of those stalwart fellows who were silently laying aside their heavy mail, and such of their garments as would be likely to hinder them in their swim across the moat, but felt a deep loathing and hatred towards the lord of this grim Tower, and an overmastering resolve to snatch his helpless victim from his cruel hands, or perish in the attempt.
All their plans had been very carefully made. Lanterns and the wherewithal for kindling them were bound upon the heads of some of the swimmers; and though they laid aside most of their defensive armour and their heavy riding boots, they wore their stout leather jerkins, that were almost as serviceable against foeman's steel, and their weapons, save the most cumbersome, were carried either in their belts or fastened across their shoulders.
Dark though it had become, Gaston had not lost cognizance of the spot whither they were to direct their course; and one by one the strong swimmers plunged into the sullen waters without causing so much as a ripple or plash, which might betray their movements to suspicious ears upon the battlements (if indeed any sort of watch were kept, which appeared doubtful). They swam with that perfect silence possible only to those who are thoroughly at home in the water, till they had crossed the dark moat and had reached the perpendicular wall of the Tower, which rose sheer upon the farther side — so sheer that not even the foot of mountain goat could have scaled its rough-hewn side.
But Gaston knew what he had to search for, and with outstretched hand he swam silently along the solid masonry, feeling for that aperture just above watermark which he had seen before the daylight faded. It took him some little time to find it, but at last it was discovered, and with a muttered word of command to the men who silently followed in his wake, he drew himself slowly out of the water, to find himself in a very narrow rounded aperture like a miniature tunnel, which trended slightly upwards, and would only admit the passage of one human being at a time, and then only upon hands and knees.
It was pitchy dark in this tunnel, and there was no space in which to attempt to kindle a light. Once the thought came into Gaston's head that if he were falling into a treacherous pitfall laid for him with diabolic ingenuity by his foes, nothing could well be better than to entrap him into such a place as this, where it would be almost impossible to go forward or back, and quite out of his power to strike a single blow for liberty or life.
But he shook off the chill sense of fear as unworthy and unknightly. His Constanza was true; of that he was assured. The only possible doubt was whether she herself were being used as an unconscious tool in the hands of subtle and perfectly unscrupulous men.
But even so Gaston had no choice but to advance. He had come to rescue his brother or to die with him. If the latter, he would try at least to sell his life dearly. But he was fully persuaded that his efforts would be crowned with success.
He had time to think many such things as he slowly crept along the low passage in the black darkness. It seemed long before his hand came in contact with the door he had been told he should presently reach, and this door, as Constanza had said, yielded to his touch, and he felt rather than saw that he had emerged into a wider space beyond.
This place, whatever it was, was not wholly dark, though so very dim that it was impossible to make out anything save the dull red glow of what might be some embers on a distant hearth. Gaston did not speak a word, but waited till all his companions had reached this more open space, and had risen to their feet and grasped their weapons. Then all held their breath, and listened for any sound that might by chance reveal the presence of hidden foes, till they started at the sound of Roger's voice speaking softly but with complete assurance.
"There is no one here," he said. "We are quite alone. Let me kindle a torch and show you."
Roger, as Gaston had before observed, possessed a cat-like faculty of seeing in the dark. Whether it was natural to him, or had been acquired during those days spent almost entirely underground in the sorcerer's vaulted chamber at Basildene, the youth himself scarcely knew. But he was able to distinguish objects clearly in gloom which no ordinary eye could penetrate; and now he walked fearlessly forward and stirred up the smouldering embers, whose dull red glow all could see, into a quick, bright, palpitating flame which illumined every corner of the strange place into which they had penetrated.
Gaston and his men looked wonderingly around them, as they lighted their lanterns at the fire and flashed them here and there into all the dark corners, as though to assure themselves that there were no ambushed foes lurking in the grim recesses of that circular room. But Roger had been quite right. There was nothing living in that silent place. Not so much as a loophole in the wall admitted any air or light from the outer world, or could do so even in broad noon. The chamber was plainly hollowed out in the mass of earth and masonry of which the foundations of the Tower were composed, and if any air were admitted (as there must have been, else men could not breathe down there), it was by some device not easily discovered at a first glance.
It was in truth a strange and terrible place — the dank walls, down which the damp moisture slowly trickled, hung round with instruments of various forms, all designed with a terrible purpose, and from their look but too often used.
Gaston's face assumed a look of dark wrath and indignation as his quick eyes roved round this evil place, and he set his teeth hard together as he muttered to himself:
"Heaven send that the Prince himself may one day look upon the vile secrets of this charnel house! I would that he and his royal father might know what deeds of darkness are even now committed in lands that own their sway! Would that I had that wicked wretch here in my power at this moment! Well does he deserve to be torn in pieces by his own hideous engines. And in this very place does he design to do to death my brother! May God pardon me if I sin in the thought, but death by the sword is too good for such a miscreant!"
Words very similar to these were being bandied about in fierce undertones by the men who had accompanied Gaston, and who had never seen such a chamber as this before. Great would have been their satisfaction to let its owner taste something of the agony he had too often inflicted upon helpless victims thrown into his power. But this being out of the question, the next matter was the rescue of the captive they had come to save; and they looked eagerly at their young leader to know what was the next step to be taken.
Gaston was searching for the wheel by which the mechanism could be set in motion which would enable him to reach his brother's prison house. It was easily found from the description given him by Constanza. He set his men to work to turn the wheel, and at once became aware of the groaning and grating sound that attends the motion of clumsy machinery. Gazing eagerly up into the dun roof above him, he saw slowly descending a portion of the stonework of which it was formed. It was a clever enough contrivance for those unskilled days, and showed a considerable ingenuity on the part of some owner of the Castle of Saut.
When the great slab had descended to the floor below, Gaston stepped upon it, Roger placing himself at his side, and with a brief word to his men to reverse the action of the wheel, and to lower the slab again a few minutes later, he prepared for his strange passage upwards to his brother's lonely cell.
Roger held a lantern in his hand, and the faces of the pair were full of anxious expectation. Suppose Raymond had been removed from that upper prison? Suppose he had succumbed either to the cruelty of his foes or to the fever resulting from his injuries received on the day of the battle?
A hundred fears possessed Gaston's soul as the strange transit through the air was being accomplished — a transit so strange that he felt as though he must surely be dreaming. But there was only one thing to be done — to persevere in the quest, and trust to the Holy Saints and the loving mercy of Blessed Mary's Son to grant him success in this his endeavour.
Up, up into the darkness of the vaulted roof he passed, and then a yawning hole above their heads, which looked too small to admit the passage of the slab upon which they stood, swallowed them up, and they found themselves passing upwards through a shaft which only just admitted the block upon which they stood. Up and up they went, and now the creaking sound grew louder, and the motion grew perceptibly slower. They were no longer in a narrow shaft; a black space opened before their eyes. The motion ceased altogether with a grinding sensation and a jerk, and out of the darkness of a wider space, pitchy dark to their eyes, came the sound of a familiar voice.
"Gaston — Brother!"
Gaston sprang forward into the darkness, heedless of all but the sound of that voice. The next moment he was clasping his brother in his arms, his own emotion so great that he dared not trust his voice to speak; whilst Raymond, holding him fast in a passionate clasp, whispered in his ear a breathless question.
"Thou too a prisoner in this terrible place, my Gaston? O brother — my brother — I trusted that I might have died for us both!"
"A prisoner? nay, Raymond, no prisoner; but as thy rescuer I come. What, believest thou not? Then shalt thou soon see with thine own eyes.
"But let me look first upon thy face. I would see what these miscreants have done to thee. Thou feelest more like a creature of skin and bone than one of sturdy English flesh and blood.
"The light, Roger!
"Ay, truly, Roger is here with me. It is to him in part we owe it that we are here this night. Raymond, Raymond, thou art sorely changed! Thou lookest more spirit-like than ever! Thou hast scarce strength to stand alone! What have they done to thee, my brother?"
But Raymond could scarce find strength to answer. The revulsion of feeling was too much for him. When he had heard that terrible sound, and had seen the slab in the floor sink out of sight, he had sprung from his bed of straw, ready to face his cruel foes when they came for him, yet knowing but too well what was in store for him when he was carried down below, as he had been once before. Then when, instead of the cruel mocking countenance of Peter Sanghurst, he had seen the noble, loving face of his brother, and had believed that he, too, had fallen into the power of their deadly foes, it had seemed to him as though a bitterness greater than that of death had fallen upon him, and the rebound of feeling when Gaston had declared himself had been so great, that the whole place swam before his eyes, and the floor seemed to reel beneath his feet.
"We will get him away from this foul place!" cried Gaston, with flaming eyes, as he looked into the white and sharpened face of his brother, and felt how feebly the light frame leaned against the stalwart arm supporting it.
He half led, half carried Raymond the few paces towards the slab in the floor which formed the link with the region beneath, and the next minute Raymond felt himself sinking down as he had done once before; only then it had been in the clasp of his most bitter foe that he had been carried to that infernal spot.
The recollection made him shiver even now in Gaston's strong embrace, and the young knight felt the quiver and divined the cause.
"Fear nothing now, my brother," he said. "Though we be on our way to that fearful place, it is for us the way to light and liberty. Our own good fellows are awaiting us there. I trow not all the hireling knaves within this Castle wall should wrest thee from us now."
"I fear naught now that thou art by my side, Gaston," answered Raymond, in low tones. "If thou art not in peril thyself, I could wish nothing better than to die with thine arm about mine."
"Nay, but thou shalt live!" cried Gaston, with energy, scarce understanding that after the long strain of such a captivity as Raymond's had been it was small wonder that he had grown to think death well-nigh better and sweeter than life. "Thou shalt live to take vengeance upon thy foes, and to recompense them sevenfold for what they have done to thee. I will tell this story in the ears of the King himself. This is not the last time that I shall stand within the walls of Saut!"
By this time the heavy slab had again descended, and around it were gathered the eager fellows, who received their young master's brother with open arms and subdued shouts of triumph and joy. But he, though he smiled his thanks, looked round him with eyes dilated by the remembrance of some former scene there, and Gaston set his teeth hard, and shook back his head with a gesture that boded little good for the Sieur de Navailles upon a future day.
"Come men; we may not tarry!" he said. "No man knows what fancy may enter into the head of the master of this place. Turn the wheel again; send up the slab to its right place. Let them have no clue to trace the flight of their victim. Leave everything as we found it, and follow me without delay."
He was all anxiety now to get his brother from the shadow of this hideous place. The whiteness of Raymond's face, the hollowness of his eyes, the lines of suffering traced upon his brow in a few short days, all told a tale only too easily read.
The rough fellows treated him tenderly as they might have treated a little child. They felt that he had been through some ordeal from which they themselves would have shrunk with a terror they would have been ashamed to admit; and that despite the youth's fragile frame and ethereal face that looked little like that of a mailed warrior, a hero's heart beat in his breast, and he had the spirit to do and to dare what they themselves might have quailed from and fled before.
The transit through the narrow tunnel presented no real difficulty, and soon the sullen waters of the moat were troubled by the silent passage of seven instead of six swimmers. The shock of the cold plunge revived Raymond; and the sense of space above him, the star-spangled sky overhead, the free sweet air around him, even the unfettered use of his weakened limbs, as he swam with his brother's strong supporting arm about him, acted upon him like a tonic. He hardly knew whether or not it was a dream; whether he were in the body or out of the body; whether he should awake to find himself in his gloomy cell, or under the cruel hands of his foes in that dread chamber he had visited once before.
He knew not, and at that moment he cared not. Gaston's arm was about him, Gaston's voice was in his ear. Whatever came upon him later could not destroy the bliss of the present moment.
A score of eager hands were outstretched to lift the light frame from Gaston's arm as the brothers drew to the edge of the moat. It was no time to speak, no time to ask or answer questions. At any moment some unguarded movement or some crashing of the boughs underfoot might awaken the suspicions of those within the walls. It was enough that the secret expedition had been crowned with success — that the captive was now released and in their own hands.
Raymond was almost fainting now with excitement and fatigue, but Gaston's muscles seemed as if made of iron. Though the past days had been for him days of great anxiety and fatigue, though he had scarce eaten or slept since the rapid march upon the besieging army around St. Jean d'Angely, he seemed to know neither fatigue nor feebleness. The arm upholding Raymond's drooping frame seemed as the arm of a giant. The young knight felt as though he could have carried that light weight even to Bordeaux, and scarce have felt fatigue.
But there was no need for that. Nigh at hand the horses were waiting, saddled and bridled, well fed and well rested, ready to gallop steadily all through the summer night. The moon had risen now, and filtered in through the young green of the trees with a clear and fitful radiance. The forest was like a fairy scene; and over the minds of both brothers stole the softening remembrance of such woodland wonders in the days gone by, when as little lads, full of curiosity and love of adventure, they had stolen forth at night into the forest together to see if they could discover the fairies at their play, or the dwarfs and gnomes busy beneath the surface of the earth.
To Raymond it seemed indeed as though all besides might well be a dream. He knew not which of the fantastic images impressed upon his brain was the reality, and which the work of imagination. A sense of restful thankfulness — the release from some great and terrible fear — had stolen upon him, he scarce knew how or why. He did not wish to think or puzzle out what had befallen him. He was with Gaston once more; surely that was enough.
But Gaston's mind was hard at work. From time to time he turned an anxious look upon his brother, and he saw well how ill and weary he was, how he swayed in the saddle, though supported by cleverly-adjusted leather thongs, and how unfit he was for the long ride that lay before them. And yet that ride must be taken. They must be out of reach of their implacable foe as quickly as might be. In the unsettled state of the country no place would afford a safe harbour for them till Bordeaux itself was reached. Fain would he have made for the shelter of the old home in the mill, or of Father Anselm's hospitable home, but he knew that those would be the first places searched by the emissaries of the Navailles. Even as it was these good people might be in some peril, and they must certainly not be made aware of the proximity of the De Brocas brothers.
But if not there, whither could Raymond be transported? To carry him to England in this exhausted state might be fatal to him; for no man knew when once on board ship how contrary the wind might blow, and the accommodation for a sick man upon shipboard was of the very rudest. No; before the voyage could be attempted Raymond must have rest and care in some safe place of shelter. And where could that shelter be found?
As Gaston thus mused a sudden light came upon him, and turning to Roger he asked of him a question:
"Do not some of these fellows of our company come from Bordeaux; and have they not left it of late to follow the English banner?"
"Ay, verily," answered Roger quickly. "There be some of them who came forth thence expressly to fight under the young knight of De Brocas. The name of De Brocas is as dear to many of those Gascon soldiers as that of Navailles is hated and cursed."
"Send then to me one of those fellows who best knows the city," said Gaston; and in a few more minutes a trooper rode up to his side.
"Good fellow," said Gaston, "if thou knowest well you city whither we are bound, tell me if thou hast heard aught of one Father Paul, who has been sent to many towns in this and other realms by his Holiness the Pope, to restore amongst the Brethren of his order the forms and habits which have fallen something into disuse of late? I heard a whisper as we passed through the city a week back now that he was there. Knowest thou if this be true?"
"It was true enow, Sir Knight, a few days back," answered the man, "and I trow you may find him yet at the Cistercian Monastery within the city walls. He had but just arrived thither ere the English ships came, and men say that he had much to do ere he sallied forth again."
"Good," answered Gaston, in a tone of satisfaction; and when the trooper had dropped back to his place again, the young knight turned to his brother and said cheerily:
"Courage, good lad; keep but up thy heart, my brother, for I have heard good news for thee. Father Paul is in the city of Bordeaux, and it is in his kindly charge that I will leave thee ere I go to England with my tale to lay before the King."
Raymond was almost too far spent to rejoice over any intelligence, however welcome; yet a faint smile crossed his face as the sense of Gaston's words penetrated to his understanding. It was plain that there was no time to lose if they were to get him to some safe shelter before his strength utterly collapsed, and long before Bordeaux was reached he had proved unable to keep his seat in the saddle, and a litter had been contrived for him in which he could lie at length, carried between four of the stoutest horsemen.
They were now in more populous and orderly regions, where the forest was thinner and townships more frequent. The urgent need for haste had slightly diminished, and though still anxious to reach their destination, the party was not in fear of an instant attack from a pursuing foe.
The Navailles would scarce dare to fall upon the party in the neighbourhood of so many of the English King's fortified cities; and before the sun set they hoped to be within the environs of Bordeaux itself — a hope in which they were not destined to be disappointed.
Nor was Gaston disappointed of his other hope; for scarce had they obtained admission for their unconscious and invalided comrade within the walls of the Cistercian Monastery, and Gaston was still eagerly pouring into the Prior's ears the story of his brother's capture and imprisonment, when the door of the small room into which the strangers had been taken was slowly opened to admit a tall, gaunt figure, and Father Paul himself stood before them. He gave Gaston one long, searching look; but he never forgot a face, and greeted him by name as Sir Gaston de Brocas, greatly to the surprise of the youth, who thought he would neither be recognized nor known by the holy Father. Then passing him quickly by, the monk leaned over the couch upon which Raymond had been laid — a hard oaken bench — covered by the cloak of the man who had borne him in.
Raymond's eyes were closed; his face, with the sunset light lying full upon it, showed very hollow and white and worn. Even in the repose of a profound unconsciousness it wore a look of lofty purpose, together with an expression of purity and devotion impossible to describe. Gaston and the Prior both turned to look as Father Paul bent over the prostrate figure with an inarticulate exclamation such as he seldom uttered, and Gaston felt a sudden thrill of cold fear run through him.
"He is not dead?" he asked, in a passionate whisper; and the Father looked up to answer:
"Nay, Sir Knight, he is not dead. A little rest, a little tendance, a little of our care, and he will be restored to the world again. Better perhaps were it not so - better perchance for him. For his is not the nature to battle with impunity against the evil of the world. Look at him as he lies there: is that face of one that can look upon the deeds of these vile days and not suffer keenest pain? To fight and to vanquish is thy lot, young warrior; but what is his? To tread the thornier path of life and win the hero's crown, not by deeds of glory and renown, but by that higher and holier path of suffering and renunciation which One chose that we might know He had been there before us. Thou mayest live to be one of this world's heroes, boy; but in the world to come it will be thy brother who will wear the victor's crown."
"I truly believe it," answered Gaston, drawing a deep breath; "but yet we cannot spare him from this world. I give him into thy hands, my Father, that thou mayest save him for us here."
CHAPTER XXVII. PETER SANGHURST'S WOOING.
"Joan — sweetest mistress — at last I find you; at last my eyes behold again those peerless charms for which they have pined and hungered so long! Tell me, have you no sweet word of welcome for him whose heart you hold between those fair hands, to do with it what you will?"
Joan, roused from her reverie by those smoothly-spoken words, uttered in a harsh and grating voice, turned quickly round to find herself face to face with Peter Sanghurst — the man she had fondly hoped had passed out of her life for ever.
Joan and her father, after a considerable period spent in wanderings in foreign lands (during which Sir Hugh had quite overcome the melancholy and sense of panic into which he had been thrown by the scourge of the Black Death and his wife's sudden demise as one of its victims), had at length returned to Woodcrych. The remembrance of the plague was fast dying out from men's minds. The land was again under cultivation; and although labour was still scarce and dear, and continued to be so for many, many years, whilst the attempts at legislation on this point only produced riot and confusion (culminating in the next reign in the notable rebellion of Wat Tyler, and leading eventually to the emancipation of the English peasantry), things appeared to be returning to their normal condition, and men began to resume their wonted apathy of mind, and to cease to think of the scourge as the direct visitation of God.
Sir Hugh had been one of those most alarmed by the ravages of the plague. He was full of the blind superstition of a thoroughly irreligious man, and he knew well that he had been dabbling in forbidden arts, and had been doing things that were supposed in those days to make a man peculiarly the prey of the devil after death. Thus when the Black Death had visited the country, and he had heard on all sides that it was the visitation of God for the sins of the nations, he had been seized with a panic which had been some years in cooling, and he had made pilgrimages and had paid a visit to his Holiness the Pope in order to feel that he had made amends for any wrongdoing in his previous life.
He had during this fit of what was rather panic than repentance avoided Woodcrych sedulously, as the place where these particular sins which frightened him now had been committed. He had thus avoided any encounter with Peter Sanghurst, and Joan had hoped that the shadow of that evil man was not destined to cross her path again. But, unluckily for her hopes, a reaction had set in in her father's feelings. His blind, unreasoning terror had now given place to an equally wild and reckless confidence and assurance. The Black Death had come and gone, and had passed him by (he now said) doing him no harm. He had obtained the blessing of the Pope, and felt in his heart that he could set the Almighty at defiance. His revenues, much impoverished through the effects of the plague, made the question of expenditure the most pressing one of the hour; and the knight had come to Woodcrych with the distinct intention of prosecuting those studies in alchemy and magic which a year or two back he had altogether forsworn.
Old Sanghurst was dead, he knew — the devil had claimed one of his own. But the son was living still, and was to be heard of, doubtless, at Basildene. Peter Sanghurst was posing in the world as a wealthy man, surrounded by a halo of mystery which gave him distinction and commanded respect. Sir Hugh felt that he might be a very valuable ally, and began to regret now that his fears had made him so long an exile from his country and a wanderer from home.
Many things might have happened in that interval. What more likely than that Sanghurst had found a wife, and that his old affection for Joan would by now be a thing of the past? The knight fumed a good deal as he thought of neglected opportunities. But there was just the chance that Sanghurst might be faithful to his old love, whilst surely Joan would have forgotten her girlish caprice, and cease to attempt a foolish resistance to her father's will. Had he been as much in earnest then as he now was, the marriage would long ago have been consummated. But in old days he had not felt so confident of the wealth of the Sanghursts as he now did, and had been content to let matters drift. Now he could afford to drift no longer. Joan had made no marriage for herself, she was unwed at an age when most girls are wives and mothers, and Sir Hugh was growing weary of her company. He wished to plunge once again into a life of congenial dissipation, and into those researches for magic wealth which had always exercised so strong a fascination over him; and the first step necessary for both these objects appeared to be to marry off his daughter, and that, if possible, to the man who was supposed to be in possession of these golden secrets.
Joan, however, knew nothing of the hopes and wishes filling her father's mind. She was glad to come back to the home she had always loved the best of her father's residences, and which was so much associated in her mind with her youthful lover.
She believed that so near to Guildford she would be sure to hear news of Raymond. Master Bernard de Brocas would know where he was; he might even be living beneath his uncle's roof. The very thought sent quick thrills of happiness through her. Her face was losing its thoughtful gravity of expression, and warming and brightening into new beauty. She had almost forgotten the proximity of Basildene, and Peter Sanghurst's hateful suit, so long had been the time since she had seen him last, until the sound of his voice, breaking in upon a happy reverie, brought all the old disgust and horror back again, and she turned to face him with eyes that flashed with lambent fire.
Yet as she stood there in the entrance to that leafy bower which was her favourite retreat at Woodcrych, Peter Sanghurst felt as though he had never before seen so queenly a creature, and said in his heart that she had grown tenfold more lovely during the years of her wanderings.
Joan was now no mere strip of a girl. She was three-and-twenty, and had all the grace of womanhood mingling with the free, untrammelled energy of youth. Her step was as light, her movements as unfettered, as in the days of her childhood; yet now she moved with an unconscious stately grace which caused her to be remarked wherever she went; and her face, always beautiful, with its regular features, liquid dark eyes, and full, noble expression, had taken an added depth and sweetness and thoughtfulness which rendered it remarkable and singularly attractive. Joan inspired a considerable amount of awe in the breasts of those youthful admirers who had flitted round her sometimes during the days of her wanderings; but she had never given any of them room to hope to be more to her than the passing acquaintance of an hour. She had received proffers of life-long devotion with a curious gentle courtesy almost like indifference, and had smiled upon none of those who had paid her court.
Her father had let her do as she would. No suitor wealthy enough to excite his cupidity had appeared at Joan's feet. He intended to make a wealthy match for her before she grew much older; but the right person had not yet appeared, and time slipped by almost unheeded.
Now she found herself once again face to face with Peter Sanghurst, and realized that he was renewing, or about to renew, that hateful suit which she trusted had passed from his mind altogether. The face she turned towards him, with the glowing autumn sunshine full upon it, was scarcely such as could be called encouraging to an ardent lover. But Peter Sanghurst only smiled as she stood there in her proud young beauty, the russet autumn tints framing her noble figure in vivid colours.
"I have taken you by surprise, sweet lady," he said; "it is long since we met."
"Long indeed, Master Peter — or should I say Sir Peter? It hath been told to me that you have been in the great world; but whether or not your gallantry has won you your spurs I know not."
Was there something of covert scorn in the tones of her cold voice? Sanghurst could not tell, but every smallest stab inflicted upon his vanity or pride by this beautiful creature was set down in the account he meant to settle with her when once she was in his power. His feelings towards her were strangely mixed. He loved her passionately in a fierce, wild fashion, coveting the possession of that beauty which maddened whilst it charmed him. She enchained and enthralled him, yet she stung him to the quick by her calm contempt and resolute avoidance of him. He was determined she should be his, come what might; but when once he had won the mastery over her, he would make her suffer for every pang of wounded pride or jealousy she had inflicted upon him. The cruelty of the man's nature showed itself even in his love, and he hated even whilst he loved her; for he knew that she was infinitely his superior, and that she had read the vileness of his nature, and had learned to shrink from him, as purity always shrinks from contact with what is foul and false.
Even her question stung his vanity, and there was a savage gleam in his eye as he answered:
"Nay, my spurs are still to be won; for what was it to me whether I won them or not unless I might wear them as your true knight? Sweetest mistress, these weary years have been strangely long and dark since the light of your presence has been withdrawn from us. Now that the sun has risen once again upon Woodcrych, let it shine likewise upon Basildene. Mistress Joan, I come to you with your father's sanction. You doubtless know how many years I have wooed you — how many years I have lived for you and for you alone. I have waited even as the patriarch of old for his wife. The time has now come when I have the right to approach you as a lover. Sweet lady, tell me that you will reward my patience — that I shall not sue in vain."
Peter Sanghurst bent the knee before her; but she was acute enough to detect the undercurrent of mockery in his tone. He came as a professed suppliant; but he came with her father's express sanction, and Joan had lived long enough to know how very helpless a daughter was if her father's mind were once made up to give her hand in marriage. Her safety in past days had been that Sir Hugh was not really resolved upon the point. He had always been divided between the desire to conciliate the old sorcerer and the fear lest his professed gifts should prove but illusive; and when he was in this mood of uncertainty, Joan's steady and resolute resistance had not been without effect. But she knew that he owed large sums of money to the Sanghursts, who had made frequent advances when he had been in difficulties, and it was likely enough that the day of reckoning had now come, and that her hand was to be the price of the cancelled bonds.
Her father had for some days been dropping hints that had raised uneasiness in her mind. This sudden appearance of Peter Sanghurst, coupled with his confident words, showed to Joan only too well how matters stood.
For a moment she stood silent, battling with her fierce loathing and disgust, her fingers toying with the gold circlet her lover had placed upon her finger. The very thought of Raymond steadied her nerves, and gave her calmness and courage. She knew that she was in a sore strait; but hers was a spirit to rise rather than sink before peril and adversity.
"Master Peter Sanghurst," she answered, calmly and steadily, "I thought that I had given you answer before, when you honoured me by your suit. My heart is not mine to give, and if it were it could never be yours. I pray you take that answer and be gone. From my lips you can never have any other."
A fierce gleam was in his eye, but his voice was still smooth and bland.
"Sweet lady," he said, "it irks me sore to give you pain; but I have yet another message for you. Think you that I should have dared to come with this offer of my heart and hand if I had not known that he to whom thy heart is pledged lies stiff and cold in the grip of death — nay, has long since mouldered to ashes in the grave?"
Joan turned deadly pale. She had not known that her secret had passed beyond her own possession. How came Peter Sanghurst to speak of her as having a lover? Was it all guesswork? True, he had been jealous of Raymond in old days. Was this all part of a preconcerted and diabolical plot against her happiness?
Her profound distrust of this man, and her conviction of his entire unscrupulousness, helped to steady her nerves. If she had so wily a foe to deal with, she had need of all her own native shrewdness and capacity. After a few moments, which seemed hours to her from the concentrated thought pressed into them, she spoke quietly and calmly:
"Of whom speak you, Sir? Who is it that lies dead and cold?"
"Your lover, Raymond de Brocas," answered Sanghurst, rising to his feet and confronting Joan with a gaze of would-be sympathy, though his eyes were steely bright and full of secret malice — "your lover, who died in my arms after the skirmish of which you may have heard, when the English army routed the besieging force around St. Jean d'Angely; and in dying he gave me a charge for you, sweet lady, which I have been longing ever since to deliver, but until today have lacked the opportunity."
Joan's eyes were fixed upon him wide with distrust. She was in absolute ignorance of Raymond's recent movements. But in those days that was the fate of those who did not live in close contiguity. She had been a rover in the world, and so perchance had he. All that Sanghurst said might be true for aught she could allege to the contrary.
Yet how came it that Raymond should confide his dying message to his sworn and most deadly foe? The story seemed to bear upon it the impress of falsehood. Sanghurst, studying her face intently, appeared to read her thoughts.
"Lady," he said, "if you will but listen to my tale, methinks I can convince you of the truth of my words. You think that because we were rivals for your hand we were enemies, too? And so of old it was. But, fair mistress, you may have heard how Raymond de Brocas soothed the dying bed of my father, and tended him when all else, even his son, had fled from his side; and albeit at the moment even that service did not soften my hard heart, in the times that followed, when I was left alone to muse on what had passed, I repented me of my old and bitter enmity, and resolved, if ever we should meet again, to strive to make amends for the past. I knew that he loved you, and that you loved him; and I vowed I would keep away and let his suit prosper if it might. I appeal to you, fair mistress, to say how that vow has been kept."
"I have certainly seen naught of you these past years," answered Joan. "But I myself have been a wanderer."
"Had you not been, my vow would have been as sacredly kept," was the quick reply. "I had resolved to see you no more, since I might never call you mine. I strove to banish your image from my mind by going forth into the world; and when this chance of fighting for the King arose, I was one who sailed to the relief of the English garrison."
She made no response, but her clear gaze was slightly disconcerting; he looked away and spoke rapidly.
"Raymond de Brocas was on board the vessel that bore us from England's shores: ask if it be not so, an you believe me not. We were brothers in arms, and foes no longer. I sought him out and told him all that was in my heart. You know his nature — brave, candid, fearless. He showed his nobility of soul by giving to me the right hand of fellowship. Ere the voyage ended we were friends in truth. When the day of battle came we rode side by side against the foe."
Joan's interest was aroused. She knew Raymond well. She knew his nobility of nature — his generous impulse to forgive a past foe, to bury all enmity. If Sanghurst had sought him with professions of contrition, might he not have easily been believed? And yet was such an one as this to be trusted?
"In the melee — for the fighting was hard and desperate — we were separated: he carried one way and I another. When the French were driven back or taken captive I sought for Raymond everywhere, but for long without avail. At last I found him, wounded to the death. I might not even move him to our lines. I could but give him drink and watch beside him as he slowly sank.
"It was then he spoke of thee, Joan." Sanghurst's voice took a new tone, and seemed to quiver slightly; he dropped the more formal address hitherto observed, and lapsed into the familiar "thou." "The sole trouble upon that pure soul was the thought of thee, left alone and unprotected in this harsh world. He spoke of thee and that love he bore thee, and I, who had also loved, but had resigned all my hopes for love of him, could but listen and grieve with him. But he knew my secret — his clear eyes had long ago divined it — and in talking together of thee, Joan, as we had many times done before, he had learned all there was to know of my hopeless love. As he lay dying he seemed to be musing of this; and one short half-hour before he breathed his last, he spoke in these words —
"'Sanghurst, we have been rivals and foes, but now we are friends, and I know that I did misjudge thee in past days, as methinks she did, too.' (Joan, this is not so. It was not that ye misjudged me, but that I have since repented of my evil ways in which erst I rejoiced.) 'But thou wilt go to her now, and tell her what has befallen her lover. Tell her that I died with her name on my lips, with thoughts of her in my heart. And tell her also not to grieve too deeply for me. It may be that to die thus, loving and beloved, is the happiest thing that can befall a man. But tell her, too, that she must not grieve too bitterly — that she must not lead a widowed life because that I am taken from her. Give to her this token, good comrade; she will know it. Tell her that he to whom she gave it now restores it to her again, and restores it by the hand of his best and truest friend, trusting that this trusty friend will some day meet the reward he covets from the hand of her who once gave the token to him upon whom the hand of death is resting. Give it her, and tell her when you give it that her dying lover's hope is that she will thus reward the patient, generous love of him who shall bring it to her.'"
As he spoke these words, Sanghurst, his eyes immovably fixed upon the changing face of the beautiful girl, drew from his breast a small packet and placed it within her trembling hands.
He knew he was playing a risky game, and that one false move might lose him his one chance. It was all the veriest guesswork; but he believed he had guessed aright. Whilst Raymond had been stretched upon the rack, swooning from extremity of pain, Sanghurst's eyes, fixed in gloating satisfaction upon the helpless victim, had been caught by the sight of this token about his neck, secured by a strong silver cord. To possess himself of the charm, or whatever it might be, had been but the work of a moment. He had felt convinced that it was a lover's token, and had been given to Raymond by Joan, and if so it might be turned to good account, even if other means failed to bend the stubborn will of the youth who looked so frail and fragile.
Raymond had escaped from his hands by a species of magic, as it had seemed to the cruel captors, when he had tasted but a tithe of what they had in store for him. Baffled and enraged as Sanghurst was, he had still the precious token in his possession. If it had been given by Joan, she would recognize it at once, and coupled with the supposed dying message of her lover, surely it would not be without effect.
Eagerly then were his eyes fixed upon her face as she undid the packet, and a gleam of triumph came into them as he saw a flash of recognition when the little heart was disclosed to view.
Truly indeed did Joan's heart sink within her, and every drop of blood ebbed from her cheek; for had not Raymond said that he would never part from her gift whilst he had life? and how could Peter Sanghurst have become possessed of it unless his tale were true? He might be capable of robbing a dead body, but how would he have known that the token was given by her?
A mist seemed to float before the girl's eyes. At that moment she was unable to think or to reason. The one thought there was room for in her mind was that Raymond was dead. If he were lost to her for ever, it was little matter what became of herself.
Sanghurst's keen eyes, fixed upon her with an evil gleam, saw that the charm was working. It had worked even beyond his hopes. He was so well satisfied with the result of this day's work, that he would not even press his suit upon her farther then. Let her have time to digest her lover's dying words. When she had done so, he would come to her again.
"Sweet lady, I grieve that thou shouldst suffer though any words I have been forced to speak; but it was a promise given to him who is gone to deliver the message and the token. Lady, I take my leave of thee. I will not intrude upon thy sacred sorrow. I, too, sorrow little less for him who is gone. He was one of the brightest ornaments of these days of chivalry and renown."
He caught her hand for a moment and pressed it to his lips, she scarce seeming to know what he did or what he said; and then he turned away and left her alone with her thoughts, a strangely malicious expression crossing his face as he knew himself hidden from her eyes.
That same evening, when father and daughter were alone together in the room they habitually occupied in the after part of the day, Sir Hugh began to speak with unwonted decision and authority.
"Joan, child, has Peter Sanghurst been with thee today?"
"He has, my father."
"And has he told thee that he comes with my sanction as a lover, and that thou and he are to wed ere the month is out?"
"He had not said so much as that," answered Joan, who spoke quietly and dreamily, and with so little of the old ring of opposition in her voice that her father looked at her in surprise.
She was very pale, and there was a look in her eyes he did not understand; but the flush of anger or defiance he had thought to see did not show itself. He began to think Sanghurst had spoken no more than the truth in saying that Mistress Joan appeared to have withdrawn her opposition to him as a husband.
"But so it is to be," answered her father, quickly and imperiously, trying to seize this favourable moment to get the matter settled. "I have long given way to thy whimsies — far too long — and here art thou a woman grown, older than half the matrons round, yet never a wife as they have long been. I will no more of it. It maketh thee and me alike objects of ridicule. Peter Sanghurst is my very good friend. He has helped me in many difficulties, and is ready to help me again. He has money, and I have none. Listen, girl: this accursed plague has carried off all my people, and labourers are asking treble and quadruple for their work that which they have been wont to do. Sooner would I let the crops rot upon the ground than be so mulcted by them. The King does what he can, but the idle rogues set him at defiance; and there be many beside me who will feel the grip of poverty for long years to come. Peter Sanghurst has his wealth laid up in solid gold, not in fields and woods that bring nothing without hands to till or tend them. Marry but him, and Woodcrych shall be thy dower, and its broad acres and noble manor will make of ye twain, with his gold, as prosperous a knight and dame (for he will soon rise to that rank) as ye can wish to be. Girl, my word is pledged, and I go not back from it. I have been patient with thy fancies, but I will no more of them. Thou art mine own daughter, my own flesh and blood, and thy hand is mine to give to whom I will. Peter Sanghurst shall be thy lord whether thou wilt or no. I have said it; let that be enough. It is thy part to obey."
Joan sat quite still and answered nothing. Her eyes were fixed upon the dancing flames rushing up the wide chimney. She must have heard her father's words, yet she gave no sign of having done so. But for that Sir Hugh cared little. He was only too glad to be spared a weary battle of words, or a long struggle with his high-spirited daughter, whose force of character he had come to know. That she had yielded her will to his at last seemed only right and natural, and of course she must have been by this time aware that if her father was really resolved upon the match, she was practically helpless to prevent it.
She was no longer a child; she was a woman who had seen much of the world for the times she lived in. Doubtless she had begun to see that she must now marry ere her beauty waned; and having failed to make a grander match during her years of wandering, was glad enough to return to her former lover, whose fidelity had doubtless touched her heart.
"Thou wilt have a home and a dowry, and a husband who has loved thee long and faithfully," added Sir Hugh, who felt that he might now adopt a more paternal tone, seeing he had not to combat foolish resistance. "Thou hast been a good daughter, Joan; doubtless thou wilt make a good wife too."
Still no reply, though a faint smile seemed to curve Joan's lips. She presently rose to her feet, and making a respectful reverence to her father — for daily embraces were not the order of the day — glided from the room as if to seek her couch.
"That is a thing well done!" breathed the knight, when he found himself once more alone, "and done easier than I had looked for. Well, well, it is a happy thing the wench has found her right senses. Methinks good Peter must have been setting his charms to work, for she never could be brought to listen to him of old. He has tamed her to some purpose now."
Meantime Joan had glided up the staircase of the hall, along several winding passages, and up and down several irregular flights of narrow steps, till she paused at the door of a room very dim within, but just lighted by the gleam of a dying fire. As she stepped across the threshold a voice out of the darkness accosted her.
"My ladybird, is it thou, and at such an hour? Tell me what has befallen thee."
"The thing that thou and I have talked of before now, Bridget," answered Joan, speaking rapidly in a strange low voice — "the thing that thou and I have planned a hundred times if the worst should befall us. It is tenfold more needful now than before. Bridget, I must quit this house at sunset tomorrow, and thou must have my disguise ready. I must to France, to find out there the truth of a tale I have this day heard. Nat will go with me — he has said so a hundred times; and I have long had money laid by for the day I ever knew might come. Thou knowest all. He is a man of the sea; I am his son. We have planned it too oft to be taken unawares by any sudden peril. Thus disguised, we may wander where we will, molested by none. Lose no time. Rise and go to Nat this very night. I myself must not be seen with him or with thee. I must conduct myself as though each day to come were like the one past. But thou knowest what to do. Thou wilt arrange all. God bless thee, my faithful Bridget; and when I come back again, thou shalt not lack thy reward!"
"I want none else but thy love, my heart's delight," said the old nurse, gathering the girl into her fond arms; and Joan hid her face for one moment upon that faithful breast and gave way to a short burst of weeping, which did much for her overcharged heart.
Then she silently stole away and went quietly to her own chamber.
CHAPTER XXVIII. GASTON'S SEARCH.
"He would get better far more quickly could the trouble be removed from his mind."
Gaston raised his head quickly, and asked:
Father Paul's face, thin and worn as of old, with the same keen, kindling glance of the deep-set eyes, softened almost into a smile as he met the questioning glance of Gaston's eyes.
"Thou shouldst know more of such matters than I, my son, seeing that thou art in youth's ardent prime, whilst I wear the garb of a monk. Sure thou canst not have watched beside thy brother's sickbed all these long weeks without knowing somewhat of the trouble in his mind?"
"I hear him moan and talk," answered Gaston; "but he knows not what he says, and I know not either. He is always feeling at his neck, and calling out for some lost token. And then he will babble on of things I understand not. But how I may help him I know not. I have tarried long, for I could not bear to leave him thus; and yet I am longing to carry to the King my tale of outrage and wrong. With every week that passes my chance of success grows less. For Peter Sanghurst may have been before me, and may have told his own false version of the tale ere I may have speech with King or Prince. I know not what to do — to stay beside Raymond, or to hasten to England ere time be farther flown. Holy Father, wilt thou not counsel me? I feel that every day lost is a day lived in vain, ere I be revenged upon Raymond's cruel foes!"
The youth's eyes flashed. He clenched his hands, and his teeth set themselves fast together. He felt like an eagle caged, behind these protecting walls. For his brother's sake he was right glad of the friendly shelter; but for himself he was pining to be free.
And yet how was he to leave that dearly-loved brother, whose eyes followed him so wistfully from place to place, who brightened up into momentary life when he entered the room, and took so little heed of what passed about him, unless roused by Gaston's touch or voice? Raymond had been very, very near to the gates of death since he had been brought into the Monastery, and even now, so prostrated was he by the long attack of intermittent fever which had followed his wonderful escape from Saut, that those about him scarce knew how the balance would turn. The fever, which had at first run high and had been hard to subdue, had now taken another turn, and only recurred at intervals of a few days; but the patient was so fearfully exhausted by all he had undergone that he seemed to have no strength to rally. He would lie in a sort of trance of weakness when the fever was not upon him, scarce seeming to breathe unless he was roused to wakefulness by some word or caress from Gaston; whilst on the days when the fever returned, he would lie muttering indistinctly to himself, sometimes breaking forth into eager rapid speech difficult to follow, and often trying to rise and go forth upon some errand, no one knew what, and struggling hard with those who held him back.
Father Paul had watched over the first stages of the illness with the utmost care and tenderness, after which his duties called him away, and he had only returned some three days since. The long hot summer in Bordeaux had been a very trying one for the patient, whose state prohibited any attempt at removal to a cooler, fresher air. But as August was merging into September, and the days were growing shorter and the heat something less oppressive, it was hoped that there might be a favourable change in the patient's state; and much was looked for also from Father Paul's skill, which was accounted something very great.
Gaston and Roger had remained within the Monastery walls in close attendance upon the patient; but the restraint had been terribly irksome to the temper of the young knight, and he was panting to be free to pursue his quest, and to tell his story in the King's ears. He could not but dread that in his absence some harm might befall his Constanza. Suppose those two remorseless men suspected her to be concerned in the flight of their victim, what form might not their vengeance take? It was a thing that would scarce bear thinking of. Yet what could he do to save her and to win her until he could make an organized attack upon Saut, armed with full authority from England's King?
And now that Father Paul was back, might it not be possible that this could be done? Gaston felt torn in twain betwixt his love for his brother and his love for his betrothed. Father Paul would be able to advise him wisely and well.
The Father looked earnestly into the ardent and eager face of the youth, and answered quietly:
"Methinks thou hast been here long enough, my son. Thou mayest do better for Raymond by going forth upon the mission thou hast set thyself. But first I would ask of thee a few questions. Who is this lady of whom thy brother speaks so oft?"
"Lady?" questioned Gaston, his eyes opening wide in surprise. "Does he indeed speak of a lady?"
The Father smiled at the question.
"Thy thoughts must have been as wandering as his if thou dost not know as much as that," he said, with a look that brought the hot blood into Gaston's cheek, for he well knew where his own thoughts had been whilst he sat beside his brother, scarce heeding the ceaseless murmur which babbled from his unconscious lips.
It had never occurred to him that he could learn aught by striving to catch those indistinct utterances; and his mind had been full to overflowing with his own affairs.
"I knew not that he spoke of any lady," said the young knight, wondering for a moment, with love's irrational jealousy, whether Raymond could have seen his Constanza and have lost his heart to her.
Had she not spoken of having slipped once into his cell to breathe in his ear a word of hope? Might not even that passing glimpse at such a time have been enough to subjugate his heart? He drew his breath hard, and an anxious light gleamed in his eye. But the Father continued speaking, and a load seemed to roll from his spirit with the next words.
"It is of a lady whose name is Joan that he speaks almost ceaselessly when the fever fit is on him. Sometimes he speaks, too, of his cousin, that John de Brocas who lost his life in the Black Death through his ceaseless labours amongst the sick. He is in sore trouble, as it seems, by the loss of some token given him by the lady. He fears that some foul use may be made by his foes of this same token, which he would sooner have died than parted from. If thou knowest who this lady is and where she may be found, it would do more for thy brother to have news of her than to receive all the skilled care of the best physicians in the world. I misdoubt me whether we shall bring him back to life without her aid. Wherefore, if thou knowest where she may be found, delay not to seek her. Tell her her lover yet lives, and bring him some message from her that may give him life and health."
Gaston's eyes lighted. To be given anything to do — anything but this weary, wearing waiting and watching for the change that never came — put new life into him forthwith.
"It must sure be Mistress Joan Vavasour thou meanest, Father," he said. "Raymond spoke much of her when we were on shipboard together. I knew not that his heart was so deeply pledged; but I see it all now. It is of her that he is dreaming night and day. It is the loss of her token that is troubling him now.
"Stop! what have I heard? Methinks that this same Peter Sanghurst was wooing Mistress Joan himself once. Sure I see another motive in his dastard capture of my brother. Perchance he had in him not only a rival for the lands of Basildene, but for the hand of the lady. Father, I see it all! Would that I had seen it before! It is Peter Sanghurst who has robbed Raymond of his token, and he may make cruel use of what he has treacherously filched away. I must lose not a day nor an hour. I must to England in the wake of this villain. Oh, why did I not understand before? What may he not have done ere I can stop his false mouth? The King shall hear all; the King shall be told all the tale! I trow he will not tarry long in punishing the coward traitor!"
Father Paul was less certain how far the King would interest himself in a private quarrel, but Peter Sanghurst's recent action with regard to Raymond might possibly be such as to stir even the royal wrath. At least it was time that some watch should be placed upon the movements of the owner of Basildene, for he would be likely to make a most unscrupulous use of any power he might possess to injure Raymond or gain any hold over the lady they both loved.
Roger being called in to the conference, and giving his testimony clearly enough as to the frequent intercourse which had existed between Mistress Joan Vavasour and Raymond de Brocas, and the evident attraction each bore for the other, the matter appeared placed beyond the possibility of all doubt. Gaston's resolve was quickly taken, and he only waited till his brother could be aroused to fuller consciousness, to start forth upon his double quest after vengeance and after Joan.
"Brother," he said, taking Raymond's hands in his, and bending tenderly over him, "I am going to leave thee, but only for a time. I am going to England to find thy Joan, and to tell her that thou art living yet, and how thou hast been robbed of thy token."
A new light shone suddenly in Raymond's eyes. It seemed as though some of the mists of weakness rolled away, leaving to him a clearer comprehension. He grasped his brother's hand with greater strength than Gaston believed him to possess, and his lips parted in a flashing smile.
"Thou wilt seek her and find her? Knowest thou where she is?"
"No; but I will go to seek her. I shall get news of her at Guildford. I will to our uncle's house forthwith. Sir Hugh Vavasour can easily be found."
"He has been wandering in foreign lands this long while," answered Raymond. "I know not whether he may have returned home. Gaston, if thou findest her, save her from the Sanghurst. Tell her that I yet live — that for her sake I will live to protect her from that evil man. He has robbed me of the pledge of her love; I am certain of it. It was a trinket not worth the stealing, and I had it ever about my neck. It was taken from me when I was a prisoner and at their mercy, when I did not know what befell me. He has it — I am assured of that — and what evil use he may make of it I know not. Ah, if thou canst but find her ere he can reach her side!"
"I will find her," answered Gaston, firmly and cheerfully. "Fear not, Raymond; I have had harder tasks than this to perform ere now. Be it thy part to shake off this wasting sickness. I will seek out thy Joan, and will bring her to thy side. But let her not find thee in such sorry plight. Thou lookest yet rather a corpse than a man. Thou wouldst fright her by thy wan looks an she came to thee now."
Wan and white and wasted did Raymond indeed appear, as though a breath would blow him away. Upon his face was that faraway, ethereal look of one who has been lingering long beside the portal of another world, and scarce knows to which he belongs. It sometimes seemed as though the angel song of the unseen realm was oftener heard and understood by him than the voices of those about him. But the fever cloud was slowly lifting from his brain, and today the first impulse to a real recovery had been given by these few words with his brother.
Raymond's recollection of past events was coming back to him connectedly, and the thought of Joan acted like a tonic upon him. For her sake he would live; for her sake he would make a battle for his life. Had he not vowed himself to her service? and did any woman stand more in need of her lover's strong arm than the daughter of Sir Hugh Vavasour?
Raymond had gauged the character of that knight before, and knew that he would sell his daughter without scruple to any person who would make it worth his while. It had been notorious in old days that the Sanghursts had some peculiar hold upon him, and was it likely that Peter Sanghurst, who was plainly resolved to make Joan his wife, would allow that power to rest unused when it might be employed for the furtherance of his purpose? To send Gaston forth upon the quest for Joan was much; but he himself must fight this wasting sickness, that he might be ready to go to her when the summons came that she was found, and was ready to welcome her faithful knight.
From that hour Raymond began to amend; and although his progress was slow, and seemed doubly slow to his impatience, it was steady and sure, and he was as one given back from the dead.
"Mistress Joan Vavasour, boy? why, all the world is making that inquiry. How comes it that thou, by thine own account but just home from Gascony, shouldst be likewise asking the same question?"
Master Bernard de Brocas turned his kindly face towards Gaston with a look of shrewd inquiry in his eyes. His nephew had arrived but a short half-hour at his house, somewhat jaded by rapid travelling, and after hurriedly removing the stains of the journey from his person, was seated before a well-supplied board, whilst the cleric sat beside him, always eager for news, and exceedingly curious to know the history of the twin brothers, who for the past six months seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. But for the moment Gaston was too intent upon asking questions to have leisure to answer any.
"How?" he questioned; "what mean you, reverend Sir? Everybody asking news of her? How comes that about?"
"Marry, for the reason that the lady hath disappeared these last three weeks from her father's house, and none can tell whither she has fled, or whether she has been spirited away, or what hath befallen her. Sir Hugh is in a mighty taking, for he had just arranged a marriage betwixt her and Peter Sanghurst, and the lady had given her consent (or so it is said, albeit there be some who doubt the truth of that), and he is sorely vexed to know what can have become of her."
"Peter Sanghurst! that arch-villain!" cried Gaston, involuntarily laying his hand on the hilt of his dagger. "Mine uncle, I have come to ask counsel of thee about that same miscreant. I am glad that he at least has not fled the country. He shall not escape the fate he so richly merits."
And then, with flashing eyes and words eloquent through excess of feeling, Gaston related the whole story of the past months: the appearance on board the vessel of the Black Visor; the concerted action against Raymond carried out by Sanghurst, thus disguised, and the Sieur de Navailles; and the cruelty devised against him, from which he had escaped only by something of a miracle.
And as Master Bernard de Brocas listened to this tale of treachery, planned and carried out against one of his own name and race, an answering light shone in his eyes, and he smote his palms together, crying out in sudden wrath:
"Gaston, the King shall hear of this! Thou shalt tell to him the tale as thou hast told it to me. He will not hear patiently of such indignities offered to a subject of his, not though the King of France himself had done it! That Sieur de Navailles is no friend to England. I know him well, and his false, treacherous ways. I have heard much of him ere now, and the King has his eye upon him. Gaston, this hollow truce cannot long continue. The nobles and the King are alike weary of a peace which is no peace, and which the King of France or his lords are continually breaking. A very little, and the flame of war will burst out anew. It may be that even this tale of thine may put the spark to the train (as they say of these new artillery engines that are so astonishing men by their smoke and noise), and that the Prince, when he hears of it, will urge his father to march once more into France, and put an end to the petty annoyances and treacherous attacks which are goading the royal lion of England to wrath and fury."
"Pray Heaven it may!" cried Gaston, starting to his feet and pacing up and down the hall. "Thou knowest, uncle mine, how the Prince and the King did long ago confirm to me the rights of the De Brocas to the ancient Castles of Orthez and Saut. If he would but give me his royal warrant for mustering men and recovering mine own, I trow, be the walls of Saut never so strong, that I would speedily make mine entrance within them! Uncle, the Sieur de Navailles is hated and feared and reviled by all men for miles around his walls. I trow that, even amongst those who bear arms for him, some would be found who would gladly serve another master. Stories of the punishments he is wont to inflict upon all who fall beneath his displeasure have passed from mouth to mouth, and bitter is the rage burning in the breasts of those whose helpless kinsfolk have suffered through his tyrant cruelty. I trow an armed band, coming in the name of the English King, could soon smoke that old fox out of his hole; whilst all men would rejoice at his fall. Let me to the King — let me tell my tale! I burn to be on the wing once more! Where may his Majesty be found?"
"Softly, softly, boy! We must think somewhat more of this. And we have two foes, not one alone, to deal with. Peter Sanghurst is, as it were, beneath our very hand. He is at Basildene, fuming like a wild thing at the sudden disappearance of Mistress Joan. There be, nevertheless, some who say that this wrath is all assumed; that he has captured the lady, and holds her a prisoner in his hands, all the while pretending to know naught of her. I know not what truth there may be in such rumours. The Sanghurst bears an evil name, and many are the stories whispered about him."
"What!" almost shouted Gaston, in the fierceness of his excitement, "Mistress Joan a prisoner in Basildene, the captive of that miscreant! Uncle, let us lose not an hour! Let us forthwith to the King. He will give us his royal warrant, and armed with that we will to Basildene, and search for her there, and free her ere the set of sun. Oh, it would be like him — it would be all in a piece with his villainy! I cannot rest nor breathe till I know all. Uncle, may we not set forth this very day — this same night?"
The worthy ecclesiastic laid a hand upon Gaston's shoulder.
"Boy," he said, "I will myself to the King this very day. The moon will soon be up, and the way is familiar to me and my men. But thou shalt tarry here. Thou hast travelled far today, and art weary and in need of rest. Perchance, in this matter of the Sanghurst, I shall do better without thee. Thou shalt see the King anon, and shalt tell him all thy tale; but methinks this matter of Basildene had best be spoken of betwixt him and me alone. Thou knowest that I have for long been in the King's favour and confidence, and have managed many state matters for him. Thou mayest therefore leave thy cause in my hands. I have all the papers safe that thou broughtest from Gascony long since, and have left in my care these many years. I have been awaiting my opportunity to lay the matter of Basildene before the King, and now I trow that the hour has come."
Gaston stopped short in his restless pacing, a bright light in his eyes.
"Thou thinkest to oust the Sanghurst thence — to gain Basildene for Raymond?"
"Ay, verily I do. It is your inheritance by right; the papers prove it. Ye were deprived of it by force, and now the hour of restitution has come. As to thee are secured the Gascon lands, when they can be wrested from the hand of the foe, so shall Basildene be secured to Raymond, albeit he has not won his spurs as thou hast done, boy, and that right lustily. But I know much good of Raymond. He will worthily fill his place. Go now to rest, boy, and leave this matter in mine hands. I warrant thee the cause shall not suffer for being intrusted to me. Get thee to rest. Fear not; and ere two days be passed thou shalt have tidings of some sort from me."
Gaston would fain have been his uncle's companion on the road, but he knew better than to insist. Master Bernard de Brocas well knew what he was about, and was plainly deeply interested in the story he had heard. Raymond had long been high in his favour. To cause to recoil upon the head of the treacherous Sanghurst the vengeance he had plotted against his own nephew, to punish him for his treachery — to wrest from his rapacious grasp the lands and the Manor of Basildene, was a task peculiarly agreeable to the statesman, who knew well what he was about and the master whom he served. Basildene was no great possession, but it might be greatly increased in value, and there was rumour of buried hoards there which might speedily restore the old house to more than its former splendour. At any rate, its lands and revenues would be a modest portion for a younger son, who still had the flower of his life before him, and was like to rise in the King's favour. The romantic story of his love, his sufferings, his rescue from the two foes of his house, was certain to appeal to the King and his son, whilst the treachery of those foes would equally rouse the royal wrath.
Master Bernard departed for Windsor with the rising of the moon; and Gaston passed a restless night and day wondering what was passing at Windsor, and feeling, when he retired to rest upon the second night, as though his excitement of mind must drive slumber from his eyes. Nor did sleep visit him till the tardy dawn stole in at the window, and when he did sleep he slept long and soundly.
He was aroused by the sound of a great trampling in the courtyard below; and springing quickly from his couch, he saw the place full of men-at-arms, all wearing either the badge of the De Brocas or else that of the Prince of Wales.
Throwing on his clothes in great haste, and scarce tarrying to buckle on his sword, Gaston strode from his chamber and hastened down the great staircase. At the foot of this stood one whom well he knew, and with an inarticulate exclamation of delight he threw himself upon one knee before the young Prince, and pressed his lips to the hand graciously extended to him.
"Nay, Gaston; thy friend and comrade, not thy sovereign!" cried the handsome youth gaily, as he raised Gaston and looked smilingly into his face, his own countenance alight with satisfaction and excitement. "Ah, thou knowest not how glad I am to welcome thee once more! For the days be coming soon when I must needs rally all my brave knights about me, and go forth to France for a new career of glory there. But today another task is ours, and not as thy Prince, but thy good comrade, have I come. I will forth with thee to the den of this foul Sanghurst, and together will we search his house for the lady men say he has so cunningly spirited away; and if she be found indeed languishing in captivity there, then in very truth shall the Sanghurst feel the wrath of the royal Edward. He shall live to feel the iron hand of the King he has outraged and defied! But he shall pay the forfeit of his life. England shall be rid of one of her greatest villains when Peter Sanghurst feels the halter about his neck!"
CHAPTER XXIX. THE FALL OF THE SANGHURST.
"Is that the only answer you have for me, sweet lady?"
"The only one, Sir; and you will never have another. Strive as you will, keep me imprisoned as long as you will, I will never yield. I will never be yours; I belong to another —"
A fierce gleam was in Sanghurst's eyes, though he retained the suave softness of speech that he had assumed all along.
"He is dead, fair mistress."
"Living or dead, I am yet his," answered Joan unfalteringly; "and were I as free as air — had I never pledged my faith to him — I should yet have none other answer for you. Think you that your evil deeds have not been whispered in mine ear? Think you that this imprisonment in which you think fit to keep me is like to win my heart?"
"Nay, sweetest lady, call it not by that harsh name. Could a princess have been better served or tended than you have been ever since you came beneath my humble roof? It is no imprisonment; it is but the watchful care of one who loves you, and would fain save you from the peril into which you had recklessly plunged. Lady, had you known the dangers of travel in these wild and lawless days, you never would have left the shelter of your father's house with but one attendant to protect you. Think you that those peerless charms could ever have been hidden beneath the dress of a peasant lad? Well was it for you, lady, that your true love was first to follow and find you, ere some rude fellow had betrayed the secret to his fellows, and striven to turn it to their advantage. Here you are safe; and I have sent to your father to tell him you are found and are secure. He, too, is searching for you; but soon he will receive my message, and will come hastening hither. Then will our marriage be solemnized with all due rites. Your obstinate resistance will avail nothing to hinder our purpose. But I would fain win this lovely hand by gentle means; and it will be better for thee, Joan Vavasour, to lay down thine arms and surrender while there is yet time."
There was a distinct accent of menace in the last words, and the underlying expression upon that smiling face was evil and threatening in the extreme. But Joan's eyes did not falter beneath the searching gaze of her would-be husband. Her face was set in lines of fearless resolution. She still wore the rough blue homespun tunic of a peasant lad, and her chestnut locks hung in heavy natural curls about her shoulders. The distinction in dress between the sexes was much less marked in those days than it has since become. Men of high degree clothed themselves in flowing robes, and women of humble walk in life in short kirtles; whilst the tunic was worn by boys and girls alike, though there was a difference in the manner of the wearing, and it was discarded by the girl in favour of a longer robe or sweeping supertunic with the approach of womanhood. In the lower ranks of life, however, the difference in dress between boy and girl was nothing very distinctive; and the disguise had been readily effected by Joan, who had only to cut somewhat shorter her flowing locks, clothe herself in the homespun tunic and leather gaiters of a peasant boy, and place a cloth cap jauntily on her flowing curls before she was transformed into as pretty a lad as one could wish to see.
With the old henchman Nat to play the part of father, she had journeyed fearlessly forth, and had made for the coast, which she would probably have reached in safety had it not been for the acuteness of Peter Sanghurst, who had guessed her purpose, had dogged her steps with the patient sagacity of a bloodhound, and had succeeded in the end in capturing his prize, and in bringing her back in triumph to Basildene.
He had not treated her badly. He had not parted her from the old servant under whose escort she had travelled. Perhaps he felt he would have other opportunities of avenging this insult to himself; perhaps there was something in the light in Joan's eyes and in the way in which she sometimes placed her hand upon the hilt of the dagger in her belt which warned him not to try her too far. Joan was something of an enigma to him still. She was like no other woman with whom he had ever come in contact. He did not feel certain what she might say or do. It was rather like treading upon the crust of some volcanic crater to have dealings with her. At any moment something quite unforeseen might take place, and cause a complete upheaval of all his plans. From policy, as well as from his professed love, he had shown himself very guarded during the days of their journey and her subsequent residence beneath the roof of Basildene; but neither this show of submission and tenderness, nor thinly-veiled threats and menaces, had sufficed to bend her will to his. It had now come to this — marry him of her own free will she would not. Therefore the father must be summoned, and with him the priest, and the ceremony should be gone through with or without the consent of the lady. Such marriages were not so very unusual in days when daughters were looked upon as mere chattels to be disposed of as their parents or guardians desired. It was usual, indeed, to marry them off at an earlier age, when reluctance had not developed into actual resistance; but still it could be done easily enough whatever the lady might say or do.